Choosing a great NFL head coach is like handicapping a horse race. The Rooney family is great at it, but it's a crapshoot for everyone else.
This round of NFL hirings officially will be completed after Super Bowl LI, when the 49ers are expected to hire Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to fill their vacancy. Shanahan will be the fifth first-time head coach in this cycle's six hirings and the third with an offensive background. Jacksonville's Doug Marrone is the only former head coach of this crop, and the only one who didn't spend 2016 as a coordinator.
NFL owners struggling to identify the best coaches won't stop me from trying to do the same. Here's how I'd rank the six new hires based on their likelihood for success in their respective tenures.
1) Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers: This ranking is not just about Lynn, but the staff that he quickly built. Lynn chose to keep offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, reportedly at the prodding of Chargers management. Lynn also convinced former Seahawks defensive coordinator and Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley to run his defense.
Lynn's inexperience running a team -- he's never been a head coach at any level, though he did serve as the interim head coach in Buffalo after Rex Ryan's firing heading into Week 17 -- will be mitigated by the presence of two former head coaches (Whisenhunt and Bradley) on his staff. Those hires show a self-confidence and lack of ego that will serve him well.
Lynn won the job in large part because he was a "natural-born leader," according to Chargers president John Spanos. It's easy to see why players swear by him after listening to Lynn address the media. He stressed wanting to coach the entire Chargers roster rather than focusing on his specialty, the running game. While he's worked in Ryan's shadow (having served on Ryan's staff with the Jets from 2009 to 2014 and again with the Bills in 2015 and '16), Lynn sounded like a man who has prepared to run a team since he got into coaching. He carries himself like someone who will be doing this a long time.
Lynn's proven track record as a creative, productive run-game schemer (his Bills teams had the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack the pasttwo seasons) puts him over the top as No. 1 for this exercise. If he can meld his ideas with Whisenhunt's offense, the Chargers could take a playoff trip after moving north up the 405.
2) Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams: No one knows if McVay can transform quarterback Jared Goff into a star. Everyone knows Wade Phillips is one of the greatest defensive coordinators of all time. The hiring of a known quantity like Phillips boosts McVay up these rankings, which are inherently stuffed with uncertainty. Worrying about whether defensive tackle Aaron Donald and linebacker Alec Ogletree fit Phillips' system misses the big picture. Give Phillips talented players, and he'll figure out how to make them shine.
McVay, 30, is a far bigger question mark. He's the rare offensive ingenue who is prized for his acumen and known for communicating well with his players. But how much credit do coach Jay Gruden and Washington's deep receiver group get for the well-constructed Redskins offense?
Watching McVay's introductory press conference, it's easy to see why he impressed the Rams' and 49ers' decision-makers in interviews. He rocketed up wish lists in January because he sounds like a head coach, due to his energy and confidence. Gus Bradley was another hot-shot coordinator who impressed at the podium and behind closed doors, but that doesn't necessarily translate into running a team.
3) Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos: John Elway didn't hire Joseph for his defensive game plans. Joseph was only a defensive coordinator for one season in Miami, and the 2016 Dolphins group didn't exactly shine. Joseph won the job through his presence and his strong recommendations. Despite mostly being a position coach, he was the right-hand man for Gary Kubiak in Houston, Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati and Adam Gase in Miami. In an interview with KUSA, Elway cited Joseph's "great vision" and his leadership skills.
Joseph is set up to succeed in one of the NFL's strongest organizations, with a top defensive roster and former Chargers head coach Mike McCoy as his offensive coordinator. Promoting secondary coach Joe Woods to defensive coordinator provides continuity on Denver's stronger side of the ball. This ranking partly reflects Denver's track record under Elway. His judgement on these large-scale decisions deserves the benefit of the doubt.
4) Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers: NFL.com's Michael Silver reported that Shanahan is "almost certain" to accept the 49ers head coaching job after the Super Bowl, when it's officially offered to the current Falcons offensive coordinator. He passes one quick test I have for any head coach: Does he bring something tangible to the table? Shanahan's offense makes that answer an unqualified yes.
Despite his age, the 37-year-old Shanahan has vast experience as a top play-caller. He's run offenses for nine NFL seasons, and those teams ranked in the top 10 in yardage six times. He's successfully modernized some of his father Mike's West Coast Offense principles for this pass-wacky era. That's why it was only a matter of time before Shanahan got his own team.
There are red flags, however. Shanahan's previous stop in Cleveland ended bumpily, with Shanahan asking to leave after one season under contentious circumstances. He has successfully leveraged his offensive wizardry into a job that is expected to give him great power within a currently broken franchise. (For one, Shanahan is expected to help pick his general manager.) That power and responsibility is a lot to handle, considering San Francisco's lack of a quarterback and sub-standard roster. Back in Denver, general manager Mike Shanahan essentially got coach Mike Shanahan fired. It doesn't help that the 49ers have proven impatient and are lacking consistent direction.
The delay in Shanahan's hiring will hurt him greatly in terms of putting together a staff. Chip Kelly was sunk in San Francisco partly because he was stuck with a lousy defensive roster and couldn't find a high-quality coordinator to save it. Shanahan is the captain in gym class stuck with the last pick. Getting quality coaches to San Francisco, where he will be the fourth head coach in as many years, won't be easy. Nothing about Shanahan's job will be.
5) Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars: Marrone's strange departure from Buffalo two years ago didn't reflect well on either side. His track record with the Bills sent similarly mixed signals. While the Bills went 9-7 in Marrone's second season, that was largely due to defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's excellent group. Marrone's offense was below average in both of his seasons in Buffalo, although his quarterbacks were EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton. Even Marrone's tactics were inconsistent. His Bills moved away from an extreme run-heavy approach in his second season.
That's a long-winded way of saying Marrone's first stint as a head coach shouldn't get Jaguars fans excited or scare them away. He'll have the same offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, that he had in Buffalo. The Jaguars will have the same defensive coordinator, Todd Wash, as they did in 2016. (That's likely to the chagrin of cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who said he wanted a "complete change" of the team's scheme and staff.)
Promoting Marrone (who was an assistant in Jacksonville the past two seasons) and retaining Wash supports my theory that the Jaguars didn't want to shake up their current staff. They doubled down on the Blake Bortles era under general manager David Caldwell. Marrone has some talent to work with, but he might not have a long timeline to turn things around before new executive VP Tom Coughlin makes a clean sweep of the organization.
6) Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills: It's unfair to rank McDermott this low, but someone has to bring up the rear. McDermott is well respected throughout the NFL, but he has the fewest tangible assets and perhaps the most difficult job of the new coaches.
The Bills have high expectations and a flawed roster. The organization also has an entrenched GM in Doug Whaley who hasn't shown a great aptitude for finding talent. McDermott made his name as a defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers under a defensive-minded head coach in Ron Rivera, so it's difficult to tease out what his impact was. The Panthers' defense wasn't exactly a shutdown unit in his tenure, despite being well-coached. McDermott has been a defensive coordinator the last eight seasons between his time in Philadelphia and Carolina. Those defenses ranked in the top 10 in points allowed twice.
McDermott's offensive coordinator will be former Broncos OC Rick Dennison, a coach who was attached at the hip to Gary Kubiak for most of the last two decades. The Bills will likely be breaking in a new quarterback, one of many challenges for Dennison in the role. Perhaps McDermott and Dennison are NFL lifers who just needed this chance to show their value. They will have to be exceptional to excel in Buffalo, where they face an uphill task.