Nearly a third of the teams in the NFL will kickoff this season under the direction of a new head coach. So what will these new leaders have to offer that can possibly change the fate of their respective organizations?
In the first of two articles, I'll take a hard look at all 10 of these new head coaches and their respective teams to see which of these football unions has the chance to go the distance. Consider me the world's first NFL-marriage counselor.
Let's start in the AFC, with the 5 new coaches in that conference trying their best to earn the Gatorade shower of champions, that tastes oh so sweet.
Nathaniel Hackett - Denver Broncos
The Broncos decision to hire Nathaniel Hackett to replace Vic Fangio as head coach signaled some philosophical changes within the organization. Though both guys were first time head coaches when they got the Broncos job, Fangio had been coaching defenses in the league since the mid-80s. On the other hand, Hackett wasn't even born until the very end of 1979 and has coached solely the offensive side of the ball. This tells us that in the modern NFL, and in a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, the Broncos have decided they need to compete at an elite level on offense to win.
Hackett's most recent stop as an offensive coordinator was in Green Bay. This campaign was so successful that Aaron Rodgers won back-to-back MVP awards and the Packers led the entire league in offense in 2020.
Many in the NFL media, including former Broncos Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis, thought one of the perks of the Denver Broncos hiring Hackett as their new head coach is they might be able to entice Rodgers to leave the Packers for the Broncos in a trade to continue to play under him.
Although reuniting with Rodgers didn't happen, we can't feel bad for Hackett because the Broncos pulled off the biggest blockbuster trade of the offseason by acquiring Russell Wilson from the Seahawks.
This is the NFL equivalent of your dad getting you a Ferrari instead of a Lamborghini. No one feels bad for you and either way, with your new car you should be able to score. Also, in this scenario your dad is Hall of Fame QB John Elway.
Hackett's career as an offensive coordinator is particularly unique because of the variety in the caliber of signal callers (they all weren't as good as Rodgers and Wilson), but the bread and butter of Hackett's success has always been an elite rushing game.
He was the OC in Buffalo in 2013 when the Bills had one of the worst quarterback rooms of the last 25 years with EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel as their signal callers. Hackett however, was able to coach up a fairly high end running game behind C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson as dual threat weapons out of the Buffalo backfield.
Eventually Hackett moved on to the Jaguars, where his strong rushing offense was led by a young Leonard Fournette and complimented their suffocating defense. In 2017 Hackett and the Jags were up 10 points in the 4th quarter of the AFC Championship game before eventually falling victim to a late Patriots comeback and this incredible play by Stephon Gilmore. Blake Bortles played well enough under center to earn a lucrative contract extension which should be a credit to Hackett, as Bortles play never reached the same level of play again after Hackett's time in Jacksonville ended.
Bettors and fans are clearly high on what Hackett can do with Russell Wilson, as Wilson has been getting an astoundingly high amount of bets placed on him to win MVP, especially for a guy who has never received an MVP vote.
The Broncos offensive depth chart is really impressive, but to me it won't be Wilson who will benefit the most from Hackett's scheme, but running backs Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III. Both backs can catch out of the backfield and as we have seen most recently with the production of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon in Green Bay, Hackett's scheme has the ability to make versatile runners incredibly productive.
I believe Hackett will adapt his system to the strengths of his quarterback and roster to put up big numbers. The question for the Broncos will be do they have enough on the defensive side of the ball from a coaching and talent perspective, to survive a brutal division and make a run to the playoffs.
Josh McDaniels - Las Vegas Raiders
Josh McDaniels enters his second tenure as an NFL head coach after an unsuccessful campaign with the Broncos that was built on his first round selection of Tim Tebow. Since his time in Denver, McDaniels has been notoriously picky about taking another head coaching job (just ask the Colts), but Las Vegas seems to be rewarding his patience.
McDaniels inherits a team coming off a playoff appearance and has a high-end quarterback in Derek Carr. The Raiders then acquired Davante Adams from the Packers to pair with Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller. We have seen what McDaniels is capable of in his years as Patriots offensive coordinator when given an elite slot receiver and tight end.
The question for this organization will be on defense where the Raiders ranked near the bottom of the league last year. McDaniels hired Giants DC Patrick Graham, who he worked with in New England (Graham was also a head coaching candidate himself this last cycle). Graham has reunited with another person from his Patriots tenure, defensive end Chandler Jones, who the Raiders picked up this off season. If Graham and the Raiders pass rush can figure out a way to slow down the vaunted offenses in the AFC West, the Raiders have the makings of a team that could be a real Super Bowl contender over the next several seasons.
Mike McDaniel - Miami Dolphins
One of the more interesting hires in this last coaching cycle was Mike McDaniel. McDaniel is the latest in the Mike Shanahan coaching tree to get a leading role and is only 39 years old.
