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A Second-Year Head Coach Is Guaranteed to Make the Super Bowl This Season

At least that’s what recent history tells us. Let’s run down the options.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Two is the magic number for NFL head coaches. It’s ludicrously difficult for an NFL head coach to reach the Super Bowl in their first season with a team, but many of football’s greatest coaches have made their imprint by Year 2. Vince Lombardi inherited a 1-10-1 Packers team in 1959 and reached the NFL championship game in 1960. All-time wins leader Don Shula did it twice, reaching the NFL championship in his second year in Baltimore and then reaching the Super Bowl in his second year in Miami (the following season, Miami went undefeated). In their second seasons with their respective teams, Barry Switzer won the Super Bowl with Dallas, Tom Flores won the first of two Super Bowls with the Raiders, Joe Gibbs won the first of his three Super Bowls with Washington, and Bill Belichick won the first of his six Super Bowls with New England.

Speaking of Belichick, he has coached in the last three Super Bowls, and each of his opponents has been led by a second-year coach: L.A.’s Sean McVay in 2018, Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson in 2017, and Atlanta’s Dan Quinn in 2016. Three in a row is a pattern, which means there is a 100 percent guarantee* that one of the teams in the Super Bowl this season will be led by a coach in his second season with his team. With this factual knowledge, let’s look at the second-year coaches and count down to which one will be in the Super Bowl in February.

Pat Shurmur, New York Giants

2018 Record: 5-11
Odds to win NFC championship (Per Vegas Insider): 50-1

This would be fun. After the New York Giants stood by Eli Manning, traded Odell Beckham Jr., and drafted Daniel Jones, Shurmur needs the coaching job of the century to drag New York north of .500. Imagine for a moment though if the Giants actually did it. Whether it’s Eli Manning cementing his Hall of Fame status with a third Super Bowl appearance, or Daniel Jones silencing the draft-media-industrial-complex permanently, the Giants making the Super Bowl is the funniest possible outcome. The odds Shurmur is fired before this year’s Super Bowl are about 10 times higher.

Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions

2018 Record: 6-10
Odds to win NFC championship: 50-1

Lions GM and former New England front-office executive Bob Quinn hired Patricia to help build the Midwestern Patriots. It hasn’t gone well. The only thing about the Lions defense most fans remember is pick-sixing Sam Darnold on his first career pass and then still getting rocked by the Jets on Monday Night Football. To Patricia’s credit, the Lions defense improved to league average last season, but the offense was the worst it’s been since Matt Stafford was a rookie in 2009, and Detroit finished in last place in the NFC North for the first time since 2012.

Two years ago, the Lions were seventh in points scored, tied for ninth in yards per play, and 13th in total yards. In 2018, they fell to 25th, 27th, and 24th respectively in those categories. If Detroit wants to contend in the most stacked division in football, the team will have to play nothing like the 2009 Lions. Patricia replaced offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who he held onto from Jim Caldwell’s staff, with former Seahawks coordinator Darrell Bevell. The transition will be fascinating.

“We’ll always be about running the football,” Bevell told the Detroit Free Press in May. “We want to be a tough, hard-nosed, physical football team. We want to be able to exert our will on our opponents.”

It’s a bold strategy considering in the past four years combined Detroit is dead last in the NFL in rushing attempts, rushing yards, and rushing yards per attempt. Patricia’s best chance at reaching another Super Bowl is Belichick rehiring him.

Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders

2018 Record: 4-12
Odds to win AFC championship: 30-1

Now we’re talking. Gruden has coached more games than every other person on this list combined but also had the worst record last year—and that 4-12 mark masks how bad the Raiders were. Their wins included:

  • An overtime victory over Cleveland, who was high off of the fumes from their first win in 624 days.
  • A close one over the hapless Cardinals, who were one of the worst teams of the last 20 years.
  • A meaningless game against the Broncos on Christmas Eve in Week 16.

