The Next 32: The Men in Line to Become Bosses
Ranking the next 32 head coaches, in order of likelihood for the 2016 season and beyond, has been an exhaustive exercise. The list was put together based on the testimony of 24 sources, including agents, current and former assistant and head coaches, current and former scouts, three plugged-in reporters and seven current and former front office leaders who have experience hiring and firing head coaches (the opinions of these decision makers weighed heavier in the rankings than others).
I asked the panel of NFL minds their opinion about each candidate, and how they viewed each candidate’s standing in the football community at large. In this, several wild cards emerged. Among the most disagreed upon coaches: Darrell Bevell (Seahawks), Frank Reich (Chargers), Hue Jackson (Bengals), Kyle Shanahan (Falcons) and Doug Marrone (Jaguars). The reasons are discussed below in the candidate bios, which also include a brief summary of each coach’s schematic signature, or M.O., which was put together by The MMQB’s film-study guru Andy Benoit (with an assist from Sports Illustrated’s college football reporter Andy Staples).
The decision to list Adam Gase as the top candidate comes with a caveat: the difference between he and Patriots coordinator Josh McDaniels was so negligible, we switched their names five times during the process. Both have exemplary coaching backgrounds, both interviewed with numerous teams last year and both turned down head-coaching jobs. Where they land as head coaches will ultimately depend not only on a team’s preference, but their individual goals.
It should go without saying that much will change between now and next offseason, when a handful of these men will be hired (six or seven, on average). If, for instance, the Eagles win the Super Bowl behind a record-breaking offense, coordinator Pat Shurmur could vault into the top five. If Jay Cutler is a disaster under Adam Gase’s tutelage in Chicago, the coordinator could conceivably fall out of contention for 2016.
Remember: This is an unscientific study of something that cannot be studied in a scientific way. As one evaluator I spoke with said, “Lots of different lists around the league. We have owners and GMs that wouldn’t realize Vince Lombardi would be good if he was sitting in front of them!”
A few notes about the list:
- There are nine coaches in our top 32 who identify as black. In the NFL, there are five current head coaches who are black. Several of our sources noted being black could be a résumé booster, as teams work toward diversity and seek leaders who can best relate to majority-black rosters.
- There are 13 coaches in our top 32 who previously held head-coaching jobs. Our sources held differing opinions on so-called “retreads,” with some suggesting names like Mike Smith and Mike Shanahan should be removed from consideration while others valued their experience. The biggest question we heard about former head coaches: How have they changed since their last gig?
- There are five college head coaches on the list. Their place here indicates a league-wide perception that these men are NFL candidates, and would leave their jobs in the near future under the right circumstances. In other words, these aren’t simply the five best college coaches available regardless of desire.
- In terms of coaches with offensive background vs. defensive background, 20 of our 32 prospects come from offensive assistant coaching backgrounds. In the NFL, there is a 50/50 split.
- Not surprisingly, the Seahawks lead the league in potential head coaches according to our poll, with three (Darrel Bevell, Tom Cable and Kris Richard). The Chargers, Patriots, Bears, Colts and Lions each boast two on the list.
TIER 1: ON THE CUSP
These are the coaches who are on track to field multiple job offers in 2016, whether they want them or not. In our research, we found the most agreement regarding the top three candidates: Bears OC Adam Gase, Patriots OC Josh McDaniels, and Lions DC Teryl Austin. After those three, each of the following four candidates had supporters who consider them next, and a handful of critics who don’t. Though there are typically between five and eight coaching openings in a given year, we didn’t set out for eight names—we organically arrived at this many Tier 1 candidates through interviews.
1) Adam Gase, Chicago, offensive coordinator
College: Michigan State
Pro experience: 12 years, two as a coordinator (Denver 2013-14)
Résumé: At the moment, Gase holds all the cards. He was Peyton Manning’s preferred coach and, despite being younger than the QB, was far from the yes-man that many of Manning’s coordinators become. This offseason, he reportedly turned down the 49ers job because he wouldn’t be allowed to pick his own defensive coordinator. Instead, he followed John Fox to Chicago, leaving behind a legendary QB to work with a middling one. Two burning questions we heard about Gase: Can he dominate the interview phase after interviewing “young” in the eyes of some? And, perhaps more importantly, how will he manage and cultivate Jay Cutler at this crossroads in the quarterback’s career?
