Like clockwork, there have been seven or eight head coaching changes made in the NFL in each of the past five offseasons. And once again the league’s annual firing/hiring cycle figures to wind up somewhere in that range, give or take an opening or two.
But if there’s an overriding theme emerging to this year’s exercise in bloodletting known as Black Monday—the day after the close of the NFL’s regular season, when heads traditionally roll—it’s that 2016’s pool of potential head coaching candidates isn’t considered to be particularly deep. So, okay, you want to fire your head coach. It's the question of who comes next that is the trickier part of the process for an NFL owner. Making sure you’ve upgraded rather than just changed a name plate on the office door is the key detail that so often gets overlooked.
According to league sources I talked to in recent days, factors that may contribute to the shallow depth of the head coaching candidate ranks include:
• The scarcity of winning teams, and thus winning coaching staffs to be raided, in 2015. Through the first 15 weeks of the season, losing or .500 teams (21) outnumber winning teams (11) almost 2-to-1. News flash: The hot offensive and defensive coordinator prospects are usually hot because their teams are having current success, and there’s not an excess of that unfolding in the league at the moment.
• The NFL is also in a cycle where many of the same teams are returning to the playoffs year after year and their coaching staffs have already been fairly well shopped in terms of head coaching candidates. Seattle, Cincinnati and Baltimore have all lost multiple coordinators to head coaching jobs in recent years, and the staffs of Green Bay, Arizona and Indianapolis have experienced a degree of talent drain as well.
• It was a perhaps unprecedented year in the league for coordinators getting fired during the season, with some of those let go being considered on-their-way-up coaches who were potential future head coaches this time last year. Fired offensive coordinators Pep Hamilton (Colts), Joe Lombardi (Lions) and Bill Lazor (Dolphins) all had a winning sheen at one point recently And you can probably add to that list Green Bay’s associate head coach/offense Tom Clements, who just had his play-calling duties removed by head coach Mike McCarthy.
• And lastly, the college ranks aren’t seen as ripe with head coaching candidates, perhaps partly a reflection that Chip Kelly’s struggles in Philadelphia may have scared away some owners from shopping in that market. Unless Alabama’s Nick Saban opts for a return to the NFL—which doesn’t appear likely—there are few names on campus that move the needle.
Some of the bigger headlines made in this year’s hiring cycle instead could be generated by the pursuit of either a current head coach like New Orleans’ Sean Payton or Indianapolis’s Chuck Pagano if they get to the market, or former head coaches such as New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, ex-Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, Jacksonville offensive line coach Doug Marrone, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable, or perhaps even a wild-card choice like ex-Denver and Washington head coach Mike Shanahan.
Culled from a variety of sources with information and insight into the league’s coaching and front office situations, here’s what we’re hearing about the potential changes to come:
Going, going, gone
Tennessee: Interim head coach Mike Mularkey replaced Ken Whisenhunt when the Titans were 1–6 in early November, and his 2–5 record in charge hasn’t been a game-changer in Nashville. Tennessee is actually one of the most attractive jobs available because of the presence of quarterback Marcus Mariota, last year’s No. 2 overall pick, and getting a head coach who can further his development is the top priority.
While I’m not hearing anything that would give credence to the Chip Kelly traded from the Eagles to the Titans speculation, crazier things have happened in the NFL and that move would signal how urgently Tennessee wants to give Mariota his best possible comfort zone and a shot at success. One name that I believe will be a definite on the Titans’ interview list is that of Schwartz, the former longtime Titans defensive assistant under Jeff Fisher, who is a known quantity within the organization and earlier this year moved with his family back to Nashville.
Schwartz did good work for the Titans, has a solid relationship with interim team president/CEO Steve Underwood, and experience as a head coach in the NFL. Though defense is his expertise, he had some success in Detroit getting good things out of quarterback Matthew Stafford, and his work as the Bills defensive coordinator in 2014 looks better all the time in light of Buffalo’s regression this season.
Said one NFL club executive of Schwartz: “He’s got to be one of the best candidates available this year. If I was interviewing candidates, he’d be somebody I’d want to talk to. He’s a little arrogant, but he’s very smart and he reminds you a little of Belichick in some ways.”
The unknown in Tennessee is if the organization will also decide to replace general manager Ruston Webster, or if he’ll be retained to participate in and perhaps lead the head coaching search? Webster’s presence would be a good sign for Schwartz’s candidacy, but a new GM would likely get to choose his own head coach and who knows which direction that might lead?
