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Offseason Lowdown

Coaching Carousel: Volume II

by Jesse Pantuosco
Updated On: January 7, 2020, 10:34 pm ET

Feel the flow, Happy. Feel it. It’s circular. It’s like a carousel. You pay the quarter, you get on the horse. It goes up and down and around, circular, circle, with the music, the flow, all good things.” 

All good things indeed. Well … not for everyone. The coaching carousel has been kind to some (Ron Rivera and Mike McCarthy have been the big winners so far) and cruel to others (namely Jason Garrett, who the Cowboys didn’t even have the decency to fire in a timely fashion). But mostly, it’s just been spinning, sometimes fast (the warp-speed chaos of Black Monday, for instance), sometimes slow. 

For a time, the frantic carnage of last week’s firings gave way to a more subdued energy as teams slowed down to size up prospective head coaches, careful not to repeat or compound the mistakes that led to their current predicaments. Like the middle act of a movie, the action died down before building toward a dramatic climax that was reached with a flurry of hires Monday and Tuesday morning as Mike McCarthy, Matt Rhule and Joe Judge all came off the board in rapid succession.

None are easy fixes—Ron Rivera can’t cure all that ails the broken franchise he just inherited (though he was quick to solve the Redskins’ debilitating ping pong problem) while the Cowboys’ roster uncertainty (even with Jerry Jones’ deep pockets, it’s hard to envision Dallas retaining all three of Dak Prescott, Byron Jones and Amari Cooper) hovers over McCarthy like a dark cloud. But as history both past and recent has taught us, the right coach can go a long way. 

Ready to pay the quarter and give this bad boy another spin? Coaching Carousel: Volume II begins in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …

OFF THE MARKET

Ron Rivera, Washington Redskins

Mike McCarthy wisely sat out last season (not that he had much choice in the matter—his lone suitors, the Jets and Browns, showed only lukewarm interest before narrowing their search to other candidates), taking 2019 to recalibrate ahead of this year’s coaching cycle. But a month was all the down time Ron Rivera needed before getting back to work. Unfazed by his sudden dismissal from Carolina, Rivera was quick to land on his feet, accepting a five-year deal with Washington just days after the Redskins concluded a harrowing 3-13 season. 

The hiring was well-received as the Redskins’ fan-base ran a collective victory lap in celebration of Rivera’s arrival last week. The son of an army vet, Rivera’s no-nonsense approach will go a long way toward repairing Washington’s longstanding culture crisis (the same could be said of Bruce Allen’s overdue firing), though all involved acknowledge the rebuilding Redskins are far from a finished product. Lean years are ahead and even if the Redskins are fortunate enough to luck into Chase Young with the second overall pick in April’s draft, it’s going to be a while before their on-field product is anywhere near presentable. Only time will tell if Dwayne Haskins, who looked out of his depth as a rookie, can develop into a legitimate long-term starter while similar concerns exist with injury-prone Derrius Guice, who has logged all of 95 NFL snaps since defecting from LSU two years ago. It’s not a job for the faint of heart but Rivera, an admired defensive tactician with two Coach of the Year Awards to his credit, should at least be an upgrade on bumbling Jay Gruden (who was promptly sent to the glue factory after an 0-5 start) and short-term Band-Aid Bill Callahan

Rivera’s staff in Washington will take shape in the coming days, though we already know former Jaguars and Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio will be his defensive coordinator. Meanwhile Scott Turner, who previously served as Rivera’s quarterbacks coach in Carolina, has emerged as the early frontrunner for the vacant offensive coordinator position in Landover. 

Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys

Return of the Mack? More like return of the Mike. After a year out of the spotlight, Mike McCarthy is finally back in our lives. He went for the top shelf too, landing one of the most coveted jobs in pro sports. While many were critical of how Dallas handled Jason Garrett’s departure (Cowboys alum Troy Aikman was no fan of their stall tactics), maybe Jerry Jones had a plan in place all along. McCarthy made the rounds, interviewing with the Giants and Browns (he also went for a pair of Panthers powwows, just to stay in shape) before Dallas swooped in at the 11th hour. The rest is history. Talk about putting on the full-court press—Jones was so determined to sign, seal and deliver McCarthy that he even let him stay at his house Saturday night. That, ladies and gentleman, is called commitment.

Jones rolled out the red carpet for McCarthy and was rewarded for his efforts, landing his desired head coach on a five-year pact Monday morning. News of McCarthy’s hiring came mere hours after the Cowboys finally broke things off with Garrett, who will have to do his clapping elsewhere in 2020. Now that the Cowboys have their man, only one question remains: is that the best they could do? 

