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Blanket Coverage: Best fits for the NFL’s most likely coaching openings

Black Monday is coming for coaches, and the musical chairs of the early January hiring circus is right around the corner. With that in mind, let’s play a little fantasy off-season football.

With three weeks left in the season, we take a look at Mike Pettine’s comments about Russell Wilson, Mike McCarthy’s impact on the Packers’ offense, Carolina’s picture-taking and Minnesota’s decisions in the desert. We also take a look at the impacts of injuries on three contenders and tip the cap to a lineman in Washington. But for openers, we set the table on what will be the news in just over two weeks: the coaching carousel. 

With Christmas approaching, that can only mean one thing when it comes to the NFL calendar: Black Monday is coming for coaches, and the musical chairs of the early January hiring circus is right around the corner.

With that in mind, let’s play a little fantasy off-season football. What follows are the seven most likely head coaching openings along with our dream fit among the pool of likely coaches.

Tennessee Titans

Interim coach Mike Mularkey likely won’t be sticking around, so which direction will the Titans go? The focus has to be on quarterback Marcus Mariota. As the No. 2 pick, the franchise will sink or swim based on his success. The next coach has to have an open mind about running an evolved offense, even if he comes from a defensive background. It would also be a selling point if the next coach had a little salesman in him.

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​​Best fit: Hue Jackson, Bengals offensive coordinator.He’s an outside-the-box thinker that runs a multiple offense, and he’s certainly a progressive thinker on that side of the ball. Jackson had an 8–8 record in one season as Raiders coach in 2011 before Reggie McKenzie arrived as general manager and wanted to hire his own guy. He has extensive ties at the college level, which would help in assimilating Mariota to his scheme. Another possible candidate here: Mike Shanahan. I’m not the biggest fan (he is 1–5 in the playoffs since John Elway retired), but his offense would be a perfect fit for Mariota who, unlike Robert Griffin III, will study his tail off.

Detroit Lions

With GM Martin Mayhew already fired and Tom Wood (who has no football background) hired as team president, a new GM is on the way for Detroit this winter, which is bad news for coach Jim Caldwell. Any general manager worth his salt will want to name his own coach. The Lions could also give a coach total organizational control. The way this season has gone, it’s a long shot that Caldwell is back. Matthew Stafford would not be a deal-breaker for the new coach. Stafford could be moved, by trade or release, after this season, but he’s talented and should be kept at least for another year.

Best fit: Adam Gase, Bears offensive coordinator.The former Lions assistant (2003–07) would be a perfect fit, and his work with different quarterbacks, from Peyton Manning to Jay Cutler, gives Detroit hope that he could get Stafford straightened out once and for all.

San Francisco 49ers

This season hasn’t been a total disaster, and the personnel shortfall (especially at quarterback) was not his fault, but it’s difficult to see Jim Tomsula (4–9) returning, unless Jed York and Trent Baalke just don’t want to admit their mistake. The 49ers could go in any direction, since they aren’t married to quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Best fit: Jim Mora, UCLA. He showed potential in three seasons as head coach of the Falcons and one season with the Seahawks (after which he was ousted for Pete Carroll), when he was younger and more hot-headed. At age 54 and coming off of four successful seasons at UCLA, he could follow in Carroll’s footsteps by taking off in the NFL after two prior failed stints.

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St. Louis Rams

One more loss and Jeff Fisher will be assured of his fifth straight losing season going back to his final two seasons with the Titans. Even without all the drama amid a possible move to Los Angeles, it would be a hard sell to have Fisher return, especially after the disastrous trade and subsequent contract extension for Nick Foles. With no quarterback of the future on the roster, this job is wide open. This whole franchise could be a bit of a mess in January. If owner Stan Kroenke doesn’t get approval to move to Los Angeles, will he sell the team?

Best fit: Sean McDermott, Panthers defensive coordinator.Considering the Panthers’ undefeated season and the performance of the defense since he arrived in Carolina in 2011, McDermott will and should be in demand this off-season. With his extensive ties to Andy Reid in Philadelphia, don’t be surprised if he goes to that tree when building his staff on the offensive side of the ball (Brad Childress?). Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was the Rams’ offensive coordinator, would be a strong candidate if he’s comfortable with the ownership situation since he could likely have total control.

Miami Dolphins

Interim coach Dan Campbell was a nice story for two games, but he and the Dolphins fell back to Earth with a 2–5 record since. The Dolphins really wants Ryan Tannehill to work out as a franchise quarterback, so they may make Tannehill’s development a central theme of the search. Either way, they should aim for the best coach available because either Tannehill takes the next step in 2016, or he’s gone.