His work leading the run game as offensive coordinator for the 49ers is well acclaimed, and he is greatly responsible for making players like Deebo Samuel grade-A weapons in the NFL. Now he heads to Miami with the fastest tandem of wide receivers in the league in Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill.
A lot of the talk in Miami this off-season has been if quarterback Tua Tugaviloa has the arm strength and acumen to adequately use the weapons in this system. It's a valid concern, but more intriguing to me is what Mike McDaniel can do with new running back Chase Edmonds.
If we have learned anything from Shanahan disciples (including the year the 49ers nearly won the Super Bowl with Jimmy G), if you can create a dominant running attack you allow even a middling quarterback the space needed to attack a defense with proper weapons. To mix sports metaphors for a moment; If McDaniel is succeeding then Tua doesn't need to be Steph Curry, he can be Derek Fisher and the Dolphins still have a chance to do some damage.
For his defensive coordinator, McDaniel made a rare move for a head coach, opting to keep incumbent Josh Boyer. The Dolphins have a skilled secondary and ranked in the middle of the pack in total defense last year but they lost former head coach Brian Flores who was widely respected as a defensive guru.
On paper, McDaniel is a great choice to lead this team and the offensive side of the roster is immensely talented with or without Tua as the long term solution under center. If given the proper support from the front office (which has been an issue in Miami), McDaniel can be a rock supporting this franchise for a long time. On the defensive side of the ball this situation reminds me of Sean McVay and the Rams. McVay is an offensive wizard but consistently had to find established and brilliant defensive minds like Wade Phillips, Brandon Staley and ultimately Raheem Morris to run that side of the football. McDaniel will need to find someone to coach defense at an elite level if Boyer doesn't succeed and then the Dolphins will truly have a chance of returning to their place as a marquee franchise in the NFL.
Doug Pederson - Jacksonville Jaguars
Doug Pederson brings a Super Bowl pedigree to Jacksonville. With Peterson, player fit seems to be everything. After a championship in 2017 with the Eagles marked by an incredible ability to adapt the offense to backup quarterback Nick Foles, Pederson wasn't able to find the same success with post-injury Carson Wentz or Jalen Hurts.
The pieces should be there for Pederson in Jacksonville with Trevor Lawrence, one of the highest touted QB prospects in history, entering his second season. If we believe there is no lasting damage from Urban Meyer's tenure (aside from Urban humiliating assistant coaches, players and eventually himself), Pederson and his read-option offense should be a great fit for Lawrence and the amount of speed and athleticism on the Jaguars roster. While the Jags might still be a few years from competing, if Pederson can find any of his magic from his peak in Philadelphia and new defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell can bring over any of his expertise that allowed him to generate elite results as inside linebackers coach in Tampa Bay, I do think the Jaguars have a realistic road to success. It might be a long road, but it will be significantly less bumpy than any road Meyer would have led them down.
Lovie Smith - Houston Texans
When I first heard that Lovie Smith was hired to be the Texans head coach, I assumed he must owe someone a favor. I understand he was the defensive coordinator and "Assistant to the Regional Manager" last season in Houston, but after a complicated and disappointing season you would think the Texans would want a complete coaching staff overhaul. However, after thinking about it I realized that this was more than just a simple one or two year rebuild.
The Texans franchise has fallen off a cliff since their playoff victory in 2019. Mortgaged future draft picks, a poorly managed cap, one of the worst trades in recent NFL history, and the sexual assault saga of former star quarterback Deshaun Watson have all been shovel strokes that allowed the Texans to dig themselves into a hole of NFL futility.
Coming off a 4-13 season in 2021, who would want to inherit and coach that team? Certainly not a first-time head coach who would likely be risking his future in the NFL on a team not likely to produce significant win totals over the next few years.
So why not internally promote Lovie Smith? It makes total sense. Smith has been within the organization as it attempts to right the ship, and this will be his third head coaching stint. As an older coach, he certainly has less of his own future coaching prospects to risk and should command enough respect to run the franchise without jeopardizing it.
While he is far removed from taking the 2006 Chicago Bears and one of the best defenses of all time to the Super Bowl (all while carrying Rex Grossman's putrid offense on their backs), Smith should be able to put together a reasonable defensive scheme in Houston.
Let's face it, the Texans are not going to be good this year and probably won't be next year either. Chances are Smith is just a bridge coach to the team's next regime who will have the real shot at success. But if your goal is simply to keep your head above water and minimize destruction while continuing the development of your few solid young pieces, then Lovie is a great guy for the job.
Plus, the first crack of light for the franchise came this spring, when they were able to trade Deshaun Watson for a haul of picks that included three first rounders. While it is unlikely Smith will be the one sculpting those future Texans selections, there is nevertheless some optimism surrounding the future in Houston now.