M.O.: Absorbed a lot of Mike Martz’s philosophies in 2006-07 as an assistant under the mad offensive genius. Like Martz, prefers an aggressive passing game above all else.
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2) Josh McDaniels, New England, offensive coordinator
College: John Carroll
Pro experience: 14 seasons, two as head coach (Denver 2009-10)
Head coaching record: 11-17 (0-0 playoffs)
Résumé: The No. 1 candidate in the eyes of many was fired during his second season as the head coach in Denver, after Week 13 in 2010. His run with the Broncos began inauspiciously, in 2009, when the team owner fired personnel bosses Jim Goodman and his son, Jeff, shortly after McDaniels was hired. Now, after pushing the envelope with New England’s record-breaking offense, McDaniel is holding out for a team with solid management structure. Word is, he was humbled sufficiently by his first experience as a head coach, leading many to believe he could follow mentor Bill Belichick’s career path.
M.O.: Can adjust offensive approach with success on a week-to-week basis as long as he has a quarterback who can manage games from the pocket. Has become very shrewd with quick drop-back passing concepts.
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3) Teryl Austin, Detroit, defensive coordinator
Pro experience: 11 seasons, one as coordinator (Detroit 2014)
Résumé: Austin took the reins of a middling Lions defense and transformed it into one of the best in football, doing so without Nick Fairley for eight games. He impressed in interviews with the 49ers, Bills, Bears and Falcons; known as a coach with a strong pedigree who engenders loyalty from his players. Said one evaluator of Austin’s interview with his club: “Smart, principled, thoughtful, thorough.”
M.O.: In first year as a coordinator, did not employ the multifarious defensive front concepts learned in Baltimore, where he was a DBs coach. His experience showed in the newfound diversity (and success) of Detroit’s coverages last season.
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4) Jim L. Mora, UCLA, head coach
Pro experience: 25 seasons, four as head coach (Atlanta 2004-2006, Seattle 2009)
Pro head coaching record: 31-33 (1-1 postseason)
College experience: Four years, three as head coach
College head coaching record: 29-11 (2-1 in bowl games)
Résumé: Half the panelists interviewed by The MMQB independently used the same word to describe Mora: hothead. A handful of those polled wouldn’t consider him in the upper echelon of candidates for that reason. The son of an NFL coach brought a defensive background into head coaching stints in Atlanta and Seattle, where his teams were neither defensively stout nor especially successful. Mora clashed quickly with Seahawks management and slammed CEO Tod Leiweke on his way out after one season. Yet his arrival at UCLA has revived the program into an annual top-10 force. Experience is on his side.
M.O.: A 3-4 guy who has had to use a lot of nickel in the spread- and pass-happy Pac-12. He probably wouldn’t have to change much given how pass-happy the NFL has become since he left.
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5) Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M, head coach
College experience: 27 seasons, seven as head coach (Houston 2008-11, Texas A&M 2012-present)
College head coaching record: 63-28 (4-1 in bowl games)
Résumé: The hottest name in college coaching in 2011 backed up the hype with three winning seasons in the SEC and three bowl wins, including a shellacking of his former mentor and boss, Bob Stoops, in the 2013 Cotton Bowl. Though he was a four-year starting linebacker at Purdue, Sumlin has been schooled in offense from the beginning of his coaching career at Wyoming. For three winters now, Sumlin has turned down NFL teams and committed to the Aggies, yet teams still have reason to believe he would be interested in the right job, because he’s addicted to new challenges.
M.O.: Sumlin runs an Air Raid offense, but the differences between what he ran at Houston with Case Keenum at quarterback and at Texas A&M with Johnny Manziel suggest he would build around the players he inherited at the next level. The question is whether he’d insist on playing at such a high tempo in the NFL.
