Report cards for new NFL coaches: Matt Nagy heads the class

Being a new NFL coach is no picnic.

Besides needing to find assistants and install new schemes, most new coaches are taking over teams that were so bad their predecessors were fired. The degree of difficulty is even steeper for those with no head-coaching experience; five of the seven new hires made this offseason are first-timers.

With that in mind, we gauge how each of the seven new head coaches has fared and what they need to do for the second half of the season to be considered a success.


Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears (6-3)

By Jeff Dickerson

Biggest sign of progress: Just look at the record. The Bears are above .500, something that never happened during the dreadful John Fox era. Chicago’s offense — so archaic and stagnant under Fox’s watch — is actually fun to watch. Nagy is a big reason for that. He wisely ceded defensive control to veteran coordinator Vic Fangio, whose group is among the best in the NFL.

What he needs to do better: People forget that Nagy called plays for only five games in Kansas City. Every first-year head coach makes mistakes, and Nagy probably regrets a couple of playcalls here and there, but there haven’t been any glaring weaknesses. The key for Nagy is to stay the same — in good and bad times.

What would signify second-half success: The season is already pseudo-successful. The Bears are relevant again. But in order for Chicago to reach the postseason, Nagy’s team has to take care of business in the division. The Bears’ schedule is back-loaded with games against the NFC North.

Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts (4-5)

By Mike Wells

Biggest sign of progress. The easy thing would be to say Andrew Luck’s return or the Colts’ record (they’ve matched their 2017 win total with seven games to go). But Reich has installed an offense that helps Luck get rid of the ball more quickly. He has made 185 straight pass attempts without a sack. Meanwhile, the Colts are sixth in points scored and 11th in total offense. Reich brought an aggressive approach to Indianapolis, which was evident when he went for it on fourth down in Colts’ territory during a Week 4 overtime loss to Houston.

What he needs to do better: Close out games. The Colts have been in the game in the fourth quarter of all five of their losses. They had a chance to win in the final two minutes or overtime in three of those losses. They’re showing signs of improving in that area, as their past two victories were decided in the final half of the fourth quarter.

What would signify second-half success: One more victory will make it an official success because they’ll surpass their win total from last season. But overall, this season has already been a success for Reich because the Colts found the right person to pair with Luck and lead them going forward. Finding a way to get to the playoffs after a 1-5 start would be an extra bonus in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season for Indianapolis.


Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans (5-4)

By Turron Davenport

Biggest sign of progress: The biggest sign of progress has to be the way the Titans managed to rebound from a three-game losing streak and navigate adversity this season. Vrabel has dealt with plenty of turmoil in his first season. Starting quarterback Marcus Mariota was injured in the season opener, which happened to be the longest game in team history. Veteran receiver Rishard Matthews was unhappy with his role and asked for his release. The offense scored 31 points in the losing streak. There were no finger-pointing or signs of in-house problems, and the Titans remain in the race for the AFC South division title.

What he needs to do better: Vrabel needs to find a way to mix running back Derrick Henry into the game plan more. The Titans are at their best when they find balance on offense. Henry helps the running attack, but he has to get into a groove. Of course, it’s hard to keep a dynamic player such as Dion Lewis off the field, but Henry can be a key contributor as well.

What would signify second-half success: If the Titans are going to be successful in the final stretch of the season, they have to play complementary football. Specifically, the offense has to be balanced and avoid turnovers. The defense is good enough to keep the Titans in games — even against good offenses as it showed against New England — but the offense has to become more consistent.


Steve Wilks, Arizona Cardinals (2-7)

By Josh Weinfuss

Biggest sign of progress: The decision to fire offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. Someone had to be held accountable for the offense’s awful start, and Wilks showed the leadership to make a difficult decision. He then made another critical decision by promoting Byron Leftwich from quarterbacks coach to interim offensive coordinator. Wilks needed to establish himself as a decision-maker and someone who could steady a turbulent ship, and he did just that with the McCoy situation.

What he needs to do better: Take a deep breath from time to time. Wilks occasionally appears in over his head as a first-time head coach. Relaxing, at least publicly, could help that perception. Players rave about him and genuinely like him, but the persona he projects will be followed by his players.

