Is Giants’ Brian Daboll the best first-time head coach in NFL?
The Giants close out 2022 knowing who their head coach will be in 2023. This is not exactly breaking news, but it is also should not be taken for granted.
Brian Daboll has been everything the franchise hoped he would be in his first year, and in many ways, has delivered far more than the organization expected. The Giants are on the verge of claiming their first playoff berth in six years, an achievement very few people — perhaps no one — inside the building anticipated arriving so early in Daboll’s tenure.
It is always a risk when a team hires someone without any previous NFL head coach experience. The risk increases when the new hire has never before been a head coach at any level. The Giants appreciated that Daboll presented a varied and extensive resume — 22 years in the NFL, working for six different franchises, including two separate stints seven years apart with the Patriots — and at 47 years old, he was not one of these early-30s whiz-kid coordinators emerging as the hottest coaching-candidate flavor of the month. If ever a former coaching staff grunt, position coach and coordinator earned his way up the ranks to gain one of the coveted 32 NFL head coach jobs, Daboll was it. And yet, Daboll never had directed his own team.
Daboll was one of five first-time head coaches hired in the 2022 cycle, along with Matt Eberflus (Bears), Nathaniel Hackett (Broncos), Mike McDaniel (Dolphins) and Kevin O’Connell (Vikings).
It is no stretch to suggest Daboll inherited the toughest job. The Giants finished 4-13 in 2021, the worst record of the five teams that hired a first-time head coach. The Bears were 6-11, the Broncos were 7-10, the Vikings were 8-9 and the Dolphins were 9-8.
Now Daboll has the Giants in a win-and-in scenario, needing to win one of their final two games — versus the Colts at home or on the road against the Eagles — to qualify for the NFC tournament.
Hackett already has been fired by the Broncos. Even at a time when patience seems to be almost non-existent among NFL owners, this is rare: Almost every first-time head coach gets a second season. Not Hackett. Not after the thoroughly embarrassing 51-14 Christmas Day massacre at the hands of the Rams dropped the Broncos to 4-11. Hackett clearly was overmatched in the role, and he was saddled with what turned out to be an atrocious decision to import Russell Wilson to save the day at quarterback. Hackett became just the fifth coach in NFL history not to make it out of his first season.
O’Connell already has his team in the playoffs, and could be one of the top two contenders, with Nick Sirianni of the Eagles, for NFL Coach of the Year honors. The Vikings are only one game behind the Eagles for the No. 1 seed (and the first-round bye) in the NFC. The Vikings are 12-3 after beating the Giants, 27-24, at the buzzer in an entertaining, back-and-forth affair on Christmas Eve in Minneapolis. The Vikings improved to 11-0 in games decided by eight or fewer points, the best record in one-score games in league history through 11 games. This bodes well for O’Connell. A head coach can make a big difference with his decision-making down the stretch of close games.
O’Connell clearly has the trust of Kirk Cousins in a pairing that started in 2017, when O’Connell was Cousins’ quarterbacks coach in Washington. Daboll had no such advantage when he came to the Giants. He never before had worked with Daniel Jones. Daboll had instant credibility based on his track record with NFL quarterbacks over the past two decades, and the role he had in the development of Josh Allen in Buffalo was an easy selling point to Giants ownership when new general manager Joe Schoen — who was with the Bills when Daboll ran the offense — pushed for Daboll.
McDaniel has the Dolphins (8-7) currently occupying the last playoff spot as the No. 7 seed in the AFC, but the team is in free fall on a four-game losing streak. It looked as if the quirky McDaniel — the skinny 39-year-old looks more like a computer programmer than an NFL head coach — would be in the running for Coach of the Year when he had the Dolphins humming along at 8-3, and his early work with Tua Tagovailoa gave credence to the belief that the Dolphins had its franchise quarterback. The more recent results are not as promising. The Dolphins still can clinch a spot in the postseason if they win their final two games (against the Patriots and Jets), but the recent slide dropped their playoff probability to 67 percent.
There is no doubt McDaniel, a former running game specialist with the 49ers, has far more talent at his disposal than does Daboll, who is operating with perhaps the least heralded collection of wide receivers in the league. Where McDaniel has two game-breakers in Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill, Daboll has Darius Slayton, Isaiah Hodgins and Richie James as his primary pass-catching threats.
