Rookie coaches have it rough.
They usually inherit terrible situations. They arrive as assistants from successful franchises or masterminds at lower levels, only to learn that it is easier to be hailed as a genius in Seattle, the Pac-12, or Canada than on a team that went 4-12 last year. Rookie coaches take on dozens of new personnel and strategic responsibilities, and a hundred things can go wrong as they try to implement their schemes and organizational vision.
Worst of all, the days of the two-year grace period are long gone. Few rookie coaches are expected to make the playoffs right away, but their teams had better show immediate progress. After eight weeks, the new guy must be able to say with a straight face that the team is "headed in the right direction." It's never too early to start a "Fire the Coach" movement these days, and owners can be as impatient as the crankiest fans.
The following rookie coach grades go beyond the won-loss record to examine what each coach and his staff are doing right or wrong. After looking at the "good wins" and "bad losses," we check in on quarterback situations and make a broad inspection of the defense. The "Coping Skills/Long Range Vision" category represents two sides of one coin: how the rookie coaches adapt to this year's crises, and how aggressive they are about integrating youngsters into the lineup without sacrificing present for future.
"Strategy Corner" provides an early snapshot of tactical wrinkles like run-pass ratio, no-huddle tendencies and fourth down aggressiveness; the data is scrubbed of fourth quarter and blowout situations, so it is more informative than the official data (which may include a team passing 15 times and going for fourth-and-19 while trailing by 27 points). We then look at whether a team is "trending" upward or downward. Finally, the coach gets a grade.
Remember, this is just the first marking period. But final exams arrive sooner than you think.
DOUG MARRONE, Buffalo Bills
Good Wins: All three wins (Panthers, Ravens, Dolphins) came against competitive teams.
Bad Losses: None. The Browns were very competitive during the brief Brian Hoyer oasis, the Jets are no joke and the Bills competed well with the Saints.
Quarterback Situation: B+. Marrone had EJ Manuel ready to play despite a short training camp and has milked everything possible from Thad Lewis. Marrone avoided the pitfall of rushing "established" backups like Matt Leinart or Matt Flynn into the lineup.
State of the Defense: A. Mike Pettine's Jets-flavored scheme has turned the Bills defense around. Mario Williams is suddenly an All Pro again, while Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus are playing to their potential. Kiko Alonso and Jim Leonhard make the pass defense dangerous over the middle of the field.
Coping Skills/Long-Range Vision: A. The entire Bills quarterback situation has been a crisis management exercise since the start of camp. C.J. Spiller's on-and-off status has only put more pressure on the quarterbacks. From Manuel to Alonso to Robert Woods, rookies and new faces are everywhere.
No Huddle Percentage: 33%. At their fastest, the Bills can give Chip Kelly's Eagles a run for their money.
Real Run-Pass Ratio: Run 50%, Pass 50%. Now that's balance. Keep in mind that most modern coaches think of "balance" as something close to a 40-60 run-pass split. But most coaches do not have two very good running backs and an emergency quarterback to cope with. Even when Manuel returns, Marrone may remain a new-school, up-tempo-rushing strategist.
Fourth Down Aggressiveness: Low. Marrone has punted on a handful of short yardage situations near midfield. Again, a little distrust in his offense may be prudent at this point.
Trending: Sideways (C). Staving off a total collapse under a third-string quarterback has been an accomplishment.
Midterm Grade: A-. If Manuel had been healthy since the start of training camp, Marrone would be out-chipping Chip Kelly right now. From his fast-paced attack to his weekly rap sessions with team captains, Marrone is a progressive thinker. He and Pettine have installed distinctive schemes and game plans that give opponents trouble. All that is missing is a healthy, experienced quarterback, plus a few more bodies at key positions.
BRUCE ARIANS, Arizona Cardinals
Good Wins: Lions, Panthers, Falcons. The Falcons may be having a lost season, but they remain tough, and clobbering them 27-13 is an impressive feat for a rebuilding team.
Bad Losses: Rams, blowout by Saints. Hanging tough against the Seahawks and 49ers is no sin.
Quarterback Situation: B. Arians was patient with Carson Palmer through a five-game multi-interception streak. That patience may have started to pay off in the Falcons game. Arians takes a lot of heat for not providing enough pass protection, but Palmer was only really under siege against the Seahawks.
State of the Defense: A. Todd Bowles inherited an excellent unit from Ray Horton. After a rocky start, he has picked up where Horton left off.