Gruden dealt Khalil Mack to Chicago before last season, and Oakland had the fourth-fewest sacks in a season since the sack became an official statistic in 1982. Any optimism for the Raiders in 2019 is suffocated with a glance at their schedule. They start the year against the Broncos, Chiefs, Vikings, Colts, and Bears, giving them a serious chance to enter their bye 1-4. Gruden won’t make the playoffs, but at least we’ll have plenty of clips of Gruden tutoring Nathan Peterman on Hard Knocks to keep us entertained.

Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans

2018 Record: 9-7
Odds to win AFC championship: 50-1

After two years of head coach Mike Mularkey going 9-7, the Titans fired him, hired Mike Vrabel, and promptly went … 9-7. Not only were they mediocre, but they were ugly. Tennessee beat the Jaguars 9-6 with 83 passing yards in Week 3, lost 21-0 to the Ravens with 51 passing yards in Week 6, and beat the Giants 17-0 with 86 passing yards in Week 15. If the Titans somehow make the Super Bowl, it might not even be worth watching.

Luckily, we probably don’t have to worry too much about that. The Titans have their fourth offensive coordinator in five years, and quarterback Marcus Mariota has looked lost the last few seasons and is recovering from a nerve injury in his throwing arm. But there was one aspect of the Titans’ 2018 season that separates Vrabel from the above coaches: the Titans beat good teams. Tennessee felled the Patriots, Eagles, and Cowboys last year, giving Vrabel more credibility than he would have earned otherwise.

Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears

2018 Record: 12-4
Odds to win NFC championship: 7-1

Nagy would appear to be the most obvious candidate from this list to reach the Super Bowl after the Bears’ spectacular regular season in 2018. Chicago was the no. 1 defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which measures efficiency per play and factors in game context, and their run defense was the 13th-best by DVOA since at least 1986, which is as far back as the stat goes. If not for kicker Cody Parkey’s double doink against the Eagles in the wild-card round, the Bears would have advanced to the divisional round to play the Rams, who Chicago defeated in Week 14. Bears fans needn’t be reminded about how close they came, but screw it, let’s do it anyway.

Unfortunately, Chicago is a prime candidate to fall out of the playoffs in 2019. Elite defensive performance is harder to maintain year to year than offensive performance, and Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio left in January to be head coach of the Broncos. Chicago replaced Fangio with former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, but last year’s results may not be replicable. That’s before getting to their competition in the NFC North from Minnesota and Green Bay. Even more importantly, the Bears have not fixed their double-doink problem. In fact, despite bringing in eight kickers this offseason and hiring a kicking consultant, their problem may be worse. Their best hope is 49ers kicker Robbie Gould holding out of training camp and forcing a trade to Chicago. Read that again.

Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts

2018 Record: 10-6
Odds to win AFC championship: 6-1

Colts GM Chris Ballard has been lauded for his staff’s scouting and salary-cap management, but Reich is the key to a Super Bowl run this season. The second-year head coach was the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia who elevated Carson Wentz to an MVP candidate and kept the offense chugging with Nick Foles all the way to a Super Bowl win over Bill Belichick. Kansas City’s 31-13 demolition of the Colts in the divisional round has wiped away the memory of just how good Indy was at the end of last year. After the Colts started 1-5, they finished the regular season 9-1. By Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA, which puts more emphasis on games later in the season, the Colts finished fourth behind only the Chiefs, Saints, and Chargers.

Indy’s success is rooted in Reich’s scheme maximizing the team’s talented offensive line. Andrew Luck had the second-most pass attempts in 2018 but was sacked just 18 times, the least of any qualifying quarterback. Indy has more versatility than they did last year in their skill positions with free agent Devin Funchess and rookie receiver Parris Campbell, and they added former Kansas City outside linebacker Justin Houston to help their pass rush, plus second-round cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. Out of all the coaches that could join the elite tier of Super Bowl contenders in 2019, Reich is the most likely.