Things people don't consider about NFL head coach hiring, firings
Some contrarian points to be made about the decisions to fire Brian Flores, Mike Zimmer, and Matt Nagy, while keeping Pete Carroll, Joe Judge (not so fast), and others
There were three head coaching vacancies revealed on Monday—the Dolphins fired Brian Flores, the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer, and the Bears fired Matt Nagy—two expected, one unexpected, and a number of surprising non-announcements for coaches like Joe Judge. However, every move and non-move has reasonable explanations but sometimes they don’t fit certain narratives or popular opinions about those coaches, general managers, players, and teams.
If I cared about popularity though, I wouldn’t be writing on substack.
I do not find firing Brian Flores to be surprising. I expected Matt Nagy to be on the way out from the moment that the Bears traded up for Justin Fields when no other teams seemed all that interested. And I can understand why the Giants and Seahawks have decided to stick with the coaches they have for at least one more season. There’s plenty that goes into these decisions that we see and it makes sense, but so much more behind the stories that we don’t see and would help explain anything that doesn’t make sense to you once it passes through the lens of the media.
Here are my thoughts on the three recent firings, a few non-firings, and what people often don’t consider about these decisions.
Dolphins fire Brian Flores
People don’t consider: A head coaching position isn’t something you keep as a reward for a job done Okay. It’s solely about one simple thing: a team choosing a head coach for next season
There appears to be a defense mounting online for Brian Flores that did not exist for Adam Gase in 2019 despite the fact that both head coaches had similar three-year stretches that were mired in mediocrity. Only Gase took the Dolphins to the playoffs.
Take this example from Dov Kleiman:
Kleiman’s conspiratorial take on Miami’s statement is that the team wanted to “make it seem” like Flores had a losing record (not sure how 24-25 is something that can be made to “seem” like anything other than a losing record) but that “truth is, he won 19-14” from 2020-2021.
The actual truth is that a) I’ve never seen someone try and build an argument like this by cherry picking the past two seasons literally to make it seem like Flores had a winning record and b) the Flores Dolphins teams were no good.
It’s not just the Miami “barely missed the postseason” at 9-8, it’s also the fact that they missed the AFC playoffs. The playoffs that even the Raiders made it into with seven seeds per conference. Brian Flores has to take as much responsibility for the Dolphins’ 1-7 start this season as any other head coach would have to bear.
Dolphins DVOA over the past seven seasons:
2015 - 29th (Joe Philbin fired midseason)
2016 - 20th (Gase first season)
2017 - 28th
2018 - 27th
2019 - 32nd (Flores first season)
2020 - 12th
2021 - 25th
But let’s pretend for a moment that people are right and that Flores did a “good job” with the Miami Dolphins — and it truly is just pretend — after winning eight of his last nine games at the helm. No franchise is ever bound to stick with a certain head coach. Sometimes franchises fire head coaches after playoff appearances and even playoff wins. Why?
Well, sometimes you just don’t want that guy coaching your team next season. It’s pretty simple.
During his first season as a head coach, Flores hired Chad O’Shea as his offensive coordinator and Patrick Graham as his defensive coordinator. After the year, Flores fired O’Shea and let Graham walk after an abysmal defensive season to join Joe Judge with the Giants. Flores hired Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator and Josh Boyer for the defense. Gailey resigned after one season. Flores installed George Godsey and Eric Studesville as co-offensive coordinators in 2021 and Miami struggled to score points in any meaningful game other than in Week 18 against the Patriots.
And even yesterday, with nothing on the line, Miami got 14 of their 33 points directly off of turnovers.
The Miami Dolphins had to decide who their best head coach could be for the 2022 season and they decided it was not Brian Flores. Not the guy who went 24-25 (nothing that they “made seem” happen), not the guy who couldn’t make his mind up on a coaching staff, not the guy who the team feels less attached to for next year than they do for Tua Tagovailoa. The Dolphins felt they needed a better head coach-quarterback relationship and while I would have never drafted Tagovailoa to begin with, that’s the player who Miami might feel tied to today.
They might also feel tied to making a trade for Deshaun Watson and perhaps that is somehow also coming into play with this move, something that we couldn’t possibly be aware of without installing spyware in owner Stephen Ross’s head.
Giants don’t fire Joe Judge (On Tuesday, the Giants fired Joe Judge)
People don’t consider: A team is still only going to be as good as its players allow them to be; or as bad as their players force them to be.
This is a picture of Jake Fromm:
It is not a picture of Daniel Jones. It is not even a picture of Mike Glennon, who was the worst quarterback in the NFL this year to throw anything more than some garbage time passes or in an emergency situation. Jake Fromm being one of those emergency situations.