Coping Skills/Long-Range Vision: B. The Cardinals injury load has not been extraordinary, and the team has adapted well at positions like outside linebacker and guard. Arians and his staff have been aggressive about granting roles to rookies like Tyrann Mathieu and Andre Ellington, as well as street free agents like left tackle Bradley Sowell, signs that Arians is committed to rebuilding beneath its veteran shell.
No Huddle Percentage: 0.1%. Arians is not an up-tempo guy, and the Cardinals are not really built for it.
Real Run-Pass Ratio: Run 36%, Pass 64%. This percentage is rapidly evolving; having a rookie running back average 7.7 yards per carry will do that. Arians was more balanced when he coordinated the Steelers offense (though not as balanced as you might think), and the Cardinals committed to the run against the Falcons last week, even before they controlled the game.
Fourth Down Aggressiveness: Low. Arians attempted one bold fourth down conversion in the second quarter against the Seahawks, with Rashard Mendenhall barreling into the line to sustain a drive that kept the Cardinals in a game. Otherwise, he has shown little inclination to go for it, though the Cardinals have had few opportunities.
Trending: Upwards (B). Bowles' defense has been playing well for a month. The offense won't be effective against top pass rushes anytime soon, but the passing game is better now than it was in the Saints and Buccaneers games.
Midterm Grade: B+. Arians has been in the NFL for 23 years as an assistant, and he is not prone to rash decisions. His Cardinals are learning to walk before they run, which is the only way to survive in a tough division. Arians' next step will be to wean the team from veterans like Mendenhall (and, down the road, Palmer) and commit fully to the next generation. Little things like the Levi Brown trade and Arrington's increased role suggest the team is willing to do that.
MARC TRESTMAN, Chicago Bears
Good Wins: Bengals, a convincing beating of the Steelers.
Bad Losses: Redskins, though multiple injuries were a factor.
Quarterback Situation: Incomplete. Cutler sounded happier under Trestman before the groin injury, but we still have had the usual "Cutlerversies" about interception sprees and back-foot lobs. The Bears have gotten zero out of Cutler's backups for several years, so if Trestman can get Josh McCown to move the ball for a few games, he will earn an A.
State of the Defense: C-. Mel Tucker was not supposed to fix anything that was not broken, but his scheme looks like weak-tea Lovie Smith: the pass rush is nonexistent, the run defense ordinary. Lance Briggs leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss and passes defensed, meaning he often had to be in three places at once before getting injured. There is no telling what this defense will look like with him gone, but it will not look like 2012, let alone 1985.
Coping Skills/Long-Range Vision: Incomplete. We are about to see, aren't we?
No Huddle Percentage: 4.9%. The no-huddle has been mostly a two-minute tactic for Trestman so far.
Real Run-Pass Ratio: Run 36%, Pass 64%. Interesting wrinkle: Trestman likes to throw in short yardage situations. The Bears have passed ten times and rushed just nine times on third or fourth down and less than two. Most teams run about 70% of the time in those circumstances. That ratio will change with McCown under center. We hope.
Fourth Down Aggressiveness: Medium. Trestman sent Michael Bush into the end zone on fourth-and-goal early against the Steelers and sent Matt Forte off tackle from the Bengals 27-yard line while trailing by four points midway through the fourth quarter. (The latter is not much of a gamble, but some coaches would have kicked a field goal.) The Bears' other fourth-down attempts came in blowout situations, but there is evidence that Trestman will be aggressive in this department.
Trending: Sideways (B). For a team that won ten games last year, leveling off is not a bad thing. The Cutler and Briggs injuries make this yet another wait-and-see grade.
Midterm Grade: B. Actually, this should be an "incomplete," but principals have fits when you put an incomplete grade on a progress report. Trestman inherited a unique situation: few rookie coaches can expect to hold serve and walk away with ten wins. The real work for Trestman and Tucker has just started.
MIKE MCCOY, San Diego Chargers
Good Wins: Colts, Cowboys.
Bad Losses: Titans, Raiders.
Quarterback Situation: A. McCoy, like Marc Trestman, inherited a quality incumbent quarterback. While Trestman has made modest improvements to Cutler, McCoy and coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have rejuvenated Philip Rivers. Rivers is having his best season since 2010, his sack totals are way down, and he looks far more decisive in a scheme that sometimes allows him to operate like a mini-Manning.
