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The Biggest Question for Each of the NFL’s New Head Coach–QB Pairings

The head coach–quarterback dynamic is essential to a functional team. And in 2020, every first-year coach has a young passer and the chance to change the trajectory of their respective franchise.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Between 2010 and 2019, NFL teams have entered the regular season with a new coach 69 times, including interim head coaches who shed the tag the ensuing campaign. Whenever the next NFL season kicks off, five new coaches will take the reins of their respective teams for the first time: Ron Rivera in Washington, Matt Rhule in Carolina, Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, Mike McCarthy in Dallas, and Joe Judge in New York. Their immediate success will rely in large part on the success of the starting quarterbacks they have been partnered with.

Although none of the new coaches will have a rookie under center, all of the passers with new head coaches are young; none of them has more than four seasons of starting experience. The Giants’ Daniel Jones and Washington’s Dwayne Haskins are entering only their second NFL seasons. Rhule signed veteran Teddy Bridgewater, who hasn’t served as a full-time starter since 2015, as Cam Newton’s replacement. Stefanski inherits former no. 1 pick Baker Mayfield and McCarthy will boast two-time Pro Bowler Dak Prescott under center.

The head coach–quarterback dynamic is essential to a functional franchise. But history suggests these coaches won’t be tethered to their current starting signal-caller forever. Between the past decade’s 69 new coach-quarterback tandems, there have been 25 instances where the Week 1 starting quarterback did not begin the next year as the starter—roughly 36 percent. The coaches have more stability. Only six times in that same span have coaches been fired after their first full season—less than 9 percent. That doesn’t mean they’re immune to being axed, though. This offseason, Cleveland fired Freddie Kitchens after his first full season, when he failed to make it work with Mayfield and a star-studded offensive cast less than a year after appearing to do so when he was named the Browns’ interim coach in 2018.

Some situations, like Cleveland’s, call for a coach to immediately step in and produce top results. Others, like the Giants’, will see both coach and quarterback granted plenty of time to right the ship. But for every franchise, the pairing of a brand-new head coach with a relatively young passer sets up 2020 as a critical juncture for the team’s future. Here are the biggest questions facing each pairing of new head coach and QB in 2020.

Dallas Cowboys

HC Mike McCarthy (13 years’ HC experience)
QB Dak Prescott (fifth year; 64 games starting experience)

Can McCarthy quickly manufacture results in Prescott’s contract season?

McCarthy steps into the best situation of any of these new coaches. The Cowboys boast one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, especially on offense, where the team has stars at the QB, RB, and WR positions to go with a rock-solid offensive line. However, all this talent brings urgency. Dallas must win, then find a way to secure Prescott for the long term after failing to sign the signal-caller at the franchise tag deadline.

Prescott doesn’t plan on holding out and said he’ll play on the franchise tag, which will pay the former fourth-rounder $31.4 million in guaranteed money this year. Even if Prescott weren’t at ease, McCarthy has experience navigating a rocky relationship with a star quarterback. The Cowboys now must make sure that this marriage works or risk not only a disappointing 2020 season, but being without a franchise quarterback in the long term.

McCarthy managed some continuity by retaining OC Kellen Moore, who’s also keeping his play-calling duties. Prescott experienced his best campaign under the 32-year-old coordinator last season, throwing for 4,902 yards and 30 touchdowns, while completing 65.1 percent of his passes and posting 8.2 yards per attempt. Prescott should find similar success to what he’s experienced in recent years, if not because of the play-calling, then because of the talent around him. So, at least until 2021 McCarthy’s quarterback situation is relatively pleasant. After that, the questions surrounding the future of the Prescott-McCarthy coupling can be adequately addressed.

Carolina Panthers

HC Matt Rhule (no HC experience)
QB Teddy Bridgewater (seventh year; 34 games’ starting experience)

Can Rhule and Bridgewater produce instant fireworks?

No one expected Carolina to snap up Rhule from Baylor on an eye-popping seven-year, $60 million deal. And not too many expected the Panthers to move on from Newton—after Rhule suggested he wanted Newton to play for him—and then sign Bridgewater to a three-year, $60 million contract. But here we are. Rhule is tasked with his greatest rebuilding job yet. Bridgewater isn’t just a placeholder for Rhule’s eventual chosen successor, though. Rhule chose Bridgewater—none of the other first-year coaches handpicked their passers.

