As each NFL season opens, hope springs eternal for the 32 teams, but for some, it quickly dissipates as reality intrudes. Here's a look at five coaches who head into the season coaching for more than simply success - they might be coaching for their jobs.
Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears – Lovie Smith took the Bears to Super Bowl XLI in Miami 15 years ago, where they ultimately fell to the Indianapolis Colts.
In the 14 seasons since, the Bears have won a single playoff game and have reached the postseason on just three occasions. Luckily for Matt Nagy, two of those three trips to the playoffs have come in his three years at the helm of the club. The 43-year-old is set to embark on his fourth season with the Bears, becoming the first coach since the firing of Smith in 2012 to hit that benchmark with the franchise.
But for Nagy to have a chance to come close to Smith’s nine-year tenure, he’ll need to survive the 2021 season, one that is undoubtedly the biggest test of the former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator’s young coaching career.
One of the key contributing factors to the Bears’ run of general futility has been the quarterback position. Since the team last won the Super Bowl in 1985, 45 different pivots have gotten a shot behind centre. The vast majority were competent at best and below replacement-level at worst, with Mitchell Trubisky the latest in a long line of QBs who failed to live up to lofty expectations.
Nagy’s Bears enter the season with hopes that they’ve finally found their man in Justin Fields. The team traded up last spring with the New York Giants to land the former OSU star with the 11th-overall pick in the draft.
But Fields’s arrival creates a bit of a paradox for Nagy (and general manager Ryan Pace, whose fate is closely tied to Nagy’s). Considering the sizable package sent to the Giants to be able to select Fields, the expectation is to develop the 2019 Heisman finalist as quickly as possible. Yet he isn’t the team’s starter as the season opens. That designation falls to veteran Andy Dalton, who was signed as a free agent. Why? Because Dalton, the team believes, gives the Bears to best chance to win now.
So, it appears that Nagy must serve two masters here – be competitive and develop Fields – with each aim potentially being incongruous with the other. With what signifies success this season for the Bears being a nebulous concept, Nagy’s future with the team is a far from certain one. Ominously, the team chose to move on from John Fox, Nagy’s predecessor, after Trubisky’s rookie season. Could the same fate befall Nagy?
Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys – When Mike McCarthy was hired as Jason Garrett’s successor ahead of last season, the decision was a curious one.
McCarthy had a lengthy tenure with the Green Bay Packers that saw the team win the Super Bowl in 2010 and reach the postseason in nine of his 13 years, but as his time with the team ended, McCarthy was looked at more for what he didn’t do than what he did.
There was the unmistakable feeling that he helped to squander the prime years of Aaron Rodgers, one of the finest quarterbacks in NFL history. One Super Bowl was good and all, but with the transcendent talent of Rodgers, shouldn’t have there been more?
Garrett’s tenure with the club was marked by Jerry Jones constantly standing over his shoulder and his job security never feeling more than tenuous at best at a franchise with a championship drought heading towards three decades.
But McCarthy wouldn’t feel that kind of intense pressure during his first season with the team thanks to a season-ending injury to quarterback Dak Prescott in Week 5. The Cowboys finished the season at a dismal 6-10 in the woeful NFC East, but without his star pivot, it was impossible to grade McCarthy’s first campaign as anything other than incomplete.
With Prescott ready to go for 2021 with a gargantuan contract extension in his hand, the heat will be turned back up on McCarthy. Fortunately, the 2021 NFC East is an eminently winnable one for the Cowboys. The Philadelphia Eagles are rebuilding. The New York Giants’ offence will continue to experience growing pains as they see if QB Daniel Jones is who they thought he could be when they took him with the sixth-overall pick in 2019. While they boast an exceptional defence, the Washington Football Team will be relying on 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick to lead their offence.
Even with question marks on defence and concerns about the durability of the team’s once impregnable offensive line, the Cowboys offer the division’s most complete package with an array of dangerous weaponry on hand for Prescott.
Still, should things not go according to plan, Jones’s trigger finger could get itchy. The criticism that he was too forgiving of Garrett and not ruthless enough when it came to demanding change did not fall on deaf ears. It’s very unlikely McCarthy will be afforded the grace that his predecessor was. If 2021 begins to look like last season, McCarthy might find that out sooner than later.
Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals – Kliff Kingsbury’s coaching career trajectory remains one of the strangest in recent memory.
Fired in November of 2018 after six seasons at Texas Tech in which the Red Raiders posted a winning record twice and the team finished no better than fifth in the Big 12, Kingsbury immediately got back into coaching by agreeing to become Clay Helton’s offensive coordinator at USC in December. By the second week of January 2019, Kingsbury was the head coach of the Cardinals, falling upwards at breakneck speed.
Kingsbury was hired not because of his record, but because of whom he had coached. As the OC at Texas A&M, Kingsbury had worked with Johnny Manziel in his Heisman season. While at Tech, Kingsbury coached both Baker Mayfield (before his transfer to Oklahoma) and Patrick Mahomes. It only stood to reason, then, that Kingsbury would be the perfect coach for Kyler Murray and helping to implement a college-style scheme.
