Like clockwork, there have been seven or eight head coaching changes made in the NFL in each of the past five offseasons. And once again the league’s annual firing/hiring cycle figures to wind up somewhere in that range, give or take an opening or two.
But if there’s an overriding theme emerging to this year’s exercise in bloodletting known as Black Monday—the day after the close of the NFL’s regular season, when heads traditionally roll—it’s that 2016’s pool of potential head coaching candidates isn’t considered to be particularly deep. So, okay, you want to fire your head coach. It's the question of who comes next that is the trickier part of the process for an NFL owner. Making sure you’ve upgraded rather than just changed a name plate on the office door is the key detail that so often gets overlooked.
According to league sources I talked to in recent days, factors that may contribute to the shallow depth of the head coaching candidate ranks include:
• The scarcity of winning teams, and thus winning coaching staffs to be raided, in 2015. Through the first 15 weeks of the season, losing or .500 teams (21) outnumber winning teams (11) almost 2-to-1. News flash: The hot offensive and defensive coordinator prospects are usually hot because their teams are having current success, and there’s not an excess of that unfolding in the league at the moment.
• The NFL is also in a cycle where many of the same teams are returning to the playoffs year after year and their coaching staffs have already been fairly well shopped in terms of head coaching candidates. Seattle, Cincinnati and Baltimore have all lost multiple coordinators to head coaching jobs in recent years, and the staffs of Green Bay, Arizona and Indianapolis have experienced a degree of talent drain as well.
• It was a perhaps unprecedented year in the league for coordinators getting fired during the season, with some of those let go being considered on-their-way-up coaches who were potential future head coaches this time last year. Fired offensive coordinators Pep Hamilton (Colts), Joe Lombardi (Lions) and Bill Lazor (Dolphins) all had a winning sheen at one point recently And you can probably add to that list Green Bay’s associate head coach/offense Tom Clements, who just had his play-calling duties removed by head coach Mike McCarthy.
• And lastly, the college ranks aren’t seen as ripe with head coaching candidates, perhaps partly a reflection that Chip Kelly’s struggles in Philadelphia may have scared away some owners from shopping in that market. Unless Alabama’s Nick Saban opts for a return to the NFL—which doesn’t appear likely—there are few names on campus that move the needle.
Some of the bigger headlines made in this year’s hiring cycle instead could be generated by the pursuit of either a current head coach like New Orleans’ Sean Payton or Indianapolis’s Chuck Pagano if they get to the market, or former head coaches such as New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, ex-Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, Jacksonville offensive line coach Doug Marrone, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable, or perhaps even a wild-card choice like ex-Denver and Washington head coach Mike Shanahan.
Culled from a variety of sources with information and insight into the league’s coaching and front office situations, here’s what we’re hearing about the potential changes to come:
• Play FanDuel risk-free this week. Win cash on your first entry or you get refunded! New users only.
Going, going, gone
Tennessee: Interim head coach Mike Mularkey replaced Ken Whisenhunt when the Titans were 1–6 in early November, and his 2–5 record in charge hasn’t been a game-changer in Nashville. Tennessee is actually one of the most attractive jobs available because of the presence of quarterback Marcus Mariota, last year’s No. 2 overall pick, and getting a head coach who can further his development is the top priority.
While I’m not hearing anything that would give credence to the Chip Kelly traded from the Eagles to the Titans speculation, crazier things have happened in the NFL and that move would signal how urgently Tennessee wants to give Mariota his best possible comfort zone and a shot at success. One name that I believe will be a definite on the Titans’ interview list is that of Schwartz, the former longtime Titans defensive assistant under Jeff Fisher, who is a known quantity within the organization and earlier this year moved with his family back to Nashville.
Schwartz did good work for the Titans, has a solid relationship with interim team president/CEO Steve Underwood, and experience as a head coach in the NFL. Though defense is his expertise, he had some success in Detroit getting good things out of quarterback Matthew Stafford, and his work as the Bills defensive coordinator in 2014 looks better all the time in light of Buffalo’s regression this season.
Said one NFL club executive of Schwartz: “He’s got to be one of the best candidates available this year. If I was interviewing candidates, he’d be somebody I’d want to talk to. He’s a little arrogant, but he’s very smart and he reminds you a little of Belichick in some ways.”
