From the vantage point of mid-November, Oakland, Washington and Cleveland look like the best bets to join Buffalo in a coaching search. It's entirely too early to tell how things might turn out in other NFL venues, but suffice to say events in Dallas, Green Bay, Carolina, Chicago, San Diego, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Houston bear watching.
I am hearing one pertinent caveat, however, from NFL sources regarding this year's coaching carousel: There might just be more standing pat than expected this time around, given the uncertainty that exists about 2011 and a potential lockout and work stoppage. NFL owners are said to be hesitant to fire coaches who have big money left on their contracts, and then face the likelihood of climbing into new, bigger deals with the replacements they hire. With the coming labor showdown, the mood within the league is for belt-tightening, and that may wind up buying time for a number of embattled coaches.
But not every owner can afford to be patient. So here's our early preview of the leading candidates to interview for and win whatever jobs do come open in the coming two months. After culling names from league sources we trust, we've grouped the likely head coaching prospects from the most popular, to the long-shot names you need to know:
• Mike Shanahan -- The former Broncos head coach should be the fairest girl at the ball this year, and have his pick of the jobs available. Buffalo is reportedly already wooing him, but I can't see the usually frugal Ralph Wilson being willing to spend the kind of money it would take to land Shanny. And I can't see Shanny deciding Buffalo is where he wants to work. And I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict you can cross Oakland off his list, too. The smart money continues to be on Washington and Danny "Warbucks'' Snyder (we could call it the Danny and Shanny show).
• Bill Cowher -- The Chin is still playing his cards pretty close to the vest, but it appears he's more open to returning to the NFL this year -- if the right opportunity avails itself -- than at any other point since he left Pittsburgh following the 2006 season. It's still thought that Carolina is his logical destination, but John Fox's Panthers have won four of their past six games, and if that trend continues there won't be any openings in Charlotte in 2010.
• Mike Holmgren -- OK, we're fudging a bit here, because Holmgren isn't interested in returning to the NFL grind as a head coach. He wants a Bill Parcells-type czar role, leading a rebuilding team's front office, and there's no more desperate situation than Cleveland's these days. The Browns are interested, and Holmgren is said to not be scared off by the size of the challenge that Cleveland presents. (Of course, they all say that going in.)
• Brian Billick -- With Jon Gruden committing to another year or two of television work this week, and Tony Dungy clearly too darn busy to return to the sidelines, the only other remaining available Super Bowl-winning coach is Billick, who is in the second year of his NFL sabbatical. Billick, too, has had success joining the ranks of the media, and enjoys both his TV gigs and the acclaim that has come from his authorship of an excellent new book on life in the NFL. I don't see him taking just any job to get back in, especially since he's still being paid handsomely by the Ravens.
• Leslie Frazier, Vikings defensive coordinator -- The sense is that Frazier is in the pole position in terms of the "hot coordinator'' crowd, and it's likely he'll interview plenty again this hiring season. He has interviewed in Miami, St. Louis, Denver and Detroit in the past two years, and if the Vikings' success continues this season, it'll only increase the buzz surrounding his candidacy. Frazier's interview skills are said to have not been his strong suit in the past, but his coaching and rapport with players is widely respected and he has gotten tutorial help on the interview front.
• Mike Zimmer, Bengals defensive coordinator -- The job Zimmer has done with the Bengals defense this season speaks for itself, and if Cincy rides its magic carpet all the way to Miami, who knows how far it might advance a Zimmer candidacy? Strange as it sounds, Zimmer's time in front of the HBO cameras on "Hard Knocks'' probably raised his visibility level significantly within league circles, even though he was known as a quality teacher of the game long before last summer.
• Todd Bowles, Dolphins secondary/assistant head coach -- Just keep an eye on Bowles, because he has the Bill Parcells imprint on him, and that never hurts. He's a New Jersey guy who has worked for the Jets, Browns, Cowboys and now Dolphins. At 46, he's no 30-something phenom in the Mike Tomlin, Raheem Morris mold, but his name and reputation have generated some head coaching buzz.
• Pat Shurmur, Rams offensive coordinator -- He's not going to get a job based on the Rams' success this season, but he's well thought of within the league and turned down a couple chances to interview last year after he had already committed to join Steve Spagnuolo's new staff in St. Louis. His 10 years spent on Andy Reid's offensive staff in Philly, working with Donovan McNabb as quarterbacks coach for the last seven of them, are the strength of his résumé.
• Mike Mularkey, Falcons offensive coordinator -- His chances to return to the head coaching ranks have probably lessened a bit in recent weeks as the Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan have struggled -- sorry, that's how it works to a large degree in the NFL. But Mularkey's track record has been strong in Atlanta and his two years of head coaching experience in Buffalo earlier this decade is a plus. It's worth noting again that he resigned from the Bills job and was not fired.
• Gregg Williams, Saints defensive coordinator -- Like Zimmer in Cincinnati, the strength of Williams' candidacy is likely tied to how far the Saints season goes. He's earned plaudits for his work in turning around the New Orleans defense, but some within the league still question what happened to him in Washington, where he was Joe Gibbs' defensive coordinator and heir apparent, but was bypassed in favor of Jim Zorn when the job came open.
