Becoming an NFL Head Coach seems quite a daunting undertaking, even if you’ve performed that role in the collegiate ranks or had other coaching responsibilities before. And it must have been doubly so for the class of 2020. Imagine taking up the reins for the first time during a global pandemic, without face-to-face contact or any semblance of a preseason, reduced player and coach rosters, and hastily rearranged games.
Of the five guys who took on new HC roles at the start of the 2020 NFL campaign, four were rookies. Many had the Cowboys pegged for January football, me included, but Mike McCarthy’s debut in Dallas has been a hot mess ever since Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury. Matt Rhule has also had an uphill struggle with the Carolina Panthers, not least because of the absence of Run CMC for most of the year.
But the other two are starting to enjoy a modicum of success so let’s look a little closer at how they are fairing.
New York Giants: Don’t Judge too soon
Joe Judge coming to Noo Yoik was arguably the most controversial coaching hire in the offseason. Going with the Patriots’ special teams coordinator (and briefly wide receivers coach), someone who had never coordinated an offence or a defence professionally, turned a few heads.
Judge was supposedly tasked with building an identity and a culture on which to build a successful future. If you know anything about Dave Gettleman’s second stint as General Manager, that sounds like trying to build a deck of cards on the top of a washing machine in full spin cycle. Despite their previous seasons ending 4-12, 5-11 and 3-13, we mustn’t forget that New York do have a proud history to look back upon. The media and the fans have high expectations, despite the unsuccessful tenures of Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur, and to be blunt, everyone’s bored of losing.
No one wanted a nice guy. Judge wasn’t expected to fit in with “the ways things are done round here”; he was asked to create new ways. So that’s what the Philly-born HC did, in his own blue-collar style. He risked unpopularity by making players run laps at practices if they didn’t put in the effort; he demoted Golden Tate for publicly complaining about the number of targets he was getting; he fired his O-line coach Marc Colombo in mid-November, called some plays himself and then brought his own guy over from the Patriots. Suffice to say, Judge is no shrinking violet so he fits the brief perfectly.
The coaching team he put together raised a few eyebrows too. Of the two former HCs on the books, one (Freddie Kitchens, TE Coach) was one-and-done in Cleveland and the other (Jason Garrett, OC) should have been released by Dallas long before his contract expired. So with the pressure to succeed at Big Blue, despite not necessarily having the means to do so, many predicted Judge to have a rough ol’ first season.
But whaddya know? With four more games to go, Judge has already steered the team to more wins than last year. Not only that, he’s propelled the now 5-7 Giants to the top of the NFC (L)East, giving them an unexpected shot at the playoffs in his first season.
After decisive defeats in consecutive games against the 49ers and Rams, the Giants have continued to play it close, not losing by more than three points between Weeks 4 and 8. They were languishing at 1-7 a month ago but a four-game winning streak has turned the ship around.
Judge still has a few big decisions to make – not least whether Daniel Jones (8 TDs, 9 INTs) is his franchise quarterback – but the fact that his team are playing hard for him and giving good teams a run for their money suggest he’s the leader the team have been crying out for. You can only beat what’s put in front of you (even if some of them make up the worst NFC East in living memory) and the cynics among you may point to the abject opposition they’ve beaten: Washington (twice), Philadelphia and Cincinnati. But what about the Giants’ 17-12 win at Seattle on Sunday night, with back-up QB Colt McCoy steering his team to possibly the shock result of the season so far? That sure wasn’t a dead rubber against another team already eliminated from playoff contention.
The D has seen the most improvement on Judge’s watch, as evidenced by holding their last four opponents to 20 points or fewer. Against the Seahawks, who average more than 30 points a game, there was a sack from seventh-round pick Tae Crowder, an interception from fourth-rounder Darnay Holmes and a fumble recovery from the undrafted Niko Lalos. They may not be superstars but under Judge, they’re starting to play like ‘em.
“We’ve got a special group of guys… a tough group of guys who have bought in
to what we’ve asked them to do. They’ve done it without questions, they’ve done it 100%.
We’ve asked them to play a physical brand of football and that’s helped us have tangible results.”
The Giants have been steadily growing in competence and competitiveness under Joe Judge. And if he does get the team into the postseason, fair play to him. Someone has to win that dumpster fire of a division and it may as well be New York.
Sure, they aren’t home and hosed yet but they’re in pole position, which is something they haven’t been able to say at this stage in the season since they were defending Super Bowl champions. This team wasn’t expected to compete in 2020 and in fact, some fans are still tweeting in horror as the team slips down the pecking order for next season’s NFL Draft each week. But suddenly there’s a chance of winning the division, so who cares?!