The unknown in Tennessee is if the organization will also decide to replace general manager Ruston Webster, or if he’ll be retained to participate in and perhaps lead the head coaching search? Webster’s presence would be a good sign for Schwartz’s candidacy, but a new GM would likely get to choose his own head coach and who knows which direction that might lead?
Miami: The Dolphins canned Joe Philbin after just four games and a 1–3 record this season, but interim coach Dan Campbell did not make the most of his long audition, starting strong with two quick wins before losing six of his next eight games. That means the Dolphins will be back in search of their next Don Shula, a process that has now lasted 20 years.
The assumption is that Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum will steer Miami’s coaching hire in the direction of a fellow Bill Parcells protege, and that could put either Jaguars offensive line coach Doug Marrone or Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley on the Dolphins’ radar screen. But owner Stephen Ross loves to swing for the fences and go for the big name, before settling for a second or third-tier hire, and that could mean he’s eyeing Sean Payton’s situation in New Orleans, with the hope that the 10th-year Saints coach (another branch of the Parcells coaching tree) can fix the game of franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill. If not Payton, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano is reportedly also a possibility for the Dolphins.
Both Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase are likely on Miami’s short list as well, for their quarterback expertise. But I can’t see McDaniels opting for South Florida and Gase may be presented with better options. The Dolphins, with nine head coaches of varying tenures since Shula retired after the 1995 season, aren’t exactly the surest of bets these days.
“When I look at the Dolphins, I just see the Cleveland Browns of the south,” said an NFL source. “They’re a mess.”
With Tannenbaum calling the shots in the front office, Miami is expected to either re-assign general manager Dennis Hickey into a strictly personnel role, or perhaps part ways with him.
Indianapolis: When a head coach starts openly musing about his job security by declaring “they can fire you, but they can’t eat you,” you know the end is in sight. That’s where Chuck Pagano has gone in recent days, and you can’t blame him after the train wreck of a season he has endured this year in Indy. And yes, we know the Colts are still alive in the AFC South race, but that’s a mere technicality that has little bearing on Pagano’s fate.
The only real question surrounding the Colts is whether general manager Ryan Grigson will be shown the door as well, with most sources I talked to believing he’ll survive thanks to his close ties to owner Jim Irsay and his family. Grigson’s worst-case scenario is if Irsay decides to make that rumored run at Alabama’s Nick Saban, because the Nick-ster presumably would demand full control of the team’s personnel decision-making and that makes Grigson all but superfluous.
Would Saban consider it? An informed source I spoke with said you could never say never, but that Saban likely wouldn’t even think about the possibility until the day after the Crimson Tide plays its final game, and that could be as late as Jan. 12. Having Andrew Luck as his quarterback might intrigue Saban, but it’s still a long shot and Saban might also require someone between him and the always involved Irsay as a buffer zone of sorts.
If the Colts land a big fish in their coaching search, the Saints’ Payton is the more realistic scenario. Payton likely isn’t going anywhere that doesn’t have a quarterback capable of keeping the team in Super Bowl contention, and Luck easily qualifies. New England’s Josh McDaniels could also be a candidate Irsay covets, because his hiring would also weaken the Colts’ No. 1 nemesis, but I don’t see the fit being a good one between McDaniels and Irsay, and sources say McDaniels will be very, very choosy about his second NFL head coaching opportunity.
Cleveland: As much as Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has been told stability is the key to building a winning organization, he can’t possibly stand completely pat after the debacle that 2015 has been in Cleveland. Head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer are both thought to be in their final two weeks of employment, but leave it to the Browns to try and split the baby in half and leave one of them still on the job. That would only further muddle the situation in the NFL’s worst organization.
“Haslam has to be bewildered at this point,’’ a league source said. “They’re in worse shape now than ever. He should first find a good general manager and then have that guy find a head coach. But the problem is, a lot of people are very suspect to go to work for Cleveland.’’
The Browns defense was supposed to be a strength under Pettine but instead it has been a season-long liability. Cleveland could do worse than go after one of the best defensive coordinators in the league in Carolina’s Sean McDermott. Or if the priority is to address the team’s offensive issues, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has never backed away from a challenge, and might even embrace the task of saving the team’s Johnny Manziel investment.