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Four Takeaways From the NFL’s First Wave of Head Coaching Hires

Nathaniel Hackett is the new boss in Denver. Matt Eberflus is the guy in Chicago. And Byron Leftwich will take over in Jacksonville … maybe. The coaching carousel has begun to spin.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL coaching carousel is well underway, with news breaking all across the league on Thursday. Nathaniel Hackett to Denver, Matt Eberflus to Chicago, Byron Leftwich to Jacksonville—well, maybe not so fast on that last one.

Here are four major takeaways from this first spin of the carousel.

Denver’s Nathaniel Hackett hire is an entertaining swing for the fences

It’s funny when things happen in the league with such a glaringly obvious motivation. Sean Payton saw the Saints’ cap situation and decided that rather than dealing with it, he’d “retire” (read: probably take a year off before coming back with another team). He immediately became the subject of Cowboys 2023 head coaching rumors. That’s hilarious.

So when the Denver Broncos, who Ian Rapoport reported in September would be building a trade package for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the 2022 offseason, signed Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nate Hackett as their head coach, I smiled. Because that’s hilarious.

Hackett might be a good head coaching hire. As an offensive designer, he has some feathers in his cap—taking Blake Bortles to an AFC championship game, working with Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur for the last three years—but the sell on Hackett centers on his personality. Hackett is reportedly an energetic and magnetic coach in meeting rooms, and as NFL Network’s James Palmer detailed in his Twitter thread, Hackett’s relationships with other coaches in Green Bay spoke to his ability to lead, in Denver’s eyes.

This is all well and good. But the central issue isn’t Hackett’s relationship with general managers, coaches, ownership, or even players. It’s about his relationship with one player: Rodgers. As The Athletic’s Matt Schneidman described it, “Nathaniel Hackett is 42 years old, Aaron Rodgers is 38. They’re not that far apart. It’s more of a—I don’t want to say a Friend 1 and Friend 2—but it doesn’t really seem like a coach and player.”

Rodgers clearly loves working with Hackett. He made a joke last season that he hoped Hackett “doesn’t go anywhere. Unless I do.” Hackett’s decision to leave seems to make Rodgers’s departure from Green Bay more likely, and certainly makes the Broncos a more likely landing spot.

Hackett wasn’t hired just to attract Rodgers to Denver, but that was clearly part of the calculus. If that fails, the Broncos are left with a tricky quarterback position to solve, as well as a massive void to fill on defense, as Vic Fangio’s firing meant that one of the league’s preeminent defensive minds was departing from Denver. And any coach—Hackett or Dan Quinn or anyone else—would face a tough division and even tougher conference. But only one could potentially bring in the one-man solution to all of Denver’s problems.

Why not take that swing at the fences? A lot of teams would do a lot of things for even a 5 percent chance at landing Rodgers. The Broncos have a leg up in that hypothetical race, and while basing a lot of personnel decisions on the potential of a Rodgers departure may seem silly now, it won’t seem silly at all if it happens.

Matt Eberflus is in Chicago. No questions have been answered.

Here were the major questions facing the Chicago Bears, like, 24 hours ago:

  • How are they going to develop Justin Fields?
  • How are they going to fix the wide receiver room?
  • How are they going to fix the offensive line?

Then, the Bears hired Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to be their head coach. Now, here are the major questions facing the Chicago Bears:

  • How are they going to develop Justin Fields?
  • How are they going to fix the wide receiver room?
  • How are they going to fix the offensive line?

Now, that’s not the fairest way to present this hire. Teams shouldn’t hire based on the question, “Does this help Ben Solak figure out what we’re gonna be as a team?” But the Bears are in a critical position right now, as they look to finally end their quarterback carousel and establish Fields as a career-long starter and championship-caliber quarterback. The head coach’s first responsibility over the next couple of years will be shepherding Fields’s development, and the Bears decided to fill that role with Eberflus.

Eberflus is a defensive coach—has been for his entire career. He coached under Rob Ryan, Monte Kiffin, and Rod Marinelli, and runs a traditional defense most reminiscent of Kiffin’s system, with four down defensive linemen and Cover 2 zone structures. That’s a tough defense to run in the modern NFL—other defenses are finding more creative ways to generate pressures or distribute their coverage defenders, as elite quarterbacks can usually dice this approach up. But Eberflus has made it work by getting his players to work in concert. Eberflus champions the HITS principle—that’s hustle, intensity (which sounds like more hustle, tbh), taking the ball away (we could just do turnovers here), and situationally smart. The HITS principle is the pillar of Eberflus’s philosophy as a coach and the culture he brings to a locker room. As he said to ESPN, “That’s the no. 1 thing because it’s the no. 1 thing.”

So the plan with Eberflus is clear: The Bears brought him in to establish a culture. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s easy to pick on culture-oriented coaches (Joe Judge, Matt Rhule) that go wrong, because of how easily we forget the culture coaches who do well (Mike Tomlin, Mike Vrabel). But even if Eberflus brings that culture and installs it, his defensive system still is a significant step away from most top defenses. The Bears were barking up the right tree with young defensive coordinator Sean Desai, who got a lot out of a young secondary this past year. By bringing in Eberflus and changing the system, they’re facing a personnel turnover on the defensive side of the ball.