While other teams cast wide nets in their coaching searches, the Cowboys met with just two candidates—McCarthy and ex-Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. Perhaps there were other names Dallas considered—Lincoln Riley and Urban Meyer were known to be high on Jones’ wish list. And if hiring a retread was the Cowboys’ intention all along, I suppose you can’t fault them for going the safe route. Coordinators and college up-and-comers have been all the rage in recent coaching cycles, but there’s something to be said for experience and that’s one trait McCarthy, for all his flaws, has no shortage of—five years as an NFL position coach, six as a coordinator and 13 behind the head-coaching chair. Those 13 seasons atop the Packers’ chain of command netted McCarthy nine playoff appearances (including eight consecutive) and a Super Bowl triumph over his hometown Steelers in 2010. 

But much like his Dallas predecessor Garrett, McCarthy’s Green Bay tenure was a masterclass in missed opportunities. Lombardi Trophies aren’t easy to come by but the fact McCarthy reached the promised land just once with Aaron Rodgers—arguably the most talented quarterback to ever lace them up—at his disposal is unfathomable. Rodgers often bristled at McCarthy’s laughably vanilla offense, causing a rift that led to the latter’s inevitable firing in 2018. Imagine squandering an asset of that magnitude—clipping Rodgers’ wings with inferior play-calling is the NFL equivalent of putting Bobby Flay on drive-through duty at Carl’s Jr. 

McCarthy could stand to benefit from a change of scenery and perhaps the pitfalls that led to his unceremonious ousting in Green Bay will make him better equipped for his next gig with Dallas. Whatever he sold Jones on in his interview must have resonated because the Cowboys didn’t walk to anoint him as Garrett’s successor—they ran. Only time will tell if their relationship has legs or if the McCarthy/Cowboys union was a marriage made in haste. 

McCarthy won’t be making the trek to Dallas alone as Mike Nolan—fresh off a three-year stint as New Orleans’ linebackers coach—is expected to accompany him as the team’s new defensive coordinator, a post previously filled by Rod Marinelli. It will be a much different dynamic than the one McCarthy and Nolan shared the last time they worked together in 2005. Back then, Nolan was the Niners’ head coach with McCarthy working as his offensive coordinator. While we’re on the subject, McCarthy is reportedly “open” to retaining up-and-comer Kellen Moore, who oversaw the league’s No. 2 passing offense (296.9 yards per game) in his debut season as offensive coordinator. Moore’s heavy reliance on play-action propelled Dak Prescott to new heights in 2019 (his 4,902 passing yards were the second-most in franchise history), though it’s unclear if he’d mesh with McCarthy, who prefers to call his own plays. Moore is also being pursued for a position at the University of Washington (his home state), giving the 31-year-old Boise State alum much to consider as he ponders his next coaching destination.

Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers

We all know the first rule of Fight Club is that you do not, under any circumstances, talk about Fight Club. But the only rule the Panthers seem concerned with is Matt Rhule, who will make the leap from Baylor to the NFL this upcoming season. Rhule’s decision to link up with Carolina comes as a mild upset as the 44-year-old seemed all but certain to return to his former New York stomping grounds, particularly after the Giants whiffed on both Mike McCarthy and former Dave Gettleman collaborator Ron Rivera

An Empire State native who previously served as an offensive line assistant in New York under then-head-coach Tom Coughlin, Rhule’s return to the Big Apple seemed like a foregone conclusion. That was until hot-shot Panthers owner David Tepper stepped in with a Godfather offer Tuesday morning—the same day Rhule had been scheduled to interview with the Giants—paving the way for his eventual Baylor exodus. The Panthers were in touch with a number of candidates throughout their coaching search including McCarthy, Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy (interviewed last Thursday), Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski, Perry Fewell (who was tapped as interim coach following Rivera’s midseason firing) and Patriots OC Josh McDaniels. But apparently Rhule made the strongest impression on Tepper and when a multi-billionaire wants something, he usually gets it.

Outside of his short stint on Coughlin’s staff, Rhule is obviously an unproven commodity at the NFL level, though his track record in college speaks volumes about his head-coaching prowess. Ambitious almost to a fault, Rhule has never shied away from a challenge, resurrecting a dormant Temple program before restoring Baylor’s tarnished image with a recent Sugar Bowl appearance. While other coaches would just be happy to get their foot in the door, Rhule was unusually choosy about his first head-coaching endeavor in the NFL, declining to interview with the Browns while stonewalling the Jets last offseason after the organization made it clear he wouldn’t be able to assemble his own staff. Perhaps he felt similarly stifled by the Giants, who inexplicably held on to pushy GM Dave Gettleman despite turning the page on head coach Pat Shurmur last week.

