Tackling A Tall Task: How Three New Head Coaches Take On NFL Rebuilds

Last year, first-time HC Brian Daboll managed to turn around the New York Giants. Can another first-time HC do something similar this year? (New York Giants)

Written and Edited by Zach Kangieser

August 10, 2023 - 7:45 PM

Sometimes, in the NFL, the media and fans like to talk about a quarterback carousel. People will look at teams without a clear-cut starting QB and wonder what signal-caller the team will find and sign to lead them in the future. However, a similar carousel exists for NFL coaches as well. Every year, without fail, multiple NFL franchises will decide they’ve had enough of whoever is calling the plays, give them the axe, and look to usher in a new era for their franchise with a new head coach.

When it was all said and done and the 2022 NFL Season wrapped up, five teams were in the market for new head coaches. Three of them fired their coaches midseason, with the Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos all relying on interim coaches to finish the season. Two bottom-three teams, the Houston Texans and the Arizona Cardinals, followed suit the moment the season ended, cutting ties with Lovie Smith and Kliff Kingsbury respectively. All five teams began looking over their options shortly, trying to find their coach of the future.

Of those five teams, two managed to hire people that already had head coaching experience. The Carolina Panthers signed Frank Reich (who the Colts had just fired) to lead their team (and presumably to help develop their new QB as well. Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos managed to lure Sean Payton out of his retirement to turn around a team that had a disappointing 5-12 record in 2022. Both of these squads did have unfortunate years but could still arguably be close to the playoffs, and not quite in need of a full rebuild.

The other three teams all looked at what they had and decided starting almost from scratch was necessary, hiring longtime coordinators to be their new head coaches. All three of these teams won four games or fewer and all three seemed to be in dire need of a paradigm shift, which may have been part of their reasoning for hiring the hot new head coaching prospects. 

In the months since these new coaches have been hired, free agency has been well underway and the NFL Draft came and went, giving everyone a chance to stock up on new talent and rebuild a bit. Training camps are also in full swing, with preseason games less than a month away. 

With all that in mind, it’s not hard to wonder how each new coach has adjusted to their new position and what their respective teams have tried to do to support them. To answer those questions, a deeper dive into the situations of the Houston Texans, the Arizona Cardinals and the Indianapolis Colts are all necessary.

DeMeco Ryans’ Return to Houston 

Ryans hopes to turn around the struggling franchise he once played for. (SI)

Arguably the hottest new head coaching prospect during this year’s cycle was Associated Press Assistant Coach of the Year Award winner, DeMeco Ryans. Ryans had been a defensive coach for the San Francisco 49ers since 2017 and their defensive coordinator since 2021, having built a stellar defense in San Francisco. This was in part due to his own defensive schemes and in part due to his ability to develop defensive talent, such as linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw and safety Talanoa Hufanga.

This knack for development came in part from his own playing days. Ryans spent six seasons with the Houston Texans and five with the Philadelphia Eagles as a linebacker and was an NFL All-Pro with the Texans in 2007. He was renowned for his vision and his ability to see, learn, and teach the game, which earned him the nickname “Cap” (as in captain); the 49ers hired him immediately after his playing career ended.

Ultimately, Ryans chose to return to a team familiar with him, becoming the new head coach of the Houston Texans. He is their fifth in four years and is attempting to turn around the team with the worst record over the last 3 seasons (11-38-1). These last few years have been a struggle for Houston, as longtime coach and GM Bill O’Brien had left the team without much draft capital and made poor moves, including the infamous Deandre Hopkins trade. Additionally, team QB Deshaun Watson first refused to play for the team and then was accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women, meaning the organization as a whole was a dumpster fire.

All of the above factors meant that getting Ryans to sign was a major first step in the right direction for the Texans, and since then, he has worked with GM Nick Caserio in an effort to both obtain more talent and instill a new culture for a team that badly needs it. He managed to bring along 49ers passing game coordinator (and Kyle Shanahan assistant) Bobby Slowik to be his offensive coordinator, setting the tone for how the team plans to play this upcoming season.

In free agency, the Texans tried to spread their money around to get as much talent as possible. Offensively, they picked up Dalton Schultz and Devin Singletary, a good pass catching tight end and a complementary running back to the already talented Dameon Pierce. They also extended Laremy Tunsil, one of the league’s top left tackles, and signed guard Shaq Mason to bolster their offensive line. On defense they picked up Jimmie Ward from the 49ers to add to their secondary, but their main focus was addressing the league’s worst run defense. They did so by picking up many solid players over a few stars, signing defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and Hassan Ridgeway as well as linebackers Denzel Perryman and Cory Littleton.

