Next to the quarterback, head coaches are arguably the most important part of a team’s success. This season, there’s an unprecedented 10 new head coaches. From a betting perspective, it’s most integral to anticipate the effect this could have on the competitive nature of a roster. Stable teams with gifted leaders are usually the best against the spread (ATS). Here’s my list of who I think has the best chance of transforming their franchise, starting with the most capable. Let’s dive in.
1. Doug Pederson, Jacksonville Jaguars - 2021 ATS record: 5-12
No team performed worse ATS in 2021, and no team got blown out more often. Last year’s Jaguars, led by the controversial tactics of Urban Meyer, had a staggering -12 point differential. We’re thinking that will change this season. In just his second year with the Philadelphia Eagles, Doug Pederson led them to a 13-6 ATS record and a Super Bowl victory. I’m not sure if we can expect the exact same from Pederson in Jacksonville, but this squad has the best chance to improve in myriad ways. Some of that is because of how abysmal they were last year.
In short, Jacksonville now has an adult in the room. From an intangible perspective, Pederson brings everything this team needs. He’s known as a particularly adept leader with young men, and for good reason. The starters on his 2017 championship team averaged only 4.3 years of experience. That’s right in line with Jacksonville– the Jaguars starting offense averages 4.45 years of experience, while the starting defense is even younger at 3.45 years. Young men need clear direction, something Pederson became known for during his stint in the City of Brotherly Love. With a returning potential star in Travis Etienne, upgrades on offense and defense, an easier schedule, and a quarterback who’s ready to prove he’s worth the hype, this is a great setup for Pederson to bring out the best in the youthful Jaguars.
2. Brian Daboll, New York Giants - 2021 ATS record: 6-11
As a New York Giants fan, I’m extremely pessimistic. Since two-time Super Bowl winning coach Tom Coughlin vacated the premises in a strange manner (remember when Eli Manning welled up during the presser in 2015 – sad), the Giants haven’t been skilled at selecting head coaches. In the NFL’s biggest market, New York is a tragic 43-64 post-Coughlin, and they’re the only team to never have a winning record the last five seasons. This year there’s an unfamiliar hope in the air. Brian Daboll brings a very impressive resume to New York, one that feels particularly fitting for a Giants team that desperately needs more offense.
Daniel Jones’ shortcomings in three years as a starter are well-documented, but anyone who watched this iteration of the New York Giants knows that poor play calling and the absence of creativity didn’t help. Even worse, Joe Judge had a coaching style that just doesn’t work if your name isn’t Bill Belichick. Daboll exemplifies everything New York needs: years of quarterback and offensive coaching with some of the brightest minds in football (Belichick, Saban, McDermott), and a relatable personality that might finally extract the majority of New York’s talent. Tweets like these are something others might dismiss; we don’t. Something feels different in East Rutherford, and we think New York won’t be as easy an out this season.
3. Nathaniel Hackett, Denver Broncos - 2021 ATS record: 8-9
I’m not sure how good of a leader Nathaniel Hackett is, but he might have the best setup of any new head coach in the NFL. As quarterbacks and offensive coach for the Jaguars for four seasons, Hackett’s leadership was mediocre, and they over-performed in 2017 behind an exceptional defense. On paper his tenure in Green Bay looks like a radical success story but let’s face it, that’s tough to measure when Aaron Rodgers leads your offense. I mean, I might be able to coach a top-10 offense with Rodgers. Still, Hackett proved he’s good at supporting and maximizing the talent of a star quarterback.
That’s what the Denver Broncos desperately need. Denver’s had 11 starting quarterbacks since Peyton Manning...yikes. This offseason Denver signed Russell Wilson, who’s second only to Aaron Rodgers in career passer rating. They’re also loaded with developing stars at skill positions on offense. Combine that with a young, hungry defense that ranked second in points allowed per game last season and it’s easy to see why Hackett’s role is pretty straightforward. Even if Hackett simply gets out of the way, traveling to the Mile-High City just got more difficult with Wilson and a proven defense.
4. Kevin O’Connell, Minnesota Vikings - 2021 ATS record: 9-8
Next to Denver and Tampa Bay, Kevin O’Connell’s setup in Minnesota is among the most pristine. O’Connell comes from the Sean McVay coaching tree, having led the Rams offense for the last two seasons, and he’ll bring a bright mind and new ideas for a team that’s craving it. Kirk Cousins, a quarterback who can make every throw but notoriously struggles in big game situations, certainly sounds hopeful about O’Connell’s new schemes. In the eight games Cousins started last season, the Vikings lost by an average margin of only 4.4 points per game.
Additionally, clunky offense and inconsistent usage of their skill players combined for a lowly 36.4% third down conversion rate and plenty of missed opportunities. More reports surfacing about the schism between Cousins and ex-coach Mike Zimmer last season tells us that a change, any change, might be exactly what Cousins and the Vikings’ offense needed. With enigmatic offensive players like Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook, I like the chances that the Minnesota Vikings will outperform last year’s performance.
5. Todd Bowles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 2021 ATS record: 10-9
The only reason why Todd Bowles isn’t higher ranked is because Tampa was far from a disaster last season, unlike many of the other teams on this list, and oh yeah: Tom Brady. From my purview, the G.O.A.T. is the closest thing to a coach and quarterback that we have in the league. His experience with Bruce Arians was a great testament to that. Brady had as much influence on the offensive game plan as Arians, that is, until Arians wanted to assert his power on the aging legend. In any case, Brady gets another shot at a Super Bowl ring beside offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, while Todd Bowles assumes the role of head coach and looks to improve an elite defense that was decimated by injuries last season. This feels like a perfect fit.