Eberflus did not succeed in turning the Bears into contenders for anything other than a high pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Bears are 3-12, and it is not clear how much Eberflus — with his background as a defensive coach and coordinator — has contributed to the development of Justin Fields as a possible franchise quarterback.
Daboll will feel the love in what figures to be an emotional scene at MetLife Stadium on Sunday if the Giants clinch a playoff spot by beating the Colts. He has been remarkably and steadfastly stoic about all this, and it will be interesting to see if he allows the public to see what such an unexpected accomplishment assuredly will mean to him. The Giants were projected in most circles to win anywhere from two to seven games, and most predictions fell closer to two than seven. Not bad for a first-time head coach.
The best organizations win today and set themselves up to win tomorrow. This is what Schoen is trying to do with the Giants. He already knows that one of his main competitors, Howie Roseman, has done this for the Eagles, a team the Giants must figure out how to beat one day if they are serious about establishing NFC East supremacy.
Look at what awaits the Eagles on Sunday in Philadelphia. They face the Saints with a chance to lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC, a more coveted spot than in years past now that only the No. 1 seed in each conference receives a first-round bye with seven teams qualifying for the postseason.
And it gets even better for the Eagles. They own the Saints’ 2023 first-round draft pick via a wonderfully forward-thinking trade Roseman made during the 2022 draft. (The Eagles also ended up with a 2022 first-round pick in a separate deal they made with the Texans, which they used to land defensive lineman Jordan Davis at No. 18.) Every loss by the Saints (6-9) makes the 2023 first-round pick they sent to the Eagles more valuable. At present, that pick would be No. 10 overall. It behooves the Eagles to add another loss to the Saints’ record to lift the pick even higher.
“Obviously our motivation is to win the division and to get the first-round bye, which is all in our grasp now,’’ Sirianni said. “Well, this game directly affects both of those things and the draft status. So sure, but we are focused on right now in the season. It will be sweet if we can go out there and get this win, and then once we’re making the draft pick later we can say to ourselves, ‘Well, that really did help us out.’’’
Some call this playing chess while others are dabbling in checkers. This is where the Giants need to get to.
Asked and answered
Here are two questions that have come up recently that we will attempt to answer as accurately as possible:
Has Isaiah Hodgins done enough to ensure himself a roster spot in 2023?
There is no doubt the 24-year-old wide receiver has made an impression with the Giants ever since he was claimed off waivers from the Bills in early November. Schoen and Daboll were familiar with Hodgins from their days with the Bills, who selected Hodgins out of Oregon State in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Hodgins came to the Giants with four career receptions. At 6-foot-4, he is a good-sized target, and he has shown an ability to use his body to keep smaller defenders on his back. Hodgins is not a burner as far as pure speed, but his hands are reliable. Hodgins came up big last week in Minneapolis with career highs in catches (eight) and yards (89), and he hauled in his third touchdown catch of the season as he grows into a red-zone favorite for Jones. Hodgins does not have a contract for next season. Factoring in that Kenny Golladay has virtually no chance to return, Sterling Shepard is coming off ACL surgery, Kadarius Toney now plays for the Chiefs, Darius Slayton is an impending free agent and rookie Wan’Dale Robinson might not be ready for the start of next season after undergoing knee surgery in mid-December, the receiver corps will look quite different in 2023. Hodgins has put himself in the mix.
All we’ve heard the past months is how great Andrew Thomas is playing. Why didn’t he make the Pro Bowl?
Thomas certainly was deserving in his third season with the Giants. He ended up as a third alternate for the NFC roster. The three offensive tackles selected were Tyron Smith (Cowboys), Trent Williams (49ers) and Tristan Wirfs (Buccaneers). Williams is the top-rated offensive tackle this season, according to Pro Football Focus; Wirfs is No. 4 and Thomas is No. 3. There is no way Smith deserved to make it, considering he has played in just two games all season because of a hamstring injury. He is a great player, but he has not been on the field. This was a recognition based solely on reputation. Remember, Pro Bowl selection is based on voting from fans, players and coaches. A young player such as Thomas often needs a set-up season to get his name out there, to receive publicity for being snubbed one year to put himself in position to be selected the next year. This should be the case with Thomas. The 23-year-old is a terrific young player, and if he continues on this trajectory, he will make it to the Pro Bowl in the not-too-distant future.
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