TAMPA — It is a contest with no rules and no prize.
To be honest, it isn’t much of a contest at all.
It’s more like an end-of-year scorecard. An exercise in curiosity, perhaps.
Of the eight NFL teams that hired a new coach for the 2019 season, which came out as the biggest winner. More to the point, where did Tampa Bay Bucaneers coach Bruce Arians rank among his seven fellow newcomers last season?
You gotta believe he fared better than poor Freddie Kitchens. The former offensive coordinator didn’t even make it to his first anniversary as the head coach in Cleveland before being fired and having one of his players suggest he did not inspire respect in the locker room.
On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that Arians, a York High graduate, did a better job than Matt LaFleur. The rookie head coach, who was barely older than quarterback Aaron Rodgers, took the Packers from a six-win season in 2018 to a 13-3 record and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
He was the only one of the newbies to make the postseason. Actually, he was the only one with a winning record.
Still, that does not mean LaFleur stood alone when it came to earning his paycheck. Each of the coaches walked into a unique circumstance and each was going to be measured by a different standard of success.
With that in mind, let’s review how Arians’ 7-9 debut in Tampa Bay compared with first impressions in the other seven NFL markets that made coaching changes after the 2018 season.
Arians vs. Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor (2-14): The Bengals needed a victory in the season finale against Cleveland to avoid setting a new franchise record for futility. Even so, 2-14 matches Cincinnati’s worst record. And while the franchise needed shaking up, Taylor did not undertake the type of overhaul we saw in Miami. The biggest positive was securing the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Verdict: Easy win for Arians.
Arians vs. Miami’s Brian Flores (5-11): This is an interesting comparison. The Bucs had two more victories than the year before, and the Dolphins had two fewer victories. So, in the most basic sense, Arians outperformed Flores.
Except the expectations were very different in the two markets. Arians was brought in to make some tweaks and get the Bucs closer to the postseason. Flores was brought in to tear down the Dolphins and rebuild. Miami has five first-round picks and four second-round picks over the next two drafts. The Bucs are probably closer to contention in 2020 but, by 2021, you might be better off if you are a Miami fan.
Verdict: Arians. For now.
Arians vs. Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury (5-10-1): Point in Kingsbury’s favor? While the Cardinals only won five games, they played the entire season with a rookie quarterback (No. 1 pick Kyler Murray) who had a higher passer rating than Winston. Arizona’s offense improved from last in the NFL in points scored in 2018 to 16th in 2019.
Point against Kingsbury? The Cardinals faded as the season went on. A 3-3-1 start gave way to a 2-7 finish.
Verdict: Slight edge to Arians.
Arians vs. Cleveland’s Freddie Kitchens (6-10): It’s interesting how many teams bring in coaches specifically to work with an incumbent quarterback. Unlocking Jameis Winston’s potential was a huge part of the decision to hire Arians in Tampa Bay, and Kitchens’ prior relationship with Baker Mayfield got him the job in Cleveland.
In Kitchen’s case, it didn’t work. At all. Mayfield’s completion percentage and yards-per-attempt went down and his interceptions went way up. The Browns brought in Odell Beckham Jr. and saw themselves as playoff contenders, but instead went backward in 2019.
Verdict: Arians in a landslide.
Arians vs. Denver’s Vic Fangio (7-9): By midseason, fans weren’t embracing Fangio in the Mile High City. The Broncos were 3-8 and the offense was horrible. Yet, once they installed rookie second-rounder Drew Lock as quarterback, the Broncos went 4-1 down the stretch.
At 7-9, Denver had the same record as Tampa Bay but got victories against a pair of postseason teams (Tennessee and Houston) that beat the Bucs. Tampa Bay was 0-6 against playoff-bound teams.
Verdict: Surprising nod to Fangio.
Arians vs. New York’s Adam Gase (7-9): Fascinating contrast. Jets were 1-7 on Nov. 3, and Bucs were 2-6. Both played better in the second half against mostly shaky opponents. Both finished the season at 7-9. Jets improved by three wins over 2018, Bucs improved by two.
The question is which looks more sustainable. Even with Tampa Bay’s uncertainty at quarterback, I’d say the Bucs have a better shot at the playoffs in 2020.
Verdict: Edge to Arians.
Arians vs. Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur (13-3): Let’s acknowledge that LaFleur had a huge head start with future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. But what’s interesting is LaFleur, who has an offensive background, wisely rode an improved defense to the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
He didn’t feel the need to show off his passing game acumen, and instead focused on winning games. That’s the sign of a smart coach.
Verdict: Easy win for LaFleur.