December is considered the most wonderful time of the year for a lot of people, but not for NFL coaches. The start of the holiday season coincides with the start of coaching hot seat season, and this year’s festivities got off to a quick start when the Panthers parted ways with offensive coordinator Joe Brady on Sunday.
In a matter of months, Brady went from hot coaching prospect to unemployed after a philosophical disagreement with Matt Rhule led to his dismissal. It might not be the last firing we see in Carolina. Sources told Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio that Rhule, who’s just two years into a seven-year contract, could be the next to go. Time will tell how accurate that report is, but Rhule’s seat is a lot hotter than it was a few months ago.
Rhule joins a growing list of coaches who will be fighting for their jobs over the next month. In all, I count five NFL head coaches who are squarely on the hot seat as we head into the final stretch of the 2021 season. Let’s take a look at why these coaches are under fire, and then help their respective teams decide on their fates. We’ll start in Carolina.
Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers
As a Panthers fan, I need to get one thing out of the way before we go any further.
OK, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s talk about Rhule, who was so impressive in his 2020 interview that the Panthers canceled a scheduled interview with Josh McDaniels so they could hire the former Baylor coach on the spot. During his time in the college ranks, Rhule built a reputation as a program-builder: He turned Temple from a bottom feeder into a perennial bowl team before cleaning up the mess that Art Briles left behind at Baylor, culminating in a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2020. That was enough to convince Panthers owner David Tepper to sign Rhule, whose lone postseason win as a head coach came in the illustrious Texas Bowl, to a seven-year deal worth $62 million. The hope was that he could build a long-term winner in Carolina.
But the Panthers haven’t done a lot of winning under Rhule, and there doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan in place. Rhule’s hiring was supposed to mark the beginning of a massive rebuild. One of his first major moves was to cut Cam Newton, which made sense for a team that was starting over. Newton was making a lot of money, and it had been a few seasons since he looked fully healthy. Yet then Carolina gave Teddy Bridgewater a $63 million deal to replace him. It traded young guard Trai Turner for overpriced veteran tackle Russell Okung, who had publicly contemplated retirement the previous season. Then it went out and signed Robby Anderson to a free-agent deal worth $20 million. These were not the moves of a rebuilding team.
Fast-forward to the 2021 season, and the Panthers still don’t seem particularly interested in a reset. They gave up draft capital in a midseason trade for the aging Stephon Gilmore, and then gave Newton $6 million guaranteed to play half a season after Sam Darnold was placed on IR with a shoulder injury. General manager Scott Fitterer characterized the Newton signing as a move that would help the team win now, but that’s not how things have worked out. After two consecutive losses with Newton as the starter, the Panthers are 5-7 with a mere 2.4 percent chance to make the playoffs, per Football Outsiders. Carolina’s chances of landing a top-five pick sit at 6.2 percent, leaving fans with little to root for over the coming month. Newton’s reunion tour might be the only reason to tune in.
It’s been nearly 23 months since the Panthers hired Rhule to rebuild the team, and said rebuild has yet to get started.
Should they keep him?
Carolina fired the wrong coach. While Brady was the scapegoat for Rhule’s ongoing failures, offensive play-calling hasn’t been the issue. The offensive failures fall squarely on Rhule and his handpicked general manager; after all, Brady did not pick the team’s quarterbacks, nor did he put together what might be the worst offensive line in the NFL. I’m not sure there’s a coordinator in the league who can field a productive offense with a leaky front line and a deeply flawed quarterback room.
Rhule cited the Panthers’ low run rates as a major point of contention, which should set off alarm bells for anyone who has read even one statistical study of the sport over the past, I don’t know, 20 years? Rhule says he wants the Panthers running 30 to 33 times a game, but that’s hard to do when the team is constantly playing from behind. When filtering out garbage time, Carolina hovered around league average in pass rate last season and is well below the league average this season.
If anything, Brady was calling too many runs. Throw in the Panthers’ conservative approach to fourth-down decision-making, and this should be a rather easy decision for an analytically inclined owner like Tepper.
Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos
When John Elway introduced Fangio as the Broncos’ head coach in January 2019, he started off his press conference by acknowledging that the NFL was a changing league, a nod to recent increases in scoring and passing production. This felt like a preemptive response to reporters who may have wanted to ask why Denver didn’t join the trend of hiring young, offensive-minded play-callers like Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay. Elway mentioned Fangio’s attention to detail, ability to teach, and “unmatched” knowledge of X’s and O’s when explaining why he was the right candidate to lead Denver.
What Elway didn’t mention was the looming threat in Kansas City. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes had just set NFL defenses ablaze in the latter’s first season as an NFL starter. The Broncos weren’t going to find the next Reid or Mahomes, so hiring someone who could theoretically slow that duo down didn’t sound like a bad option. Elway may not have directly pointed to the Chiefs offense as his motivation for hiring Fangio, but that seemingly had a lot to do with it.
