Last summer, The MMQB polled 24 sources including current and former NFL front-office leaders, agents, coaches and three plugged-in reporters in the aim of identifying the Top 32 head-coaching candidates in the NFL. You can read that exhaustive list here. This time around, we used information gleaned from 20 sources to nail down a Top 10 in advance of Black Monday, when as many as eight NFL teams are expected to move on from current coaches.
The below list is an informative, but flawed exercise; it’s quite possible that our No. 10 coach—Seattle’s Tom Cable—might be a better fit for Team A than the No. 1 coach on our list, Cincinnati’s Hue Jackson. And we’re certain there will be strong consideration for coaches not on our list—including Chip Kelly (fired during our information-collecting process), and other current head coaches who get the ax.
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We’ll get to the Top 10, but first a note about our No. 2 candidate, Carolina’s Sean McDermott.
He’s a near lock to be offered multiple jobs this winter—several sources believed he should’ve occupied the No. 1 spot on our list, ahead of Jackson. He’s a fast-riser at 41 years old, 18 years removed from a stellar college career as a safety alongside future All-Pro safety Darren Sharper at William and Mary. Jimmye Laycock, who also coached Mike Tomlin at William and Mary, says of McDermott: “He was one of those guys you could just tell was going to be a great coach.”
But here’s what makes McDermott truly unique: Among current head coaches, if hired, McDermott would be the only one who entered the league through the scouting department. After working as a graduate assistant at William and Mary for a season, McDermott landed a job in Philadelphia (where he would eventually supplant Jim Johnson as defensive coordinator) as a scouting administrative coordinator.
“It was so valuable, just learning what Jim and Andy (Reid) looked for in players,” McDermott said this week by phone. “I didn’t know it at the time but I know it now—not everybody is fortunate to have those type of mentors at an early age.”
Twelve years later, McDermott’s eye on the scouting process may have landed Carolina a perennial Top 5 cornerback in the NFL. Josh Norman, NFL combine snub out of Coastal Carolina, made a name for himself with a spirited, borderline desperate East-West Shrine Game week in 2012.
“He was obnoxious, and flamboyant, and doing too much on the practice field,” one personnel man told The MMQB. “Honestly, it turned a lot of people off to him.”
But McDermott was poring through defensive back practice tape and noticed Norman do something odd in a one-on-one. After an incomplete pass fell short, Norman reached out and effortlessly snagged the wobbling grounder with one hand. Four months later, the Panthers took him in the fifth round, ahead of All-American Alabama cornerback DeQuan Menzie (who is now out of the league). Four seasons later, and Norman is one of the top-rated corners in the NFL.
“At that point in the draft you’re looking for redeemable qualities,” McDermott says, “and we felt he just hadn’t been exposed to some of the things players at higher levels had, but he was capable. Just from the way he played that ball, you could tell he had ball skills. We liked the length and the way he carried himself. Credit to the coaches and to Josh for where he is now as a player.”
Some of that credit should go to the system McDermott has installed, a zone-based scheme with selective blitzing which has produced, since his hiring in 2011, the 28th, 10th, 2nd, 10th and 4th-ranked defenses in terms of yards allowed.
But if McDermott’s going to thrive in the NFL, he’ll need a quarterback, and there’s a likelihood he’ll have the opportunity to draft one at a new landing spot. So what does the top defensive coordinator on our list look for in a QB after spending five seasons watching Cam Newton?
“The thing with Cam is, he’s kind of the modern athlete in a lot of ways,” McDermott says. “Being able to adapt coaching styles and relationships to the modern athlete is important.
“The thing that stands up the most about Cam, and what I see on tape with Jameis Winston, the guy we’re playing this weekend, is winning. Everywhere they’ve been they’ve won, and they’re highly competitive. Guys who love to compete—it stands out. Yes, they may not be a finished product, but when the lights come on they’re at their best. They’re prime time players.”
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One last reminder: This is an unscientific study of something that cannot be studied in a scientific way. As one evaluator said, “Lots of different lists around the league. We have owners and GMs who wouldn’t realize Vince Lombardi would be good if he was sitting in front of them!”