To compare Brian Flores being fired in Miami to a single play in New York as evidence that the Giants should have also fired Joe Judge does not really make any sense. Especially when that play was being quarterbacked…by JAKE FROMM.
Fromm, a fifth round pick by the Bills in 2020 who was signed by the Giants on December 1st, 2021, is about as bad of a starting quarterback as you’ll ever see in the league. He made two starts for New York towards the end of the year and went 21-of-48 in those games for 128 yards, three interceptions, and two fumbles. What’s so unbelievable about Joe Judge choosing to wave the white flag on third-and-9 deep in his own territory in a 3-0 game? What is hard to understand about that play? It’s about as straightforward as football gets: no quarterback = no play.
As a matter of fact, Judge’s decision is about as ANALYTICAL as anything gets.
Of course, you can instead point to the fact that the Giants were terrible well before Fromm ever entered the picture (as noted, Judge has been fired, which I did not oppose), but how can we be trying to blame the GM in Miami to save the coach and then turning around and blaming the coach for the Giants while ignoring the fact that Dave Gettleman is the worst GM of the 2010s? An exec who fell backwards into a winning record with the Panthers and then laid waste to New York’s draft opportunities over the last four years?
Saquon Barkley, Daniel Jones, Dexter Lawrence, DeAndre Baker, Andrew Thomas, and Kadarius Toney being the first round picks; some of whom have talent but rarely played and no less had barely any impact on the Giants over the last four years.
To what degree does Judge take ownership over those failures? Nobody knows. But the Giants are in a position right now to decide if Joe Judge is the “right coach” for 2022 and there are two reasons to believe that he is:
The Giants have an average defense with the potential to be great and Judge knows them better than anyone else
If the Giants suck again, Judge is an easy head coach to fire next year without any backlash. Clearly.
I don’t think that second point can be understated and I’ll get more into that soon.
But imagine if Jake Fromm had been starting for the Dolphins at the end of the season…could you imagine any of these Twitter accounts saying, “But Miami had to play games with JAKE FROMM! Give Flores a break!”? I could.
Vikings fire Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman
People don’t consider: That you don’t actually know what a coach is like and our opinions of coaches (and most people in general) are tailored by the media to be “interesting stories”
With the news of Flores being fired and Judge being retained, there isn’t much attention on any of the other moves, perhaps because people don’t really know what to say about Mike Zimmer. We see that with Flores and Judge there’s this air of “injustice” with those decisions but everyone was anticipating Zimmer being let go: He’s 2-3 in the playoffs after eight years on the job.
But perhaps another reason people aren’t weighing in on the Zimmer firing, besides the news not being surprising, is that he wasn’t very interesting. Which is a compliment. It is not a head coach’s job to be interesting, it is his job to win games. That was the same attitude that Zimmer had as a coach, and he didn’t win enough games.
People are hesitant to be mean to Zimmer in the way that they were quick to trash talk other coaches. Not that there is anything wrong with criticism or trash talk, but these stories are always dripped in media-driven narratives and it is unclear where the line is between “respect” and “ridicule”, as well as who gets to decide which coaches belong where.
Here are two things I know to be true though:
I don’t judge a person’s entire character based on what’s shown of them on TV or what’s written about them on the internet; in particular with coaches, we know that they work at least twice as many hours per week as the average person and we might only ever hear about 2-percent of what they do
Every story deserves proper context
Here’s a fact about me: I’m so gullible when I watch crime documentaries. Every other second, I’m ready to flip between “guilty” and “not guilty” while watching Dateline or a Netflix murder series. Perhaps we all feel this way because that’s the way those shows are edited, to keep you guessing. To make you unsure of what the truth actually is until they’re ready to show their cards at the end. Even then, we often get more open-ended questions, if any answers at all.
People who make TV shows know how to create stories that make us go “Wow.” Or at least, some of them do. And when they don’t surprise us and keep us guessing, we don’t watch them. The same can be said about the media. Urban Meyer was a much better story in 2021 than Mike Zimmer. So any time anything happened with Meyer, big or small, it got reported. Then whenever something that felt “big” happened with Meyer, it got widely reported.
Mike Zimmer does deserve respect—and maybe Urban Meyer does not—but that’s not the point at all. The point is that you and I are just watching a TV show…we get the dramatic bits, the funny bits, the unusual bits…we don’t get the meetings, the practices, the one-on-one conversations, and the relationships that actually happen between players and coaches. And yet people still believe that they can adequately and accurately judge if a head coach is fit for a job based on wins and losses and curated anecdotes.
But I don’t do that.
I try to observe everything that is available to us from the outside, not just the narratives that people are selling as content. That includes tweets, which are also just more content. There’s not as much reporting or retweeting of stories that don’t fit the popular narratives, but I pay attention to that stuff too.
