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Grading 2021 first-year NFL head coaches: Urban Meyer self-destructs, Dan Campbell shows great promise


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Grading 2021 first-year NFL head coaches: Urban Meyer self-destructs, Dan Campbell shows great promise

Not every first-timer went down in flames like Meyer in Jacksonville

Patrik Walker
Jan 11, 2022 at 11:06 am 

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

With the 2021 regular season now officially in the books and all NFL eyes turning to the all-important playoffs, it's time to take a look at how teams fared who took the biggest gambles at the head coach position. For it's one thing to fire one and hire a replacement, but to make the latter a guy who's never before been an NFL head coach is the ultimate dice roll. With such a boom-or-bust possibility, most team owners are resolute against taking the risk, fearing it'll end like Nick Saban and the Miami Dolphins or Bobby Petrino and the Atlanta Falcons.

What this season showed us that it's still possible for that to occur, especially if the incoming coach has no NFL experience whatsoever, but it also revealed there's nothing wrong with trying your hand with a highly-touted coordinator or longtime assistant in the league -- creating a ton of fireworks around the league as things both shook out wonderfully and horribly in respective cities.

And with that, let's get to the grades of those who took the reins of an NFL team for the first time in 2021.

Urban Meyer, Jaguars - F

I'd give this a "Z" if that letter actually reflected the worst possible mark on an academic grading scale. This hiring by the Jaguars was an unmitigated disaster as soon as the initial press conference was over, with Meyer going on to hire controversial assistant Chris Doyle and then publicly backing the decision before rescinding the hire immediately thereafter, and it all spiraled out of control from there -- from an Ohio bar scandal to Meyer's insistence that leadership was on the players and not him to ... well ... everything. Fired 13 games into his first stint as an NFL head coach (with an abysmal 2-11 record), he's the latest cautionary tale that every collegiate coach that glitters isn't gold. Hell, it might not even be copper, if we're being brutally honest.

David Culley, Texans - D

Let's be clear in that Culley is easily one of the best human beings you'll ever come across, and a highly-respected one at that, but that doesn't mean he was ready to take on the disaster that is the Houston Texans. Culley opted to make his first go at being an NFL head coach -- after a career of being an assistant -- an attempt to turn around what is currently one of the top-2 most dysfunctional franchises in all of sports (see Jaguars above for the other), and amid the Deshaun Watson scandal, no less. It was as admirable as it was foolhardy, because he simply doesn't have the muscle to do so, and that's not a knock to him as much as it is the reality of the situation, his valiant effort dying an ugly death in 2021. Credit him for making some good decisions though, enough to separate him from the train wreck called Urban Meyer.

Arthur Smith, Falcons - D+

It's not a failing grade for Smith, but he did leave a lot to be desired in Atlanta in 2021. Kudos for finally figuring out rookie first-round pick Kyle Pitts is a game-changer (that took a few games to become as obvious as it should've been), but Pitts and cornerback A.J. Terrell were one of the few bright spots in what ultimately became another losing season for the Falcons -- finishing at 7-10 that included a two-game losing streak to end the season. He did lead the team to a handful of notable wins, which provides promise for Year 2, but there's a lot to figure out if Atlanta is going to get back to a winning record in 2022.

Robert Saleh, Jets - C+

One of the teams Smith logged a win against (not counting it as a notable one here) was the Jets, a team led by former star 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. So why is Saleh's grade higher? Simple. It's because it's more difficult to turn around a sinking Titanic than it is to right a lost sail boat. The Jets have long been up there as one of the biggest laughingstocks in all of football, but the laughing mostly ended in 2021 as Saleh turned them competitive. Even with rookie first-overall pick Zack Wilson went down with injury, he used an unknown QB in Mike White to get the job done for as long as he could. And having defeated both the playoff-bound Cincinnati Bengals and top-seeded Tennessee Titans, Gang Green isn't the team in New Jersey folks are giggling about now.

Dan Campbell, Lions - B

Speaking of trying to change the Titanic's course, say hello to Campbell, a first-year HC tasked with uplifting an entire city that is as football maniacal about its team as it is unconvinced things will ever change for the better. When Campbell said he wanted guys who'd "eat kneecaps," he meant it (proverbially speaking, of course), and the Lions easily and instantly became one of the most competitive teams in the NFL -- period. They destroyed the spread in 2021 and no one wanted to play them because what was once seen as a bye week against the Lions became anything but, and you can ask the Arizona Cardinals to weigh in on that one. The Lions finished 3-13-1 but seven of those losses were close to being victories, and I personally can't wait to see what Campbell does in Year 2.

Brandon Staley, Chargers - B

This was a home-run season for Staley, until it wasn't. He was mostly acing the assignment at times, and suffering a lesser grade after struggling in games the Chargers shouldn't have, including three of the last four games that also saw them manhandled by Culley and the Texans. Still, there was a chance in the end to make it all good again, with a win or tie against the Las Vegas Raiders guaranteeing them a playoff berth, and this is where Staley shined with the help of an outstanding QB in Justin Herbert, but then the former outsmarted himself. The timeout heard 'round the world arguably cost them a shot at the tournament, but let's charge it all to being a rookie coach taking his lumps to get better down the road. The Chargers are in good hands, if Staley learns his lesson(s).

Nick Sirianni, Eagles - A

Having finished with the same 9-8 record as the Chargers above, why is Sirianni getting a higher grade than Staley? The Eagles are in the playoffs and the Chargers are not, that's why. Sirianni stumbled time and again during a 1-4 start to the season that didn't really improve until Halloween, when he coached up his team to a blowout win over Campbell and the Lions and used that to propel Philly to a 7-3 finish to the season and a wild card berth. He's shrugging off the shellacking in Week 18 at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys in a game that saw the Eagles put their junior varsity squad on the field and is readying his first postseason appearance, and it only took him one year to get there. Having figured out how to utilize Jalen Hurts to success, he's off to the right start.


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