For the most part, Fangio has done a good job against the Chiefs offense. Mahomes has put up solid lines against the Broncos, but he hasn’t been the fire-breathing dragon he’s been against the league’s other 30 teams.
Patrick Mahomes vs. Denver, Since 2019
Unfortunately for Fangio, despite the relative success his defense has had in these matchups, he hasn’t been able to beat Kansas City. And his flaws outside the realm of defensive play-calling have been exposed.
Through nearly three full seasons, the Broncos offense has yet to establish an identity, and Fangio has cycled through two different coordinators. His first hire, Rich Scangarello, lasted only one season after a 26th-place finish in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. Pat Shurmur was brought in to fix things, but Denver’s offense got worse, falling to 30th in DVOA in 2020.
Things have improved in Shurmur’s second season—thanks mostly to the steady play of Teddy Bridgewater—but this young and talented unit is still underachieving. Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, and Noah Fant make up one of the league’s deepest receiving corps; while each of those players have shown flashes of greatness in their first few years in the NFL, none is on pace to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark this season. That can’t be pinned solely on Bridgewater, who helped two Panthers receivers reach that mark last season.
On top of the offensive shortcomings, Fangio hasn’t been a convincing game manager. Notably, his fourth-down decision-making has been predictably conservative. According to Ben Baldwin’s fourth-down model, no team has failed to go for it when the numbers suggest they should more often than the Broncos since Fangio took over.
During that introductory press conference nearly three years ago, both Elway and Fangio promised that the Broncos would not suffer a “death by inches.” They meant that the team wouldn’t lose games due to avoidable mistakes and lack of attention to detail, but that promise has not been fulfilled. We’re still seeing small mistakes cost Denver in key situations. Take this fourth-and-2 play from Sunday’s loss in Kansas City. It came on the 20th play of an 88-yard drive with just over a minute left in the first half.
As the Broncos went to the line of scrimmage, running back Javonte Williams looked confused. He lined up in an offset position before glancing toward the sideline for direction.
Here’s the problem: The play was designed for Williams. Instead of calling a timeout—Denver had one to spare, and time was not going to be a major issue with the offense just 8 yards shy of the end zone—the Broncos ran the play and got stuffed behind the line of scrimmage. It was a crucial turnover on downs, and they lost by double digits. Death by inches.
Should they keep him?
Fangio is a good coach. His mind is a clear asset for any defense. But it’s worth asking what he brings to the table as a head coach that he doesn’t offer as a defensive coordinator. Whatever that may be is just not showing up in the win column. The Broncos have won 40.9 percent of their games under Fangio, which isn’t a significant improvement over the 34.4 percent of games they won under Vance Joseph. That mark got Joseph fired.
Considering what Fangio has had to work with at quarterback, it’s hard to say he’s gotten a fair shake in Denver. Save for a few exceptions, though, his defense has taken a major step back this season, and the offense has remained mediocre. This team is trending in the wrong direction, so a split is probably best for both parties.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
Zimmer was hired during a different era in the NFL. I mean, it was only 2014, but a lot’s changed in almost eight years. We, as a football-watching community, have realized that defense doesn’t always win championships, and that the key to consistent, long-term success is fielding an offense led by a true franchise quarterback. While Kirk Cousins has done a decent job of cosplaying as a franchise quarterback, the offense has been anything but consistent under Zimmer’s watch. The veteran defensive coach has now been able to handpick several offensive coordinators, and he still hasn’t landed on one who he’s kept around for more than a couple of years.
While Zimmer is one of the best defensive coaches the league has ever seen, he can’t get Minnesota over the hump. In his nearly decade-long tenure, the Vikings have just two playoff wins. Defensive acumen can take a team only so far in the modern era, and it appears Minnesota reached that limit when it lost to an underdog Eagles team in the NFC championship after the 2017 season. Getting dunked on by Nick Foles in the biggest game of your career is a brutal reality check, but a reality check nonetheless.
Zimmer has led his team back to the postseason just once since that loss, and that trip ended with a 27-10 loss to the 49ers in a game in which San Francisco completed just 11 passes and still managed to gain 308 total yards. That felt like the beginning of the end for Zimmer’s run as an elite defensive coach. The Vikings have not fielded an above-average defense since that point, falling to 18th in DVOA in 2020 and 17th in 2021.
I’m not going to pin all of the Vikings’ failures on the head coach. During Rick Spielman’s tenure as a prominent member of the front office, they have used two first-round picks on quarterbacks (Christian Ponder and Teddy Bridgewater) and traded a first-round draft pick for another (Sam Bradford). None of those three QBs lasted more than two full seasons as the team’s starter. Spielman then gave Cousins a fully guaranteed $84 million contract and restructured it to the point where his 2022 cap hit will spike to $45 million. Cousins has been a good quarterback, but he’s never quite lived up to his massive price tag. And, sure, it’s fair to put some of the blame for Cousins’s poor performances on the offensive line, but that also falls on Spielman. He has devoted plenty of resources to addressing the issue. None of his moves have worked out.