Asking others in the media to do it doesn’t seem like a big ask and yet here we are.
As for Zimmer, there’s little reason to dispute Minnesota’s decision to fire him based on the premise that the Zimmer-Spielman-Cousins teams have failed to contend for the Super Bowl in four attempts, even with a healthy Dalvin Cook, and even with the best young wide receiver in the NFL other than Ja’Marr Chase. Players and coaches seem to like Zimmer, as does a media base that the head coach didn’t always seem that fond of, but there wasn’t much to read into that was out of the ordinary so making a change hasn’t generated much attention to the Vikings.
Bears fire Matt Nagy, Ryan Pace
People don’t consider: That many head coaches are in danger the moment their team drafts a “franchise quarterback”
As you know, I’ve never considered Justin Fields to be a “franchise” player at the quarterback position. I wasn’t actually alone in that belief: The Jaguars, Jets, and 49ers agreed enough to draft quarterbacks over Fields.
The Falcons, Dolphins, Lions, Panthers, Broncos, and Eagles all drafted players over Fields who would not typically go ahead of a true “franchise quarterback”. Which of those teams are still in the market for a quarterback in 2022? Probably the Falcons, Dolphins, Lions, Panthers, and Broncos, if not also the Eagles.
Then the Giants passed on Fields when they agreed to trade down with the Chicago Bears, while the Patriots, Raiders, Dolphins, and Washington Football Team were all situated in spots between the Giants and Bears and decided there was no rush to move up for a quarterback.
Ultimately, we have no evidence that there was even a second team in the first round that believed Justin Fields was a “first round pick”—and the Bears gave up two first round picks for him. (The second first round pick has ended up as seventh overall, even higher than the selection used on Fields.)
Keep in mind that I’m not talking about a player like Joe Flacco, a first round quarterback who some people believe is adequate value for the first round and then let’s see what happens. Justin Fields is a rarity in that he was only the fourth quarterback off of the board and yet people talk about him as if he was a generational draft talent like Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, or Kyler Murray even though he didn’t even go in the top-10.
When you talk about Fields as a “generational player” who “should not be failing” then obviously the axe has to fall on somebody else. That’s why I predicted that Matt Nagy was entering his final season with the Bears from the moment that Ryan Pace sacrificed two first round picks for a quarterback who I think was a day three gamble at best.
But that’s not the narrative you are being sold on Justin Fields. The narrative you are being sold is that you must actually ignore the statistics (this even coming from the “analytics” side) because unlike how they trash Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Baker Mayfield, or Sam Darnold for poor numbers and ugly throws/decisions, the person to blame in Chicago is not the quarterback. Instead it is “anyone else” and the easiest person to take the fall for Fields’ mistakes is obviously Matt Nagy.
The reason that Justin Fields had the highest rate of interceptions per throw in the NFL? Matt Nagy.
The reason that Fields had the second-lowest completion percentage in the NFL? Matt Nagy.
The only reason that the Bears lost each of Fields’ final seven starts? Matt Nagy.
The reason that Fields had 10 interceptions and 12 fumbles in only 11 games? Matt Nagy.
Because I have never expected Justin Fields to be a good NFL quarterback—that’s just my expectation, it doesn’t mean that I’ll be proven right in the long run—I did not find it surprising that he and the Bears were terrible this season. And Chicago was especially more terrible when he started over Andy Dalton or Nick Foles, as the Bears went 4-3 in those games and 2-8 with Fields. Because my expectations on Fields were met, I didn’t have to go out and seek tiny little pieces of evidence that would support a narrative that went against everything else we’re seeing.
Once the Bears made a move to appease Twitter rather than a move to win football games, my expectations for Chicago came down to this:
Andy Dalton would remain the team’s starter going into Week 1, despite overtures from Twitter and the media to “Stop it right now, Matt Nagy” (Check)
The Bears offense would struggle in the first month because they’re just not a very good team and Dalton is clearly a well-below average starter (Check—though never did it get worse in the first month than when Fields started against the Browns and went 6-of-20 for 68 yards)
Any and all signs that pointed to Chicago’s offensive struggles would be used as “evidence” that Justin Fields would be the only answer (Check)
Nagy would succumb to the pressure to start Fields because Dalton was never going to play well enough to hold the job on his own (Check)
Justin Fields would be terrible because he’s a rookie who had an insane amount of necessary development coming out of Ohio State (Check… yes, it is actually a check…)
Matt Nagy would be fired midseason (Got this one wrong! But he did get fired post-season)
The Bears make another popularity move in hiring a new head coach (Brian Flores rumors abound on Tuesday)
The Bears “get Justin Fields some help” in the offseason (Without their first round pick, this could mean an early second round pick or more likely, free agency/trade for a WR)
Fields continues to struggle in 2022 despite the new head coach, additional help, but the blame falls onto the offensive coordinator/other players instead
People start saying “Justin Fields needs a change of scenery, Chicago CLEARLY has no idea how to work with this immense talent at QB”
Justin Fields is no longer on the Bears in 2023
My prediction from the time he was drafted was that Fields would force himself out out of Chicago before he reaches the end of his rookie deal. So far, everything I’ve expected to happen has happened. From Fields struggles to the defense of those struggles and the firing of Nagy as a response to those struggles.