The specifics of Rhule’s arrangement with Carolina are unknown, though given the coach’s past preferences, Tepper will surely relinquish most if not all control over personnel decisions to his new general. Leaving a cushy gig at Baylor to tidy up the Panthers’ mess took a leap of faith on Rhule’s part, particularly with Cam Newton’s future shrouded in mystery. But Rhule loves creating and in Charlotte, he’ll have a chance to mold his new ball of clay anyway he sees fit. He also won’t have to worry about finances anymore after putting pen to paper on an eye-popping seven-year, $60 million pact that could stretch to $70 million with incentives. 

Joe Judge, New York Giants

If we’re sipping from the “glass half full” cup, at least the Giants resisted the urge to hire former Cowboys laughingstock Jason Garrett, which would have ushered in a New York sports radio apocalypse (every able-bodied FAN caller in the Tri-State area would be on the line airing their grievances). But even in avoiding that fate, this should be a wakeup call for the Giants, who were rejected by their first two choices Matt Rhule and Mike McCarthy before pivoting to (checks notes) … Joe Judge

In some respect, the Giants deserve credit for going off the board in their selection of Judge, a promising 38-year-old with ties to both Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. While others zigged, the Giants surprisingly zagged, going as far in the other direction as possible after winning a combined nine games in two seasons under household name Pat Shurmur. It’s an outside-the-box hire and one that could quickly pay dividends if the Giants’ young nucleus plays to its potential. But there’s still significant risk. 

The Belichick coaching tree hasn’t borne much fruit in recent years. Lions coach Matt Patricia has been a colossal failure through two seasons while Josh McDaniels was a similar disaster when he first left the Patriots’ nest to coach Denver in 2009. Bill O’Brien’s lack of playoff success in Houston is another red flag for Pats alums, though maybe Judge, the league’s second-youngest coach after Rams prodigy Sean McVay, will be different. While some will point to Judge’s lack of coordinating experience as a cause for concern, the special teams unit he headed in New England this past year was arguably the league’s best. His contributions as a wide receivers coach weren’t as glowing, though there wasn’t much for him to work with outside of slot staple Julian Edelman

Given his relative anonymity, Giants fans probably won’t be pleased with this hire, but I wouldn’t rush to judgement (no pun intended). Clearly the old way wasn’t working—Gettleman admitted as much in last week’s press conference when he acknowledged the team’s need for an increased analytics presence along with “computer folks” to head up the Giants’ scouting department. Sure they went off-script in hiring Judge, but maybe it’s time for the G-Men to embrace their inner George Constanza and do the opposite of what didn’t work before.

STILL INCUBATING

Cleveland Browns – The Browns continue to plug away in their pursuit of a new coach (Cleveland will tackle its GM search after tapping Freddie Kitchens’ replacement), arranging sit-downs with Eric Bieniemy (interviewed Friday), Bills OC Brian Daboll (interviewed Monday), Patriots OC Josh McDaniels (whose dance card is wide open following Saturday’s stunning loss to the sixth-seeded Titans), Ravens OC Greg Roman (interviewed last Thursday), 49ers DC Robert Saleh (interviewed last weekend), Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski (interviewing Thursday) and Eagles DC Jim Schwartz (interviewing Wednesday). 

McCarthy kicked off the Browns’ interview slate by meeting with the team last Thursday, though obviously he found the opening in Dallas more appealing. As dysfunctional as the Browns have been, whoever the team hires will inherit a loaded roster featuring stud (albeit high-maintenance) receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, former Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, disruptor Myles Garrett (depending on the length of his indefinite suspension), ace corner Denzel Ward and 1,000-yard rusher Nick Chubb. With the Patriots’ fading dynasty seemingly on life support (Tom Brady’s departure would be the final nail in New England’s coffin), the time may be right for McDaniels to jump back into the head-coaching ranks. Even after memorably leaving the Colts at the altar two years ago, McDaniels surprisingly hasn’t hurt for interest as a head coach as the Giants and Panthers were both hot on his trail before shifting their focus to other candidates.

OTHER NUTS AND BOLTS

Josh Norris plans to keep a running tab of coordinator comings and goings, though the Rams’ surprising choice to move on from DC Wade Phillips still warrants a mention. He’s been L.A.’s defensive coordinator for each of Sean McVay’s three seasons … The Dolphins were quick to pull the plug on first-year offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea, replacing him with Chan Gailey, whose last coaching gig came with the Jets in 2016 … With Ron Rivera expected to anoint Scott Turner as his new offensive coordinator, ex-Redskins OC Kevin O’Connell has made himself available to explore opportunities elsewhere. 

Jesse Pantuosco
Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.