By Matt Citak
It’s never easy for a rookie head coach to come in his first season and cause a significant turnaround for his team. In most cases, a change at head coach means the team is coming off a disappointing season, and is probably lacking talent in multiple areas. This year there are five rookie head coaches around the NFL: Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams, Anthony Lynn with the Los Angeles Chargers, Vance Joseph with the Denver Broncos, Sean McDermott with the Buffalo Bills, and Kyle Shanahan with the San Francisco 49ers. Some of these coaches were brought in to much better situations than others. But at the end of the day, all of these coaches are expected to improve their respective franchises.
I sat down with members of the NFL on CBS team prior to Week 1 to get their views on which rookie head coach will cause the biggest turnaround this season. The results were mixed, but the most popular choice had the privilege of learning from one of the best: three-time Super Bowl Champion head coach Mike Shanahan.
“Kyle Shanahan. Let’s go with the guy that has a lot of experience, offensive coordinator turned coach. And then you have his dad and he’s worked under his dad. San Francisco can only go up,” said NFL on CBS lead reporter Tracy Wolfson.
Shanahan had been an offensive coordinator around the league for nine years before being hired as the 49ers head coach in February. When he was originally promoted to offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans in 2008, he became the youngest coordinator in the NFL at just 28-years-old. After bouncing around several teams, Shanahan was hired as the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator in 2015. Last season, Atlanta’s offense under Shanahan was the highest-scoring offense in the league, helping the Falcons earn an 11-5 record, a division title, and a trip to the Super Bowl. He was named the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year, and a day after the Super Bowl, he was hired as San Francisco’s head coach.
The 37-year-old head coach was brought in to work with the team’s new general manager, John Lynch, to help turn the franchise around after they went 2-14 last season. Despite the team’s opening day loss to the Carolina Panthers yesterday, there is still a lot to be excited about in San Francisco.
“Shanahan will prove to be the biggest difference-maker based on where the 49ers were,” said CBS play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle. “They’re starting from square one. They needed someone to come in, along with John Lynch, to change their entire identity of how they go about their business, how they approach the game. Most of these other situations, you either have a GM that was still in place or upper management that had been developed in a way in which they do their job. They are changing everything with the 49ers. So they’re being given the biggest chance to actually go out and make improvements, top to bottom. Shanahan to me would be the obvious choice.”
“Kyle Shanahan with San Francisco,” said NFL Today analyst Bill Cowher on which rookie head coach would have the most success this season. “I like their defensive front. Kyle Shanahan has had success everywhere he’s been. He’s going to be okay with the quarterback [Brian Hoyer]. They’re going to have the biggest turnaround. They had the fewest wins of any of those teams last year…”
While Shanahan was not able to pull out the victory yesterday, another rookie head coach was a lot more fortunate. The Los Angeles Rams completely dominated the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, earning Sean McVay a win in his head coaching debut. The Rams looked good in all facets of the game in Week 1, leaving many with a feeling of optimism for the Rams this season.
“If you look at [Sean] McVay, he’s got an opportunity and a great job out there to turn that franchise around and start something really special,” said NFL on CBS analyst Jay Feely.
Prior to becoming the Rams head coach, McVay served as the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins from 2014-2016. During that span, he transformed Washington’s offense from one of the league’s worst to one of the NFL’s best; the Redskins ranked third in the league in yards per game and 12th in points per game last season. McVay is also credited as being a big factor for the stellar play of Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins over the last two years. So much so that Los Angeles hired McVay to be their head coach at the age of 30, making him the youngest head coach in modern NFL history.
Unlike the other rookie head coaches, McVay was brought on to a team that features a young quarterback with the potential to become an elite talent. The Rams traded up to select Jared Goff with the first overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft. The young QB struggled immensely last year though, completing only 54.6 percent of his throws for 1,089 yards, five touchdowns, and seven interceptions in seven games. Goff averaged just 5.31 yards per pass attempt, and finished the season with a Passer Rating of 63.6.
With a full offseason to work with his new head coach, Goff looked significantly better in Week 1. The second-year quarterback was 21-for-29 (72.4 completion percentage) for 306 yards and a touchdown, and helped lead the Rams to a decisive 46-9 win.
“Sean McVay with the Rams, they have a chance to be pretty good,” said NFL on CBS lead analyst Tony Romo. “They’re flying under the radar. Their division is tough, but bringing Wade Phillips in was a great move. Sean has a great mind for football. If their team can get healthy, there’s a chance that they could make a big jump.”
Two of the NFL’s rookie head coaches have yet to make their debuts. In the second game of tonight’s Monday Night Football doubleheader, Anthony Lynn and the Chargers will travel to Denver to take on Vance Joseph and the Broncos. Although Lynn is the only first-year head coach that has a strong, veteran quarterback to lean on (Phillip Rivers), it’s Joseph that has several members of the NFL on CBS team excited this year.
“All of those teams have significant roster challenges that they have to overcome. That’s obviously why they have new head coaches… But I’m excited to see Vance Joseph,” said NFL on CBS analyst Adam Archuleta. “I like the culture that he built in Miami last year with their defense. Knowing that Denver has a pretty strong defense as a foundation, if Trevor Siemien can take the next step, and they can build and lean on a running game with Siemien making more plays, then Denver could potentially, of all those teams, put a team together that can scare some other teams. Are they going to win their division? I don’t know if you could say that. But they could be a football team that you’re going to have to show up and play against every Sunday.”
Joseph spent only one season as a coordinator before being hired as the Broncos head coach in January. He was in charge of the Miami Dolphins defense last season, and helped install a culture that made him general manager John Elway’s top choice for their open head coach position. After Miami started last year 1-4, it was Joseph’s defense that played a large role in the team winning nine of the next 10 games to earn a spot in the playoffs.
“Vance Joseph at Denver since they have so many good weapons around them,” said CBS play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins on the rookie head coach most likely to have a successful first year. “They’re coming off a winning record. A lot is going to rely on their quarterback of course. But the defense will be able to get them through a lot of close games.”
Mowins will experience Joseph’s head coaching debut in-person, as she will be calling the game for ESPN tonight before working the rest of the season as a member of The NFL on CBS.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.