1. Hue Jackson, Bengals Offensive Coordinator
Pro experience: 15 seasons, one as head coach (Oakland 2011)
Head coaching record: 8-8
This summer we called him a “wild card,” and a guy who has “built a marketing machine around his candidacy.” Jackson called me on that last part (he reads everything). Five months later, and the Bengals have the fourth-best scoring offense in the NFL, led by vastly improved quarterback Andy Dalton. To boot, the Bengals split two games after Dalton got hurt. “You know why [Jackson will] be the top candidate?” one source told us. “Look at what he just did with AJ ----ing McCarron.”
2. Sean McDermott, Panthers Defensive Coordinator
College: William and Mary
Pro experience: 17 seasons, seven as coordinator (Philadelphia 2009-10, Carolina 2011-present)
The emergence of Josh Norman and Kawann Short just adds to the list of defensive stars developed under McDermott, who took Carolina from last in the league in DVOA (Football Outsiders’ measure of efficiency over the course of a season) to a consistent Top 5 defense. The big mystery with McDermott is how he would manage an offense, making his choice of offensive coordinator a critical piece of the hiring process.
3. Josh McDaniels, Patriots Offensive Coordinator
College: John Carroll
Pro experience: 15 seasons, two as head coach (Denver 2009-10)
Head coaching record: 11-17 (0-0 playoffs)
The offensive guru with a disastrous stint as head coach in Denver received a number of No. 1 votes from our source pool. Problem is, there’s doubt about Belichick underlings in much the same way organizations now doubt Alabama draft prospects who achieved success under Nick Saban. But McDaniels’ supporters are staunch. “He’s been thoughtful and truly reflective of the mistakes he made,” said one evaluator. “I think that will come through in his interview.”
4. Doug Marrone, Jaguars Assistant Head Coach
Pro experience: 10 seasons, two as head coach (Buffalo 2013-2014)
Head coaching record: 15-17
This may seem like a head-scratcher but there exists a considerable consensus Marrone will be among those candidates interviewed by nearly every club. The former Syracuse lineman and head coach turned the Bills around from 6-10 to 9-7, then departed on his own terms. Now Jacksonville’s offensive line coach, Marrone has his detractors and his supporters. Said one source: “He’s disciplined, and a tremendous leader.” Said another: “They don’t even like him in Jacksonville all that much.”
5. Adam Gase, Bears Offensive Coordinator
College: Michigan State
Pro experience: 13 years, three as a coordinator (Denver 2013-14, Chicago 2015)
Gase is probably thanking his lucky stars he turned down the 49ers job this offseason. He spent a year with Jay Cutler and helped drop his interception count from 18 in 2014 to eight in 2015 (so far). Gase can interview “inexperienced” in the eyes of some, and it was Chicago’s defense which anchored midseason success. Only two coaches in recent history have been hired off a losing season—Marty Mornhinweg and Mike McCarthy.
6. Teryl Austin, Lions Defensive Coordinator
Pro experience: 12 seasons, two as coordinator (Detroit 2014-present)
Really impressed in interviews last offseason but was determined by many to be a year away. Was this a good enough year? Detroit is 6-9 with the 17th-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed, but the Lions have won five of their past seven, and Austin has been working with a defense that lost three of its best players in Ndamukong Suh (free agency), Nick Fairley (free agency) and DeAndre Levy (injury). Multiple sources described Austin as a “natural leader.”
7. Matt Patricia, Patriots Defensive Coordinator
College: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Pro experience: 12 seasons, four as coordinator (New England 2012-present)
Coordinates the seventh-ranked defense in the NFL with the second-highest turnover rate. There was some concern that inexperienced young corners Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler could struggle in 2015. Instead, they’re two of the top-rated cover corners in football. Patricia is described as “freaky smart” by one evaluator, though many are wary of the Belichick tag.