While Ryans may have looked for improvements in the run defense in free agency, his influence was very clear during the draft. In the lead up, Ryans had made it very clear that he wanted Will Anderson to be a Texan. Anderson visited no other teams, either, leading many to speculate that Houston would take him with the second overall pick. However, Houston was in dire need of a quarterback as well, with Davis Mills having finished the 2022 NFL season as arguably the worst starting QB in the league. With Bryce Young out of the picture, CJ Stroud was also an appealing choice at number two overall.

However, when faced with the choice of Anderson or Stroud, Ryans and Nick Caserio found a way to have their cake and eat it too, selecting Stroud second overall before trading up with the Arizona Cardinals to get Anderson third. It was a costly trade, with Houston giving up their first rounder next year, among other things. But to many Texans fans, the team paid for more than just Anderson; they paid for hope. They secured their hopeful franchise cornerstones on both sides of the ball and sent the message that they were tired of being a bottom-tier team.

Going into the 2023 NFL season, the Texans are still expected to be a bottom five team due to their lack of proven talent and great number of new elements to the franchise. However, with the influx of new talent, stability at coach (Ryans was signed to a six-year deal), and team morale the highest it’s been in years, it is very possible that the Texans surprise people and pull off a stunner or two in the process.

A New Flock for Jonathan Gannon 

Gannon goes from the NFC's best team to its worst. (SI)

Jonathan Gannon spent the last two seasons as defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, being a large part of their stunning turnaround from a bottom of the barrel team to a Super Bowl contender. He was responsible for taking charge of a defensive unit that was among the most feared in the league in the 2022 season, allowing the second-fewest yards per game. However, he did leave Philly on a sour note, as the Eagles ended up blowing a ten-point Super Bowl lead to the Kansas City Chiefs in part because his defense struggled in the second half. A lot of criticism was aimed at Gannon’s failure to adapt to Kansas City’s plans, which led to Philly giving up thirty-eight points.

Still, Gannon’s resume is impressive, having spent almost twenty years as a coach and three as a scout. He’s primarily specialized in the secondary position, having been a defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts before the Eagles hired him. Gannon was reportedly integral to the development of the Colts’ secondary, and he did similar work with Eagles head coach Nick Srianni. 

Just two days after Gannon and the Eagles lost the Super Bowl, it was announced that the Cardinals had officially hired him to be their new head coach. Like the Texans, the Cardinals were at an impasse. After making the playoffs in 2021, Arizona was one of the biggest disappointments of 2022, winning just four games en route to the third worst record in the league. Starting quarterback Kyler Murray suffered an ACL tear, coach Kliff Kingsbury was fired, and general manager Steve Keim left, leaving the Cardinals with a choice: double down and try to compete in 2023, or blow it up and try to plan for the future.

It seems that the Cardinals have chosen the latter. While Gannon is a competent coach, he and new GM Monti Ossenfort have worked on winning their current players over while stockpiling draft picks and cap space to acquire talent in 2024 and 2025. In the short-term, however, that meant losing lots of the talent that they did have at their disposal.

In free agency, they elected to cut aging star receiver DeAndre Hopkins and starting center Rodney Hudson. Talented defensive lineman Zach Allen elected to sign with the Broncos. They also lost two legends to retirement, as defensive end JJ Watt and wide receiver AJ Green both called it careers. And while still on the team, safety Budda Baker has been vocal about his desire to be elsewhere.

Still, despite those losses, the Cardinals picked up some valuable additions in the draft, both in terms of players and of draft capital. O-Lineman Paris Johnson Jr. was selected sixth overall by the team in an effort to secure safety for Kyler Murray, and in the second round they snagged promising LSU edge rusher BJ Ojulari. But they didn’t get either at their original draft spots, instead trading back for future picks. They ended up acquiring a first and third-rounder from the Texans as part of the Will Anderson trade, and a third-rounder from the Tennessee Titans that allowed them to pick Will Levis. It’s not just plausible, but probable that the Cardinals will have six picks in the top 75 of the 2024 Draft, meaning a new influx of talent is highly likely.

Gannon and the Cardinals are currently pegged as the league’s worst team by most metrics and are expected to finish with the top pick, so struggling this year will happen. However, after that, they could get very good very quickly.

