Greatest NFL Rookie Coaches in History

Can Any of the New Class Become the GOAT?

by Lead NFL Writer Shawn S. Lealos | @sslealos |

The 2018 NFL season is here and with it comes a big opportunity for seven new head coaches. Of those seven, five are rookie head coaches in the NFL and only one of them has worked as a head coach at any level. Can one of these men become the most successful rookie head coach in NFL history?

While that, at one time, was a shaky proposition, this is a new NFL.

Sean McVay was only 31 when the Los Angeles Rams tapped him to be their head coach last season and he led his Rams to 11 wins and the playoffs. Doug Pederson was a high school coach until 2009 and in his first season as an NFL head coach in 2016, he led the Philadelphia Eagles to seven wins and then won a Super Bowl in his second season.

Rookie head coaches seem all the rage now.

So, what does that say for this year’s crop of rookie leaders in the NFL?

Mike Vrabel takes on a talented Tennessee Titans team that has made progress in the last two seasons. Matt Patricia takes over on a Detroit Lions team that is always a threat to make the playoffs. Frank Reich is the new head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, a team that just needs Andrew Luck healthy to be competitive.

Steve Wilks is the new head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, a team with some talent but one that needs help in 2018 to compete. Finally, Matt Nagy takes over with the Chicago Bears, the team that needs the most help of the five this season if they want to compete.

Can these head coaches win?

Maybe, it has been done before. Looking back in time, there have been a lot of NFL rookie head coaches that enjoyed success right off the bat – but most of them needed a team that was already ready.

The NFL rookie head coaches with easy starts

There have been rookie head coaches who stepped into a golden opportunity.

A perfect example is Barry Switzer. After a very successful college career with the Oklahoma Sooners, Switzer took over as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys the year after Jimmy Johnson finished his back-to-back Super Bowl victory seasons.

With Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and an all-star defense, Switzer’s team went 12-4 and made the playoffs. They fell short, losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs, but Switzer had them back in the Super Bowl in his second season.

However, to find the best rookie head coach in NFL history, look no further than George Seifert of those San Francisco 49ers.

After Bill Walsh won a Super Bowl in 1988, he retired from the NFL. Taking his place was defensive coordinator George Seifert. He responded in his rookie season by leading the 49ers to a 14-2 record and a 55-10 Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos. He ended up winning two Super Bowls and made it to the NFC Championship three other times.

Few have been better.

The best NFL rookie head coaches to turn around a team

However, with George Seifert doing so well as a rookie head coach in the NFL, he did it on a team that was already Super Bowl ready. Honestly, the best rookie head coach needs to be someone who took a team that was terrible and turned them into a winner in his first season.

Sean McVay comes close. He took the Rams, who hadn’t won in years, and led them to the playoffs with 11 wins. However, they lost in the Wild Card game to the Atlanta Falcons and it wasn’t even close, falling by a score of 26-13.

To see someone do even better than that, look back at the San Francisco 49ers.

After competing as one of the best teams in the NFL in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they fell to mediocrity and in 2010 they finished with a 6-10 record after only hitting .500 one time since 2002. That is when the 49ers hired first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh.

What did Harbaugh do? He led them from a six-win season to a 13-3 record in his rookie season as an NFL head coach. He also led them to the NFC Championship game, beating the New Orleans Saints 36-32 in the divisional round and then losing to the New York Giants by three points in the NFC Championship.

Harbaugh led them to the Super Bowl in his second season, back to the NFC Championship in his third, and after struggling in his fourth the 49ers fired him and have been irrelevant ever since.

NFL rookie head coaches: Legend’s Edition

In the Super Bowl era, there were a few men who surpassed Harbaugh’s success as a rookie head NFL coach.

One of these men was Don McCafferty, who led the Baltimore Colts to a Super Bowl victory over the Dallas Cowboys in 1970. His Colts finished with an 11-2-1 record and they won the Super Bowl even with Johnny Unitas injured.

Much like Harbaugh, McCafferty also only lasted four seasons as an NFL head coach.

Paul Brown, the legendary Cleveland Browns head coaching legend, went 10-2 in his rookie season and won the first of three NFL Championships. Guy Chamberlin led the Canton Bulldogs to a 10-0-2 record in 1928, at the age of 28, and won the NFL Championship.

Red Miller led the Denver Broncos to a 12-2 record and the Super Bowl before losing there to the Dallas Cowboys. Jim Caldwell’s Indianapolis Colts finished 14-2 but lost to the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl.

Bill Callahan went 11-5 with the Oakland Raiders but then his team lost to Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a nice twist, Gruden is one of the seven new head coaches this season – with the Oakland Raiders.

Whether or not one of the new rookie NFL head coaches in 2018 can outcoach Gruden this season will be a fun story to watch.

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