8. Jim Schwartz, Unemployed
Pro experience: 22 years, five as head coach (Detroit 2009-13)
Head coaching record: 29-52 (0-1 playoffs)
The rise of Schwartz in the eyes of evaluators has a lot to do with his success last season in Buffalo (fourth in points allowed and yards) in contrast with Buffalo’s regression on defense under supposed defensive guru Rex Ryan in 2015. “A lot of guys don’t feel they need to reinvent himself and he did,” said one evaluator. Schwartz will be two years removed from his ouster as Detroit’s head coach, where his offenses were inconsistently prolific and prolifically inconsistent.
9. Mike Shula, Panthers Offensive Coordinator
Pro experience: 23 years, three as coordinator (Carolina 2013-present)
Alabama’s former head coach has looked like a genius this season at the helm of an offense with a dearth of talent at wide receiver and a middling offensive line. As Carolina’s coach in 2011, the year Cam Newton went No. 1 overall, Shula helped incorporate Auburn’s offense into Carolina’s scheme, easing Newton’s transition and setting the stage for what looks like an MVP season in 2015.
10. Tom Cable, Seahawks Offensive Line Coach
Pro experience: 10 seasons, three as head coach (Oakland, 2008-10)
Head coaching record: 17-27
Vaults up our list after coaching the lowest-paid offensive line in football through a turbulent season which saw Seattle lose running back Marshawn Lynch and remain in the top five in rushing offense. The Raiders went 8-8 in Cable’s second full season as head coach, but Hue Jackson replaced him in 2011. Downgraded by most evaluators in light of a 2009 incident in which he reportedly broke an assistant’s jaw with a punch. Said one evaluator: “That’s not something you can easily shake.”
Missed the Cut
Todd Haley, Steelers Offensive Coordinator; Vic Fangio, Bears Defensive Coordinator; Mike Shanahan, Unemployed; Paul Guenther, Bengals Defensive Coordinator; Dirk Koetter, Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator
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A few notes about the list:
• It does not include some of the college coaches who have been in the discussion in years past (David Shaw, Jim Mora, Nick Saban, Kevin Sumlin, etc.) but we’re not ruling out the possibility that one of them could be lured into the NFL. If we were to include college coaches, Shaw would be the only man in our Top 10, and he would rank high. Said one decision maker: “He checks all the boxes. Pro-style offense. Pedigree. Minority.” But Shaw told The MMQB’s Peter King at the Heisman ceremony in early December, “I know a lot of guys in the NFL. I know guys at almost every franchise in the NFL, and I can tell you, even the ones who are winning, nobody is having as much fun at his job as I am having at my job.” Said another personnel man with ties to Shaw: “You’re not getting that guy to leave Palo Alto.”
• We also did not include two coaches, who, if fired, are likely to get job consideration around the league—Sean Payton and Chuck Pagano. Ditto for Chip Kelly. But it should be noted that guys like Kelly are no lock to get a job; only two out of the past 14 coaching hires (2014 and 2015) were head coaches elsewhere the prior year. But the main reason we didn’t include them is this: We don’t know who’ll be fired, and Kelly lost his job midway through our polling.
• Six of our Top 10 coaches come from an offensive background and four from a defensive background. Two of our Top 10 are African American (Jackson and Austin), an important qualifier in a league under pressure to add to the ranks of minority coaches.
• In the summer, our Top 10 (excluding college coaches) looked like this.
1. Adam Gase, Bears Offensive Coordinator
2. Josh McDaniels, Patriots Offensive Coordinator
3. Teryl Austin, Lions Defensive Coordinator
4. Pep Hamilton, Colts Offensive Coordinator
5. Frank Reich, Chargers Offensive Coordinator
6. Doug Marrone, Jaguars Offensive Line Coach
7. Sean McDermott, Panthers Defensive Coordinator
8. Pat Shurmur, Eagles Offensive Coordinator
9. Hue Jackson, Bengals Offensive Coordinator
10. Greg Roman, Bills Offensive Coordinator
Hamilton was fired midseason, and Reich, Shurmur and Roman led offenses that oscillated from mediocre to bad. All four of them will probably get a shot at head-coaching jobs at some point; poor performances are rarely if ever the lone fault of the coordinator.
• For a look at where some of these candidates might be best fits, be sure to check out Don Banks’ elaborate and instructive Black Monday preview.
• Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.