PHILADELPHIA — In an earlier, headier part of his NFL coaching career, Ben McAdoo once talked of his players having to “learn how to handle success.”
This is not a problem with which McAdoo and his New York Giants are currently grappling.
McAdoo’s second year as head coach has started as poorly as anyone could have imagined. The Giants are one of five 0-3 teams in the NFL. They have scored in only four of 12 quarters. In the past week, McAdoo has been criticized for calling out his veteran quarterback; for insufficiently calling out his young left tackle and his star wide receiver; for myriad in-game coaching decisions; and for refusing to answer questions about whether he’ll give up playcalling duties. (He won’t.)
Just imagine what it must be like to look back on a 2016 season in which you were routinely the butt of jokes about your hair, your mustache, your wardrobe and the size of your play sheet and think, “Those were the days!”
Yeah, it’s hard out here for a coach, and Tom Coughlin’s successor is finding that the road to legacy is studded with potholes. McAdoo was the most successful of the first-year head coaches hired during the 2016 cycle, leading the Giants to an 11-5 record and their first playoff berth in five years. Miami’s Adam Gase was right behind him at 10-6 and was the only other first-year coach to reach the playoffs last season. Tampa Bay’s Dirk Koetter went 9-7 and just missed out. Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson went 7-9. San Francisco’s Chip Kelly went 2-14 and got fired. Cleveland’s Hue Jackson went 1-15 and didn’t get fired. And while there’s no reason to think any of the remaining four (or McAdoo, for that matter) are on the “hot seat” at this point, Sunday wasn’t a great day for this group. Only one of them won (at the expense of another), and their teams were outscored by a combined 136-102.
Encores aren’t an easy business, and these seats sometimes do get warm more quickly than you think. So this week’s “What we learned” column looks at each of these five second-year coaches, what we learned Sunday about where their teams stand and how things are likely to look for them at the end of the 2017 season.
The Giants are in real trouble, sitting at 0-3 overall and 0-2 in the NFC East. The offense scored 24 points in the fourth quarter in Week 3 and appeared on the verge of a season-saving victory, before a lousy punt and a 61-yard Eagles field goal broke their Big Blue hearts. I still think the NFC East will end up being an ugly jumble, thanks to travel schedules and games against West division teams, and it’s possible the winner could finish 9-7.
But that would require the Giants to go 9-4 from here out. McAdoo’s test right now is to make sure his locker room doesn’t mutiny — something his predecessor was able to avoid amid successive rough starts from 2013 to 2015. Whatever McAdoo once said about handling success, showing an ability to manage a team through failure is his current mission — even if all that means is making sure your players conduct themselves like professionals through a lost season.
Prediction: Too many tough road games left — Tampa Bay, Denver, Oakland, Arizona, Washington — plus home games against the likes of Kansas City and Seattle. It’ll get better from here because it has to, but this Giants team will struggle to get to .500 and will miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.
The beneficiary of that 61-yard field goal, Pederson has a 2-1 team that’s tied for first place in the division. Nevertheless, he spent the 24 hours that followed his victory answering questions and hearing ridicule about a variety of questionable in-game decisions. He defended an indefensible decision to go for it on fourth-and-8 from midfield in the second quarter by referring to “the guy that’s helping me upstairs with some of the analytics.”
Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich, both former NFL quarterbacks, have received well-deserved praise for their early work with quarterback Carson Wentz. But if the Eagles are going to be a factor in that NFC East jumble, Pederson will get the full Andy Reid treatment from the league’s most persistent local media contingent. That means every in-game decision and every press conference quote is fodder for next-day talk show angst. And that plays a lot tougher when the miracle field goal misses than when it slips through the bottom right corner of the uprights.
Prediction: This Eagles team is still a work in progress. Wentz will establish himself as a star in Year 2, but he still will make his share of young-quarterback mistakes. Couple that with Pederson’s head-coach growing pains, the lack of a run game and issues in the secondary, and this is an Eagles team on the rise but still not good enough to win the East — unless it’s at 8-8 or 9-7 with tiebreaker help.
A fun season of “Hard Knocks” got everybody fired up about this Bucs team, and a dominating Week 2 victory over the Chicago Bears (their hurricane-delayed season debut) made you think that excitement must be justified. But Tampa Bay got smoked in Week 3 by Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings. And Koetter’s crew is dealing with a potentially crippling rash of injuries on the defensive side of the ball. Another offensive coach tasked with the development of a young quarterback, Koetter also is tasked with helping convince his up-and-coming team it can make life difficult for the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons, who by the way are 3-0 already.
Look back to the kinds of things Jack Del Rio was doing with the Oakland Raiders early last season — going for it on fourth down in key late-game spots, for instance. He was trying to teach a team that hadn’t won in a while what it felt like to win — and to play to win. Koetter would do well to look for those kinds of opportunities early, while the Bucs are finding their feet.
Prediction: The Bucs don’t play the Carolina Panthers until Week 8 or the Falcons until Week 12, so by the time the NFC South race really gets going, we’ll have learned a lot more about this team. I think they’re good enough to snag a wild-card spot, with Cam Newton scuffling and the NFC East and West each looking unlikely to produce more than one playoff team.
There was no more embarrassing loss in the league this week than the Dolphins’ 20-6 defeat at the hands of a New York Jets team that isn’t built to win any games this season. The defense fell apart, the offense never got going and a Dolphins team that might be the AFC East’s best hope against the New England Patriots fell to 1-1. Quarterback Jay Cutler, the guy Gase yanked out of the broadcast booth because Ryan Tannehill got hurt and he needed someone who knew his offense, called Sunday a “wake-up call.”
The question for the Dolphins is, “Wake up from what?”
Gase has shown promise, but he’s in a position similar to that of McAdoo, in that he set a high first-year bar and will be judged against it. One thing he has that McAdoo doesn’t is experience recovering from a rough start. The Dolphins started 1-4 last season and won nine of their last 11 games. So 1-1 isn’t that big a deal down there.
Prediction: Another playoff berth with another flawed roster would stamp Gase as a major coaching superstar on the come. But Miami still has to go to Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina, New England and Kansas City. There are too many good teams in the AFC, and Cutler isn’t the guy to write a hero story. The Dolphins will miss the playoffs.
So distressed are the Andrew Luck-less Indianapolis Colts that the Browns were actually favored in Sunday’s game. This is an event so rare that you need to order special glasses from Amazon in order to look directly at it. Less rare was the outcome — a Browns loss, their 18th in 19 games with Jackson as coach. You hear a lot from people in the Browns organization about the way Jackson’s energy and positivity keep the building upbeat and hopeful for the future. But if you get to Christmas Eve again before winning your first game of the season, that energy carries you only so far.
Jimmy Haslam’s track record as Browns owner has established a real “rent-don’t-buy” ethos for coaches and front-office types in Cleveland, and while the people to whom I spoke insist Haslam is all-in on the rebuild, you do wonder how long that patience holds out.
Prediction: An up-and-coming defense and a fun but flawed young quarterback offer hope, and hope in and of itself is progress in Cleveland. But this team is nowhere near playoff contention and should be thrilled to get to four or five wins. Haslam’s history makes Jackson the most likely of these coaches to find himself unemployed at the end of 2017.