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Help Wanted: An Offensive Mastermind to Work With a Franchise Quarterback

It’s shaping up to be the most consequential coaching carousel in years. Will the Packers find someone to maximize Aaron Rodgers’s greatness? Will the Browns’ next hire unlock Baker Mayfield’s potential?

The backs of Aaron Rodgers and Baker Mayfield Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It is rare to see a head-coaching vacancy with as much baked-in pressure as the Green Bay Packers job. With so few world-class quarterbacks, it’s not often that a coach is hired to salvage the last few years of a superstar signal-caller’s career. In 2015, the Denver Broncos hired Gary Kubiak to give Peyton Manning one last shot at another ring; in 1995, the same franchise brought in Mike Shanahan to help John Elway win a Super Bowl. The Miami Dolphins wooed Jimmy Johnson in 1996 to save Dan Marino (it didn’t really work). And then there was a young 49ers assistant coach hired by the Packers in 2006 to help a 37-year-old star who was considering retirement. The quarterback was Brett Favre, and the coach was Mike McCarthy, who ESPN said was “regarded league-wide as a very creative offensive mind.” McCarthy got as far as the NFC title game with Favre, but his greatest success came with Aaron Rodgers, the superstar talent he won a Super Bowl with in 2010, but whose stagnation cost McCarthy his job Sunday night. McCarthy is no longer labeled a “creative offensive mind,” and the Packers want another one.

Good quarterbacks are a kind of employment scam. They have the effect of keeping almost everyone around them employed longer than is probably warranted. When these jobs become available, the hires teams make have as big an impact on the league as anything in the sport. That brings us to the upcoming coaching carousel, which already includes the Packers and Cleveland Browns. It’s perhaps the most intriguing I can remember. There will be good quarterbacks without a coach, teams looking for offensive gurus when they aren’t plentiful, and a bunch of owners who don’t know what they are looking for. The 2018 season is Year Zero for offensive football in the NFL: Scoring is at an all-time high. Quarterbacking looks easy for maybe the first time. If you are not a coach who creates easy offense you are in trouble, and if you suggest even a hint of being the type of coach who is, you’re in luck. How NFL teams will evaluate these prospective offensive gurus is another story.

The next two months will be an inflection point. Coaches who matter to the future of the sport are about to be put in the positions that will make them famous. The 2004 draft brought Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Larry Fitzgerald, among many others, into the league. Who got picked where that day played a massive role in the rising and falling of franchises. This coaching cycle will bring about a similar batch of change agents. The easiest way to compete in the NFL is to have an elite quarterback; the second easiest is to have a coach who can make your nonelite quarterback look really good. The coaches hired this winter—whether they inherit an aging superstar, a midcareer star, or a second-year passer—will be able to dictate the paths of great quarterbacks and what schemes those quarterbacks run—and therefore, what the NFL looks like. Rodgers and Baker Mayfield need coaches. The Carolina Panthers are reportedly looking at an organizational overhaul, which means that Cam Newton might need one too. The same CBS report suggests that the Atlanta Falcons might make a coaching change, though this seems less likely. Sam Darnold, the third pick in last year’s draft, who cannot possibly be as bad as his 68 QB rating, will likely get a new coach, once the New York Jets fire Todd Bowles. This is important since Jared Goff’s rookie rating was 63 under Jeff Fisher, one year before he became one of the best quarterbacks in football under Sean McVay. Coaching matters.

