The NFL head coaching carousel never stops spinning. Expectations for head coaches are high in this league, and when success isn’t happening, they get fired.
Only 14 of the 32 NFL franchises currently have a head coach in place that has lasted more than three full seasons on the job.
With that in mind, let’s examine the three NFL head coaches with the most to prove in 2021:
Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals
When the Cincinnati Bengals hired Zac Taylor to be their next head coach entering the 2019 season, they were very much in transition after 16 seasons under Marvin Lewis. While Lewis helped deliver the most successful stretch of results in franchise history, Cincinnati had a losing record in each of his final three seasons to usher in the Taylor era, which is off to a poor start. Across Taylor’s first two seasons, the Bengals are 6-25-1 with consecutive last-place finishes in the AFC North.
Expectations were low for Taylor in Year 1, and they were met with Cincinnati earning the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft which garnered the Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. The team took a step forward in 2020 but an incomplete roster and Burrow suffering a season-ending injury stunted the team’s progress.
Entering Year 3, it’s time for Taylor and the Bengals to turn the corner. Cincinnati has infused the roster with young talent through the draft and has been more aggressive than usual in free agency in each of the last two seasons. Taylor needs to prove that he’s the right coach to maximize the talent on the roster and allow Burrow to develop. I don’t believe it’s a playoffs-or-bust scenario for Taylor, but Cincinnati needs to challenge for a winning record and compete at a level that is convincing that Taylor is the right coach to make the Bengals a contender in 2022.
Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals
Kliff Kingsbury was hired as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals after a disappointing run at Texas Tech—his alma mater—where he produced a 35-40 overall record, never finished better than fifth in the Big 12, and had a losing record in four of six seasons.
After a 5-10-1 mark in 2019, Kingsbury guided Arizona to an 8-8 record in 2020 where not only did the team produce more wins but quarterback Kyler Murray took a notable step forward. With that said, it’s fair to question if the team was limited by poor gameday management under Kingsbury and frequent games where it simply felt Arizona was out-coached.
Bringing in veterans like A.J. Green, J.J. Watt, Malcolm Butler, and Rodney Hudson in the offseason while welcoming back Chandler Jones from injury, the Cardinals should be expected to contend in the NFC West and be a playoff team. It’s a big year for Kingsbury to prove that he can get this team over the hump and prove he isn’t a hindrance to success.
Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos
After a 7-9 record in Vic Fangio’s first season with the Denver Broncos in 2019, the team fell to 5-11 in 2020. Quarterback Drew Lock failed to take a step forward in his second season and Fangio’s defense declined considerably across the board.
Entering Year 3 for Fangio, the Broncos roster is loaded everywhere except where it matters most: quarterback. Whether it’s Lock or Teddy Bridgewater, I have serious doubts that either can maximize all of the talented young weapons Denver features in Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, Javonte Williams, and K.J. Hamler. Defensively, there are no excuses for Fangio where the depth chart is brimming with talent at all levels of the unit.
Fangio turns 63 in August, and he waited a long time for the opportunity to be a head coach. I worry that his chance will be spoiled because Denver didn’t get the quarterback position right, especially since George Paton is now the general manager and he did not have anything to do with Fangio’s hiring. John Elway is still involved, but Paton deserves to define his own path as general manager and if he doesn’t believe Fangio is the right head coach then that should be his choice to make. Of course, Fangio can shift the narrative and guide Denver to the playoffs in 2020 for the first time since 2015.
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