The only constant in the NFL these days is change, and all indications point to another active firing/hiring season commencing on Black Monday -- the day after the league's regular season concludes. While there were no midseason coaching dismissals in 2012, in the neighborhood of seven to 10 teams could be making a move shortly after Week 17 is in the books.
And the general manager market could be a whirlwind as well, with six to eight teams believed to be at least contemplating a move at or near the top of their front office flow chart. With so much activity about to take place, here's a team-by-team breakdown of what we think we know, with a preview look at the names of some potential coaching and general manager candidates that could be in play for those jobs. League general managers, personnel executives, team sources and agents were contacted and interviewed in an attempt to divine all the comings and goings of the next few weeks.
For weeks, the reported leading candidate for the Browns GM job has been Mike Lombardi, the former Raiders personnel executive and current NFL Network analyst. Lombardi was hired by Banner as a personnel consultant in Philadelphia in 1997, and once worked for the Browns personnel department in the team's Bill Belichick era in the early '90s.
League sources say Lombardi is definitely on Cleveland's short list, but may not be the lock for the position that some are assuming. The other half of the Lombardi candidacy could be tied to Josh McDaniels, the current Patriots offensive coordinator who is seen as a potential package deal with Lombardi, with Cleveland giving him a second shot at head coach after his failed tenure of less than two years in Denver (2009-2010).
McDaniels is an Ohio native and is said to be eager to erase the blemish of his Broncos firing. But he's also wary of choosing poorly in his second NFL head coaching opportunity, and is hesitant to go anywhere if he doesn't think he has a quarterback he can win with and build around. It is not thought McDaniels has had sufficient time yet to study Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden's game, and if New England makes a deep playoff run, his availability might not jive with Cleveland's timetable.
There's also a chance New England gets proactive in an attempt to keep McDaniels around as an eventual replacement for head coach Bill Belichick, a move the Kraft family could dangle as enticement to stay put. Some sources say McDaniels' interest in the Browns has been overstated in the media, because he feels he already has the best assistant coaching job in the NFL, working with Tom Brady and Belichick, and knows continued success will bring other head coaching opportunities.
Beside McDaniels, the remaining buzz on the big-name head coaching front centers on Haslam trying to lure Alabama's Nick Saban to town. Saban, a former Browns assistant under Belichick, is not thought likely to leave the college game this year, but history tells us he can't be completely ruled out. Like McDaniels, Saban has made it clear to those close to him that he won't go to a team unless he's convinced he has a winning quarterback, and it's not known if he considers Weeden to be a proven commodity at this point of his career.
Lombardi and Saban worked together in Cleveland, but some within the NFL are skeptical that a front office structure that includes Banner, Lombardi and Saban could lead to coexistence and cooperation in terms of final personnel say. The same could be true if McDaniels is the Browns' choice as coach, with one executive from a competing NFL club saying: "That's a lot of headstrong people in one front office, with Banner, Lombardi and McDaniels working together. I'm not sure why he'd jump at a situation with a convoluted structure like that."
If there's another GM candidate to keep track of in Cleveland's search it's David Caldwell, the current Atlanta Falcons director of player personnel. Caldwell has a college scouting background with a strong track record in the draft, and he's seen as one of the most knowledgeable and experienced prospects in the GM-to-be ranks.
Will that be enough to earn Rivera a third season in Charlotte? Opinion is divided on that topic within the league, though many NFL sources lean toward Rivera returning, depending somewhat on who the Panthers hire as general manager.
Carolina has enlisted the help of longtime former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi in their GM search, and some believe that makes New York director of college scouting Marc Ross a leading candidate for the job, with Giants director of player personnel Dave Gettleman also very much in play.
Another scenario, which many within the league discount due to Accorsi's involvement in the search, is that Carolina will elevate interim GM Brandon Beane to the full-time role, and not fill the position with a more experienced candidate with a heavy personnel background. Beane was the Panthers' director of team operations until Hurney was dismissed.
If there's a big-name coaching candidate to keep in mind in Carolina, Oregon's Chip Kelly is a possibility. The thought of Kelly matching his up-tempo offense to franchise quarterback Cam Newton's game is an intriguing notion. But Kelly is said to be only interested in an NFL job that comes with near-total personnel control, so he would seem a possibility only if the Panthers stay in-house with their GM opening and elevate Beane.
Former Bills running back Thurman Thomas dropped a cryptic hint of changes to come within the organization via Twitter the other day, but no one seems quite sure what form a potential GM move would take. One option would be elevating assistant GM/director of player personnel Doug Whaley to the top job and commencing a coaching search after that change was made.
Another potential GM candidate would be Caldwell, Atlanta's well-regarded director of player personnel. He's from the Buffalo area, and would welcome the chance to help the Bills end their NFL-worst playoff drought, which stands at 13 seasons and counting.
