Back to School?

As the NFL regular season has ended, teams whose seasons did not meet expectations have begun to fire their head coaches.

We already saw Washington and Carolina fire Jay Gruden and Ron Rivera during the season, and during the past 24 hours the Browns and Giants have fired Freddie Kitchens and Pat Shurmur.

Washington seems set to hire Ron Rivera, leaving the other three current openings more ripe for intrigue. Bring in the Cowboys job, with the likelihood that Jason Garrett is officially announced to not be coming back, and you’ll notice something interesting with some of the coaches being linked to these jobs.

They’re past or present college football head coaches.

Kliff Kingsbury developed a strong track record for working with QBs at the college ranks, and his success with Kyler Murray this season proves he knows what he’s doing (Credit: Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Hiring a college head coach in the NFL is not a foreign concept, however, it has never been viewed as a successful one.

For every Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh, and Jimmy Johnson, you’ll find a Mike Riley, Steve Spurrier, or Bobby Petrino, coaches who just seemed to absolutely fail in the pros. Although the coordinators in the NFL who get promoted don’t always fare better, they are deemed the better up and coming candidates more often than not due to their direct and recent experience in the NFL.

Look at the names we’ve heard about thus far with almost only college experience.

Lincoln Riley (36), the head coach at Oklahoma, has only been a coach at the college level.

Urban Meyer (55), the former head coach at Ohio State and Florida, also only has college experience, although he is a three time NCAA champion head coach.

Matt Rhule (44), the current head coach at Baylor, has the most experience in the pros between the three, having spent one season as an assistant offensive line coach with the Giants in 2012.

Yet all three have been connected to at least one job, Meyer and Rhule being tied to multiple teams, and Rhule being considered a top candidate for the Panthers and Giants.

Doesn’t this seem odd? Or maybe the NFL is changing.

Consider the success of Kliff Kingsbury. The 40-year-old is currently the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, but prior to this past season, he floated around the NFL as a practice squad player, never doing much, then he became an assistant in college before becoming the head coach at Texas Tech in 2013. He held that job for 6 seasons, and quite frankly was not that good, but he had a chance to work with players like Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes. Include his experience at Houston working with Case Keenum, and Kingsbury, who was fired by Texas Tech after the 2018 season, was seen as a legitimate candidate in the pros due to his pedigree working with QBs who are being viewed as the future of the NFL.

Once in Arizona, the team decided to move on from Josh Rosen, a first round draft pick the previous season, in order to draft QB Kyler Murray with the first overall pick.

Arizona went 5-10-1 this season, which might not seem spectacular on paper, but their offense was much improved under the play of Kyler Murray, and that can be contributed to the direction of Kingsbury. Seeing as the relationship between QB and coach is one of the most important barometers for success in the NFL nowadays, the partnership in Arizona looks to have tons of potential, but it also bodes well for college coaches who can institute similar practices in the pros.

Enter Lincoln Riley.

Riley was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma for 2 seasons before becoming the head coach in 2017. As a head coach, he continued to work with Baker Mayfield, then had a season with Murray, as well as former Alabama QB Jalen Hurts. You can argue Oklahoma feasts off of porous Big 12 defenses, but Mayfield and Murray each saw success in the NFL, similar to the QBs Kingsbury worked with at Texas Tech. If Kingsbury can continue that work in the NFL, designing a scheme to highlight the strengths of Murray and those around him, one could argue Riley, who has had more success than Kingsbury in college, could do the same thing.

It’s a copycat league.

Over the past decade, NFL teams have begun to embrace concepts from the college levels more and more, leading to a rise in the spread offense, allowing QBs who might have been deemed only able to succeed at the college ranks able to flourish in the NFL.

“The NFL hopelessly bumbled around with a generation of quarterbacks over the past decade. Part of the reason that so few of the league’s best quarterbacks are in their late 20s is that NFL teams had no idea what to do with spread quarterbacks.”

Kevin Clark, The Ringer (2018)

This seemed extremely apparent in 2018 when pass-happy spread offenses took the NFL by storm. Mahomes was MVP, Mayfield threw the most TD passes by a rookie in NFL history, and Jared Goff made it to the Super Bowl.

Defenses seem to have caught up this year, and we saw a lot of success from teams dedicated to the running game do well (see: Baltimore and San Francisco), but look at Lamar Jackson. He is a player who some thought shouldn’t even play QB in the pros, but just so happened to go 13-2 this season and is on his way to winning an MVP.

Would that have even been possible just 10 years ago?

I think this is why Urban Meyer and Matt Rhule’s names have been brought up as well. Maybe they are not the offensive gurus that Kingsbury and Riley are, but each has had success coming into a school and building a successful program, and that involves an understanding of what it takes to succeed at that level, both as a coach and leader of men.

Meyer was seen as a pioneer of the spread offense during his days at Florida, and that did not change once he got to Ohio State. He may not have a QB he developed at those schools he can boast about, but he did worth with Alex Smith at Utah, and he’s become a trusted source of wisdom for coaches like Bill Belichick. Having been one of the most successful coaches of his generation, he has the institutional knowledge of the trends and schemes NFL teams are finally accepting and instituting, and could be someone similar to a Pete Carroll who built a strong program in college and was able to translate it at the pro-level (note: Carroll had two previous head coaching stints in the NFL before coaching USC).

Image result for matt rhule"
Matt Rhule might not be coaching at a powerhouse school, but that has not stopped him from catching the eye of NFL teams

Matt Rhule’s success reminds me a lot of Brad Stevens. Yes, Rhule had a year in the NFL as an assistant, but his best work came when he helped turn around Temple and Baylor, schools who did not seem to have a path prior to his arrival, each winning just 1 game his first season under the helm, yet won 11 games each by Year 3. Both were remarkable turnarounds, and he’s caught the eyes of the NFL because of it. Just last season the Jets interviewed Rhule, and there were some conflicting reports about if he was actually offered the job or not. He ultimately stayed, but clearly was impressing people 12 months ago, and his body of work has only improved since.

Another name who has been seen: LSU assistant Joe Brady.

Not as a head coach, but Brady has been tied to Don “Wink” Martendale as a potential offensive coordinator if Wink were able to be hired as a head coach. Commonly coordinators with no head coach experience become evaluated by the assistants they say they can bring in. When Sean McVay was interviewing with the Rams after the 2016 season, they were impressed the young coach said he could bring Wade Phillips to join his staff, and maybe it helped seal the deal for the offensive whiz kid.

Brady, just 30 years old, is the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach at LSU, but he has played a role in the success of the team, which included QB Joe Burrow winning the Heisman Trophy, and likely becoming the top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Brady was previously an assistant with the Saints, and clearly is seen as someone who can introduce successful schemes and coaching in the pros.

Consider it a cultural shift of sorts, as NFL teams become more open to new ideas, and ones that work at making their players successful. No longer do you hear the label of a “pro-style quarterback” being used to limit the potential of players that were successful in college. Seeing how Murray and Jackson, as well as Mahomes, Goff, and Mayfield have been able to succeed in the pros, other teams will want to replicate that.

And to do so, the best course of action just might begin by going back to school.


Photo above from Getty Images

Follow Nick on Twitter (@Nick_Collins14)

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