• Pete Carroll, USC -- We could obviously put Carroll's name on this list each and every year (in fact, I think we have). His rep has taken a bit of a hit this season with his Trojans looking anything but invincible, and some will still say he's a two-time NFL failure who's made for the college game. But he's had a historic run at USC, and it stands to reason that at some point he'll be seeking a new challenge. Human nature says he'll want to try conquering the NFL one more time before he hangs it up.
• Jim Harbaugh, Stanford -- The job Harbaugh has done with the Cardinal this season is only going to make him more attractive to the NFL, and his background as an NFL quarterback and being the brother of successful Ravens head coach John Harbaugh doesn't hurt. Notre Dame could come calling once Charlie Weis is gone, given Harbaugh's Indiana ties dating to his Colts career. But it's hard to see Harbaugh not giving the NFL a try at some point.
• Karl Dorrell, Dolphins receivers coach -- The former UCLA head coach has a couple factors in his favor when it comes to getting the attention of an NFL owner: He's been a head coach at a major college program in a major media market, and he has worked for both Parcells (who brought him to Miami for Tony Sparano's staff), and Shanahan (as a Broncos assistant). He's working closely with Miami offensive coordinator Dan Henning these days, and that won't hurt either.
• Kevin Gilbride, Giants offensive coordinator -- It's been a long time since Gilbride washed out as the Chargers head coach in the late-'90s, and his name has surfaced as a potential candidate in Buffalo. He's done solid work on Tom Coughlin's Giants staff, and the Super Bowl ring he won two years ago adds luster to his résumé.
• Mike Nolan, Broncos defensive coordinator -- It's probably too soon for Nolan to realistically have a shot at landing another head coaching gig after his 49ers tenure ended after just seven games of 2008. But Nolan's early season work transforming Denver's defense into a force got noticed. Let's see how the Broncos' story ends this year.
• Brian Kelly, University of Cincinnati -- Kelly's probably not an NFL head coach right now, but he's on the league's radar screen. Notre Dame is likely coming after him once Charlie Weis is let go, and maybe a few years of success in South Bend (no mean feat these days) would launch him into the NFL.
• Charlie Weis, Notre Dame -- Just hear me out before you snicker. Weis has a proven NFL background, with a proven track record as an offensive coordinator, and he still has a couple of pretty good NFL contacts in Bill Belichick and Parcells. His name will flash here in a couple weeks as a hot candidate for NFL offensive coordinator openings (back to New England?), but in the right scenario, his head coaching experience might get him interviewed for a top job.
• Jason Garrett, Cowboys offensive coordinator -- Garrett's star has dimmed, and the only job he'd likely be in line for this offseason is in Dallas if Wade Phillips is axed, and Jerry Jones couldn't land a Mike Shanahan or Jeff Fisher.
• Brian Schottenheimer, Jets offensive coordinator -- He's seen as future head coaching material in the NFL, but it may not happen for him until there's a year with a lot of openings in the league, much like last offseason.
• Kirk Ferentz, Iowa -- C'mon, what would an NFL head coaching candidate list be without Ferentz -- the perpetual candidate -- on it? His Hawkeyes are on a two-game losing streak that cost them the Big Ten, but it was all going pretty good there for a while until a certain weekly sports publication put them on the cover.
• Mike Heimerdinger, Titans offensive coordinator -- A long shot? You betcha. But watch and see the buzz created if Vince Young continues to turn both his career and the Titans' season around. Heimerdinger was once thought of as a potential NFL head coach, and he'll be in line for some of the credit for Young.
• Marc Trestman, Montreal Alouettes -- The longtime NFL assistant has been a successful head coach in the CFL the past couple years, and Trestman is likely to get interviewed for the Bills job. They throw the ball up there a bit north of the border, and heaven knows Buffalo could certainly use a passing game.
• Ron Rivera, Charges defensive coordinator -- Rivera's name could heat up again if San Diego makes something special out of its season. But his problem is familiarity. He has interviewed for so many NFL head coaching jobs without getting one, and it has caused a certain bridesmaid stigma to be attached to his candidacy.
• DeWayne Walker, New Mexico State -- Walker, a longtime NFL assistant who recently served as UCLA's defensive coordinator, is in his first season as New Mexico State's head coach, and he has a team that was projected to win one game at 3-6 currently. If he turns around what has been one of worst programs in Division I for decades now, he'll get offers. People in the NFL know about Walker, and he may generate defensive coordinator interest this year.
• Pete Carmichael Jr., Saints offensive coordinator -- With Sean Payton as head coach, Carmichael's not the New Orleans play-caller, and that's a step he's got to take before he gets hired as a head coach. But working under Payton enhances his résumé, and he could emerge as a prospect for a college head coaching job in the near future. He served as Saints quarterbacks coach from 2006 to 2008.
• The usual suspects -- Former NFL head coaches Jim Haslett, Jim Fassel, Mike Martz and Marty Schottenheimer are likely to have their names pop up on a coaching candidate list or three this offseason. Haslett is reportedly on Buffalo's radar screen. One more familiar name who could again be vetted is Russ Grimm, Arizona's assistant head coach/offensive line coach.