It does not take a massive leap to realize that a maximized Rodgers could wipe out any NFC team. That would include being fully healthy and running schemes that create easy throws. For instance, Rodgers throws outside the numbers more than any other quarterback in a league where throwing over the middle of the field has become an easy completion. If Mayfield were to play in an offense that suits him better, he could approach Patrick Mahomes II–like ability. Newton has one of the highest ceilings of any quarterback in the league. This is not just about who wins and loses in the short term, though: We are about to learn a lot more about how teams hire after the most innovative season in league history. Will they raid college? Will they hire millennials? Will they stick to the status quo and hire random defensive coordinators? The Browns will not be interviewing Condoleezza Rice, but we might be looking at one of the weirdest coaching periods in history. There has probably never been a time that more clearly defined the have and have-not coaches. Three teams are averaging more than 30 points this year. Zero did last year. The diversity of schemes has never been more clear. When I started covering the NFL six years ago, coaches told me there were essentially three systems, and that those systems were run over and over with tiny differences. Now it seems like teams create new offenses ever week. Hire accordingly.

There is a functional problem with the coaching carousel this year, and it will cause chaos as owners scramble to find the right leader: Demand for what teams want far outstrips supply. It is easy to say you want a guru who can unlock your offense, but it’s harder to even know where to look to find one. There’s skepticism that there’s a surplus of bright offensive minds:

The reason for this is simple: NFL teams did not prepare well enough for this era of wide-open offense. There are simply not enough assistants well-versed in the spread offense and innovative schemes who are ready to be head coaches right now. The vast majority of teams didn’t care about innovative college schemes until recently, and most assistant coaches are holdovers from a more conservative era.

There will be many more innovative head coaches coming into the league in the next few years. NFL teams will find them at all levels of football. But it will take time. McVay was not considered a no-brainer hire. He wasn’t even in a Sports Illustrated roundup of potential candidates for the Rams job before he was hired. The idea that the next Sean McVay will be obvious is a misunderstanding of who he was before he was hired: a well-thought-of assistant, but not a superstar. This is where the problem begins: Because McVay came seemingly from nowhere, owners have basically the entire football world to pick from. They could pluck a young assistant and hope that “young” means “innovative” or take a chance on a college candidate. Mistakes will be made. Or teams could be overwhelmed and stick with the traditional route. When Packers writers speculated about who could be Green Bay’s next head coach, it was a fairly standard list: Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, New England Patriots play-caller Josh McDaniels. Los Angeles Rams assistant Zac Taylor, a Sean McVay protégé, is mentioned, but he likely doesn’t have enough experience for an NFL owner to take a chance. So what happens? It’s going to be a bumpy ride for some teams. Everyone has mentioned Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, but there are two things to note: One is that Riley is only one person, and five or six teams could end up hiring cheap Riley imitations. The other is that Riley doesn’t have to go this year. He’ll likely get to pick his spot, if he wants to come to the NFL at all. When Chip Kelly was an in-demand coach at Oregon in 2012, he was “finalizing” a contract to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach until he decided to wait another year for a better job. Riley is in a very good spot. It’s possible that he thinks that coaching Rodgers is a dream job, or that reuniting with Mayfield in Cleveland is a perfect fit. Or maybe the Texas native would rather wait for an NFL job in his home state, which may or may not happen this season, depending on what Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys do in the next month. Or maybe he never wants to leave Norman.

The college coach sweepstakes is funny when you consider how long NFL teams have turned their nose up at the college game. Such is the panic surrounding NFL hires that teams are considering a fired college coach for not only offensive coordinator openings, but head-coaching ones, too.

Kliff Kingsbury might join the Rams as a consultant of sorts for the stretch run, a rich-get-richer idea that will help Los Angeles maintain its edge.

I last spoke with McCarthy just before the season, in part for a story on the future of football and how college schemes beat pro schemes in a football culture war. McCarthy grasped the college-influenced concepts far better than many NFL lifers. It was not like talking with Riley, but it wasn’t like talking with Mike Mularkey either. The relationship with Rodgers had clearly become stale:

McCarthy was thought of as a creative offensive mind 12 years ago and didn’t do enough to evolve from that point. He was engulfed in an era when creative offensive minds became dated quicker than ever before. He is a casualty of the weirdest coaching carousel in years, one where NFL teams are looking for things they never looked for before. The next decade or so will be decided in the next two months.