Best fit: Todd Haley, Steelers offensive coordinator. Dolphins VP and former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum will be running the show on this search, and while I’m sure with Stephen Ross as owner Miami will swing for the fences with the Bill Cowhers and Jon Grudens of the NFL world, they’ll likely end up in the familiar Bill Parcells tree. Haley makes a lot of sense because he and Tannenbaum share the same background. Haley has the backing of Parcells (which is big with Tannenbaum) and a track record of elevating the play of his quarterbacks, from Kurt Warner in Arizona to Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. Other strong candidates would be Bills assistant head coach Anthony Lynn and Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. 

Indianapolis Colts

The writing has been on the wall for some time that Chuck Pagano is most likely out after this season. Once Pagano rejected a weak contract extension, and the team played poorly for most of this season, this was almost a fait accompli. The real question for the Colts is whether GM Ryan Grigson will go as well or continue to work side by side with owner Jim Irsay to find the next coach. It will determine how high-profile a coach the Colts could land, because this is very attractive given the presence of Andrew Luck. Irsay’s presence also will be a big factor in this job.

Best fit: Nick Saban, Alabama head coach. Even Saban has admitted that had he signed Drew Brees (coming off major shoulder surgery) over DaunteCulpepper in 2006, he might still be the coach of the Dolphins. The only way Saban comes back to the NFL is if he already has a quarterback in place because he knows the often impossible task of finding and acquiring a franchise quarterback. He certainly would have that with the Colts and, at age 64, this would seem to be one of if not the final chance to make the jump back to the NFL and wipe the one blemish from his résumé.

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​​Indianapolis would also be perfect for Saban (as opposed to, say, the Giants) because it’s a small market that is sort of a like a college town (this would help sway Saban’s wife, Terry, who did not like the Miami experience at all). The biggest x-factor is Irsay. It would be difficult seeing Saban agree to work for Irsay with the owner’s current visibility. He would have to make substantial promises to stay unseen and unheard while Saban was in power. Would Irsay do that, possibly by passing control to one of his daughters? CarlieIrsay-Gordon ran the team when her father was suspended.

New York Giants

It looked like Tom Coughlin would be on the way out after the Giants dropped to 5–7, but a big win at Miami kept the season alive with three tough games left: undefeated Carolina, at Minnesota and home to the Eagles. After consecutive losing seasons, would Coughlin be able to keep his job if he endured a third? The final three games would determine that.

Best fit: Josh McDaniels, Patriots offensive coordinator.In terms of ownership, franchise prestige and the presence of quarterback Eli Manning, this would be the most attractive opening in the league. McDaniels has been waiting for that type of opportunity, and it’s likely that Bill Belichick, who has a great deal of respect for the Mara family, would quickly give his blessing. Plus, it’s in the NFC, so McDaniels wouldn’t have to go through Belichick in the playoffs. McDaniels had his issues the first time around in Denver, but he has learned some valuable lessons and would be much better the second time around.

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Settle down

Pettine on Wilson: With the Browns playing the Seahawks this week, Browns coach Mike Pettine was asked about where Russell Wilson falls in the spectrum of quarterbacks. “Would you put him there with the guys that can transcend their supporting cast? The [Tom] Bradys, whether it’s Aaron Rodgers, [Drew] Brees, [Ben] Roethlisberger, the ones that you would consider the two, three, four elite guys? But, no, he’s certainly played himself into that next tier," Pettine said. Apparently people have a problem with this? I don’t understand why, it’s the absolute truth. The elite quarterback is one that can carry his team on his back and win a game when everything else is failing. Wilson isn’t on that level, but if he keeps playing from the pocket like he has the past four weeks, he will be sooner than anybody thought.

McCarthy’s impact: In a move that was destined to happen at some point, Mike McCarthy took back the play-calling duties from Tom Clements before the Packers’ 28–7 win over the Cowboys last week. While the Packers had better balance and a little more movement in the offense, their issues are far from over: There were six drives that totaled 60 yards and ended with punts. There was a better rhythm overall, but it’s not exactly hard to call a game when you’re going against an opponent that’s no threat to keep the game close offensively, as the Cowboys are with Matt Cassel at quarterback.

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Go nuts

Colts fading: Everybody could understand the Colts getting blown out on the road by a hot Steelers team with Andrew Luck on the sidelines. But to lose 51–16 to the Jaguars? How does that even happen?

Carolina preening: I don’t have a problem with celebrating first downs or touchdowns, even lengthy and choreographed routines, but to take a sideline picture of the offense with two minutes left was just a terrible look for the Panthers on Sunday. You dismantled the Falcons, 38–0, was there any reason to show up a division foe like that? It’s just wrong.