Shane Steichen Joins a Stampede

Steichen gets a shot at developing his third QB in five years. (Kelly Wilkinson/USA Today)

Jon Gannon wasn’t the only Eagles coordinator hired by a rebuilding team, either. The same day Gannon was hired by Arizona, the Indianapolis Colts announced that Philly’s offensive coordinator in Shane Steichen would become their new head coach. As the Eagles’ OC, Steichen built an offensive unit that was among the league’s best in every category, eventually putting up at least thirty-one points in every playoff game, when it mattered most. He also was behind the development of Jalen Hurts into one of the league’s best QBs.

Like Gannon, Steichen has a list of different places he has put in work for, stretching back to 2007 when he graduated from UNLV. He also had a bit of playing experience, as he spent his four years at UNLV as a quarterback, though he mostly rode the bench. That experience translated ten years later when he began working as the quarterbacks coach for the then-San Diego Chargers, working with Philip Rivers to produce a set of excellent passing seasons. In 2019 he became their interim offensive coordinator and kept the job in 2020, helping to develop Justin Herbert in his rookie year and producing a top offensive unit. Then the Eagles came calling and he did the same with them and Hurts.

Like the other two teams on this list, Steichen and the Colts had to choose between trying to compete and waiting for the future. But while the Texans went all in during their offseason and the Cardinals chose to put their rebuild off, the Colts didn’t really do either. They didn’t pick up a lot of new talent (though they did pick up some names like WR Isaiah McKenzie, QB Gardnew Minshew and DE Samson Ebukam), instead choosing mainly to re-sign players already with them, like WR Ashton Dulin and LB EJ Speed. However, they did lose a bit of talent, especially on defense, where the departures of LB Bobby Okereke, star CB Stephon Gilmore, and potentially DE Yannick Ngakoue may hurt them come this fall.

That said, it’s likely that the Colts are banking on what they currently have being enough, since they went 9-8 in 2021 with a very similar group and Carson Wentz at QB. And in the draft, they got the guy they believe will take them to the promised land in Anthony Richardson. “AR” is a physical specimen who has drawn comparisons to Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, someone who can rip it deep or run it if necessary. However, his finer traits are extremely raw and his college production was lacking, leading to the train of thought that says Richardson is a bust in the making.

The hiring of Steichen may have happened with Richardson in mind. After all, no one has had a better record developing quarterbacks in the last decade. He helped Justin Herbert transition into the NFL, where he is one of its best pocket passers (and now its highest paid player). Then he took the fairly raw Jalen Hurts and, over the course of two years, turned him into the best QB in the NFC. Now, Steichen will face his biggest challenge in development yet, trying to turn Anthony Richardson into another truly elite QB. If Steichen can help Richardson unlock his full potential, he will do wonders turning around a Colts team that was 30th in points per game last year.

Opinions on how the Colts will fare during Steichen’s first year are mixed. Some media members believe they have a shot at the playoffs, with most of the team’s core still the same and a much more competent play caller at the helm. Others think that they’ll remain one of the league’s bottom-tier teams and Richardson will struggle immensely. Whatever happens this year, though, it’s easy to envision Steichen getting as much as he can out of the offense, provided he’s given the time and autonomy to do so.


It’s tough to judge exactly how well a coach will help his team rebuild until they show their abilities on the sidelines. Before the season begins, the only metrics you have to judge a first-time coach in the NFL are their prior resumes and how they gel with their players. Sometimes, like with the last AP Coach of the Year, Brian Daboll, you can see how much they were able to improve a team in a short span. Other times, like with Colts interim coach Jeff Saturday, you can see how it can make a team worse.

Ryans and Steichen will be seeing each other twice a year, presumably for the next few years. Both were highly acclaimed coordinators coming from former contenders, who shaped their units into elite ones. Both also seem to be transitioning well into their head coaching roles. Steichen has been trying to optimize Indianapolis’ offense and he’s doing his best to develop Anthony Richardson, and Demeco has injected badly needed optimism into the Texans franchise while putting particular focus on Will Anderson and other young defensive players. Both appear to be developing good chemistry with their players, and both will almost certainly add a couple wins to their teams’ totals compared to last season.

Gannon is a tougher sell. While he has seemed to earn the respect of Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, there are questions that have been raised about how much of his success in Philly was due to talent on the field, and not everyone in Arizona appears happy with him. The Cardinals will have a rough 2023, but that could likely be said with almost anyone at the helm of their ship. Perhaps in a season or two he will be the best head coach in Arizona since Bruce Arians. 

Ultimately, time is what everyone needs in order to be able to judge how well this trio of head coaches performs. How much time, we don’t know. Perhaps one of them emerges as a Brian Daboll or Dan Campbell by the end of the 2023 season, turning their teams around through more competent playcalling, a vastly improved culture, or both. But at least a year is necessary before we give them their flowers… or heat up their seats.