Rhule also paired Bridgewater with new Panthers OC Joe Brady, the former Saints offensive analyst and LSU passing game coordinator. He organized the record-setting Tigers offense that helped Joe Burrow win the Heisman Trophy and the team win a national championship last season, in case you’ve forgotten. Bridgewater worked under Brady when he joined New Orleans in 2018.

Brady’s system focuses on getting playmakers in space, and could be an ideal fit for the intriguing collection of position players surrounding Bridgewater. Last season, running back Christian McCaffrey became just the third player in NFL history (Marshall Faulk, Roger Craig) to record 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a single year. Former first-round receiver D.J. Moore is coming off his first career 1,000-yard season. Brady described fourth-year wideout Curtis Samuel as “critical to our success.” Free-agent signing Robby Anderson, who specializes in stretching the field, will complete Carolina’s versatile receiving corps.

Bridgewater wasn’t aggressive pushing the ball downfield during his nine appearances (five starts) for the Saints in 2019, but that shouldn’t worry the Panthers. Brady’s passing game is predicated on surgical efficiency. Bridgewater’s 5.7 yards after catch per completion would have ranked in the top 10 of qualified NFL passers last season, suggesting he was adept at finding his playmakers in space. It’s exactly what Brady wants. Rhule plucked the sought-after assistant to direct his offense and Bridgewater to execute it. Rhule’s lengthy contract may imply he’s not expected to see early positive results, but his decision to sign Bridgewater and hire Brady might produce offensive fireworks anyway.

New York Giants

HC Joe Judge (no HC experience)
QB Daniel Jones (second year; 12 games’ starting experience)

How will the inexperienced duo of Judge and Jones work together?

The Before Times produced some bizarre headlines. In January, not long after Rhule and Carolina reached their deal, the Giants hired longtime Patriots special teams coordinator Joe Judge. The 38-year-old, who doubled as New England’s receivers coach last year, is the league’s third-youngest coach. He’s also a winner, touting five championships on his résumé (two national championships as Alabama’s special teams assistant; three Super Bowls with the Patriots). He comes from the Bill Belichick and Nick Saban coaching trees, so attention to detail is ingrained.

Jones, who replaced longtime starter Eli Manning after three games last year, is New York’s future at quarterback. The Giants assembled some solid talent around him, including superstar running back Saquon Barkley, tight ends Evan Engram and Kaden Smith, and receivers Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate, and Darius Slayton. The group didn’t perform well in 2019, in part because of injuries—Engram landed on injured reserve with a midfoot sprain, Shepard battled concussions, and Barkley was hampered by an early-season ankle injury. But a return to health combined with the hiring of OC Jason Garrett—the Cowboys’ former HC—could help improve results. Last season, Garrett helped Dallas’s offense finish second in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, first in net yards per pass attempt (7.7), fourth in rushing yards per attempt (4.8), and first in total yards.

Of the new coaches, Judge will likely have as lengthy a leash as Rivera should in Washington, considering the investment New York has made in both Jones and his supporting cast. Judge, who waited to get a better feel for his squad before issuing any public praise, seems to have a respect for Jones, whose toughness and competitiveness he said was evident “right away.” That’s a start. Jones still must acclimate to Garrett’s offense and develop under QB coach Jerry Schuplinski, another former Belichick assistant on Judge’s staff.

Cleveland Browns

HC Kevin Stefanski (no HC experience)
QB Baker Mayfield (third year; 29 games’ starting experience)

Can Stefanski revive Mayfield?

Three seasons, three coaching regimes for Mayfield. That’s not ideal for any quarterback’s development. Last season, despite the luxury of elite talent surrounding him, Mayfield was ineffective. Whatever magic touch Freddie Kitchens unearthed at the end of 2018 didn’t translate to 2019, and virtually all of Mayfield’s efficiency numbers sank.

