As the Patriots and Eagles prepare to face off in Super Bowl LII, the rest of the league has already turned the page to the 2018 season. For some teams, the offseason is spent refining schemes and focusing on free agency and the draft. But for the handful of franchises undergoing the transition to a new head coach, major scheme and philosophy overhauls are afoot.
Change can be a good thing—just look at what Sean McVay did in his first season with the Rams—but as we’ve seen over the past few years with the short-lived tenures of coaches like Ben McAdoo, Rex Ryan, Jim Tomsula, and plenty of others, it can be pretty disastrous, too. For better or worse, each of these new coaches has the potential to completely alter his team’s trajectory—so let’s take a look at each hire and what it could mean for 2018 and beyond.
Tennessee Titans: Head Coach Mike Vrabel
As a former NFL linebacker and Texans defensive coordinator, Vrabel comes to Tennessee as a defensive-minded coach. But priority no. 1 for him is going to be fixing quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose development cratered in his third season with a 13-touchdown, 15-interception campaign. Time will tell how Vrabel ends up approaching that challenge, but what he said at his introductory press conference was music to my and many a Titans fan’s ears.
“We’re going to give Marcus some easy access throws, RPOs [run-pass options], or run relief,” he said, before taking a little bit of a dig at his predecessor’s philosophy. “We’re not going to run it into eight or nine guys. We’re not going to be silly. I believe in screens. I believe in play-action, things [Mariota] does well.”
In other words, Vrabel plans to ditch the Titans’ outdated scheme and bring it back into the 21st century. Mike Mularkey’s misleadingly-named “exotic smashmouth” offense just wasn’t a good fit for Mariota’s skill set, and its design ran counter to just about everything that earned Mariota the Heisman Trophy. Instead of spreading things out and picking up the tempo, the Titans compressed the field with tight end–heavy formations and ran the ball on first and second down more than all but seven teams. Despite the fact Mariota was one of the league’s most efficient passers off of play-action, he finished the year ranked just 13th in play-action usage, and in the team’s divisional-round loss to the Patriots, Mariota threw just three passes off of play-action fakes.
Vrabel still must choose an offensive coordinator who can work hand-in-hand with Mariota and get the young signal-caller’s career back on track. Ohio State co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ryan Day was an early leading candidate. Day withdrew his name from consideration, but the fact Tennessee was looking at a guy who came up in Chip Kelly’s spread system is a great sign that the Titans will adapt their scheme to accentuate Mariota’s talents, regardless of who they hire. If nothing else, Vrabel seems to have a solid grip on logic.
Arizona Cardinals: Head Coach Steve Wilks
With zero starting-caliber quarterbacks under contract and all-world receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s future still up in the air, there’s a ton of questions to be answered for the Cardinals offense in 2018. But in hiring former Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, Arizona has at least put its excellent, star-studded defense in capable hands. Wilks, along with his new defensive coordinator, former Carolina linebackers coach Al Holcomb, will look to instill the Panthers’ toughness, discipline, and physicality on the defensive side of the ball, though his hire makes for a very interesting marriage of scheme and talent.
Wilks coached a 4-3 system in Carolina and comes to a team that’s been running a 3-4 base defense over the past few years, but those distinctions really don’t matter anymore with the use of so many defensive subpackages in the NFL. Whether they’re lining up with their hand on the ground or rushing from a two-point stance, the trio of Chandler Jones, Markus Golden, and Haason Reddick will make for interesting pieces of Wilks’s new system. And considering Wilks’s background is in coaching defensive backs, it will be intriguing to watch how he deploys an elite cornerback like Patrick Peterson along with the team’s two dynamic playmaking safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Budda Baker. Former Panthers corner Josh Norman already indicated on Twitter that Wilks is about to take Peterson’s game to the next level.
The Cardinals appear set to hire Mike McCoy at offensive coordinator, and much of the team’s success will hinge on who he and Wilks find for the quarterback spot. For an answer to that question, we’re just going to have to wait and see.
New York Giants: Head Coach Pat Shurmur
Going with former Vikings offensive coordinator and renowned quarterback guru Pat Shurmur looks like a smart choice for a Giants franchise that’s trying to get the most out of the last few years of Eli Manning’s career. Shurmur drew interest for head-coach openings because of the work he’s done with Case Keenum and Sam Bradford during the past two years—and he earned a reputation before that for his work with Donovan McNabb, Bradford (back when they were both in St. Louis), and Nick Foles (yes—the year Foles threw 27 touchdowns and just two picks, Shurmur was Chip Kelly’s offensive coordinator in Philly).
His ability to design schemes that boost efficiency and accentuate the specific skills of his quarterbacks make him a great fit with a passer like Manning, who has, throughout his career, shown the ability to hit some of the toughest throws imaginable on one play, and then toss it right to the defense on the next. Shurmur, who will be calling plays for the offense, is working with well-stocked shelves at the skill positions, too, as the Giants offense comes complete with a top-tier pass catcher in Odell Beckham Jr. and another couple of talented playmakers in Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram.