As one NFL club executive explained, replacing Nix now is probably the smart move, because he has made it known the Bills will be aggressive in the search for the club's next starting quarterback, with Ryan Fitzpatrick not expected to return. "If you've got a GM who's hell-bent on getting a quarterback, you've got a guy who's at least in danger of giving up the farm to do so,'' the NFL club executive said. "A desperate general manager is the worst kind of general manager to have.''
On the coaching front, soon-to-be ex-Eagles coach Andy Reid and Alabama's Nick Saban are two big names being floated, but both would come at a hefty cost, if they were even interested in the Jaguars. If Jacksonville swung for the fences and missed, Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is a young head coaching candidate who has generated strong reviews for his work the past two seasons with both Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning. Getting the quarterback position fixed in Jacksonville is obviously a top priority, with Blaine Gabbert showing only flashes of production in his first two NFL seasons.
As for the general manager search, there's a good probability that Jacksonville started by calling ex-Colts GM Bill Polian to gauge his potential interest. But Polian, given the late-career stage he's in, is only thought to be open to certain potential general manager openings, where the length of commitment and size of the rebuilding job is not too massive. The Jaguars are not thought to be a team he'd consider.
Two young GM candidates to remember are San Francisco director of player personnel Tom Gamble, and Atlanta's Caldwell. Gamble may have the inside track on the job, but Caldwell is also almost certain to be interviewed.
The Eagles will no doubt do their homework and have an extensive list of candidates, but they are one of the teams capable of affording Kelly's contract demands, and he would offer the kind of sizzle and excitement that team owner Jeffrey Lurie is seeking to revitalize his organization after a second consecutive non-playoff finish.
There are questions, of course, whether Kelly's fast-paced offensive can work in the NFL, and whether it's too gimmicky to have long-term success. But sources within the league say Kelly is a brilliant offensive mind who will be able to adapt to and motivate NFL players, and that teams who are wary of him now will find out just how talented he is once they face -- and lose to -- his club.
If Kelly doesn't materialize in green, some within the league expect Lurie to take a page out of his past and try to identify the next Andy Reid: A young position coach or coordinator with obvious upside potential. Denver's McCoy, Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter or Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell might make the radar screen in Philly. And don't overlook one of the league's better special teams coaches, like San Francisco's Brad Seely, Dallas' Joe DeCamillis, San Diego's Rich Bisaccia or Atlanta's Keith Armstrong. Remember, the Eagles had John Harbaugh on their staff for years, and the former Philly special teams coach has led the Ravens to five playoff berths in his first five years on the job.
But who will lead it? Reid, with his Southern Californian roots, would seem a logical alternative in the coaching search, but his price tag might get in the way. League sources don't expect the Spanos family to pay the $6 to $7 million annual salary that Reid can command. Colts interim head coach Bruce Arians and the Patriots' McDaniels are two names mentioned in connection with the Chargers job, and both make sense from the standpoint that job No. 1 in San Diego this offseason is to revive quarterback Philip Rivers' flagging fortunes.
Another quarterback-friendly coaching candidate could be New Orleans offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who served on San Diego's coaching staff under Marty Schottenheimer from 2002-2005. Carmichael is a known quantity to the Spanos family, and his work with Drew Brees in New Orleans earned him a pair of head coaching interviews last year (Colts and Raiders).
To replace Smith, the Chargers are expected to go through the mechanics of a search and interview process, but the odds-on favorites to lead the club's personnel decision-making are the tandem of current San Diego director of player personnel Jimmy Raye, and the team's current director of college scouting John Spanos. Maybe the Chargers name them co-GMs, or give them different titles. But in some fashion, league sources believe Raye and Spanos will be calling the shots on the football side of the front office.
The Cardinals could choose to pursue Reid as their next head coach, and Reid probably has Arizona on the list of clubs he's most interested in. After all, he would be reunited with quarterback Kevin Kolb, the former Eagle who was dealt to Arizona in 2011, and there is talent on the defensive side of the Cardinals' roster.
But again, Reid's salary level might deter Arizona. Plus, the Cardinals have gone that route before, hiring big-name former playoff-qualifying head coaches a couple times in the relatively recent past, without great results (see Buddy Ryan and Dennis Green).
The far easier and perhaps more likely scenario for the Bidwill family would be to elevate a couple of promising in-house candidates to the organization's top two jobs. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is seen as a strong possibility to succeed Whisenhunt, and vice president/player personnel Steve Keim is one of the league's most well-respected GMs in waiting. Keim will probably have other opportunities to elicit a job offer this offseason, but if he wants to stay with the Cardinals, Graves' job is probably his for the taking
If Pioli isn't retained, he won't be out of work for long, because his personnel judgments are still widely respected throughout the league -- at least outside of Kansas City. It was thought the Chiefs might pursue Bill Polian as a GM candidate, but sources say there has not been contact between the two, even though Polian was thought to be willing to listen.
Other potential GM hires by the Chiefs are plentiful, but they include San Francisco's Gamble, Green Bay director of football operations John Dorsey and Indianapolis vice president of football operations Tom Telesco.
