Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers all hired first time coaches this offseason in Zac Taylor, Kliff Kingsbury and Matt LaFleur. The trio are all first-time head coaches in the NFL as the respective franchises look to improve their fortunes.
The latest in this series grades all three.
Green Bay Packers: Matt LaFleur (C+)
They often say that the NFL is a copycat league, and that was clearly shown this offseason with the trend towards teams looking for the next Sean McVay: a hotshot offensive coordinator who can revive their franchise. I’m incredibly wary of this. McVay is successful because he’s McVay. He’s a unique coach and personality who is a football obsessive. I mean the guy can remember the exact plays he called from specific situations in certain games two or three years ago!
None of this is meant to say Matt LaFleur and his contemporaries, Zac Taylor and Kliff Kingsbury, lack that amount of football intelligence and dedication, but it does seem like a very rapid rise for a lot of these coaches. Out of this new youth movement, I like the hire of LaFleur more given the performances of some of the quarterbacks he has worked with as a quarterback coach, and he has had recent experience as an NFL coordinator (over the last 2 seasons).
Whilst LaFleur spent time as McVay’s QB coach in Los Angeles, before becoming the Titans offensive coordinator last year, he also worked as the QB coach under Kyle Shanahan at Washington and Atlanta, where the now-49ers head coach was the offensive coordinator. During LaFleur’s time in D.C, Robert Griffin III won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, and Matt Ryan was voted league MVP whilst LaFleur was his QB coach. That, and his work in the same capacity, in 2017 for the Rams are undoubtedly highlights of LaFleur’s CV.
However, as the offensive coordinator in Tennessee last year, LaFleur was only able to help lead the offense to a 25th place ranking in the NFL in yards per game. Given the amount of offensive weapons in the Music City, including QB Marcus Mariota, receiver Corey Davis, running backs Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry, in addition to a stout offensive line; this does give me cause for concern. Now granted the team lost some of those playmakers and key components to injury, such as Mariota, tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Delanie Walker. It does raise the question of whether LaFleur can lead an offensive unit rather than just a quarterback room.
The other issue is, in Green Bay will Aaron Rodgers ride roughshod over LaFleur? It’s been acknowledged that there was some clear friction between the Packers QB and ex-head man Mike McCarthy. Whilst Rodgers wasn’t necessarily involved in the search for McCarthy’s successor, it’s unlikely GM Brian Gutekunst would have hired a candidate he knew Rodgers wouldn’t sign off on. On the other hand, given LaFleur’s record as a QB coach, perhaps this was a hiring with an eye to number 12’s future successor?
Cincinnati Bengals: Zac Taylor (D)
As likeable as Marvin Lewis is, it was clear a head coaching change was overdue in Cincinnati. Whilst Lewis was the second longest serving head coach behind Bill Belichick, this change perhaps should have been made a season ago. Nonetheless, former Rams QB coach Taylor has been pegged as the man to revive the Bengals, leaving the post he took a year ago after LaFleur departed for Tennessee.
It’s difficult to see this as much other than a hire from the McVay coaching tree. Taylor doesn’t necessarily have a lengthy track record of success in the NFL, or even in the college ranks. He took over as offensive coordinator for the Dolphins in 2015 when his predecessor Bill Lazor (who was the Bengals offensive coordinator last season), was fired. That was for a five-game span in which the team actually averaged less points per game than they had previously.
The Bengals do have a lot of weapons on offense for Taylor to work with, though it’s difficult to predict what sort of offensive scheme he is likely to run. If he looks to imitate McVay’s system or something similar, he certainly has the components to run a play action scheme with the running threat of Joe Mixon and a dominant number one wide receiver in A.J. Green. The Bengals will also be hoping Taylor can get QB Andy Dalton back to the impressive performances he showed in 2015 with Hue Jackson as his offensive coordinator. That indicates Dalton can lead this offence but the Bengals need a coach who can put him in a position to succeed.
What a lot of Cincinnati fans will be waiting to see though, is who Taylor hires as his defensive coordinator. The Bengals had, statistically speaking, the worst defence in the league last year and whilst there are some key pieces to build around like safeties Shawn Williams and Jessie Bates III, as well as defensive lineman Geno Atkins, the unit could do with an infusion of talent, particularly at pass rusher. Taylor has spoken about hiring an experienced coach and it will be interesting to see who he selects as that individual will probably have free reign to run the defence as coaches like Wade Phillips and Vic Fangio have had recently with LA and Chicago respectively.
Arizona Cardinals: Kliff Kingsbury (D)
This one, I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. Kingsbury has a losing record as a head coach in college football (at Texas Tech) and has zero experience at any level in the NFL. I appreciate that those aren’t pre-requisites for success as the leader of a franchise but how much respect is he likely to be accorded by seasoned NFL veterans?
I find it even more perplexing given that the Cardinals essentially admitted that they had made a mistake one season into Steve Wilks tenure as head coach. This seems like a risky move. It is particularly concerning when you hear that Kingsbury was hired after only a few hours of interviewing with team president Michael Bidwell.
Now I get that Kingsbury has had extensive experience working with some of the leading college quarterbacks of recent years such as Johnny Manziel, Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes II. He undoubtedly played a part in the development of those players, two of whom have had sensational seasons this year in the league. In addition to that, Kingsbury has experience of the pass heavy Air Raid offense which may be suited to the strengths of Arizona’s quarterback Josh Rosen, who the team will clearly be building around.
We also know that the Cardinals offence was not pretty last year, but that can be attributed to the hiring of Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator (who couldn’t recapture the performances he coached out of the offense during his time in the same role in Denver), as well as a lack of talent. The offensive line has been a problem for at least a couple of seasons now, whilst the team is heavily reliant on veteran Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver.
If the Kingsbury experiment doesn’t work out, Rosen may be learning a new playbook in short order. What will that mean for his development as an NFL quarterback?