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6) Pep Hamilton, Indianapolis, offensive coordinator
Pro experience: 10 seasons, two as coordinator (Indianapolis 2013-present)
Résumé: Hamilton, a former quarterback at Howard, was handed a gift with Andrew Luck and has done everything to maximize the once-in-a-decade talent. Indianapolis’ offense improved dramatically in his second season as coordinator, finishing sixth in points and third in yards (despite a pass-protection challenged offensive line). Concerns over Hamilton’s lack of experience, and whether he can replicate recent production with a QB other than Luck, could push Hamilton back into a three-year plan.
M.O.: Appears reticent but is actually brimming with confidence. There were times last season when he schematically embarrassed opposing defensive coordinators with clever downfield route combinations, often involving the tight end.
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7) David Shaw, Stanford, head coach
Pro experience: Nine seasons
College experience: 11 seasons, four as head coach
College head coaching record: 42-12 (2-2 in bowl games)
Résumé: NFL folks seem to believe Andrew Luck’s former coach is another guy who would be open to the right opportunity. His representatives notified teams last December he wouldn’t be entertaining any pro offers and that he would remain at Stanford, where he played receiver for Dennis Green and Bill Walsh. Yet NFL sources believe Shaw could be wooed with the promise of a talented young passer. But, said one evaluator, “It might just have to be Luck.” The biggest on-field knock on Shaw is the notion that he’s too conservative, but his coaching record speaks for itself.
M.O.: Shaw is one of the few college coaches who still runs something close to an NFL offense, and he proved himself by building upon the foundation Jim Harbaugh left by winning two Pac-12 titles. If you’re his GM, plan to draft a lot of tight ends.
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8) Frank Reich, San Diego, offensive coordinator
Pro experience: Seven seasons, one as coordinator (San Diego 2014)
Résumé: The former NFL quarterback is still learning from an offensive-minded head coach (Mike McCoy), but Reich is a rising star. With another season of play-calling and another resurgent year by Philip Rivers, Reich could have a head-coaching job next offseason. A one-time pastor after leaving the NFL as a player in 1998, Reich has been impressive in interviews, though some wonder if he lacks the demeanor of a head coach.
M.O.: Former quarterback, but his strong suit could very well be in instructing wide receivers. Has a good grasp for teaching passing concepts, which is vital in today’s NFL.
TIER 2: BUILDING A CASE
This categorization can mean any number of things: either the candidate is a young coach (Kyle Shanahan), a veteran coordinator whose window is closing (Ray Horton), or a former head coach who could be given a second chance (Scott Linehan). The men in this tier share one thing: they have significant prospects for 2016, provided they thrive in their current roles.
9) Doug Marrone, Jacksonville, offensive line coach
Pro experience: Nine seasons, two as head coach (Buffalo 2013-2104)
Head coaching record: 15-17
Résumé: Our No. 1 wild card in evaluation. One decision maker said Marrone would be No. 1 on his list if he were hiring a coach in 2016. Another decision maker said he was shocked the former Bills coach wasn’t hired in 2015. And still others have questions about his reasons for leaving Buffalo after one season and the way he carried out his plan. “The fraternity of owners did not like how he handled the last situation,” said one source. “Doug’s version of how it went down doesn’t agree with the ownership’s.” On the field, the former Syracuse lineman and head coach turned the Bills around from 6-10 to 9-7, with QB Kyle Orton as a starter.
M.O.: A run-oriented coach who featured a rudimentary passing attack in Buffalo. Was it a function of his football beliefs or the QBs he had to work with?