What would signify second-half success: He needs to make sure quarterback Josh Rosen is protected and running back David Johnson is involved as much as possible. Without those two, the Cardinals, at least offensively, don’t have much of a shot. If Wilks can keep the support of the locker room, the Cardinals could turn it around next season.

Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions (3-6)

By Mike Rothstein

Biggest sign of progress: The Lions have found a potential star in second-round pick Kerryon Johnson, a running back who is giving Detroit a ground presence for the first time since 2013. Johnson has shown patience and enough burst to break big gains. As long as he stays healthy, he looks like the running back of the future with Detroit — and having a coach who wants to emphasize the run game is a sign of progress from what was here before.

What he needs to do better: There’s a reasonable amount here, which should be expected when a coach is under .500 after taking over a team that was over .500 the past two seasons. Consistency has been a major issue for the Lions in every facet of the game, and that starts with coaching, something Patricia wholly admits. There have been too many games this season in which the Lions’ play has been sloppy at best and they haven’t looked ready to compete from the start. Teams have also been taking advantage of Detroit coming out of halftime. Opponents are outscoring the Lions 88-29 in third quarters, and that’s on making adjustments.

What would signify second-half success: The obvious answer is to win. The Lions fired Jim Caldwell for not making the playoffs, so anything other than an unlikely playoff berth would be considered an unsuccessful first season for Patricia. Barring that, getting a jump in the second half of the season on what Patricia wants Detroit to be in future seasons would be smart. Whether that’s working in younger players such as safety Tracy Walker, offensive lineman Tyrell Crosby or receiver Brandon Powell to see what they have or testing guys on the last years of their contracts to get a strong in-season evaluation, Patricia needs to build for the future. This shouldn’t happen until Detroit is out of the playoff picture, but if the Lions are eliminated with a few games to go, this should be the plan.

Pat Shurmur, New York Giants (2-7)

By Jordan Raanan

Biggest sign of progress: The Giants might not be winning many games under Shurmur, but they are playing hard with a roster that is a serious work in progress. This wasn’t always the case last season (see: lopsided losses to the Rams and 49ers). Shurmur has also done a good job of nipping the drama in the bud when incidents have arisen this season. That is encouraging during an otherwise disappointing first year as coach. Shurmur has also done a good job of admitting mistakes and fixing them. That isn’t always easy for a new coach.

What he needs to do better: Fix the offense. It still hasn’t happened despite a new scheme, the addition of Saquon Barkley and the return of Odell Beckham Jr. The Giants have too many playmakers to be struggling to score points. Shurmur has been adamant about correcting the team’s red zone problems. One way to start would be to call more running plays, which Shurmur conceded should be done.

What would signify second-half success: The Giants aren’t going to the playoffs. They just need to show that they’re playing hard and making progress on offense. Score some points, keep Beckham happy, and take a look at fourth-round QB Kyle Lauletta at some point. It’s about collecting all the available information and building for the future.

Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders (1-8)

By Paul Gutierrez

Biggest sign of progress: The in-season deconstruction of the Raiders’ roster is basically finished. Gruden playing his youngsters, who are responding and showing flashes, is a good thing, no? Rookie defensive tackle Maurice Hurst has three sacks, which is tied for the team lead, while punter Johnny Townsend broke off a 42-yard run on a fake punt against the Chargers in Week 10. First-round pick Kolton Miller has looked more than solid at left tackle (when healthy). Gruden is notoriously tough on younger players, but he needs them for the reconstruction going forward. Are we seeing a kinder, gentler Chucky?

What he needs to do better: Gruden would be the first to tell you he needs to make better offensive playcalls inside the 1-yard line. At the Dolphins in Week 3, Gruden had Derek Carr hand off to fullback Keith Smith, rather than Marshawn Lynch, on fourth-and-goal from the 1, and Smith was stuffed. At the Chargers in Week 5, Gruden dialed up a pass on first-and-goal from the 1, and it was picked off. Against the Chargers in Week 10, Gruden’s playcall of a jet sweep inside the 1-yard line was snuffed out.

What would signify second-half success: This is tricky because the Raiders, who have been outscored by a combined 75-9 the past nine quarters, need a top draft pick. But they also need to show some life, some spark, some pizzazz. Being entertaining while being competitive would satisfy those requirements, but as anyone associated with the team would tell you, they are trying to win games. But at what cost?

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