Enter Stefanski, another 38-year-old assistant turned head coach, who arrives from the Vikings. Stefanski has experience helping quarterbacks unlock their best form. With Minnesota, he directed a Case Keenum–led offense to success. In 2017, Keenum’s lone season under Stefanski, he posted a 72.8 adjusted QBR (second best in the league), maximizing a dynamic passing attack featuring Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen on the outside. The Vikings finished third in pass offense DVOA that season and fifth in overall offensive DVOA. Keenum hasn’t since neared the production he amassed that season.

Across the past two years, Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins has ranked second (2018) and fourth (2019) in completion percentage. In 2019, Cousins ranked 10th among passers in Football Outsiders’ QB DVOA. Mayfield ranked 31st (59.4 percent) in completion rate and 25th in QB DVOA. His interceptions (21) and sack rate (7 percent) also swelled from his rookie numbers.

Mayfield ranked as one of the most aggressive passers in 2019. According to Football Outsiders, he finished fifth in deep ball accuracy, throwing accurate passes on 32 of his 58 attempts that traveled at least 21 yards downfield. Cousins posted similar numbers in Stefanski’s scheme in Minnesota, completing 29 of 56 such attempts. That suggests that Mayfield will still have opportunities to push the ball downfield. Mayfield should also get a chance to thrive off of Stefanski’s play-action-heavy system, which benefited Cousins, who finished sixth among passers (minimum 300 pass attempts) in completion rate on play-action passes (71.8), according to Pro Football Focus. Mayfield ranked 10th in yards per attempt (9.0) on play-action throws (minimum 300 attempts) last year, which is encouraging.

Incorporating more play-action could be a big step toward maximizing Mayfield and the treasure trove of skill talent Cleveland holds: receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, tight end Austin Hooper, and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt give the Browns the look of a dynamic offense. Stefanski is charged with unlocking their potential sooner than later. Much of that hinges on Mayfield. If the pair can build a successful rapport, this could be one of the league’s best new QB-coaching pairings.


HC Ron Rivera (nine years’ HC experience)
QB Dwayne Haskins (second year; seven games’ starting experience)

Can Rivera make Haskins’s disappointing rookie season just an anomaly?

Rivera inherited the most inexperienced passer of the new coaches. Haskins, the 2019 draft’s no. 15 pick, took over midway through last season, but didn’t initially look the part while producing a 2-5 record and 59 percent completion rate across seven starts.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff serves as the most recent—and somewhat rare—example of a top pick bouncing back from an awful rookie campaign to Pro Bowl–caliber status thanks to a coaching change. But Goff took cues from coach Sean McVay, former OC Matt LaFleur (now the Packers HC) and then–QB coach Greg Olson (now the Raiders OC). Haskins is going from HC Jay Gruden and former OC Kevin O’Connell (now the Rams OC) to Rivera’s staff, which features OC Scott Turner and new QBs coach Ken Zampese. Most don’t consider Haskins’s new situation to be as promising as Goff’s ended up being.

Turner, the Panthers’ former OC, holds experience molding talented passers. He’s had some success, including with Bridgewater. During Turner’s three-year stint as the Vikings quarterback coach, he helped develop Bridgewater into a Pro Bowler by his second season. And when Bridgewater went down with injury in 2016, Turner helped Sam Bradford set a then–NFL record in completion percentage (71.6). In 2018, Turner served under Rivera as Carolina’s QB coach and helped Cam Newton register a franchise-best 67.9 completion percentage and average 7.2 yards per pass attempt. According to Sports Info Solutions, Newton was on target on 73 percent of his 2018 pass attempts. Haskins was on target on just 64 percent of his throws in 2019. At the very least, it can be expected that while under Turner’s guidance, Haskins’s completion rate will improve. Zampese served as Cleveland’s QB coach and worked with Mayfield in 2018, when the Browns quarterback threw an NFL rookie record 27 touchdowns in 13 starts. Before that, Zampese had spent 13 years as the Bengals QB coach, and helped develop both Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton into Cincinnati’s franchise quarterbacks.

Haskins flashed some positives throughout the final stretch of his rookie year that perhaps warrant optimism as he works under Rivera’s regime. It could be some time before we know what his ceiling is. Or it could come as soon as his second season that he blossoms. Regardless, expect Turner to cater to Haskins’s strengths—and for that completion rate to improve a bit, too. Rivera should get some time to uncover what he has in Haskins.