Lincoln Riley has arguably the best offensive mind in college football. If you don’t want to believe it, check his resume because it speaks for itself.
You can argue about his youth and the rigors of moving from college to the pros, but even with those factors in consideration, Riley is an obvious top coaching candidate for the Green Bay Packers.
At 35 years old, Riley has established that his offenses are consistently the cream of the crop at the college level.
His 2018 Oklahoma Sooners squad, which will play Alabama in this year’s Orange Bowl as part of the College Football Playoff, is averaging a Division I-record 8.6 yards per play. Last season, the Sooners checked in at 8.3 yards per play.
Since joining the OU staff for the 2015 season, Oklahoma has finished in the top 25 in yards per game every year, in the top seven the last three years and this season is tops in the country. In that same time frame, the Sooners have been in the top 20 in scoring offense each year and in the top five each of the last three seasons.
That’s without even mentioning that the last two Heisman Trophy winners have been Sooners, in current Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and active OU starting quarterback Kyler Murray (who will be playing baseball professionally next year).
Obviously, Oklahoma is a college football blue blood and thus has some of the best talent in the country every year. But Riley was making waves with his offenses before he got to Norman.
In five years as the offensive coordinator at East Carolina, hardly an elite program, Riley’s offenses never finished worse than No. 56 in the country in terms of total offense, twice finishing as high as No. 25 nationally. As for scoring offense, those teams finished in the top 20 nationally in scoring three times, including the No. 8 scoring offense in 2014.
Riley’s teams move the ball and score it as well as anyone, and they’ve done it consistently regardless of where he’s coached.
For the first time in recent (and even somewhat distant) memory, the Packers can’t simply blame a bad defense for the team’s struggles. Green Bay’s offense has not been the well-oiled machine it seemed to be in recent years with Aaron Rodgers under center. There isn’t one specific problem you can point to when it comes to breaking down why the offensive has sputtered this year. Rodgers hasn’t been his normal self, former coach Mike McCarthy didn’t adapt to what is making most modern offenses successful and he was eventually ousted, and that’s just the surface-level topics.
The entire offense needs to be rehabbed. A young, innovative mind with a history of high-octane offenses sounds like a strong fit.
There are undoubtedly points of contention when it comes to discussing Riley to Green Bay. It’s hard for anyone to go from the college game to the NFL, for example. Arguably the greatest coach in the history of college football, Nick Saban, failed in the NFL. Success at one level obviously doesn’t guarantee it at another. But Riley has the traits (youthful, forward-thinking, adaptable) that teams need nowadays to run an elite offense.
Look at some of the best teams in the league and analyze their head coaches in regard to these characteristics. Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid has the most creative playbook in the game. Sean McVay, the wunderkid leading the Los Angeles Rams, is in the same boat. Sean Payton has been able to work with Drew Brees, a no-doubt future hall of famer, to retool the New Orleans Saints’ offensive to take advantage of a variety of different skill sets.
Within the NFC North, even, you can look at the Chicago Bears and first-year coach Matt Nagy. A direct disciple of Reid, his play calls are uncommon, creative, and take advantage of both mismatches and his players’ individual strengths. That’s what the Packers should be aiming for.
Conveniently, the players are already in place to make that sort of system work in Green Bay.
There’s stability at quarterback with one of the greatest of all time still around for the next several years. The receiving corps is versatile, as are the running backs group. Help is certainly needed (more receiving threats and offensive line depth being two of the most notable needs), but the cornerstones are there for building a top-tier NFL offense.
Regardless of what the organization says, Rodgers will have a say in who the next Packers coach is. It’s impossible to know right now whether or not he’d sign off on Riley. So, that’s another potential concern. Then there’s his age, which shouldn’t be an issue at this point in time but undoubtedly will come up. He’s 35 years old and has only been a head coach for two years. McVay, meanwhile, is finishing his second season as the Rams’ coach and is just 32 years old. That barrier has mostly been broken down.
Defense is one last, valid concern. Oklahoma’s defense has been putrid for back to back seasons, giving up yards and points that make teams in the already high-scoring Big 12 blush. Regardless of who the coordinator has been (Riley fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops midseason and replaced him with Ruffin McNeil), OU’s defense has been awful. If the Packers hire Riley, he would need to make a strong defensive coordinator hire. Theoretically, he could try to retain Mike Pettine, who did an admirable job of taking an objectively bad defensive unit and making it respectable. Whether it’s Pettine or someone else, if Riley can make a strong hire for his defense it will make a lot of concerns melt away.
Above anything else, though, offense needs to be the focus, and Riley is the potentially the best candidate to bring the Packers into the modern NFL offensively. He has dominated the college ranks and has proven that he knows how to put quarterbacks in a position to use their strengths to their ultimate potential. His new way of looking at things would be beneficial to a franchise that, in many ways, is stuck in the past.
Most of the pieces are in place, now it’s just a matter of finding the right leader to bring out the best in them at the same time. Riley has done that at multiple stops in the NCAA and has the potential to do it in the NFL as well. He’ll be a hot name this offseason for all the reasons explained here; Green Bay should make sure it’s one of the first teams to be in contact with him.