Longer term, Shurmur looks well-suited to usher in the transition away from Manning, whenever that happens. Maybe the team goes with Davis Webb, the Giants’ third-round pick last year, or maybe they use this year’s second overall pick on the future of the position. Either way, Shurmur’s role as the team’s new quarterback whisperer will mean he’s under the spotlight.
Defensively, the team brought in former Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who figures to install his version of Arizona’s aggressive, blitz-happy scheme. The Giants’ talented secondary and strong pass-rushing group should fit really well in Bettcher’s system. But New York must address the linebacker spot, where versatility and range—picture Arizona’s Deone Bucannon—is the key.
Chicago Bears: Head Coach Matt Nagy
On paper, Chicago’s decision to bring in Matt Nagy is a home run. More than just about any other hire, this one feels analogous to the transition the Rams went through last year from Jeff Fisher’s staff to that of McVay. Nagy cut his teeth as Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator and ended the season calling plays for Kansas City’s hybrid West Coast offense, which featured a bevy of college-style RPOs and read-option plays. Add in new offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, who came up under Chip Kelly at Oregon before taking over as the Ducks’ head coach in 2013, and the Bears could feature one of the most forward-thinking and fun offenses in the NFL next year.
That Chiefs-style scheme, which marries the college game and the pro game, seems like the perfect fit for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, an athletic young passer who played in a spread offense in college. The UNC product can make defenses pay with his legs and is excellent throwing on the run. Plus, based on what the Chiefs got out of rushing champ Kareem Hunt this season, it’s exciting to imagine what Nagy and his staff will cook up for their two-headed running back crew of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen.
And, much like McVay did in Los Angeles in handing the keys to the already-established defense to Wade Phillips, Nagy doesn’t appear to be changing a whole lot on that side of the ball. Instead, he’s entrusting that high-potential group to incumbent defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whom the team gave a three-year extension.
Oakland Raiders: Head Coach Jon Gruden
More than any other coaching change this year, the Gruden hire brings uncertainty. After being out of football for the past nine years, it’s fair to wonder how quickly the former Monday Night Football fixture will be able to pick back up his play-calling duties, and we’ll have to wait and see whether or not Gruden’s system will even work in today’s NFL, where players on both sides of the ball are faster and more athletic than they were a decade or more ago. Will he stick to a philosophy that made him a success back in the late 1990s and early aughts, or evolve to throw more and incorporate college-style plays? Add in the decision to hire offensive line coach Tom Cable, who ostensibly brings to the Raiders a wide zone blocking scheme that doesn’t seem to be a fit for the team’s massive, power-blocking offensive line, and it’s just hard to know exactly what this Oakland offense will look like.
In any case, the Raiders’ success in the short term will hinge largely on what Gruden’s able to do with quarterback Derek Carr, who regressed badly in 2017 along with the rest of this Oakland team, and there’s already plenty of questions as to how Chucky’s at times abrasive personality will mesh with that of his young quarterback. Still, with a 10-year, $100 million deal, Gruden’s clearly going to get a lot of leeway to implement his program.
Detroit Lions: Head Coach Matt Patricia
This move isn’t yet official, but it’s expected to be announced after the Super Bowl. Patricia brings to Detroit a defensive scheme based on discipline and versatility and a famously sharp mind. Everyone’s favorite talking point is that he’s a rocket scientist, but as Tim Rohan wrote last year, Patricia was able to work his way up in Belichick’s staff because of his attention to detail and innovative methods for streamlining systems. The Patriots’ squads under Patricia are hard to define because they change so much from game to game, featuring three-man fronts at times and four-man looks at others. Linebackers are asked to both blitz and drop back into coverage, safeties are often interchangeable with corners, and the team seems to take a different game plan into every matchup, custom-tailored to exploit the opponent.
It’s impossible to take Belichick out of the equation, but Patricia’s earned a reputation for the ability to build a scheme around his players—and we can expect Detroit’s defense to feature a nimble, hybrid system in 2018. But until the hiring becomes official and we see the type of offensive staff Patricia constructs and whether he holds on to play-caller Jim Bob Cooter or looks to hire someone new, it’s hard to know what kind of changes, if any, to expect from the other side of the ball.
Indianapolis Colts: Head Coach Josh McDaniels
Like Patricia, McDaniels’s hire isn’t official. And also like Patricia, McDaniels has earned a reputation as a sharp game planner and cunning play-caller, capable of identifying the weakness in an opposing defense and attacking it mercilessly. And where it’s tough to separate Patricia from Belichick, it’s just as hard to separate McDaniels’s incredible success as the Patriots offensive coordinator from the quarterback running his offense, Tom Brady. Still, on paper, this looks like a match made in heaven, as it pairs one of the best play-callers in the game with Andrew Luck (assuming Luck returns to action in 2018).
McDaniels will look to learn from the mistakes that got him run out of Denver after two years in his first head-coach position, and it won’t hurt that general manager Chris Ballard will retain full control of the roster. That should leave McDaniels to do what he does best, running an adaptable, ever-changing offensive scheme with ruthless efficiency.