Sixteen weeks ago when the National Football League opened the 2018 campaign the list of seven new head coaches took a hit. The conversation was how bad they did after Steve Wilks of the Arizona Cardinals, Matt Nagy of the Chicago Bears, Matt Patricia of the Detroit Lions Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts, Pat Shurmur of the New York Giants, Jon Gruden of the Oakland Raiders and Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans all lost their first game of the year.
So, has the fortunes of new coaches improved?
It hasn’t gotten much brighter for Wilks of the Cardinals or Patricia of the Lions. Wilks leads his Arizona team into their season ending game this weekend against the Seattle Seahawks with a 3 and 12 win/loss record, the Lions under the direction of Patricia are 5 and 10. It has also been shaky for Shurmur of the Giants, and the New York fans have shown little patience in the past and Shurmur has led the Giants to only five wins in his first season.
The highest paid head coach in the NFL is Jon Gruden, and he has spent his return engagement with the Raiders more focused on building for the future than looking for initial wins in the first of his ten year contract. On the eve of the regular season Gruden traded one of the best defensive players in the league to the Chicago Bears, and Khalil Mack has added an element that has lifted the Bears from four straight last place finishes to the title in the NFC North Division. On the trade deadline in October, Gruden traded another one of the Raiders best players for a first round draft choice, sending Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys.
Chicago’s Nagy has been the most successful first year head coach. But, two other coaches making their first head coaching stops are on the cusp of also breaking the playoff field. With wins this week, Reich’s Colts will advance to the playoff field of twelve and with a victory, Vrabel’s Titans have a chance..
In other words, after that losing sweep in their opening games, three of the seven first year coaches have an opportunity of leading their teams to the postseason.
Here is a question I don’t know the answer to. Has an NFL team ever earned a playoff date that didn’t beat a team with a winning record in the regular season? We know the 2011 New York Giants are the only NFL team to win a Super Bowl while allowing more points than they scored in the regular season, but this year the Vikings may enter the field of twelve and if they don’t beat Chicago on Sunday, they will not have defeated a team with a winning record all season.
The Vikings will be a playoff team if they beat Chicago, but could also land in the postseason with a loss coupled with Philadelphia Eagles loss or tie.
The fact that last year’s Super Bowl Champion Eagles are still in the playoff hunt is one of the more intriguing stories of the season. Last year, second-year quarterback Carson Wentz was instrumental in leading the Eagles to the best record in the league, and after he was injured in December, Nick Foles came on to complete the regular season with the Eagles earning the top seed. He followed that success with a pair of NFC playoff wins and then was named Most Valuable Player in the Eagles Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots.
This year, Foles started the season for Philadelphia and was unimpressive as Wentz continued his rehabilitation from last year’s injury. Philadelphia lost three of their first five games and even with Wentz back behind center did not look like a team headed to the playoffs.
Then, a couple weeks ago, Wentz got hurt again, and on comes Foles. As a kid, my favorite cartoon character was Mighty Mouse, and I recall his theme song with the key words, “Here he comes to save day.”
Well, here he comes again to save the day, not Mighty Mouse, but Nick Foles. Leading wins over division leaders the past two weeks, the Los Angeles Rams and Houston Texans, Foles has Philadelphia in position to win a playoff berth with a victory over the Redskins in Washington on Sunday coupled with a Vikings loss to the Bears.
Another season ending weekend where every game matches a division opponent against a division opponent. Five teams remain in the hunt for the final two NFC Wild Card berths. With a win, the Colts advance in the AFC, while if they stumble either the Titans or Pittsburgh Steelers could advance.
In the NFC, if the Vikings fail to win at home against the Bears, the door will be open for the Eagles with a victory.