While almost everyone remembers that the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50, few people realize that they did so with a head coach that was brand new to the team heading into that season in Gary Kubiak. In 2016, of the 12 teams that qualified for the playoffs at the end of the 2016-2017 season, two of them were led by first year head coaches: Ben McAdoo of the New York Giants, and Adam Gase of the Miami Dolphins. So, it would stand to reason that the teams who made head coaching changes during this offseason are looking for their new head coaches to immediately replicate the type of success the aforementioned guys had. But who are the coaches in the best positions to lead their teams to the postseason? Here’s our list from least likely to most likely:
Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers — Shanahan and new General Manager John Lynch will start the process of rebuilding the great San Francisco 49ers franchise with the second overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The problem is, they got the second overall pick in the draft because the team was so bad last year in general. The 49ers could basically use a major infusion of talent at the vast majority of positions on the team, most notably at quarterback. Blaine Gabbert and/or Colin Kaepernick are clearly not the answer, and the new braintrust will likely move quickly in trying to figure out who is the guy that’s going to lead their team for the near and long-term future. But outside of running back, where they have Carlos Hyde, and defensive lineman, where they drafted Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner in recent years, there isn’t really a single position on the team that you could point to as a strength moving forward. Shanahan and Lynch will need a few years to restock the proverbial cupboard.
Sean McVay, Los Angels Rams — The Rams went in the total opposite direction of their previous head coach, when hiring their most recent one. They went from a grizzled NFL-stalwart in Jeff Fisher, to hiring the youngest head coach in NFL history in Sean McVay. McVay was considered somewhat of a “wunderkind” after guiding the Washington Redskins’ offense to the third-best ranking in the NFL last season. His job will largely be tied to the development of Jared Goff, the top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Even though it’s still way too early to make any type of judgment on Goff, we saw much he struggled last season. The Rams offensive line remains awful for yet another year. They’ve had one wide receiver top 1,000 yards receiving in the past decade. After a superstar-caliber rookie season, running back Todd Gurley looked painfully mortal last year. McVay might be responsible for helping Goff develop, but he’s got his work cut out for him with the rest of this offense. The saving grace for the Rams is that the defense still has talent, including defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who’s one of the five best defensive players in the NFL.
Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills — Halfway through October, the Buffalo Bills looked like they might end up being one of the surprise teams in the NFL. They had a 4-2 record, including a shutout victory over the New England Patriots. But, from there on out, the bottom fell out for the Bills, as they finished with a 3-7 record down the stretch. That led to Rex Ryan’s dismissal, and the hiring of new head coach Sean McDermott. The first order of business for McDermott and Doug Whaley will be to find a starting quarterback, as it looks like Tyrod Taylor’s tenure in Buffalo is all but over. Many people think they’ll use the 10th overall pick in the draft to address the position, but let’s not forget they still have Cardale Jones as a developmental player, and perhaps the long-term answer. Still, the Bills don’t have much in the way of building block pieces around whoever fills the quarterback position. Running back LeSean McCoy looked great last season, but he’ll be 29 years old next season, and hasn’t played in all 16 games as a member of the Bills. Star wide receiver Sammy Watkins has missed 11 of his last 32 games. The offensive line has been inconsistent. The defense was ravaged by injuries and inconsistency last year. Buffalo proved they can be a good team if things break well for them, but they still have more questions than answers.
Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars — In reality, the Jacksonville Jaguars could end up being one of the most interesting and dangerous teams in the AFC, if not the NFL. It all depends on whether Marrone’s staff can resurrect the career of quarterback Blake Bortles. Bortles appeared to be on an upward trajectory in his second year, leading a young and talented offense. But last year, Bortles badly regressed, and the offense — as well as the whole team — struggled as a result. But this is still one of the youngest and most talented rosters in the NFL. It’s not out of the question for young stars like Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns to bounce back, edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. to take another step forward. Their group of linebackers is one of the more underrated units in the NFL, and they have talent at both Safety positions. If Jacksonville can make a few upgrades on their still-porous offensive line, and perhaps add a little more consistency from the running game, they could help fix what ails Bortles. But this team will only go as Bortles does.
Anthony Lynn, San Diego Chargers — As snakebitten as this team was with injuries and plain old bad luck last season, San Diego sits near the top of this list for one simple reason: they still have quarterback Philip Rivers, who made the Pro Bowl last season (as an alternate). Even with an offense that continued to lose players seemingly on a weekly basis, Rivers still finished the year ranked among the top five quarterbacks in passing yards, yards per attempt, and touchdown passes. While he’s not exactly getting any younger, he’s still in the prime of his career. The Chargers will also have some balance on offense, thanks to the second year breakout of running back Melvin Gordon. On defense, they have two of the best young talents in the NFL in defensive end Joey Bosa, who was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, and cornerback Jason Verrett, who admittedly missed much of last year after suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Still, with the offensive and defensive pedigrees that new head coach Anthony Lynn and new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, this team is not that far away from contending for a playoff spot.
Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos — Vance Joseph, the highly-regarded former defensive backs coach for the Miami Dolphins, is probably the one coach in the best position to guide his team to the playoffs in his first year as head coach, mostly on the basis of the defense he’ll be inheriting. That group still has Von Miller, who is still perhaps the best edge rusher in the NFL, as well as the best pair of cornerbacks in the league in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. Even with all the injuries and defections via free agency this team had after winning the Super Bowl, those guys represented the foundation of what was still probably the league’s best defense. Obviously, then, the biggest questions for the Broncos will be on the offensive side of the football, namely at the quarterback position. While most people believe that incumbents Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch will battle for the starting job, it’s hard to rule out the possibility of the team acquiring a veteran quarterback — say, Tony Romo? — who could step in and lead this team immediately. If they can get even an average-level of play from the quarterback position, they can rely on their skill position players like Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson, and second-year running back Devontae Booker to help spark an offense that sputtered down the stretch of last season.