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10) Sean McDermott, Carolina, defensive coordinator
College: William and Mary
Pro experience: 16 seasons, six as coordinator (Philadelphia 2009-10, Carolina 2011-present)
Résumé: Was named interim DC in 2009 following the death of legendary coordinator Jim Johnson to cancer, and then saw his unit give up 377 points in 2010, a franchise-worst going back to 1974. But Ron Rivers brought the former All-Conference safety to Carolina, and in three seasons, the defense went from last in the league in DVOA (Football Outsiders’ measure of efficiency over the course of a season) to third in 2013. Carolina’s been churning out playmakers since he arrived, from Greg Hardy to Luke Kuechly to Thomas Davis.
M.O.: A Jim Johnson disciple, McDermott espouses a zone-based scheme with personnel wrinkles and knows how and when to bring heat. He’s done so selectively but effectively in Carolina, where he’s been one of the league’s better in-game defensive play-callers over the last two years.
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11) Pat Shurmur, Philadelphia, offensive coordinator
College: Michigan State
Pro experience: 15 seasons, two as head coach (Cleveland 2011-12)
Head coaching record: 9-23
Résumé: Another Browns refugee, Shurmur had interest from the Bills and Raiders this offseason and should garner more after a successful Year 3 in Chip Kelly’s system. He returned to most teams’ radar after Nick Foles’ unbelievable 2013 season, in which he threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Our most plugged-in sources rated him higher than others did, though several respondents indicated poor relationships with players. Doesn’t mean he can’t be a head coach.
M.O.: His two-year tenure in Cleveland really wasn’t long enough to offer a full illustration of his head-coaching abilities. And little-known secret: it’s Shurmur, not Chip Kelly, who oversees most of the passing game concepts in Philadelphia. (Kelly is a running game guy.)
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12) Hue Jackson, Cincinnati, offensive coordinator
Pro experience: 14 seasons, one as head coach (Oakland 2011)
Head coaching record: 8-8
Résumé: A true wild card on this list, Jackson is an imminent hire in the eyes of some and a bust in the eyes of others. He started his career at Pacific—Pete Carroll’s old stomping grounds—as a graduate assistant in 1987 and made it to the NFL in 2001 as Washington’s running backs coach. His lone head-coaching gig, with the Raiders in 2011, lasted one 8-8 season before he was fired by new GM Reggie McKenzie. Jackson knows how to play the media game and has built a marketing machine around his candidacy for several years, but his first season as coordinator failed to bring about measurable change in the play and production of fourth-year starter Andy Dalton.
M.O.: A proven, respected leader with better-than-adequate play-calling acumen. And hails from a Bengals organization that asks a lot of its assistants, which has helped many men move up the ladder, including Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer.
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13) Greg Roman, Buffalo, offensive coordinator
College: John Carroll
Pro experience: 17 seasons, five as coordinator (San Francisco 2011-14)
Résumé: The fast-rising coordinator has almost two decades of pro experience under his belt (despite having never played in the league) and a monumental test ahead of him. Infamously instructed to “take a hike” by the daughter of Niners general manager Trent Baalke on Twitter, Roman is well-liked in league circles despite a disastrous 2014 season. He takes the Bills job under defensive-minded head coach Rex Ryan, with the challenge of competing in the AFC East, with either Matt Cassel or EJ Manuel as his starting quarterback.
M.O.: Arguably the best running game architect in football today. And he knows it. If that confidence and intelligence translates into strong leadership, he could be some team’s diamond in the rough.
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14) Darrell Bevell, Seattle, offensive coordinator
Pro experience: 15 seasons, 10 as coordinator (Minnesota 2006-10, Seattle 2011-present)
Résumé: Despite going from a 38-year-old Brad Johnson to Tarvaris Jackson to Gus Frerrote, Minnesota’s offense improved dramatically in production in his first three years as OC, from 2006-08. In Seattle, Bevell was lukewarm on drafting Russell Wilson, yet he built a game plan around his strengths to win Super Bowl XLVIII. The final play of last year’s Super Bowl had a cooling effect on his reputation as a rising star. Also, there’s a reason Seattle defensive coordinators seem to get plucked for head-coaching jobs every year and Bevell has remained in place—some of our respondents doubted his coaching intangibles. Said one evaluator: “Nice guy, but I don’t see the ‘it’ or presence it takes to be a head coach.”