I am not sure how hiring Tua Tagovailoa’s former coach is going to fix those struggles.
I also don’t think that Matt Nagy was proven to be anyone special as a head coach but like all head coaches, would have succeeded more with better players at quarterback. From the decision to trade up for Mitchell Trubisky, to trade for Nick Foles, to sign Andy Dalton, and to trade up for Fields, nothing that the Bears have done to upgrade the position for Nagy was an adequate move that paid off. They chose Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, they were the only team seemingly enamored with Justin Fields and chose him over Mac Jones, and they are potentially being run by a Twitter account rather than an objective football analyst.
Or maybe Justin Fields will fix most of his issues and be great next season. Not everything I expect to happen will happen, but this certainly has played out as I thought it would.
Seahawks don’t fire Pete Carroll, John Schneider
People don’t consider: It’s not just who you move on from, but who you can get to replace them that you must take into account
I am still of the opinion that the Seahawks have a lot more soul searching to do than simply banking on the fact that they beat the Cardinals, Lions, and Texans in the final month of the season. I know that I will get push back on this from many Seattle fans but the Seahawks were not a good team in 2021, not even in December and January.
The Seahawks beat a Lions team that was one Jaguars’ win away from picking first overall. They beat a Cardinals team that has lost four of five games going into the playoffs and Arizona has not been nearly the same offense since Kyler Murray’s knee injury and game-losing interception vs the Packers in Week 7. The Texans were probably even worse than the Lions.
Yes, Seattle swept San Francisco and having a head coach who knows what to expect from Kyle Shanahan, Kliff Kingsbury, and Sean McVay will be important moving forward. Extremely important. But the Seahawks still went 3-6 against 2021 playoff teams and 4-8 if you include teams that nearly made the postseason. Perhaps even more concerning is Seattle’s 4-4 record against non-playoff teams.
The Seahawks need to be the type of team that goes 6-2 or better against non-playoff teams and 6-6 or better against playoff teams. Something like that. If the expectation is that Seattle should compete for the Super Bowl, then that expectation hasn’t been met since the 2015 iteration of the Seahawks. That team could have won the Super Bowl.
No version of the Seahawks in the last six years has realistically competed for the Super Bowl. So yes, that is a REAL concern that I believe all Seattle fans should consider, even though over 60-percent of Seahawks fans that I polled said that they want the team to “run it back” with Pete, John, and Russ. That’s fine too because of multiple things I already wrote in this article:
This is not about rewards/punishment, it’s about “Who gives you the best odds to win games next season?”
The Seahawks did not have the right players on the roster to succeed at a high level
I do think that something huge needs to change for Seattle and one reason that Pete gets so much attention is that he’s also making the personnel decisions. He put these players on the roster, for the most part. And if it were up to Pete in 2012, the Seahawks may not have even drafted Russell Wilson; that came from John Schneider, Darrell Bevell, and other front office execs.
However, when asking if the Seahawks should fire Pete or John, or if they should entertain trading Wilson, the follow-up question is just as important: Who do you get to replace them?
Nearly any answer you come up with is likely going to have a lower chance of success than Pete, John, or Russ.
So for Seattle, the two scenarios you are likely debating in 2022 are these:
Run it back, go for the gold
Completely start over
It is easy for the Seahawks to do better than 7-10, in many respects they have nowhere to go from here but up. It is hard for them to do better at head coach in 2022 than Pete Carroll.
Seems like I read about a lot of players from the bottom of the roster who when given a chance do as well or better than the starters. Also read where players are not being used where best suited I.e. Adams for one. Also in years past Pete would play his rooks early such that late in the season they were more able to contribute. All of the above points lead me to think that coaching might be the problem. Solution: ? Keep Pete but confine to leadership, cheerleading & overall game planning; removing personnel control. Remove DC Norton. He was a loser as a DC in his last job & he has been a loser here. Give OC another year to get comfortable. Examine minor coaches for pluses/minuses & act accordingly. Give Russ optional off season program to practice throws needed in OCs program. Go to playoffs & win the SuperBowl!