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Stock Watch: Which Way Are the NFL’s First-Year Head Coaches Trending?

Seven coaches are wrapping up their first seasons at the helm of their respective teams, and while some of them have found success — like Matt Nagy in Chicago and Frank Reich in Indianapolis — others have been … Jon Gruden

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As we get closer to the end of the NFL season, we also get closer to Black Monday, the day after Week 17 when many teams decide to fire their head coaches. The Packers and Browns are already looking to hire someone new, and this January promises one of the more interesting coaching carousels in years. Last season, five teams booted their head coaches on Black Monday, the Titans fired Mike Mularkey a couple weeks later, and Arizona’s Bruce Arians retired at the end of the season. That means seven guys are currently wrapping up their first seasons with their respective teams. So, armed with 14 weeks of information, here’s a quick stock watch of those coaches, and what we could see from them moving forward:

Matt Nagy, Bears

Biggest reason for optimism: At 9–4, the Bears already have their highest win total since 2012 (with three games still to play!), and are on their way to their first playoff appearance since 2010. Nagy came over from Kansas City with the intention of modernizing Chicago’s offense, and he’s done so effectively. The Bears run some of the coolest plays in the NFL:

On that touchdown, Chicago faked a handoff to a defensive lineman and then passed it to an offensive lineman. Nagy doesn’t always get that weird, but his creativity has given quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and the offense enough of a boost to vault Chicago into the playoff race.

Biggest cause for concern: Nagy retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio when he took the job, which was a stroke of genius, and Chicago’s league-leading defense will be the key to any postseason run for the Bears. But Nagy is an offensive head coach, and despite flashes of brilliance, the offense ranks only 22nd in DVOA. Nagy’s versatile scheme has gotten the most out of his players, but the Bears aren’t lighting teams up (well, except the Bucs). This has been the best Bears season in ages, but fans will want to see growth on that side of the ball next season.

Overall stock: Nagy is in the running for Coach of the Year. You could say this season has been a success.

Frank Reich, Colts

Biggest reason for optimism: Reich was not the Colts’ first choice for head coach, but so far he’s been working out pretty well. He came to Indy from Philadelphia — where he guided Nick Foles and the Eagles to a Super Bowl win — with the promise that he’d bring a Philly-like offense to Indianapolis. The Colts haven’t had much success with Philly Special–type plays, but the rest of what Reich is doing is working — especially for Andrew Luck.

This season, Luck is throwing it deep a little less than he did in 2016, the last season we have to compare to (just 9.8 percent of passes this year compared to 13.6 in 2016, per PFF). He’s also dropping the ball into tight coverage less often (17.4 percent this year, 18.9 percent in 2016, per Next Gen Stats), and he gets the ball out quicker (2.63 seconds to throw in 2018, 2.88 in 2016). All of that has combined to give Luck one of the best seasons of his career. Luck is at or near career highs in all of the following statistics: completion percentage, yards per game, touchdown percentage, passer rating, adjusted net yards per attempt, and QBR. Oh, and perhaps most important of all: Luck is taking sacks at the lowest rate in his career (on just 2.9 percent of passes) .

Luck is back, and Reich has him playing better than ever.

Biggest cause for concern: The team’s 6–0 loss to the Leonard Fournette–less and Blake Bortles–less Jaguars in Week 13 is an ugly blemish on the season, and it could keep the Colts out of the playoffs. And Indy’s two-minute drill that game was a prime example of clock mismanagement. Reich may have a point that the Colts should have had one final play, but the team shouldn’t have been that short on time in the first place.

It doesn’t make sense to judge Reich on one game when so much of the rest of the season has been successful, but the starkness of that loss stands out.

Overall stock: Reich has the Colts headed in the right direction. He’s definitely trending up.

Mike Vrabel, Titans

Biggest reason for optimism: Vrabel’s commitment to a modern style of play has been refreshing after the Titans dealt with Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense for three years. Vrabel has also been aggressive in his decision-making late in games, sometimes to a fault, but most coaches are entirely too conservative and Vrabel is breaking the mold. That should be welcome in Tennessee. There are kinks to work out, but Vrabel seems to have the right ideas.

Biggest cause for concern: Marcus Mariota has dealt with injuries all season, but even when he’s been healthy, he’s been disappointing. He has just 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions, on an adjusted net yards per pass attempt that ranks 26th in the league. The hope was that Vrabel, along with former Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, could finally help Mariota reach his potential. That hasn’t happened. Vrabel didn’t draft Mariota and may not be fully committed to him moving forward, but the offense’s struggles have been a major disappointment.

Overall stock: This team has been wildly inconsistent. One day, they’re beating the Patriots by 24, and the next they’re losing to the Colts by 28. The Titans are hard to get a read on, and so is Vrabel. We need more time — and a healthy Mariota — before pinning down where he stands.