M.O.: From Tarvaris Jackson to Russell Wilson, Bevell’s QBs consistently lead the league in play-action. Even as Russell Wilson has matured into one of the NFL’s best, over 30% of his throws came off play-action, more than everyone but Alex Smith.
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15) Rob Chudzinski, Indianapolis, assistant head coach
Pro experience: 11 seasons, one as head coach (Cleveland 2013)
Head coaching record: 4-12
Résumé: Cut his teeth at Miami in the early 2000s and had his football worldview shaped by All-World college tight ends Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow Jr. “Chud” spent a year in pro football hell (Cleveland) in 2013 and emerged 4-12 and jobless. Before that he was the offensive coordinator who helped Cam Newton reach record-breaking heights as a rookie passer. Unlike others on this list, Chud’s current role doesn’t quite lend to a breakout season the way a coordinator’s would.
M.O.: One of the original visionaries of two-tight end offense, which has since swept across the league and become the norm. You have to figure his gut-punch from Cleveland and relatively stress-free two years as a miscellaneous assistant in Indy has only taught him more about the world of pro football.
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16) Joe Lombardi, Detroit, offensive coordinator
College: Air Force
Pro experience: Nine seasons, one as coordinator (Detroit 2014)
Résumé: Vince Lombardi’s grandson took his first coordinator job last year and showed he has a ways to go after being outclassed by Carolina’s Sean McDermott and the No. 27 coach on this list, New England’s Matt Patricia in near shutouts. Lombardi was schooled under Sean Payton in New Orleans and found many of those concepts transferable to the Detroit roster. Matthew Stafford’s year-to-year improvement could make Lombardi a Tier 1 candidate in the coming years, and a Super Bowl would immediately make him an in-demand candidate.
M.O.: You have to wonder how his last name would sit with owners. Selling point? Or unnecessary burden of expectation? So far, he’s quietly moved up the NFL ranks and now orchestrates a fairly diverse system in Detroit, emulated in certain areas after the one he learned in New Orleans.
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17) Kyle Shanahan, Atlanta, offensive coordinator
Pro experience: 11 seasons, eight as coordinator (Houston 2008-09, Washington 2010-13, Cleveland 2014)
Résumé: Another wild-card candidate; one evaluator said he wouldn’t consider the ninth-year coordinator, while others put him at the top of the second tier. Shanahan is still a bit of an unknown and would benefit tremendously from a strong 2015 by the Falcons’ offense and quarterback Matt Ryan. The former Texas receiver has forever brushed off charges of nepotism (Mike, his father, ranks 24th on our list) during stops in Tampa, Houston, Washington and Cleveland. His first coordinator job came in 2008, at age 29, but his breakout season was 2012, when he and his father fashioned an offense that helped Robert Griffin III become the rookie of the year. In league circles, he’ll get a pass for the struggles of Johnny Manziel in Cleveland.
M.O.: Runs a unique zone-based system that does wonders for a mobile quarterback and, in a variety of ways, lifts burdens off the offensive line. RG3’s struggles in Jay Gruden’s system really highlighted how well Shanahan did working with the undeveloped QB in Griffin’s rookie season.
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18) Vic Fangio, Chicago, defensive coordinator
College: East Stroudsburg
Pro experience: 28 seasons, 15 as coordinator (Carolina 1995-98, Indianapolis 1999-2001, Houston 2002-05, San Francisco 2011-14)
Résumé: The longest-tenured coordinator on this list, Fangio has led units for the Panthers, Colts, Texans, 49ers and now the Bears. His latest task is a monumental one: Turn a porous, poorly stocked Chicago defense into something worthy of a contender. Fangio has staunch supporters in his head-coaching bid, including a vocal one in Bruce Arians. But he seems to be only seriously considered for coordinator posts (he was passed over for the 49ers job by one of his subordinates, Jim Tomsula). The defense he revamped in San Francisco was average before he arrived, so would a similar job on this team get a foot in the door?