Should they keep him?
If Spielman goes—and I think we’re at a point when that will happen—then Zimmer likely won’t be far behind. New GMs tend to want to hire their own staffs, and old defensive coordinators don’t really fit in with the league’s new ideal for coaching hires. The Vikings are in desperate need of a teardown, and I don’t know whether the 65-year-old Zimmer will want to live through what should be a rough couple of years in Minnesota.
The Vikings just lost to the previously winless Lions. That’s the universe telling them it’s time for a change.
Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears
Nagy’s reputation as a bad head coach certainly isn’t based on his record. Considering what he’s had to work with at quarterback, a 32-28 mark with two playoff appearances doesn’t sound too bad. But Nagy wasn’t brought in to lean on a strong defense and eke out close wins. He was brought in to develop Mitchell Trubisky and build an offense resembling what he worked with in Kansas City during his stint as a Reid assistant. In that regard, Nagy has been a complete failure.
After being selected with the second pick in the 2017 draft, Trubisky flamed out of Chicago and is now a backup in Buffalo. Nagy, meanwhile, has yet to produce an offense that has finished higher than 20th in DVOA. The 2021 unit ranks 26th.
Justin Fields, who represents Nagy’s second chance at developing a franchise quarterback, isn’t off to the most convincing start to his career, either. That’s not necessarily a surprise, given that rookie quarterbacks tend to struggle in general, and especially when playing behind porous offensive lines. But what’s more concerning is how Fields has failed. Nagy has been reluctant to adjust his play-calling to maximize Fields’s skill set, eschewing deeper dropbacks and more downfield targets. Instead, Nagy has insisted on his typical fare of early-down RPOs and quick timing passes, which may explain why he seems to prefer starting Andy Dalton.
When Nagy has handed the play-calling reins to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who’s been more willing to adjust his approach to suit his quarterback’s strengths, Fields has turned in some of his better performances. That’s not a coincidence. Trubisky’s late-season surge in 2020, which helped get the Bears to the playoffs, also aligned with Nagy ceding the play-calling duties to Lazor. When the most important player on the team fares better when the head coach is less involved, it’s probably a sign that it’s time to move on from the head coach.
Should they keep him?
Developing Fields should be the Bears’ top priority, and Nagy hasn’t provided any evidence that he’s the right coach for that job. Nor has he proved to be an effective play-caller, which is kind of an issue for a coach who was billed as a top offensive mind when he was hired. This one should be a no-brainer.
Joe Judge, New York Giants
A lot of people doubted Giants GM Dave Gettleman in January 2020 when he hired an unknown special teams coordinator away from the Patriots to be his head coach. And, well … Judge has spent the past two years making those people look awfully smart for questioning the hire. The Giants are 10-18 under his watch, and the team has regressed in his second year at the helm. We’ve gotten to the point where losing to this team leads to a complete meltdown for opposing fan bases.
The Chiefs actually beat the Giants in Week 8, and we still got a bunch of articles questioning what’s wrong with Kansas City in the days that followed. It’s gotten that bad.
Since Judge took over the team, he’s acted like a bizzaro Ted Lasso who’s hellbent on crushing the morale of his locker room. Surprisingly, none of his coaching clichés, extra laps for mistakes as simple as committing a penalty in practice, and excessive disciplinary measures have led to more winning. It’s like Judge studied all the reasons Bill Belichick’s assistants have failed as head coaches and concluded that he had to lean into the bit even more. You know what Matt Patricia’s problem was in Detroit? He didn’t alienate his players enough.
Giants fans should have known they were in trouble the moment that Judge hired Jason Garrett to run the offense. You know, the same Jason Garrett who was fired as the Cowboys head coach largely because he clung to an outdated offense that doesn’t fit the modern NFL. New York needed an offensive mind who could get the most out of a quarterback who gets worse the longer he holds the ball and a dynamic but somewhat unorthodox group of skill-position players. Garrett might have been the worst possible candidate for that job.
One more thing: Even though Judge has a background as a special teams coach, the Giants special teams haven’t even been that good! New York ranked 12th in special teams DVOA last season, and ranks 11th in 2021. Those are decent results, but this is supposed to be his thing! What exactly does this guy bring to the table?
Should they keep him?
Maybe Judge deserves another season under a different general manager. Maybe one from the New England system whose roster-building plan more closely aligns with Judge’s philosophy. But given everything we know about Judge as a coach, is that really something the Giants want? I’d say no.