Penn State's Bill O'Brien could be ready for a return to the NFL. (MCT via Getty Images)
Black Monday is coming. It came for eight NFL head coaches last season, and there could be that many (or more) coaches fired this time around when all is said and done. If every team made the right choice when such openings came about, we wouldn't have to speculate about these new opportunities, but here we are. Now, some teams will whiff mightily in this process, and some will do it on a serial basis (Hello, Washington Redskins). Here are the eight men we believe might be the best possible candidates for the most obvious positions that could come open starting on New Year's Eve day.
New York Jets: Bill O'Brien, head coach, Penn State
If the Jets fire Rex Ryan after the season is done (which, for the record, I don't think they should do), they're going to need a guy who can navigate that media circus and help build things back up as the franchise looks to get past the mistakes made by former GM Mike Tannenbaum and a few blunders made by current GM John Idzik. If there's one thing O'Brien has proven, it's that he can roll into an impossible situation and make a sad song better in a big hurry. O'Brien's work at Penn State will have every NFL team with an availability looking hard at him, and he's probably a good fit just about anywhere, but that Jets offense needs some stability -- and the defensive players will need a calming presence, because they're going to be quite pissed off if Ryan is shown the door. Not to mention the fact that owner Woody Johnson wouldn't mind tweaking the Patriots by hiring the man who was on Bill Belichick's staff from 2007 through 2011.
Minnesota Vikings: Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks
The Vikings are far from a complete team, but that's due more to their defense than their offense, and that problem won't be corrected overnight. Jared Allen is probably done in Minnesota, and the Cover-2 schemes endorsed by head coach Leslie Frazier are getting torched as often as one might expect in an era when defensive diversity is an absolute requirement (you can ask Monte Kiffin about that). Radical switches in scheme over one season rarely prove to be successful, which is why Quinn, currently Seattle's defensive coordinator, would be a great fit here. Under Pete Carroll, Quinn has done a fabulous job of mixing 4-3 and 3-4 concepts, different types of blitzes, and variable coverage concepts. Quinn will probably be coveted by some college teams, but the Vikings would be wise to give him a good, hard look if Frazier is sent packing.
Dallas Cowboys: Mike Zimmer, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals
Speaking of Kiffin, it's clear that defense is Dallas' Achilles heel, and Zimmer -- who was Dallas' defensive backs coach from 1994-1999 and defensive coordinator from 2000-2006 -- clearly has the pedigree to turn that around. Zimmer has been on the list of potentially great head coaching candidates for years due to his work with Cincinnati's defense, but he's reportedly been overlooked because he does not suffer fools gladly, and he's been a bit too straightforward in interviews. That alone would probably keep him out of Jerry Jones' world as a head coach, but Zimmer knows Jerry and knows how the game is run. He might have the backbone -- and the respect -- to pull it off.
Detroit Lions: Ken Whisenhunt, offensive coordinator, San Diego Chargers
Like Philip Rivers, whose offense Whisenhunt currently co-ordinates in San Diego, Detroit's Matthew Stafford is a freakishly talented quarterback who has some unusual delivery angles, and a tendency to revert to strange form when not coached correctly. It's clear that Jim Schwartz is not the man to get that done, and while current Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has done a fairly good job this year, that talented offense needs a stronger guiding hand. Whisenhunt was 45-51 in six years as the Cardinals' head coach from 2007 through 2012, but he was upended to a great degree by questionable moves in the front office, and he's proven in his work with Chargers head coach Mike McCoy that he can merge his own systems with those of another impressive offense-minded coach. Plus, Whisenhunt and Lions GM Martin Mayhew were teammates with the Washington Redskins in 1990, so there's that.
Oakland Raiders: Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
Would Jon Gruden going back to Oakland be a great fit at this point? Well, maybe. The Raiders will have tens of millions of available salary cap space next season, and that will make Oakland a more attractive destination than some may believe. Gruden rebuilt things in Oakland way back when, but I'd love to see what Roman, who was Jim Harbaugh's offensive coordinator at Stanford and serves in that same capacity with the 49ers. Harbaugh has preferred a power-based offense that opens up the passing game with power/counter/trap blocking options, and he frequently credits Roman as the guy who makes that go on a day-to-day basis. The Raiders don't just need to make a decision on a franchise quarterback -- they need to bust everything down to the studs and rejuvenate an offense that doesn't really have an identity. Roman can provide that, and paired with a bright defensive mind, could bring a consistent winning acumen to the Bay Area's other team for the first time in years.
Washington Redskins: Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Texas A&M
Would Baylor's Art Briles be the best possible candidate to replace Mike Shanahan? In a vacuum, maybe -- nobody doubts Briles' ability to create hyper-productive offenses at the college level, and that transfer from the NCAA to the NFL has been made easier by several factors over the last decade. However, reuniting Robert Griffin III with his college coach might open up all sorts of cans related to Griffin's allegedly "cancerous" relationship with team owner Dan Snyder. That said, it could be argued that the Redskins are in need of a college coach who can merge Griffin's future potential with his past productivity. And if it isn't Briles, who better than Sumlin? He's proven that he can handle a uniquely talented quarterback capable of creating his own media blitz, and he can manage egos while he's forwarding the cause in a football sense. Sumlin recently signed a new contract with the Aggies, but between Snyder's money and the tissue-thin relationships most college coaches have with their current situations when that kind of money comes calling, you just never know.
Houston Texans: Lovie Smith, currently unemployed/formerly head coach, Chicago Bears
The Texans are in need of all kinds of repair, and Smith -- who is a more versatile defensive coach and more passionate motivator than people think -- is a calm leader used to success. One caveat: Smith cannot be allowed to hire his own offensive coordinator. Longtime Bears fans will understand completely.
Tennessee Titans: Jay Gruden, offensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals
Whether the Titans make a long-term commitment to Jake Locker (and that's no sure thing) or roll the dice with a new quarterback, they'll need someone who can put the finishing touches on a signal-caller in need of development. Gruden has done that with Andy Dalton, taking Dalton to perhaps the pinnacle of his relatively limited abilities. In addition, Gruden is familiar with wrapping his passing game around a run-based attack, which is Tennessee's preferred modus operandi.