M.O.: Has thrived running a variety of schemes with a variety of personnel. In NFL circles, he’s considered one of the most respected defensive strategists.
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19) Scott Linehan, Dallas, offensive coordinator
Pro experience: 12 seasons, three as head coach (St. Louis 2006-08)
Head coaching record: 11-25
Résumé: The former Idaho quarterback spent the first half of his career in the college ranks coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers before landing with the Vikings in 2002. By 2006 he earned the Rams head job, which he held for three miserable seasons. After that, he schooled Matthew Stafford and developed Calvin Johnson in Detroit before taking over as the passing game coordinator and now offensive coordinator in Dallas. Linehan had a heavy hand in a prolific running offense in 2014 and Tony Romo’s most accurate passing season as a pro (69.9% completion rate). Several respondents suggested that Linehan might not have the personality to be a head coach.
M.O.: Was told to simplify the offense and run the ball in his first year with the Cowboys, both of which go against his natural inclination. Did a tremendous job, but some guys are better coordinators than head coaches. (Don’t forget, they are two very different jobs.)
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20) Jim Schwartz, free agent
Pro experience: 22 years, five as head coach (Detroit 2009-13)
Head coaching record: 29-52 (0-1 playoffs)
Résumé: Schwartz began his NFL career as a scout under Bill Belichick in Cleveland, from 1993-96, and followed the team to Baltimore, where he coached the linebackers. He spent the next decade of his career in Tennessee before finally landing a head-coaching job with the then-moribund Lions. Last year he helped the Bills improve in nearly every statistical category on defense, but new coach Rex Ryan brought in a coordinator to run his preferred 3-4, not Schwartz’s 4-3. A man with a league reputation for burning bridges, Schwartz is probably not on Jim Harbaugh’s holiday card list.
M.O.: For old-school attitude and 4-3 zone-based defense, he’s your guy. Incorporated a few more pressure concepts into his scheme as the Bills’ defensive coordinator, showing the capacity to change with the times.
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21) Eric Mangini, San Francisco, defensive coordinator
Pro experience: 17 seasons, five as head coach (New York Jets 2006-08, Cleveland 2009-10)
Head coaching record: 33-48 (0-1 playoffs)
Résumé: Mangini became the youngest head coach in the NFL when the Jets lured him away from New England after one year as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator. Though Mangini and GM Mike Tannenbaum laid the foundation for two straight AFC Championship Game appearances, the Jets fired him after missing the playoffs despite an 8-3 start with Brett Favre. Two straight 5-11 seasons in Cleveland submarined his immediate coaching future, but after two seasons in television and two seasons coaching tight ends, he’s back as a coordinator. Perennial dysfunction in Cleveland’s front office helps his case, and his temperament has apparently cooled.
M.O.: Has spent the past two seasons quietly coaching tight ends. Working on “the other side of the ball” like that has done wonders for expanding some coaches’ minds. A lot will hinge on how he does as a defensive play-caller this season. Expect aggression and diversity from his 3-4.
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22) Ben McAdoo, New York Giants, offensive coordinator
College: Indiana (Pa.)
Pro experience: 11 seasons, one as coordinator (New York Giants 2014)
Résumé: It’s been quite a prolific rise for the one-time high school assistant, whose first NFL job came in 2004 as a quality control guy for the Saints. Having never coached quarterbacks, he worked with Aaron Rodgers from 2012-2013 before taking the coordinator job last season in New York, at age 36. Despite a 6-10 finish, Eli Manning turned in the most accurate and productive passing season of his career with McAdoo calling the shots.
M.O.: Very telling that a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback in his mid-30s was willing to change his mechanics for a first-time offensive coordinator. #Respect.
