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Steve Wilks, Other New NFL Coaches Hit Early Hurdle

Coach Steve Wilks on the sideline during the Cardinals' season-opening loss to Washington.
Coach Steve Wilks on the sideline during the Cardinals' season-opening loss to Washington.

It’s never easy being the new kid at school.

Last week, the transition was just as bumpy for new coaches in the NFL.

Seven NFL teams made a change at the top this offseason, and all seven lost their opener. It is the worst first-week performance for a group of new coaches in history, per NFL Research, eclipsing an 0-6 mark in 2001.

The Cardinals’ were among the Week 1 disappointments, struggling in a 24-6 loss to the Redskins to spoil Steve Wilks’ debut. The others who lost were Matt Patricia (with the Lions), Frank Reich (Colts), Pat Shurmur (Giants), Mike Vrabel (Titans), Jon Gruden (Raiders) and Matt Nagy (Bears).

While there have been countless hours of the preparation put in over the past several months, Wilks acknowledged the tough circumstances he and the half-dozen other newbies must face.

“In the first year, there are always challenges,” Wilks said. “Someone talked about the system and the guys learning the system – now you’ve got real live bullets going, and it’s still a process. We’re learning each other. The process on game day is different. The communication from the box to the sideline, making the proper adjustments.

“I think once guys understand your culture and the things you want on a day-to-day basis, I think it’s natural that it’s very seamless moving forward. But right now, you’re going to work through those rough spots.”

Wilks joins a long list of Cardinals coaches to fall short in their debuts. Don Coryell was the last Cardinals first-year coach to win the season opener, doing so all the way back in 1973.

The team’s most recent coach, Bruce Arians, finished his first year 10-6 but started 3-4 with a season-opening loss to the Rams. Cornerback Patrick Peterson watched as that 2013 group found more of a groove in each successive week, and said the current team must exhibit something that can sometimes be a four-letter word in the NFL.

“I necessarily don’t want to use the word patience,” Peterson said, “but you have to have patience.”

History is dotted with good coaches who struggled early on. Jimmy Johnson’s inaugural Cowboys team went 1-15 and they won back-to-back Super Bowls within five years. Chuck Noll went 1-13 with the Steelers in his first season and ended up with four Super Bowls. Bill Walsh went 2-14 in his first season with the 49ers and won three Super Bowls.

Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike McCoy – who lost his head coaching debut for the Chargers in 2013 but finished with a winning record that season – said there is a lot for a new coach to handle.

“You think you’re prepared for it, and something comes up every day,” McCoy said. “Not just after games. It’s the offseason, training camp. You’re now the CEO of the organization. … People are pulling and tugging at you every day.”

While some will point to the regime change as a major factor for the Cardinals’ poor opener, safety Antoine Bethea isn’t having it.

“Sh--, coaches have been with teams numerous amount of years and don’t win Week 1,” Bethea said. “You can’t use that as a crutch. The start of (the offseason program) was April 3. We’ve implemented things. We were playing well at one period of time. The way we played last Sunday isn’t because we had a first-year coach. It would be stupid to say that.”

The Cardinals face a Rams team on Sunday that hit the ground running when coach Sean McVay took over last year. They beat the Colts, 46-9, in his debut and finished 11-5, executing arguably the most unexpected turnaround in the league.

Despite the Week 1 hiccup, McVay wouldn’t be surprised if a new coach follows in his footsteps in 2018.

“Each week presents a new story or headline, and I don’t necessarily think that start is indicative of the success that a lot of these guys will have,” McVay said. “I think it’s just one week, and things change every single week in this league.”

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