State of the Defense: D. John Pagano is the only incumbent coordinator on this list, so you would expect the Chargers to enjoy some defensive continuity. They have actually been terrible. Three straight opponents have averaged over 5.0 yards per rush against the Chargers, and a six-sack effort against the Jaguars masked just how few big plays Pagano's 3-4 scheme has generated.
Coping Skills/Long-Range Planning: B. McCoy/Whisenhunt cobbled together an adequate offensive line despite injuries and the awful situation they inherited. Keenan Allen plugged an injury hole that could have been critical, and it is encouraging to see Rivers develop chemistry with someone younger than Antonio Gates.
No Huddle Percentage: 15.8%. McCoy used to coach Peyton Manning, you know.
Real Run-Pass Ratio: Run 40%, Pass 60%.
Fourth Down Aggressiveness: Medium-low. Ryan Mathews converted a first down in the season opener. Danny Woodhead got stuffed at the goal line against the Raiders because he weighs about 117 pounds. McCoy has punted near midfield a few times. With his offense far superior to his defense, he may want to reconsider.
Trending: Sideways (C ). Actually, it is more like up-and-down. It is hard to make sense of a team that looks so good against the Colts and Cowboys but so bad against the Titans and Raiders.
Midterm Grade: B. Like Bruce Arians in Arizona, McCoy has stabilized a foundering organization and is keeping his team respectable in a brutal division. Also like Arians, he is still relying on old-guard veterans at high-profile positions. Rivers will not need replacement as quickly as Carson Palmer, but McCoy will have to simultaneously build on his early successes and transition to a younger roster. That is not an unusual dilemma for a rookie coach, nor is it an easy problem to solve, but at least McCoy has some early success to build from.
CHIP KELLY, Philadelphia Eagles
Good Wins: None. Divisional wins against the Giants and Redskins were sloppy defeats of disheveled opponents.
Bad Losses: None. Broncos and Chiefs losses are excusable. The Chargers game was close. Losses to the Cowboys and Giants get the same asterisk as wins against the Giants and Redskins.
Quarterback Situation: C-. Michael Vick and Nick Foles both had their moments before getting hurt, and Kelly proved with Foles that his system can be effective without a high-octane scrambler in the backfield. But Matt Barkley has been horrible, even by rookie standards, and the decision to start a gimpy Vick against the Giants backfired badly.
State of the Defense: C. Billy Davis' 3-4 defense was a disorganized mess back when Kelly's offense was the talk of the league in mid-September. The tables have now turned. Davis is muddling through with a low-talent secondary by shuffling his front seven according to the situation and disguising blitzes. The Eagles kept scores low against the Buccaneers, Giants and Cowboys, but since those were a) teams that no longer care and b) two teams that did not need many points to win, it is hard to gauge just how good Davis' defense has gotten.
Coping Skills/Long-Range Vision: D. Problems are snowballing on offense. Kelly's strategic thinking is still evolving, but Barkley's unpreparedness and his poor fit with the scheme are red flags.
No Huddle Percentage: 67%. You were probably aware of this.
Real Run-Pass Ratio: Run 43%, Pass 57%. Among Kelly's innovations/reintroductions is his willingness to run on 3rd-and-medium. The Eagles are 5-of-8 running the ball on third down with three-to-five yards to go. (They are 11-20 passing). No other team has rushed more than six times in those situations.
Fourth Down Aggressiveness: Low. Kelly has been shockingly conservative on fourth down, opting for a 60-yard field goal attempt in one infamous fourth-and-short instance.
Trending: Downward like a sack of batteries into the bottom of a reservoir (F). While the defense has made modest strides, the Eagles offense has collapsed completely. The Bills have proven that a quarterback catastrophe is no excuse for two touchdown-free weeks against second-tier opponents.
Midterm Grade: C-. And falling fast. Kelly's scheme showed early promise. Now he must prove his adaptability.
ROB CHUDZINSKI, Cleveland Browns
Good Wins: Bengals, Bills.
Bad Losses: The Browns schedule has been tough, but they did not really show up against the Lions or Packers.
Quarterback Situation: C-. Chudzinski gets credit for promoting Brian Hoyer, though that decision may have come from some strange corner of the Browns organizational flowchart. Chud and top lieutenant Norv Turner do not deserve blame for Hoyer's injury. But Weeden's regression from "mediocre" to "throws football underhand into traffic" does not speak well of Team NorvChud's legendary ability to develop quarterbacks, and tossing Jason Campbell into the fray against the Chiefs was a sign of surrender. Which may have been the point.