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23) Tom Cable, Seattle, offensive line
Pro experience: Nine seasons, three as head coach (Oakland, 2008-10)
Head coaching record: 17-27
Résumé: Cable’s offensive line expertise, honed at Cal in the mid-90’s, has produced top-10 rushing attacks at nearly every NFL stop. He never held a coordinator role before landing the Raiders job four games into the 2008 season, when he replaced Lane Kiffin. The Raiders went 8-8 in Cable’s second full season, and undefeated in the AFC West, but Hue Jackson replaced him in 2011. In Seattle, where he’s coached the line since, he’s become the rumored coordinator-in-waiting. There was also that time he, then the head coach in Oakland, reportedly broke an assistant’s jaw with a punch in 2009. Said one source: “If he hadn’t punched a guy, he’d be a head coach by now.”
M.O.: Questions will be asked about character from his days with the Raiders, but that’s ancient history now. A blocking connoisseur who doesn’t believe in changing things up; he’d rather just line up and out-execute opponents.
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24) Mike Shanahan, free agent
College: Eastern Illinois
Pro experience: 29 seasons, 20 as head coach (Oakland 1988-89, Denver 1995-08, Washington 2010-13)
Head coaching record: 177-143 (8-6 playoffs)
Résumé: Considered an offensive revolutionary once upon a time, Shanahan’s one-cut, zone running system has turned marginal backs into Pro Bowlers throughout most of his career. Winning two Super Bowls in the late 1990s cemented John Elway’s legacy, and it also gave Shanahan job security rarely seen in modern pro sports. Just one playoff win over the next decade with Broncos finally sealed his fate in Denver. He then lasted four seasons in Washington before an ugly divorce in 2013, and hasn’t returned to football since, despite reportedly interviewing for the Oakland job this offseason.
M.O.: See Kyle Shanahan’s M.O., and just tack on a few decades of experience. (Then decide for yourself if those few decades are a sign of wisdom or antiquation.)
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25) Ray Horton, Tennessee, defensive coordinator
Pro experience: 21 seasons, four as coordinator (Cardinals 2011-12, Cleveland 2013, Tennessee 2014-present)
Résumé: Prior to his coaching career, Horton spent 10 seasons as a corner and safety in the NFL, and then spent the next 16 seasons coaching defensive backs for several teams, including the Steelers under Dick LeBeau. After coordinator stints in Arizona and Cleveland, he followed Whisenhunt to Tennessee in 2014. He will attempt to improve a defense that yielded the fourth most points per game (27.4) in the league last year. Word is, Horton interviews poorly and can have a bristly personality.
M.O.: The gutsiest blitz-caller in the league a few years ago didn’t have the talent to run his full 3-4 scheme with the Titans last season. While he’s excelled the past few years, what do we make of Dick LeBeau’s arrival in Tennessee (something Horton reportedly was on board with)?
TIER 3: SOMETHING TO PROVE
These coaches fall into two categories: former head coaches with long-term obstacles to overcome, and young prospects.
26) Jim Harbaugh, Michigan, head coach
Pro experience: Six seasons, four as head coach (San Francisco 2011-14)
Head coaching record: 49-22-1 (5-3 in playoffs)
Résumé: Harbaugh’s return to college isn’t a reflection of his ability to succeed in the NFL, but can he get along? On this list, his reputation most closely resembles Mora (which may scare some teams away from the UCLA coach). Still, Harbaugh’s football acumen is immaculate: His 49ers appeared in three NFC championship games in his four years behind offensive and defensive fronts befitting his personality. Said one former general manager: “You could put him No. 1 or 36. He is an acquired taste.”
M.O.: A master delegator who aims to get his money’s worth from assistants. The question is how brash leadership style meshes with a team. (And how long a team can tolerate it.) Some might see similarities to Bill Parcells in this regard.
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27) Matt Patricia, New England, defensive coordinator
College: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Pro experience: 11 seasons, three as coordinator (New England 2012-present)
Résumé: GMs will tell you not to over evaluate Belichick underlings, or coordinators who work on the same side of the ball as the head coach, but we heard Patricia’s name come up in enough interviews to include him. He’s been with the Patriots as long as he’s been in the NFL, which is probably why you’ve never heard of him. After the 2011 defense allowed the most scrimmage yards in the NFL, Patricia was promoted to coordinator. Last year was a breakout season for the young assistant. To become a head coach, said one evaluator, he’ll have to overcome an image problem: “He looks like a mountain man.”