Miami: The Dolphins canned Joe Philbin after just four games and a 1–3 record this season, but interim coach Dan Campbell did not make the most of his long audition, starting strong with two quick wins before losing six of his next eight games. That means the Dolphins will be back in search of their next Don Shula, a process that has now lasted 20 years.
The assumption is that Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum will steer Miami’s coaching hire in the direction of a fellow Bill Parcells protege, and that could put either Jaguars offensive line coach Doug Marrone or Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley on the Dolphins’ radar screen. But owner Stephen Ross loves to swing for the fences and go for the big name, before settling for a second or third-tier hire, and that could mean he’s eyeing Sean Payton’s situation in New Orleans, with the hope that the 10th-year Saints coach (another branch of the Parcells coaching tree) can fix the game of franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill. If not Payton, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano is reportedly also a possibility for the Dolphins.
Both Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase are likely on Miami’s short list as well, for their quarterback expertise. But I can’t see McDaniels opting for South Florida and Gase may be presented with better options. The Dolphins, with nine head coaches of varying tenures since Shula retired after the 1995 season, aren’t exactly the surest of bets these days.
“When I look at the Dolphins, I just see the Cleveland Browns of the south,” said an NFL source. “They’re a mess.”
With Tannenbaum calling the shots in the front office, Miami is expected to either re-assign general manager Dennis Hickey into a strictly personnel role, or perhaps part ways with him.
Indianapolis: When a head coach starts openly musing about his job security by declaring “they can fire you, but they can’t eat you,” you know the end is in sight. That’s where Chuck Pagano has gone in recent days, and you can’t blame him after the train wreck of a season he has endured this year in Indy. And yes, we know the Colts are still alive in the AFC South race, but that’s a mere technicality that has little bearing on Pagano’s fate.
The only real question surrounding the Colts is whether general manager Ryan Grigson will be shown the door as well, with most sources I talked to believing he’ll survive thanks to his close ties to owner Jim Irsay and his family. Grigson’s worst-case scenario is if Irsay decides to make that rumored run at Alabama’s Nick Saban, because the Nick-ster presumably would demand full control of the team’s personnel decision-making and that makes Grigson all but superfluous.
Would Saban consider it? An informed source I spoke with said you could never say never, but that Saban likely wouldn’t even think about the possibility until the day after the Crimson Tide plays its final game, and that could be as late as Jan. 12. Having Andrew Luck as his quarterback might intrigue Saban, but it’s still a long shot and Saban might also require someone between him and the always involved Irsay as a buffer zone of sorts.
If the Colts land a big fish in their coaching search, the Saints’ Payton is the more realistic scenario. Payton likely isn’t going anywhere that doesn’t have a quarterback capable of keeping the team in Super Bowl contention, and Luck easily qualifies. New England’s Josh McDaniels could also be a candidate Irsay covets, because his hiring would also weaken the Colts’ No. 1 nemesis, but I don’t see the fit being a good one between McDaniels and Irsay, and sources say McDaniels will be very, very choosy about his second NFL head coaching opportunity.
Cleveland: As much as Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has been told stability is the key to building a winning organization, he can’t possibly stand completely pat after the debacle that 2015 has been in Cleveland. Head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer are both thought to be in their final two weeks of employment, but leave it to the Browns to try and split the baby in half and leave one of them still on the job. That would only further muddle the situation in the NFL’s worst organization.
“Haslam has to be bewildered at this point,’’ a league source said. “They’re in worse shape now than ever. He should first find a good general manager and then have that guy find a head coach. But the problem is, a lot of people are very suspect to go to work for Cleveland.’’
The Browns defense was supposed to be a strength under Pettine but instead it has been a season-long liability. Cleveland could do worse than go after one of the best defensive coordinators in the league in Carolina’s Sean McDermott. Or if the priority is to address the team’s offensive issues, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has never backed away from a challenge, and might even embrace the task of saving the team’s Johnny Manziel investment.
A former head coach like Marrone, Cable or possibly Haley might be the way Haslam heads if he’s wary of Cleveland’s recent experience with first-timers like Pettine, Rob Chudzinski and Pat Shurmur. But the Browns’ job (or jobs) won’t be first on anyone’s wish list.