Dorsey is known for having a good eye for talent, and his college scouting background gives him a strong draft pedigree. He has worked under both Ted Thompson and Ron Wolf in Green Bay, two of the most respected personnel evaluators in recent NFL history, and sources say he's ready and willing to pursue all GM opportunities after turning down offers to interview last year.
On the coaching side, Arians, who might win the NFL Coach of the Year award for the job he did as the Colts' interim, is a name that has surfaced in Kansas City. His track record for quarterback coaching is respected, and his résumé includes successful stints with the likes of Peyton Manning in Indy, Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and this year's impressive rookie season by the Colts' Andrew Luck.
On the defensive side of the ball, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has again done a superb job with the talent he has on hand, and his work has as much to do with the Bengals returning to the playoffs as any other factor. He has been long considered a quality head coaching candidate, and his son, Adam Zimmer, is currently a defensive assistant on Crennel's staff.
General manager Mike Tannenbaum might remain in the organization, but in a reduced role that doesn't include personnel responsibility. His new assignment might be his old assignment: sticking strictly to the club's salary cap and contract negotiation duties. Some would say New York's recent deals with Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes don't speak well of Tannenbaum's cap management either, but owner Woody Johnson is expected to retain him in some capacity.
Polian once seemed like an obvious target for a team needing to do better at picking its players, but I'm fairly sure Polian couldn't tolerate the sideshow quality of the Jets operation at this point in his long and illustrious career. The Jets might need him, but I'm not sure Polian needs the Jets. New York might have called Polian to determine his interest, but I don't think anything other than a consultant's role in their GM search was probably ever in the offing.
Ownership in Chicago is thought to be tired of the Bears' maddening habit of inconsistency, with Smith unable to field a team that gives a relatively predictable effort from week to week. The rollercoaster ride that is football season in Chicago is clearly wearing on Smith's superiors.
Garrett might indeed have nothing to worry about, no matter what happens in Week 17. But the Cowboys still play almost every game in the same basic pattern of falling behind, pulling off a furious game of catch-up, and then either losing or winning narrowly at the very end. It's a recipe for a .500 club, which is what Dallas pretty much has been since Garrett took over in midseason 2010.
Sources say tension has developed between Schwartz and Mayhew this season, with the Lions' penchant for taking chances on character-issue type players, and the effect on the locker room, at the root of the problem. In other words, which Lions decision-maker will get the blame for the Titus Young problem, and other similar rolls of the dice on the personnel front? Detroit has collected a few too many bad-boy types, and there might be a price to pay for the moves that have back-fired.
The Lions still owe Schwartz plenty of money on a recent contract extension, and Mayhew has earned respect for a lot of the work he has done in the post-Matt Millen era, so their issues might still be smoothed over and dealt with. But the situation bears watching for developments.
? If there is a discernible trend that develops in this year's general manager hiring season, I had more than one current club GM tell me it'll be in favor of the candidates who have the most college scouting and draft experience, rather than those who come from the pro personnel side of the equation.
The reasoning is fairly straight forward. With the success of general managers like Thomas Dimitroff in Atlanta, Trent Baalke in San Francisco and Ryan Grigson in Indianapolis -- all of whom had college scouting backgrounds -- that part of a GM's skill set is greatly valued, especially since draft acumen remains the most proven and successful way to build a roster.
"The guys with college backgrounds, they know how to build a team through the draft,'' said one NFL club executive. "You never talk about building a team through free agency, it's always the draft. But it's kind of a unique skill set, running a draft. Everyone thinks they can do it until they try it. But it's almost like being a GM in some ways. And the draft is the most important component of a GM's job description. The teams that always win -- the Steelers, the Giants, the Packers, the Ravens -- they always have pretty good drafts.''
That's why GM candidates like Atlanta's Caldwell, San Francisco's Gamble, the Giants' Ross, Green Bay's Dorsey and Arizona's Keim figure to be among the most in-demand prospects for those clubs seeking new general managers.
? The other theme I heard from club executives this hiring season is that the league's longtime special teams coaches are starting to get viewed as prime head coaching candidates, in part because of Harbaugh's success in Baltimore, and in part because of their unique job description of having to deal with and coach players from all sections of the roster.
"More than ever, it's really important to identify guys who have a full understanding of personnel, across the board,'' one current NFL general manager said. "Not just an offensive-background guy, or a defensive-background guy, but someone who has had experience managing the whole room, with guys from every part of your depth chart. They've dealt with players of every type already, and there's not as much transition to running their own show. And it's also very important now to have the right fit between a head coach and the GM, where you're on same page personnel-wise. Those guys just have a broader scope of experience with seeing the big picture.''
Among special teams coaches who could get interviewed for head coaching jobs this offseason are: San Francisco's Seely, Dallas' DeCamillis, San Diego's Bisaccia and Atlanta's Armstrong.