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The NFL Coaching Carousel Has a Type

From Kliff Kingsbury to Matt LaFleur, the head-coaching hires this offseason have been united by a common philosophy: Find the next Sean McVay. The approach isn’t surprising. The ubiquity of it is.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Anyone reading the tea leaves over the past few months should have been able to sense the direction this NFL coaching carousel was heading. A year after Sean McVay transformed the Rams from the most hapless offense in football into the highest-scoring team in the league, Matt Nagy lifted the Bears from a last-place finish to an NFC North title, Frank Reich led the Colts to an unlikely wild-card berth, and Andy Reid helped mold Patrick Mahomes II into a defense-destroying cyborg. All signs pointed to a flurry of hires designed to mirror the league’s most successful power structures. It was easy to predict that front offices would seek out offensive-minded head coaches who could double as play-callers. Still, I’m not sure anyone predicted that would bear out to this extent.

On Tuesday, the Cardinals announced they’d hired former Texas Tech head coach (and short-lived USC offensive coordinator) Kliff Kingsbury. To some college football fans, the move was mystifying. In six seasons with the Red Raiders, Kingsbury compiled a 35-40 record. He never finished a season with a scoring defense better than 88th nationally and never managed a conference record better than 4-5. Somehow, a guy who couldn’t assemble a legitimate college contender had stumbled into a top NFL job. And that hire came a day after the Packers announced they’d tabbed former Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur as their next head coach.

Like Kingsbury, LaFleur’s résumé didn’t exactly make him an obvious target for this type of opportunity. The 2018 season marked his first as an NFL play-caller, and the Titans finished 22nd in offensive DVOA and 27th in points scored. LaFleur was brought in to pull quarterback Marcus Mariota out of a tailspin, but that didn’t happen. Mariota made 11 starts, and his production was only a slight improvement over his numbers from the previous two seasons under former coach Mike Mularkey.

Looking at Kingsbury and LaFleur, it’s easy to see that NFL decision-makers are developing a type. They want Sean McVay facsimiles, in virtually every way imaginable. In LaFleur’s case, the connection is easy to draw. He spent 2017 serving as McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Rams and before that worked with both McVay and Kyle Shanahan in Washington (and with Shanahan in Atlanta). Kingsbury’s ties to McVay are less direct, but the Cardinals felt they were worth mentioning all the same. Arizona’s press release noted that Kingsbury is a friend of McVay’s and entertained taking a job as a Rams consultant after being fired by Texas Tech in November. It’s probably no coincidence that beyond knowing the Los Angeles head coach personally, both Kingsbury and LaFleur give off decidedly McVayesque vibes. Gone are the days when NFL head-coaching vacancies were filled by gruff, grizzled football lifers. Now, teams seem to be looking for Ryan Gosling with a play sheet. Thick mustaches and chewing tobacco have given way to beard trimmers and hair pomade. And for coaches with defensive backgrounds, well, good luck even getting a phone call.

It’s hard to blame anyone who’s skeptical of what the Cardinals and Packers are doing. Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio just spent a season turning the Bears into a waking nightmare for opposing offenses, and he managed only a single head-coaching interview. (That interview led to a hiring, with the Broncos.) Kingsbury couldn’t beat a bad Ole Miss team a few months ago, and he reportedly got double that number. Still, it’s understandable why NFL teams seem to be pivoting so hard toward this approach. Kingsbury’s record in Lubbock leaves plenty to be desired, but success in college football involves plenty of factors he’ll never have to deal with at the pro level. Recruiting isn’t an issue; he won’t have to compete against Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma for talented players. If Kingsbury can establish a strong staff (one that should include an established offensive line coach and defensive coordinator) and focus his energy primarily on devising and running the offense, there’s a good chance the Cardinals will be fun as hell in 2019. Meanwhile, LaFleur spent much of this season with Mariota either banged up or on the sideline and with tight end Delanie Walker on injured reserve. Tennessee’s offense still showed flashes down the stretch, and it’s tough to blame Packers fans for getting excited about the prospect of what Aaron Rodgers can do in an offense born of the same DNA as the ones McVay and Shanahan have used to great success.

At their core, both the Cardinals’ and Packers’ choices were about finding the right person to get everything they can from their quarterbacks. In Green Bay, that means trying to maximize the final seasons of Rodgers’s prime with a coach who can challenge him, both interpersonally and schematically. For Arizona, the goal was bringing in an offensive guru who can revive Josh Rosen’s career on the heels of a disastrous rookie season. Firing former coach Steve Wilks after a single year may have seemed like a panic move at first glance, but that isn’t necessarily true. After watching Rosen over the second half of the season, Arizona’s brass had to know that keeping Rosen within that infrastructure could have done irreparable damage to the organization’s most prized asset. As owners look around the league and see the same types of head coaches (McVay, Reid, Nagy, Reich, Shanahan, Sean Payton, and Doug Pederson among them) fielding potent offenses, their desire to create a similar structure makes sense. In some instances, that means trying to clone McVay. But not always.

In terms of aesthetics, Bruce Arians is about as far away from Sean McVay as you can get. Arians is 66. He never had a reputation as an offensive wunderkind, and his first job as an NFL coordinator came in 2001, when he was 49. I don’t think we’ll ever see McVay rocking a Kangol. Dig deeper, though, and it’s clear that the Buccaneers’ choice to hire Arians follows a blueprint not altogether different from the one used by the Packers and Cardinals. As Jameis Winston enters the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, Tampa Bay’s top priority as an organization is to do all it can to right the trajectory of the former no. 1 overall pick. Arians is a proven QB whisperer whose vertical scheme has consistently featured the deepest throws in the NFL. His system is designed to push the ball down the field while minimizing the risks involved with that style. Arians will also have no trouble tearing into Winston the first time his quarterback decides it’s OK to throw into triple coverage during a tie game in the second quarter.

The Browns’ organizational mind-set aligns with this trend too. Before heading to Cleveland to become the team’s running backs coach, Freddie Kitchens spent four years on Arians’s staff with the Cardinals. Kitchens is 44 and had never worked as an NFL coordinator until he was elevated to that role midway though this season after Todd Haley was fired in late October. Yet that lack of experience apparently isn’t going to stop the Browns from making Kitchens their head coach. Cleveland’s motivation for keeping Kitchens is straightforward: It’s seen what he can do with Baker Mayfield. Rather than risk making an outside hire who might not mesh with one of the league’s most promising young quarterbacks, the franchise will go with what it knows.

Neither Kitchens nor Arians has the McVaylike mystique of Kingsbury or LaFleur, but both check many of the same boxes that the league wants in this moment. While it may seem shocking that established coordinators like Baltimore’s Wink Martindale can barely get a sniff in this market, the reality is the league was always moving this way. The surprise is how quickly this approach became ubiquitous.

The NFL’s offensive revolution is the driving force behind the coaching carousel. Front offices are betting it all on keeping pace, and there’s no telling which unproven options will succeed or fail.