Analysis: Jeff Saturday hire ripples across stunned NFL

Sixteen years after a mic’d up Peyton Manning castigated his star center “Quit calling the (bleeping) plays!,” Jeff Saturday called all the right shots in his successful NFL head coaching debut on the Las Vegas Strip.

That included reinserting Matt Ryan as the Colts’ starting quarterback and elevating assistant QBs coach Parks Frazier to offensive play-caller after his shocking hire as Indy’s interim head coach following Jim Irsay’s firing of Frank Reich last week.

The Colts rallied past the Raiders 25-20 two weeks after Saturday, then an ESPN analyst, tweeted that the “Raiders look horrible.”

Of course, two weeks ago nobody, including Saturday, could have imagined he’d be making his NFL head coaching debut last weekend.

His sole coaching experience had come as head coach of Hebron Christian Academy, a college preparatory school in Georgia, from 2017-2020.

Cutting to the head of the coaching line without any college or pro coaching experience put Saturday in the crosshairs of criticism and dismay across the league.

Two of his harshest critics were former Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas and Hall of Fame coach Bill Cowher.

Thomas called Saturday’s hiring a disgrace to the league and its coaches, questioned why Saturday would accept the job at all and ripped Irsay for saying he was glad Saturday lacked NFL head coaching experience because he wouldn’t bring the usual baggage to the position when it comes to crucial in-game decisions.

“When you hire your drinking buddy to be the head coach of an NFL football team, it is one of the most disrespectful things I have ever seen in my entire life to the commitment, the lifestyle and the experience that it takes to be an NFL coach,” Thomas, a 10-time Pro Bowler, said Friday on “Good Morning Football.”

Thomas said being an NFL head coach isn’t “just something you can show up for.”

“So the disrespect NFL coaches have to feel when they saw that this hire was made is higher than almost anything I can possibly remember in the NFL,” Thomas continued. “And then to defend the decision by saying, ‘I’m happy he doesn’t have experience?’”

That was just several steps too far for Thomas.

Cowher didn’t hold back, either.

“It’s a disgrace to the coaching profession,” snarled Cowher on the CBS studio show Sunday where he also called out Saturday for spurning previous overtures from the Colts to serve as an assistant coach because he was working in TV.

Cowher complained that Irsay bypassed members of Reich’s staff who had been there all season, some of whom even have head NFL coaching experience, and deserved the opportunity over Saturday.

Cowher also blasted Saturday’s suggestion at his introductory news conference that he’d be building his resume over the next two months to see if this whole coaching thing was something he’d like to keep doing.

“For an owner to hire a coach who has never been an assistant at the college or pro level and overseeing a lot of qualified candidates to build a resume, it’s a disgrace to the coaching profession,” Cowher argued. “In regards to how this played out, what happened in Indianapolis is a travesty.”

Saturday then went out and delivered another shocker: a win in his head coaching debut, and when Irsay presented him with a game ball afterward, Saturday turned it into a bonding moment with his players, who probably should have been wearing nametags to go with their surnames stitched across their backs.

“Everybody’s getting a game ball,” Saturday bellowed. “And my favorite thing about football: Victory Monday. We’ll see you all Wednesday.”

Back in Indianapolis, Saturday was basking in the congratulations he’d been receiving after taking so many barbs for taking the job.

“I felt conviction about the opportunity,” Saturday said. “I knew I was going to take it for those reasons and I have no qualms about what anybody says about their opinion. Great. If they disagree with it, still love them. Not really worried about it. I’ve got other things I’ve got to take care of.”

Back in Las Vegas, Raiders coach Josh McDaniels, who famously backed out of the Colts gig a few years ago, leading to Reich’s hire, fell to 2-7 with the loss, his sixth by one score.

On Monday, Raiders owner Mark Davis said he’s standing by his beleaguered first-year coach who’s now gone 7-24 in his last 31 games, including 5-17 in Denver in 2009-10.

“I think there’s a process that we’re going through, certainly slower and more painful than anyone wants it to be,” McDaniels said.

Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett knows the feeling.

He’s 3-6 with five one-score losses and the other came at Las Vegas in September, a 32-23 defeat that was a two-point game just before the 2-minute warning.

The Raiders go for the season sweep Sunday in Denver, where Hackett’s pairing with Russell Wilson has been even more of a fiasco than McDaniels’ union with Derek Carr.

Hackett, who also received a vote of confidence halfway through his first season, smiled when asked if he felt he’d be coaching for his job Sunday.

“I learned a long time ago, you’re coaching for your job every day,” Hackett replied. “I mean, every single day you come in that building and you compete and you fight to be the best version of yourself and try to get the best out of everybody around you. That’s just how this is.”

Whether you’re a first-time head coach, one who’s grateful for a second chance or another who’s catching the third degree.

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With contributions from AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis.

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Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter at https://twitter.com/arniestapleton

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