Even if Judge doesn’t win the division this season, at least there’s a blueprint in place and the promise of better days ahead. He may not have the most talented roster at his disposal but that can change. More importantly, Judge has the New York Giants believing in him, his staff and each other… and who knows where that may eventually take them.
Cleveland Browns: We need to talk about Kevin
Your fancied runners and riders for the Coach of the Year are probably Mike Tomlin, who’s steered the Steelers to a nearly perfect season so far, and Brian Flores, well on the way to taking the Dolphins into postseason nirvana after a 180-degree turnaround. But I’d wager that third in the running is – or at least should be – Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski.
The Browns have been synonymous with losing for 20-odd years. Season after season, they’ve been dishing up the same old recipe for disappointment, gently simmered in a mixture of culture, discipline and management issues, flavoured with a lack of continuity at HC (they’ve had four in three years) and served on a bed of on-field mediocrity.
But then, last season, they looked like they may have solved the talent issue at least. They were suddenly packed to the gunnels with the likes of Nick Chubb, Odell Beckham Jr, Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry and Myles Garrett, and the AFC North fall guys were prematurely vaunted as possible Super Bowl winners. We looked at the roster with envy; then they started playing and we were all mightily relieved that it wasn’t our team after all.
OK, 6-10 wasn’t the worst, especially by Cleveland’s low standards, but because January football was the least they’d expected, it hurt all the more. Inexperienced HC Freddie Kitchens, a shocking choice if truth be told, was given the boot, hastening the arrival of Kevin Stefanski, the former long-time Offensive Coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, and the youngest GM in NFL history, 38-year-old Andrew Berry.
With an offensively-minded coach, a perky new GM and a stacked roster, the brief remained unchanged: post-season or else. So could the new coach bring a sense of identity and cohesion to the group? Could he get Mayfield playing like his rookie self from 2018?
We’ve seen where unfounded hype gets you but it seems like the Browns may have got their guy this time. The word on the ground is that Stefanski is intelligent, both intellectually and emotionally, and has found a way to impose a new offensive system, founded on a dominant ground game, without ruffling the feathers of his other multi-millionaire charges.
On offence in particular, they’ve shown what they are now capable of, not least in running up a franchise-record 38 first-half points in the 41-35 win over the Titans last weekend, their biggest scalp of 2020. Having assumed that Tennessee would try to stop the Chubb and Hunt show for which the Browns have become known, Stefanski ordered up an aerial bombardment to exploit the Titans’ poor pass rush instead. His trust in Baker Mayfield paid dividends as his QB went nuclear (20-of-25 for 290 yards and 4 TDs… in the first half alone!). The final score suggests it was closer than that but it really wasn’t; our Kev stuck to the game plan and handed his much more experienced adversary, Mike Vrabel, the L.
The Browns needed an HC who would turn this bunch of high-profile, and probably high-maintenance, individuals into a tightly knit unit, instill a sense of stability and foster a winning mentality. Maybe the play-calling isn’t revolutionary, they still have a minus points differential despite being 9-3 and their schedule hasn’t been the toughest, but Stefanski certainly seems to have brought a new level of professionalism, competence and discipline to the organisation. At least no one’s swinging a helmet at the opposing QB this year!
The acid test is whether others in the Browns camp are all-in on their HC and it seems they are. Let’s give them the last word:
“We all believe in him. Hell of a coach. He knows what he’s doing. He is showing us the way,
and if we do it correctly, we will win games. It is obviously showing. He is doing a hell of a job
leading the pack. What a great leader he is for us.”
Wide receiver Rashard Higgins
“I think the most impressive part about Kevin is his poise. He is genuinely the same guy
every single day, regardless of what has happened on Sunday and regardless of what
we have dealt with during the day — even keel, quick wit and sense of humour…
I think that is the most impressive part because I think all of us realise how hard and how
stressful his job can be. I think our team is in about as good of hands as we can ask for.”
General Manager Andrew Berry
As a long-time fan of a divisional rival, seeing Cleveland up there, with their best start to a season since the early 1960s, doesn’t feel right. But unlikely as it sounds, it seems like Kevin Stefanski is slowly pulling this rabbit out of the hat, and is on the verge of taking the Browns to the play-offs for the first time since 2002.
And for that alone, at least a mention in the Coach of the Year discussion seems merited.