Injuries are always a concern for any team, but in 2020 they were among the healthiest teams in the NFL and we witnessed the result. Bringing in Julio Jones certainly helps make up for Rob Gronkowski’s retirement and the volatile but unguardable version of Antonio Brown we saw last season. A Super Bowl champion as a player, coach, and executive, Bowles has the experience, poise and talent around him to succeed in Tampa. In summation, we expect a decent uptick in ATS performance from a Bucs team that was already above-average in that category.
6. Mike McDaniel, Miami Dolphins - 2021 ATS record: 9-7-1
Mike McDaniel brings an innovative offensive mind, a quirky personality and plenty of excitement to a franchise that apparently needed all three. Former head coach Brian Flores was fired at the end of last season, sparking controversy for good reason– Flores’ Dolphins were 30-19 ATS in three seasons, third only to the Bills and Packers. That move ushered a new era in Miami and from our purview, Mike McDaniel is a good candidate to lead it. Questions about Tua Tagovailoa are fair and much of their success will rely on the young quarterback, but the Dolphins have the surrounding personnel and coach to foster more success.
McDaniel’s smartly reloaded his offense with speed and familiar talent like former 49ers RB Raheem Mostert, LT Terron Armstead, and special teamer Trent Sherfield. We can reasonably expect their offense to improve, but their defense is a big question mark behind third year coordinator Josh Boyer. We’re not sure if he can bring the same consistency as Flores’ and it’s hard to assess how much of an influence Boyer had in previous seasons. Expecting Miami to improve ATS is a different challenge than simply winning. I see too many question marks to forecast even better results in year one with a first-time head coach.
7. Dennis Allen, New Orleans Saints - 2021 ATS record: 9-8
Dennis Allen has big shoes to fill in New Orleans. Sean Payton led the Saints for fifteen seasons as one half of an ideal marriage between himself and future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. Under that regime, the Saints had an impressive 152-89 straight up record and a 140-111-3 ATS record, not to mention a Super Bowl XLIV win. The good news for Dennis Allen is that he’s been in the Big Easy for six years under Payton. He also has arguably the most talented defense in the NFL and plenty of star-studded offensive talent.
On paper, it’s one hell of a setup. It’s just hard for me to predict a better outcome than what we saw from the Saints under Payton. For a decade and a half, the Saints were sensational ATS on the road, as underdogs, and in pretty much every imaginable situation under their ex-coach. I think the Saints could make it far this season, the talent and experience are there, but coaches like Sean Payton are really tough to replace. For now, I’d express caution. Legendary coaches don’t grow on trees and “Who Dat Nation” should probably suppress expectations, at least at first.
8. Josh McDaniels, Las Vegas Raiders - 2021 ATS record: 10-8
This one’s just really tough for me. Josh McDaniels embraces his second stint as a head coach in the NFL and while there’s something to say about learning from your first tryout, it’s really hard for me to assess McDaniels’ abilities. He inherited a terrible roster with the 2009-2010 Broncos, predictably leading to his exodus in the middle of his second season. Conversely, there’s plenty to celebrate about his prowess and success as offensive coordinator of the Patriots, a role he assumed for over a decade. Regardless, many coaches are better served as coordinator or assistants, and I think McDaniels may fit that profile.
Detail-oriented, loves the Xs and Os, loves problem solving– these are the qualities we see in Las Vegas’ new coach, but that doesn’t make him a leader of men. Many of Belichick’s mentees try to do their best Bill impression in proceeding roles as head coach (how’d that go, Joe Judge?). If McDaniels discards that approach and provides a stimulating energy for a talented Raiders team (particularly on offense– hello Devante Adams), much success could come. I just don’t feel like we have enough evidence to make a bold claim at this juncture.
9. Lovie Smith, Houston Texas - 2021 ATS record: 8-9
Besides entering this season with a gnarly beard, I’m not so sure there’s much to like about Lovie Smith’s latest stint as a head coach. Smith had great success in his years with Chicago, including a Super Bowl matchup against Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLI, but that was yesteryear and the Texans present a much bigger challenge. Lovie is a defensive-minded coach but he’ll have little to work with.
Sure, there’s some exciting young talent like cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., the star draft pick of LSU, and their pass defenders are slightly above average. On the other hand, a porous defensive line, subpar linebackers and an offense that overly-relies on Brandin Cook will probably amount to more failure than success. Davis Mills showed promise in his rookie season, but Coach Smith isn’t exactly a quarterback-whisperer. At 64 years old and with rumors of Sean Peyton circulating as a future Texans’ head coach candidate, Lovie Smith is in a really tough situation.
10. Matt Eberflus, Chicago Bears - 2021 ATS record: 6-11
I would expect little-to-no-difference in what we see from the Chicago Bears this season. In fact, it could get worse. Matt Ebrflus, the acclaimed Indianapolis defensive coordinator who had a great run with an above-average roster, takes on the harrowing assignment of transforming one of the NFL’s most storied franchises. They’re also one of the least talented rosters in football; typically that’s a huge problem. Roquan Smith leads a defense that’s probably the worst unit Chicago’s rolled out in a decade, and Justin Fields (poor Justin Fields) heads an offense that’s among the least skilled that we’ve ever seen on paper.
David Montgomery does his best as a workhorse running back behind a thin offensive line, while Darnell Mooney and Byron Pringle headline a wide-receiver group with 71st overall draft pick Velus Jones Jr., who’s blazing speed gained him 286 yards after contact in his final year at Tennessee. They’re young and Eberflus has experience maximizing defensive talent, but this feels like too daunting of a task. I would give Eberflus, Fields and a young Chicago team more time to adapt and mature before we anticipate any positive regression. New coaches can bring positive change, but they rarely create miracles.