New York Giants: If the Giants miss the playoffs, which appears fairly likely, I’m convinced the end of the team’s 12-year Tom Coughlin coaching era will come to pass, either via his retirement or a mutual parting of the ways. Who comes next in New York? There are a lot of reasons to think Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would check off plenty of boxes. For starters, the Giants strike me as the one job McDaniels would really want this year. New York has a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, a stable and proven ownership situation, and the reality that general manager Jerry Reese is in place on the personnel side, with the Mara family having a strong voice in those decisions as well. Some think Reese’s job could be in jeopardy, but I don’t share that belief.
As McDaniels’s coaching mentor, Bill Belichick, has said, choosing wisely in that second NFL head coaching opportunity is the key to the rest of your career, because if you blow that decision, you won’t get a third chance. Belichick has proven that point with his long run in New England after his Cleveland failure, and I’d have to think he’d counsel McDaniels that the Giants—Belichick’s former team in his assistant days—are the perfect fit. Especially since they’re in the NFC and wouldn’t be a near-yearly competitor. As one league source put it, for McDaniels, it’s New York or bust.
I suppose Alabama’s Nick Saban might find the Giants attractive for all the same reasons McDaniels would, but the idea of Saban’s focused, driven and controlling style in the New York market makes for a curious potential marriage. That’s an awkward fit both sides might quickly come to regret. And that would only serve to underline Saban’s brief and largely failed two-year stay in Miami a decade ago.
If there is one question that begs answering with McDaniels’s candidacy in New York it’s how the Giants would feel about offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo potentially leaving in that scenario? The Maras are thought to be very high on McAdoo and intent on not losing him. McAdoo, 38, has done great work with Eli Manning and might even be considered as Coughlin’s replacement if McDaniels isn’t in the mix for some reason, although his lack of head coaching experience might work against him in that regard.
On Shaky Ground
Detroit: The Lions have already fired their team president (Tom Lewand), general manager (Martin Mayhew) and their offensive coordinator (Joe Lombardi) earlier this season, so everyone presumed that head coach Jim Caldwell is the next one to go. And he may well be facing a quick firing once this disappointing year is over in Detroit. But I’m not convinced Caldwell is a goner just yet, and the Lions’ impressive showing in their Monday night win at New Orleans may have buttressed Caldwell’s case to stay a little longer in the eyes of owner Martha Firestone Ford.
One league source told me that Ford really likes Caldwell personally and believes he’s a good man who has many of the attributes the organization seeks in a head coach. Whether that’s enough to offset the 5–9 record of underachievement by the Lions this season is not known. But Caldwell was 11–5 and in the playoffs in his first season, and might be allowed one mulligan. One in-house candidate to replace Caldwell could be Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who is considered a future head coach in the league.
But discussing Caldwell’s status in Detroit might be putting the cart before the horse. The Lions are expected to first hire a new general manager and then have him decide on the head coach. Former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi is advising the Lions in their GM search, and that process will likely center on front office candidates such as Houston’s Brian Gaine, Minnesota’s George Paton, Kansas City’s Chris Ballard and Jacksonville’s Chris Polian, among others.
New Orleans: The picture is plenty murky in the Big Easy, but the feeling is that Sean Payton and the Saints are probably both ready to part ways after 10 largely successful seasons. Payton likely realizes he has already done the best work he can possibly do in New Orleans, and he’s now faced with a rebuilding job that will be saddled with an aging quarterback in Drew Brees, an onerous salary cap situation, and defensive issues that have proven intractable. What better time than now to take a bow and exit?
Payton wouldn’t be out of a job for longer than five minutes, with Indianapolis, Miami and perhaps the New York Giants being interested in hiring him. San Diego could possibly get involved as well, but Payton’s salary level might scare off a Chargers team that never breaks the bank for a head coach.
It’s not completely far-fetched to think Payton could surprise us and commit to rebuilding the Saints, but the odds seem to favor a divorce. One hold-up could be if the Saints seek a significant level of compensation from a team interested in hiring Payton, in return for letting him out of his contract.
San Diego: Everything having to do with the Chargers feels like it’s in a state of flux given the potential relocation of the franchise to Los Angeles next year, but reading the tea leaves, head coach Mike McCoy seems like a long shot to make the short trip north on I-5 if the organization moves.