Pat Shurmur, Giants

Biggest reason for optimism: After a 1–7 start, the Giants have won four of their last five, including an overtime victory over the playoff-bound Bears. Last year this team basically quit around this point in the season, but the 2018 Giants are going down swinging. Hell, they’re technically still alive in the postseason hunt. I mean, don’t hold your breath —

— but it’s still mathematically possible.

Biggest cause for concern: The Giants seemed to really think they could compete this year with Eli Manning, Saquon Barkley, and Odell Beckham Jr., and that hasn’t been the case. Plus, Beckham has publicly questioned parts of the Giants’ game plan. The Giants will have to figure out what to do at the quarterback spot this offseason, as they can cut Manning and save $17 million in cap space. Shurmur’s tenure will get interesting once this franchise realizes it needs to turn the page.

Overall stock: Holding steady. This was a weird year for the Giants; their roster needs a full-on overhaul, but instead of trying to secure a top draft pick, they’ve decided to compete. They’re stuck between long-term goals and short-term naivete, and it will be hard to judge Shurmur until the team retools.

Matt Patricia, Lions

Biggest reason for optimism: The Lions’ young playmakers have been promising this year. Rookie Kerryon Johnson was the first Lions running back to break the 100-yard rushing mark in a game since Reggie Bush in 2013. Second-year pro Kenny Golladay has looked like a no. 1 wideout at times. Third-year defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson has been a pillar on the defensive line, ranking seventh among defensive linemen in run-stop percentage, per PFF. Overall, the Lions have pieces for Patricia to build around.

Also, this team beat the Patriots. By 16 points!

Biggest cause for concern: Matthew Stafford is having one of the worst seasons of his career. His ANY/A is the lowest it’s been since his rookie season, and he’s thrown just 18 touchdowns and a whopping 11 interceptions. Some of that is on Stafford — Patricia shouldn’t have to babysit a 30-year-old quarterback, after all — but an offense that ranked 12th in DVOA last season now ranks 24th. Patricia is supposed to be a defensive guru, but fixing the offense will be a priority in 2019.

Overall stock: Remember when Patricia had the Lions practice in the snow for no reason?

Those types of coaching oddities are fun when a team is winning, but right now Patricia’s Lions are 5–8, and he’s trending downward.

Jon Gruden, Raiders

Biggest reason for optimism: With general manager Reggie McKenzie getting ousted earlier this week, the Raiders are now “All Gruden.”

That may not seem like a reason for optimism, as Gruden’s tenure has gotten off to a rocky start (we’ll get to that in a second), but if there is one silver lining, it’s that Gruden is now uniquely positioned among NFL decision-makers. Most teams are stuck in short-term cycles, with GMs and coaches making decisions to protect their jobs and their teams’ immediate future. But Gruden has a 10-year contract, so he can weigh long-term value for the Raiders. That probably had a part to play in the team’s fire sale this season: The franchise could move on from Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper because it is focused on positioning itself for the 2020s and beyond. Oakland would definitely have been better off this year with Mack and Cooper on its roster, but trading those two may prove to be a better long-term move.

Biggest cause for concern: Virtually everything else. The defense has been a dumpster fire without Mack. Derek Carr is still a long way off from his 2016 form, and Gruden and Carr seem to be unable to work together. Oh, and Mack and Cooper have looked like superstars on their new teams. Even if Gruden is tearing it all down to try to put the franchise in the best position moving forward, these moves may not actually be good for the team long term.

Again: Gruden has a 10-year contract! The Raiders could be dealing with Chucky through 2027.

Overall stock: Gruden’s stock can’t go much lower, but at least his contract virtually guarantees he’ll have his job for a while. So there will be plenty of opportunities for him to turn things around in the years to come.

Steve Wilks, Cardinals

Biggest reason for optimism: The Cardinals fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy midseason, so at least they can admit when they’ve made a mistake.

Biggest cause for concern: Arizona has been a massive disappointment everywhere this season. The offense has been lethargic and the defense has been only average after being a top-five unit by DVOA last season. But the biggest concern is rookie QB Josh Rosen’s performance.

Rosen has been the second-worst passer in the league this season by adjusted net yards per attempt, but unlike last-place finisher Josh Allen, Rosen can’t lean on his scrambling abilities. The top priority for a Cardinals team with no immediate path to contention should be developing its franchise quarterback, and so far Wilks — a defensive coach hired from Carolina — hasn’t shown he can do that. We’ve recently seen both Jared Goff and Trubisky bounce back in their sophomore seasons after switching head coaches, and the Browns will soon try to do the same with Baker Mayfield. The Cardinals could consider a similar move.

Overall stock: