As with every new season, many teams experienced change at head coach and offensive coordinator. Given the importance of offense in the modern NFL, the people in those roles can have an inordinate influence on the outcome of games and seasons.
Here, we look at all the changes at the head-coaching and OC positions for the 2021 season.
- Arthur Smith, new head coach and offensive play-caller
- Dave Ragone, new offensive coordinator (without play-calling duties)
After the Atlanta Falcons washed out the last remnants of the Dan Quinn era early in the offseason, they targeted a head coach who runs an offense similar to the one that most recently carried the franchise to the Super Bowl: Arthur Smith. Smith coordinated the Tennessee Titans’ offense the past two seasons and utilizes a scheme that borrows heavily from that of Kyle Shanahan, the current San Francisco 49ers head coach and previously the OC during the Falcons’ 2016 Super Bowl appearance. That change should provide a boost to Atlanta while revitalizing quarterback Matt Ryan, who earned the MVP during his final season with Shanahan.
Dave Ragone, the Falcons’ new offensive coordinator, won’t call plays under Smith. However, his experience under multiple Chicago Bears coaching regimes should provide some fresh ideas and perspectives.
- Matt Nagy, head coach reclaiming offensive play-calling duties
While the Bears didn’t make any changes at head coach or offensive coordinator this offseason, they did reallocate play-calling duties. Matt Nagy, the team’s head coach since 2018 and their play-caller until mid-November of last year, will reclaim the responsibilities for the upcoming season. While the Bears looked a little more solid offensively in 2020 during offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s turn at the wheel, the bigger shift will occur whenever Justin Fields takes over at quarterback. Fields, one of the most gifted signal-callers in the draft, should open up the downfield passing game in a way no Chicago quarterback has since Jay Cutler.
- Dan Campbell, new head coach
- Anthony Lynn, new offensive coordinator
New Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell brings a wildly different attitude to the Motor City, but he will not provide much in the way of offensive scheme. That task will fall upon Anthony Lynn, the Lions’ new offensive coordinator and former Los Angeles Chargers head coach. During the final season of Lynn’s tenure in L.A., the offense ranked in the bottom half of the league in early down pass frequency in neutral game situations (win probability between 20-80%), according to RBSDM.com.
That run-heavy approach gives some insight into how the Lions offense will operate in 2021. The team traded away longtime starting quarterback Matthew Stafford and allowed star wideout Kenny Golladay to depart in free agency. Meanwhile, Detroit returns 2020 second-round pick D’Andre Swift to the backfield and signed veteran running back Jamaal Williams to join him. That significant overall investment in the ground attack mirrors Lynn’s tendencies and could leave Lions receivers without a ton of targets to go around.
- David Culley, new head coach
Almost as a footnote to the months-long Deshaun Watson saga, the Houston Texans hired 65-year-old career assistant David Culley as their new head coach. An unconventional hire, Culley must navigate a near-total roster rebuild while also managing the ongoing legal situation facing the team’s disgruntled quarterback.
As Culley will not call his own plays — he retained Tim Kelly as offensive coordinator. Kelly called plays for the Texans for most of last season, though it bears mentioning that then-head coach Bill O’Brien effectively stripped him of those duties on Oct. 4. O’Brien’s firing the following day restored Kelly’s command of the offense, but the struggles remain noteworthy.
Accordingly, the Texans offense will operate schematically much in the same way it did in 2020. Of course, the results will look considerably worse without Watson at the controls, but his trade demand and legal situation should keep him off the field for the foreseeable future.
- Marcus Brady, new offensive coordinator (without play-calling duties)
From a play-calling perspective, nothing will change for the Indianapolis Colts. Head coach Frank Reich has handled the play sheet since arriving in Indy three seasons ago and will continue to do so in 2021. Even with a new starter under center — Carson Wentz, Jacob Eason, Sam Ehlinger, or another quarterback — the offense should look similar to the one that made Jonathan Taylor a 1,100-yard running back and Michael Pittman Jr. a promising young wideout.
Still, Marcus Brady will have more responsibility in 2021, moving from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. Brady will still work extensively with the QBs, perhaps making him the most important assistant on the coaching staff given the uncertainty at the position.
- Urban Meyer, new head coach
- Darell Bevell, new offensive coordinator
Urban Meyer, one of the premier college coaches of the past two decades, returns from his early retirement to take over the Jacksonville Jaguars and No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence. Meyer has never previously coached in the NFL — a fact made abundantly clear by the debacle surrounding the team’s hiring of embattled strength coach Chris Doyle — but he brings credibility to a franchise with only one playoff appearance over the past 13 years. Though Meyer has built stellar offenses throughout his coaching career, he will not serve as the play-caller. Instead, former Detroit Lions offensive coordinator and interim head coach Darrell Bevell will handle those duties.
Bevell’s heavy use of play-action should benefit a rookie signal-caller like Lawrence. It doesn’t hurt that Bevell also called plays for Seattle Seahawks during Russell Wilson’s first six seasons in the NFL. That experience should help the Jaguars build up Lawrence at a comfortable pace while allowing the playmakers around him like D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones, and Travis Etienne to deliver respectable production.
Los Angeles Chargers
- Brandon Staley, new head coach
- Joe Lombardi, new offensive coordinator
While the Chargers hired a defensive head coach to oversee quarterback Justin Herbert’s development, that framing is somewhat misleading. Brandon Staley, hired for the top job in mid-January, played quarterback during his college career and will lean on that experience when it comes to coaching Herbert.
