Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos all hired first-time head coaches this offseason in Freddie Kitchens, Vic Fangio and Brian Flores. This series looks at all the head coaching decisions made this offseason, discussing the pros, cons and grading them.
Cleveland Browns: Freddie Kitchens (A-)
As you’ll see in a later post in this series, I’m pretty dubious about the likelihood of success for the recent spate of young offensive coaches hired as head coaches. However, Kitchens is an exception to that. And the reason is, as it often is with Cleveland these days, Baker Mayfield.
We all know about how much he flourished once Kitchens replaced former offensive coordinator Todd Haley under interim head coach Gregg Williams. At last the Browns have the quarterback they feel can lead them back to the postseason and sustained success as an NFL franchise. This hire, like so many others this offseason, was about maximising their young playmaker at QB.
Kitchens clearly meshed well with Mayfield, whose fiery personality means it is important for him to have the right coach. Whether you like him or not, that means Mayfield wouldn’t have been a fit with a lot of other ‘QB-mentor’ head coaching candidates. I couldn’t see Adam Gase being able to put up with Mayfield’s on field and off field demeanour, for instance.
Kitchens however, rightly or wrongly, clearly was able to. And at the end of the day, when the former Cardinals and Cowboys coach has coaxed the level of production he did out of the new hope in Cleveland during a short space of time, he has to be given the opportunity to continue that.
The other reason for the Dawg Pound to be hopeful, is the top-class coordinators Kitchens has been able to hire too. Steve Wilks, setting aside his disappointing spell in Arizona, showed himself to be a fantastic defensive coordinator in the same role for the Panthers, whilst new offensive coordinator Todd Monken managed to get the Buccaneers offence firing when he took over play-calling duties from then-head coach Dirk Koetter in Florida. Mind you, I thought the same last season when the Browns lured Todd Haley away from Pittsburgh….
Denver Broncos: Vic Fangio (B)
As a Bears fan, I’m conflicted about the hiring of Fangio at Mile High Stadium. I would have loved to see him stay at Club Dub in the Windy City, but the long-time defensive assistant undoubtedly deserves the top job at a franchise.
Fangio has a long track record of sustained success with his defensive units, most notably in San Francisco and Chicago. Under former head coach John Fox, Fangio managed to help oversee the transition from an ageing defence in Chicago to a young unit led by playmakers like Eddie Jackson and Roquan Smith. Of course, the trade for Khalil Mack didn’t hurt. Indeed, whilst the Bears offense made strides this season, it was arguably Fangio’s defence that propelled the franchise into the postseason with its propensity for turnovers and stops in the run game.
The hire of the 60-year-old bucked the trend of head coaching hires this offseason as he comes from a defensive background and could also be seen as a little unexpected given the Broncos lack of success with former defensive coordinator Vance Joseph in the top job. Nonetheless, this hire makes sense for Denver. They don’t have a young QB to groom (yet) and were able to reach the Super Bowl in 2015 with their No Fly Zone defence.
If Fangio can get the defence performing close to the level of the Bears this past season, it may give QB Case Keenum the opportunity to play a supporting role on offense, instead of the team having to put everything on his shoulders. Keenum was successful as the Vikings QB when paired with a dominant defence (plus some high-quality wide receivers), and that may be the blueprint for success for John Elway’s team this time around.
Obviously, Fangio is an unknown as a head coach. His hire of Mike Munchak as offensive line coach, who may help fix that perennial problem in Denver, and bringing over Ed Donatell from Chicago as his defensive coordinator to help implant Fangio’s defence are positive.
I would have hoped for a more reputable offensive coordinator; indeed it is disappointing that Gary Kubiak didn’t return to the sideline where his bootleg, play action screen would have played to the strengths of the mobile Keenum and running back Phillip Lindsay. Nonetheless, Fangio could be set for a Bruce Arians-like impact in Colorado, where a long-time assistant coach finally gets his shot. The only difference is that in the AFC West this head coach needs to get Von Miller, Bradley Chubb and co. to take down the high flying offenses of the Chiefs and the Chargers.
Miami Dolphins: Brian Flores (B)
Flores is the latest attempt of NFL owners to achieve success with a hire from the Bill Belichick coaching tree. He has been highly lauded and now has a notable exclamation mark to add to the platitudes directed his way this season: the Patriots defensive performance in Super Bowl LIII.
Whilst Belichick is still heavily involved in game planning and in game decision making, Flores has been the defensive playcaller this season for New England and can be seen as a big part of the reason the Rams’ explosive offense was held to just three points and 260 total yards in Atlanta.
Whilst a lot of the details of his hire are still awaiting confirmation (at the time of writing), including his staff, this looks like a step in the right direction for the dysfunctional Dolphins organisation. As a no-nonsense head coach with a background in coaching on both sides of the ball for the Pats, Flores could help make the ‘Fins relevant again. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he will have a unique insight on New England who he will be playing twice a season. Flores joined the Patriots originally as a scout and has since coached special teams, safeties and linebackers. That range of experience will be invaluable, as will the time he has spent in meetings and scheming with Belichick.
By all accounts Miami is looking to embark on a season of tanking, or something close to it, so it’s difficult to envisage Flores having immediate success in South Beach. He does have some young players to build around, including Swiss army knife Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose versatility will be key if Flores looks to introduce a Belichick style roster with offensive and defensive schemes adapting to the opponent.
I also like the (as of yet unconfirmed) hiring of Jim Caldwell as assistant head coach. Caldwell still has a winning record in the league as well as experience as head coach of both the Colts and the Lions, which will be invaluable to Flores in his new role. The hire of the Pats former receivers coach Chad O’Shea may also indicate the imposition of something similar to the Pats scheme in Miami. However, many teams have tried this tack before, hoping Belichick’s assistants can replicate his success elsewhere. Flores will hope to succeed where Mangini, McDaniels and others have failed.