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Vikings’ decision: After watching the Vikings’ final play against the Cardinals on film, I’m even more perplexed by the decision. Outside of the outlet pass to the running back, the four other routes had the Vikings get out of their breaks at 2.14 seconds and at a depth of 10 yards. With 13 seconds left and no timeouts, that’s too long to get the pass completed, get up to the line and spike the ball if the receiver didn’t get out of bounds. If you pass up the field goal there, all the routes need to be of the five-yard variety just to get a little extra cushion for the field goal and stop the clock.

Domino Effect

Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 14 injuries?

QB Andy Dalton, Bengals (thumb, out for regular season): Former Alabama star A.J. McCarron wasn’t great in relief against the Steelers, but it’s too early to judge whether or not the Bengals will sink without their starter. Backups don’t get many first-team reps during the season, and they’re operating a foreign game plan when they’re thrown into action. A better judgment on McCarron can be made Sunday, after a full week of reps with the starters and with a game plan that is tailored to his strengths and weaknesses.

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RB LeGarrette Blount, Patriots (hip, injured reserve): New England loves to use the big back to finish off games and batter opposing defenses late in the season. The Patriots will look to add another bigger back at some point, but for the time being they’ll go with the capable Brandon Bolden as the lead back and keep James White in his role as receiving back.

RB Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (foot sprain, week to week): Stewart had posted a career-high 242 carries and posted 989 yards, so he’s a vital part of the Panthers’ run game. But Carolina does have two capable veteran backs, Fozzy Whittaker and Mike Tolbert, to fill in. Rookie Cameron Artis-Payne (12 carries) also figures to get his extended look.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Humanitarian of the Week

Morgan Moses, OT, Washington Redskins

Well, this is a unique program. Moses, who is having a standout season at right tackle for Washington, hosted the first-ever Pride & Passion Competition Cup at Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va. The event had 30 students from Marshall and neighboring Lake Braddock High compete against each other to create and present marketing and community engagement plans for Moses and his MOE (Motivating Others through Education) Foundation. The competition, which was won by Marshall, is a part of Moses’s ongoing interest in finding unique ways to promote education, especially at the high school level. His foundation officially launches early next year.

10 thoughts heading into Week 15

1. It will be interesting to see how the Broncos match up defensively with the Steelers’ receivers. In terms of their strengths, it would make sense that Chris Harris marks Antonio Brown and Aqib Talib takes the bigger Martavis Bryant.

2. The real key will be how the Broncos deal with the Steelers after that initial coverage. Ben Roethlisberger is so good at holding the ball and letting his receivers win as the play goes on, Denver needs to stay focused after having some issues with this against the Patriots.

3. After going more than a season and a half without giving up a sack according to Pro Football Focus, Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth has surrendered three in his past five games.

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4. Losing defensive tackle Dominique Easley for the season will be a little bit of a blow for the Patriots. He’s the only true three-technique rusher they have, and he’s gotten better as the season has gone on, especially as a sub package pass rusher. Akiem Hicks, acquired in a trade from the Saints in September, is the only other equitable player. He showed well (1.5 sacks, a knockdown and a stuffed run) in his most extended action since the season opener.

5. The Texans have made a nice comeback this season, but they’re not going anywhere unless they get more production out of tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin. Both really struggled against the Patriots.

6. Matchup of the week, courtesy of Panthers-Giants: Josh Norman against Odell Beckham Jr. Norman could finalize his case to be the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year by shutting down Julio Jones and Beckham in successive weeks.

7. Defensive end Mike Daniels and the Packers both won with his four-year, $41-million extension. An impressive young player got rewarded, and the team got little bit of a bargain when you consider that he was set to become a free agent. 

8. Not sure if he’ll ever be a big contributor as a receiver in the NFL, but Jeff Janis of the Packers had the look of a long-term special teams ace against the Cowboys. He was outstanding on the coverage units.

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9. With three games left in a 3–10 campaign, the Titans are obviously using the end of the season to build momentum towards next year and the arrival of a new coach. It would be big for rookie Marcus Mariota to go into Gillette Stadium and play well against the Patriots. His best passer rating against a team with a winning record this season is 72.4 against the Panthers.

10. Interesting stats over at, which tracks the impact of NFL injuries. Teams with the most impactful injuries: 1. Ravens 2. Steelers 3. Giants 4. Broncos 5. Washington 6. Patriots. Least impactful injuries: 1. Bengals 2. Eagles 3. Seahawks 4. Titans 5. Raiders 6. Rams.