Still, the actual play-calling will fall on new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, a longtime New Orleans Saints assistant. Lombardi has called plays before as the OC of the Detroit Lions in 2014 and ‘15. His second season in Detroit ended after seven games due to the team’s offensive struggles and 1-6 record.
The Chargers have maintained that the new offense will feature some of the staples in which Herbert thrived in 2020 while also adding the elements of the Saints’ quick-passing game. That approach should lead to more overall passing this season and provide a boost to stars like wideout Keenan Allen and do-everything running back Austin Ekeler.
- George Godsey and Eric Studesville, new co-offensive coordinators
For the third time in three years, Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores hired a new offensive coordinator. This time, however, Flores hired two people for the job, giving co-OC titles to George Godsey and Eric Studesville. How exactly the two will split play-calling responsibilities remains somewhat unclear, but the approach should change significantly from the one Miami’s previous offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, used last year.
Second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa looks like the biggest beneficiary of the OC change, at least on paper. Tagovailoa ran a limited version of the offense after taking over for Ryan Fitzpatrick last season. Now with a full offseason to learn the system, no QB competition limiting his reps, and a receiving corps boosted by the arrival of Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, Tagovailoa has fewer excuses should he underperform.
Based on the staff changes and personnel additions, the Dolphins look likely to lean more heavily toward the passing game in 2021, so long as Tagovailoa demonstrates he can handle it. That could make the ground game a weekly game of roulette à la last season.
- Robert Saleh, new head coach
- Mike LaFleur, new offensive coordinator
The tandem of Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur arrive from 49ers to reset the New York Jets. While Saleh will direct most of his attention to the defense, LaFleur will handle the offensive play-calling duties.
Like his older brother, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, Mike LaFleur will implement an offense predicated on wide-zone runs and play-action shots built off of them. That system overlaps in a few important ways with the one that Zach Wilson, the 2021 No. 2 overall pick and the Jets’ new starting quarterback, ran during his final year at BYU. That won’t necessarily make the transition to the NFL easy for Wilson, but the bootlegs, throws, and reads will bear some similarity to the ones he performed in college.
- Nick Sirianni, new head coach
- Shane Steichen, new offensive coordinator
After firing Super Bowl-winning head coach Doug Pederson in January, the Philadelphia Eagles effectively hit the reboot button on the franchise. The team would soon after trade Wentz, the one-time franchise quarterback, to the Colts while also jettisoning several other longtime members of the team.
In the end, the Eagles settled on Nick Sirianni, an assistant with ties to the organization via Reich, as the new head coach. Sirianni will handle play-calling duties despite never holding them during his previous NFL stops. Sirianni can lean on new offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, who called plays for the Chargers in 2019 and 2020.
Accordingly, the Eagles offense doesn’t have a definitive identity entering the 2021 season. Jalen Hurts will serve as the team’s starting quarterback, but it remains unclear how the new system will help lift the young signal-caller. That ambiguity doesn’t bode well for potential playmakers like Devonta Smith, who flourished in an RPO-heavy scheme in college.
- Matt Canada, new offensive coordinator
On paper, the marriage of new Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada and longtime starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seems odd. Canada made a name for himself in the college ranks running offenses that heavily featured pre-snap motion which Roethlisberger has famously eschewed motion for years. Whether the two can strike a balance that works for both parties remains entirely unclear.
However, if Roethsliberger does accept Canada’s pre-snap motion, it could open up the Steelers’ passing game. Wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster — who struggled to create separation since he moved into a more prominent role following Antonio Brown’s departure in 2019 — would benefit from more motion.
- Shane Waldron, new offensive coordinator
After a lackluster second half for the Seattle Seahawks offense, the team fired offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and replaced him with Los Angeles Rams assistant Shane Waldron. The move might not change as much for the Seahawks as it seems on the surface, as head coach Pete Carroll can still force the offense to over-rely on the ground game. Still, Waldron comes from a system that uses plenty of play-action deep shots, a tactic that should work well with quarterback Russell Wilson.
Even if Carroll doesn’t allow the offense to fully modernize, those shot plays favor third-year wideout DK Metcalf. Barring injury, Metcalf should have every opportunity to set new career marks in 2021.
San Francisco 49ers
- Mike McDaniel, new offensive coordinator (without play-calling duties)
While Shanahan watched his coaching staff raided this offseason, not much should change on offense. He remains the offensive play-caller — one of the best in the league — and still has longtime assistants he can trust.
New offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel ranks chief among those confidants. McDaniel first worked with Shanahan in 2006 with the Texans, and his command of the team’s multi-faceted running game should keep the 49ers well-positioned even after the departure of LaFleur.
The combination of Shanahan and McDaniel should keep things rolling for all the major contributors to the 49ers offense. The prominence of the running game could also lead to big things for Trey Sermon, a running back taken in the third round earlier this year.
- Todd Downing, new offensive coordinator
Losing Smith to the Falcons dealt a considerable blow to the Titans offense, one of the league’s most efficient units over the past two seasons. Smith expertly coached around the limitations of starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill while playing up his greatest strengths via a play-action-heavy attack.
Smith’s replacement, tight-ends coach Todd Downing, has big shoes to fill. Downing didn’t impress during his one season as an offensive coordinator with the Oakland Raiders, but he has spent the past two seasons working underneath Smith and has a good understanding of what works for the Titans’ stars. All-Pro running back Derrick Henry can expect another year of high-volume carries, and the newly formed tandem of A.J. Brown and Julio Jones should see plenty of deep-shot opportunities. However, Tennessee thrived by deftly balancing Henry’s workload with the passing game. It remains unclear if Downing can keep those elements calibrated.