M.O.: Personality is a virtual unknown due to Patriots’ tight media restrictions on assistant coaches. Has thrived using a variety of schemes and player packages, many of them man-coverage-based. Let’s see how he does with an inexperienced secondary this year.
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28) John Pagano, San Diego, defensive coordinator
College: Mesa State
Pro experience: 13 seasons, three as coordinator (San Diego 2012-14)
Résumé: Chuck’s younger brother began as a quality control coach in 2002 and has spent his entire career with San Diego under three different head coaches. Since taking the defensive coordinator position in 2012, he’s managed a respectable defense that, in 2014, jumped to fourth in the league in passing yards allowed per game (214.2). The success of older brother Chuck has done nothing to hurt John’s status. Quietly, this Pagano is a rising star in coaching circles.
M.O.: There are high-level offensive coaches who will tell you he’s the toughest defensive coordinator in the league to play chess against. Through in-game play-calling, he’s maximized every ounce of talent on San Diego’s defense.
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29) Kris Richard, Seattle, defensive coordinator
Pro experience: Three seasons
Résumé: Seahawks defensive players swear he’s the next in an assembly line of head coaches to emerge from the Seattle coordinator spot. A former third-round draft pick of the team in 2002, Richard took the coordinator job vacated by Dan Quinn’s hiring in Atlanta. Because Richard is entering his first season as a pro coordinator, this is largely a projection.
M.O.: It’s not a coincidence that so many low-round and undrafted cornerbacks have flourished in Seattle’s rudimentary system. Someone has been teaching technique to the Richard Shermans and Byron Maxwells. If Seattle’s defense prospers in 2015 like it has the last two years, Richard could be well on his way to becoming a head coach.
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30) Mike Smith, free agent
College: East Tennessee State
Pro experience: 16 seasons, seven as head coach (Atlanta 2008-14)
Head coaching record: 67-49 (1-4 playoffs)
Résumé: Smith spent 17 seasons in college before landing a pro job in 1999 with the Ravens, coaching the defensive line. Named the Falcons’ head coach in 2008, Smith spent his first draft pick on Matt Ryan, who quarterbacked four postseason finishes in five seasons. A 10-22 record over the last two seasons resulted in Smith’s firing, but shaky clock management in crucial spots accelerated the fall.
M.O.: Ran his course in Atlanta, but it was one of the more impressive courses in the franchise’s history. The question is whether he’d want a straightforward, execution-based approach like he had as a D coordinator in Jacksonville, or if he’d go with the more complex, disguise- and pressure-oriented approach that he allowed his D coordinator, Mike Nolan, to employ toward the end of his Atlanta tenure.
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31) Vance Joseph, Cincinnati, defensive backs
Pro experience: 10 seasons
Résumé: A former University of Colorado standout, Joseph spent several years coaching defensive backs at his alma mater before San Francisco offered him the same position in 2005. The Bengals blocked Denver’s interview request for Joseph for their defensive coordinator position in 2015.
M.O.: Not known to most fans, but definitely known to coaches throughout the league. After another successful year for Cincinnati’s secondary—a secondary that wasn’t always healthy—his name popped up on interview lists this past offseason.
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32) Anthony Lynn, Buffalo, running backs, assistant head coach
College: Texas Tech
Pro experience: 15 seasons
Résumé: Forced to retire early due to neck injuries, Lynn began his coaching career in Denver as a special teams assistant. Three teams later, Lynn coached the Jets’ running backs for all six years of Rex Ryan’s tenure. When Ryan was hired in Buffalo, Lynn followed. Ryan preached ground-and-pound, and Lynn was at the heart of its execution.
M.O.: Running backs coaches aren’t typically considered for head-coaching positions, but his job title in Buffalo includes “assistant head coach” for a reason. He’s a teacher of the game who sticks up for his guys.
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