State of the Defense: B-. Ray Horton is a chalkboard madman, and he has had fun sending Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, Desmond Bryant and other blitzes or numerous search-and-destroy sorties. But Horton's situational defense has not been great. Opponents have been converting third downs (25 of 46 in the last three games) and running the ball well enough to easily milk leads. The fact that the Browns defense is often stuck on the field all afternoon does not make things easy, but Horton's Cardinals defenses played much better under similar circumstances.
Coping Skills/Long-Range Vision: D. If the Browns are really playing for the future, please explain Willis McGahee.
No Huddle Percentage: 3.0%. NorvChud tinkered with the no-huddle early in the year. It has since disappeared, except in obvious hurry-up circumstances.
Real Run-Pass Ratio: Run 34%, Pass 66%. Remember that desperation situations have been removed from the data. Since the Richardson trade, the Browns have not run much, even when they had the opportunity.
Fourth Down Aggressiveness: Very high. The Browns have executed three fake punts or field goals this year. They attempted five fourth-down conversions against the Packers, and while three came in the fourth quarter of a blowout, Brandon Weeden threw a fourth-and-1 pass in the first quarter (intercepted) and the Browns converted a fake punt. All signs point to Chudzinski aggressiveness on fourth down, which is a good thing, because punting on fourth-and-inches while down by three in the fourth quarter helped get the last guy fired.
Trending: Down (D). The Browns defense is playing well through their current swan dive, and some young players are getting a look. Still, things have looked bleaker every week since Hoyer got hurt.
Midterm Grade: C-. In case you are wondering, stinking on purpose to get a better draft pick is not a real strategy. Not only do players acquire bad habits/attitudes, but you face the fact that the Jaguars are probably not going to win three games, so you are not going to overtake (undertake?) them. The Hoyer days were encouraging, and some bold fourth-down moves hinted at the innovative thinking the Browns were hoping for from Chudzinski and Horton. Now, the Browns must decide just how they want to tee up 2014, preferably without tanking half the year.
GUS BRADLEY, Jacksonville Jaguars
Good Wins: Wins?
Bad Losses: The Jaguars schedule is a nightmare, but it is hard to blame the schedule when you are getting blown out by the Chargers and Rams.
Quarterback Situation: D. Blaine Gabbert has established himself as a coach killer, scout killer, and optimism killer. The staff appears to have wisely settled on Chad Henne, at least until they think Matt Scott is ready to be sacrificed. These are bad quarterbacks, but it is hard to see what coordinator Jedd Fisch has done to improve them, support them, hide them, or otherwise keep them from endangering themselves.
State of the Defense: F. Defense is supposed to be Bradley's department, and the bad Jaguars teams of yesteryear typically held their own when the opponent held the ball. But with just eight sacks and three interceptions, Bradley's defense is as much a part of the Jaguars problem as their offense. Bradley was supposed to turn the defense into the East Coast Seahawks. Right now, they are Paul Posluszny and ten guys named Sen'Derrick Marks.
Coping Skills/Long-Range Vision: D. This is a team in a fetal position.
No Huddle Percentage: 19.3%. Fisch wants to get some kind of no-huddle attack going. Gabbert was theoretically better in the no huddle, though you need some kind of electron microscope to measure it.
Real Run-Pass Ratio: Run 39%, Pass 61%. The Jaguars average just below three yards per carry, so this ratio represents a serious Maurice Jones-Drew commitment.
Fourth Down Aggressiveness: Three. The Jaguars are 6-of-17 on fourth down conversions this year, but as you might expect, most of those came in desperate fourth-quarter circumstances. Bradley has gone for it at three times in "discretionary" circumstances. He has converted once. Poor, poor Jaguars.
Trending: Nowhere (F). The precision-tuned Football Outsiders metrics detect a minor improvement between the Colts and Rams games -- roughly the time that the Jaguars settled for Henne. But the climb from "historically bad" to "terrible" brought no momentum. A team can lose eight games but still show progress. The Jaguars have not done that.
Midterm Grade: D-. There's a saying in public education: never flunk a kid who's trying. The Jaguars are trying. That is the best even a Bradley believer can say about them right now.
(Situational statistics and other data provided by Football Outsiders.)