Last season, Murray did improve from his rookie year. He was a Pro Bowler in 2020. He became more elusive in the pocket and was able to almost halve the number of times he got sacked in his first season (a league-high 48 times). He had better weaponry at his disposal with the arrival of superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in what was obviously a win-now move. But they didn’t win.
The Cards missed the playoffs for a fifth straight year. Yet it wasn’t so much that they failed to reach the postseason, but how it happened. The team finished 8-8, which was an improvement of three wins from 2019, but the team lost six of their last nine games, including their final two in a row, to miss out on what seemed like a sure berth when they were 6-3 and then 8-6.
With the awful taste of last season still in the Cardinals’ mouths, it’s put up or shut up time for Kingsbury and an opportunity to help write his legacy. That might seem like a strange thing to already being worrying about for a coach who is only 42 and in his first NFL gig, but the circumstances of his hiring make it such that anything less than success with the Cardinals will greatly hinder his future prospects at the pro level. Should the team stagnate again and fail to contend, Kingsbury will likely be fired, and his tenure written off as a failed gimmick hire.
Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos – The Denver Broncos have not made the playoffs in the five years since winning Super Bowl 50, so the easiest means to job security for Vic Fangio in Year 3 is simple: reach the postseason.
But that could be easier said than done in a division that features the juggernaut Kansas City Chiefs, a Los Angeles Chargers team that could be on the cusp of something very good and a Las Vegas Raiders team just as desperate as the Broncos for success. Still, the reasons for hope are obvious.
A defensive coordinator for 18 seasons, defence was going to be the hallmark of Fangio’s Broncos team, but in 2020, it was an Achilles heel. Sure, there were injuries (Von Miller tore a tendon in his ankle during the preseason and the All-Pro outside linebacker missed the entire season), but that alone didn’t account for why the team allowed 27.9 points per game and averaged 130.0 yards against on the ground per game. With a solid defence on paper that added veteran corners Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller and rookie Patrick Surtain II to a core that already includes Miller, Bradley Chubb, Justin Simmons and Shelby Harris, there shouldn’t be a repeat of last season.
On offence, there are fewer guarantees, but enough intriguing talent that should get the job done. Teddy Bridgewater, acquired in the off-season from the Carolina Panthers, gets the nod at starting quarterback ahead of incumbent Drew Lock and has an impressive array of options on offer including Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant, who is emerging as one of the game’s best young tight ends. Second-round pick out of North Carolina, Javonte Williams, looks to start the season behind Melvin Gordon III in the backfield, but many believe that Williams has the skill set to become a three-down back sooner than later.
With a soft out-of-division schedule and enough talent to compete, Fangio’s job does likely hinge on his ability to take the Broncos to the playoffs. Whether or not he can live up to those expectations remains to be seen.
Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions – When thinking about NFL head coaches burdened by lofty expectations heading into a new season, you rarely think about first-year coaches, let alone first-year coaches of the Detroit Lions. Yet there’s a reason why Dan Campbell’s name is here and it’s not necessarily a product of his own doing, but more of a continuation of the same line of thinking that has kept the Lions almost eternally in the discussion for the most moribund franchise in professional sports.
Jim Caldwell was fired as head coach of the Lions after the 2017 season. In his four years at the helm of the team, Caldwell posted a 36-28 mark, reaching the postseason on two occasions. Caldwell was the first Lions coach to make the playoffs twice within his tenure since Bobby Ross did it in 1997 and 1999. That wasn’t enough and Caldwell was dismissed in favour of Bill Belichick acolyte Matt Patricia.
A three-time Super Bowl winner as the defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, it was only a matter of time before Patricia got his shot as a head coach. His tenure with the Lions, however, was an unbridled disaster and that he got a third season, one in which he was fired in the middle, was somewhat of a minor miracle. Patricia’s Lions lost nine games in which they held double-digit leads and lost 15 games by double digits. His .314 winning percentage goes down as the fourth-worst in franchise history. Patricia is now back with the Pats, under the safety of the Belichick umbrella.
In hiring Campbell, Bob Quinn and the Lions have gone with another “football man” instead of the kind of coach who will put the team back on the road to respectability. A tight end in his playing days, including a three-year stint with the Lions, Campbell has been in the league since 2010 with the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints, mostly as a tight ends coach. In 2015, he served as the Dolphins interim head coach following the in-season firing of Joe Philbin.
What Campbell has offered so far is several comical sound bites – his now infamous “bite a kneecap off” monologue during his introductory press conference, noting that “a true alpha knows when it's time to concede” when it comes to roster decisions, getting “fired up” by rookies fighting at practice and calling himself “an a--hole” for cutting long snapper Don Muhlbach on his 40th birthday.
While his quips might be funny during the off-season and training camp, rest assured they’ll be landing with a thud if this team starts 1-6 out of the gate. Ted Lasso works on TV, but not in real life.
The expectations for Campbell and the Lions aren’t nearly as high as they are for other coaches on this list, but that doesn’t mean he has carte blanche to let the chips fall where they may. While judging Campbell by his immediate predecessor isn’t exactly a high bar to clear, Campbell must prove that the Lions are getting closer to a playoff spot and getting near to fielding a competitive team. If he can’t do that, then it’s just more of the same ol’ in a more jovial package than the dour Patricia.