All of this brings us back to Fields. A good quarterback on a rookie contract is one of the greatest competitive advantages in the modern NFL. By bringing in a defensive coach who will need time to overhaul that unit and install his culture and scheme, you’re burning some of the time on that clock. By filling the head coach position with that defensive coach, you now need to nail the offensive coordinator hire with a quarterback developer—those coaches are difficult to find at the coordinator level, as most currently are, or are becoming, head coaches. Byron Leftwich? Brian Daboll? You can’t get guys like that to the coordinator position—instead, you have to go find the next one.

Maybe Eberflus can. Kevin Patullo, currently the Eagles’ passing game coordinator, is apparently the leader in the clubhouse to be the Bears’ offensive coordinator. Patullo coached with Eberflus in Indianapolis, and has had a hand in building passing games for Philip Rivers and Jalen Hurts alike. In both instances, the passing games adjusted to fit their quarterback’s strengths. That’s good news.

As with all head coaching hires, we’re looking at a painting through a pinhole. Look back at any article that tries to grade head-coaching hires, and you’ll quickly be reminded of the litany of factors that go into a head-coaching career, and how difficult they are to predict. But, as a general rule of thumb, teams should want to pair their young quarterback with a young-quarterback developer. The Bears have gone a different way, and that’s a tougher path to walk.

The Jaguars may trip into a great hire

The Jaguars are a mess. Everyone knows they’re a mess. The cupboards are bare of offensive talent outside of rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the defense isn’t that much better, and the last head coach made almost everything worse. But the nice thing about total messes? You can strip everything down and rebuild from the ground up. That’s the position Jacksonville is in, and accordingly, they cast a wide net. The Jaguars requested eight candidates on the first day of the interview window. One of those candidates, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, seems to be on the cusp of landing the job.

Leftwich makes sense for the Jaguars. Why wouldn’t he? He got solid production out of Jameis Winston in his first season coordinating the offense in Tampa Bay and then showed the desired flexibility in an offensive designer when he adjusted the offense for Tom Brady during the 2020 season. He’s a Jaguars hero who should enliven a fan base deadened by the Urban Meyer fiasco of the last year.

Speaking of that fan base, y’all remember when Jaguars fans wore clown outfits during a key Week 18 win over divisional rival Indianapolis Colts to protest the retention of general manager Trent Baalke? Y’all remember how that’s a real, totally normal sentence?

The protest didn’t prompt the team to move on from Baalke—but Leftwich might. Earlier this week, leaks of the details of Leftwich’s future as the Jaguars head coach began to drop—but the deal hit a snag when Leftwich insisted that the Jaguars replace Baalke with his favored general manager, Adrian Wilson, the current vice president of pro scouting with the Arizona Cardinals.

This is, in general, bad news for Jacksonville. You don’t want your head coach making demands about the general manager position. You also don’t really want to hire anyone from the Cardinals’ front office, considering how the past few drafts have gone in Arizona. (But they have seen more success in free agency, the side of the house on which Wilson works, than they have in the draft.) The balance between general manager and head coach is a tough one to strike, and Leftwich dictating terms before he even has the job is not an ideal front office balance.

With that said … Baalke is not a very good general manager. The Jaguars have employed Baalke for two seasons, and the team hasn’t drafted or signed any significant hits in that time (top overall pick Trevor Lawrence, a.k.a. the biggest no-brainer of all time, notwithstanding). Baalke’s previous tenure as a general manager in San Francisco lasted five seasons and was fraught with poor personnel moves and power struggles—similar to his time in in Jacksonville. It’s tough to figure out the value in retaining Baalke.

Yet, that was the Jaguars’ plan. Now, if their plans have changed, and they instead hire Leftwich and replace Baalke with Wilson … well, that’s pretty nifty. It’s hard to ignore the bad and disjointed process in the hiring cycle, but all’s well that ends well, and Leftwich would be an excellent hire for Lawrence and Jacksonville.

Please stop hiring Patriots assistants

I have only one thing to say to Mark Davis, owner of the Las Vegas Raiders, who is reportedly considering a Patriots-inspired nucleus for his open general manager and head coach positions.

Please stop. Every single person who has ever thought of building their team in the image of the Patriots has regretted it within 24 months. By my count, hiring Patriots assistants has a success rate of 10 percent, and hiring Patriots front office members has a success rate of 5 percent, and hiring both has a success rate of … 0 percent? Mike Vrabel and Jon Robinson in Tennessee don’t count—Vrabel was never a Patriots coach.

So just stop, NFL owners. Stop, Mark Davis. This will never work.

I have a second thing to say.

Never mind, Mark Davis. Go ahead and do it. Who doesn’t want to see Patriot offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien part 2?