McCoy’s team fell apart due to injuries and ineffectiveness this season, and to say that the head coach became unpopular with Chargers fans and the media is an understatement. McCoy is entering the final season of his four-year contract with San Diego, so the team is faced with the decision to either extend him or fire him, and it’s a difficult case to make that he deserves an extension with the Chargers having lost 13 of their past 18 games under McCoy after last season’s hopeful 8–4 start.
Sunday’s home finale win against Miami might have helped McCoy’s case a little, and you can never underestimate the financial element that might be involved, meaning the team’s ownership might not want to spend big money on a new coaching staff in the midst of a relocation. Then again, as one league source said: “If they move to L.A., they’re going to want to start with a bigger-name coach. In L.A., they’re not the only game in town any more like in San Diego. They would need a bigger presence to make an impact.”
But who is that bigger name and would the Chargers be able to land him as part of their relocation to the bigger market? Like everything else with this team, the unanswered questions abound.
San Francisco: The prevailing opinion seems to be that Jim Tomsula will survive and stagger into a second season with the 49ers, providing San Francisco doesn’t end the season by going down in flames in their final two games. But that Week 14 loss at Cleveland did real damage to Tomsula, so no one can be sure what team CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke might decide at season’s end.
Firing Tomsula after just one season, however, would be an admission that York and Baalke got it wrong last year when they forced Jim Harbaugh out the door, and league sources tell me they can’t quite imagine York and Baalke being ready to admit that fairly obvious reality.
Buffalo: Most of those handicapping the Bills' offseason have general manger Doug Whaley being on the endangered list solo. But there’s almost always a coaching change that few saw coming, and it would not be a stunning development if Rex Ryan being one-and-done in Buffalo is this year’s surprise.
There are those who believe Bills owner Terry Pegula feels a little duped by Ryan’s bluster and big talk about the playoffs last January, and that he might just be ready to eat the four years that still remain on his coach’s contract. It doesn’t help at all that Ryan’s former team, the Jets, might make the playoffs this season, while the Bills have regressed mightily on some fronts after last season’s 9–7 mark under Doug Marrone. The defense has been a calamity at times, and that was supposed to be what Ryan knew best and could deliver on.
Whaley does indeed look to be in trouble, but as one league source noted about Buffalo’s turbulent 2015 season, Ryan was either “going to be in the playoffs this year or in somebody's TV studio next year.”
What else we’re hearing as Black Monday looms...
St. Louis: As mediocre as his record has been for the Rams, sources in St. Louis said two weeks ago that Jeff Fisher was not in any jeopardy of being canned unless his team fell on its face in the final four games of the season and “lost all of them 40–0.” That didn’t happen, as the Rams have won their past two games and actually fielded a legitimate NFL offense in Thursday night’s victory over visiting Tampa Bay. So Fisher isn’t going anywhere, unless it’s to Los Angeles next year with the rest of the relocated Rams.
Philadelphia: As shaky as things looked after those back-to-back blowout losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit in November, with suggestions that Chip Kelly and the Eagles might be going their separate ways at the end of the season, those notions have faded. Kelly says he wants to return and Eagles owner Jeff Lurie seems still committed to Kelly’s program. And don’t forget, a playoff berth and a division title are still possible in Philly.
But it still could be a messy offseason, because there are competing factions within the team’s front office, and one NFL source told me he expects “a lot of different stories to be coming out of the building” after the Eagles have played their final game.
Houston: There were reports and rumors earlier this season that tension existed between head coach Bill O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith, a notion that was dutifully shot down by all concerned in the Texans organization. But there’s probably some fire with this smoke, because two different league sources told me that O’Brien and Smith aren’t the biggest fans of one another, and that it would not be surprising to see Smith promoted to a team president role or something similar this offseason. Presumably that would mean an increased say in personnel say for O’Brien.
Atlanta: My sense is that embattled Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff will return in his same job next year, thanks in part to first-season head coach Dan Quinn coming out with a strong statement of support for him. But not everybody I talked to for this Black Monday preview shared that optimism, with one source saying “it’ll be a miracle” if Dimitroff survives Atlanta’s second-half unraveling after the team’s 5–0 start. Miracles do happen, even in the NFL, and I think Dimitroff is safe.
• There’s still some time for things to change, but my top five candidates who aren’t currently head coaches, but will get hired this offseason are, in some order: Josh McDaniels, Sean McDermott, Adam Gase, Hue Jackson and Jim Schwartz.