EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we survey the carnage inflicted on the NFL’s Black Monday, the start of the league’s coaching firing/hiring season (that doesn’t even wait for the Monday after the regular season ends anymore)....
• For every second of his 12 years in the role, Tom Coughlin always knew exactly what he had in the New York Giants coaching job. There was the lure of the franchise’s well-known stability and rare patience at the ownership level, combined with the Giants’ impressive winning pedigree and storied tradition. Throw in a franchise quarterback like Eli Manning, and no wonder any coach would view his tenure with the Giants as a special place and time in his career, a chance to lead one of the NFL’s flagship franchises.
Which is why the right to fill the vacancy that Coughlin just created by resigning from his job with the Giants will be the biggest prize of all in this year’s coaching carousel. Bigger than the opportunity to potentially coach Andrew Luck in his prime in Indianapolis, or the chance to pick up the pieces after Chip Kelly’s three-year experiment in Philadelphia. Openings in Miami, Cleveland, Tennessee and San Francisco won’t necessarily be easy to fill for a variety of reasons, but the Giants’ job, which hasn’t been in play since 2004, will be highly coveted. You can bank on that, even if the G-Men haven’t reached the playoffs since 2011.
To be sure, New York needs a major infusion of defensive talent and some increased draft production in the coming two or three years, but the Giants play in a very winnable division, with a quarterback who's still at the top of his game, and one of the NFL’s brightest young stars in receiver Odell Beckham Jr. And as far as the New York market, well, they say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Here’s our short list for where the Giants should be looking in terms of their next coach, and how their search might play out:
1. Sean Payton — Payton’s status in New Orleans has yet to be determined, but there’s too much smoke surrounding his possible departure from the Saints for there not to be any fire whatsoever. Know this: Payton is interested in the New York opening, and will be keeping close tabs on how it unfolds in its earliest stages. And Payton checks a lot of boxes for the Giants, because the team’s ownership prefers hiring candidates with previous head coaching experience and ties to the organization if possible, with Payton’s stint as Jim Fassel’s quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator from 1999-2002, his close association with Bill Parcells, and his quarterback expertise seen as strong selling points on his behalf.
If Payton could somehow find a way to retain highly regarded Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, he’d even further cement his status as New York’s top shelf candidate to replace Coughlin. If you just lost a two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach, you could do a lot worse than hiring a replacement who has at least earned one Super Bowl ring. Landing Payton will require compensation to the Saints to get him out of his contract in New Orleans—reportedly a second-round pick—but the Giants have to consider making that investment.
If there’s a downside to Payton’s candidacy it’s this: His Saints the past two years have mirrored the Giants, right down to their non-playoff finishes. New Orleans has a franchise quarterback and a lousy defense, one that has proven unfixable. That has to sound very familiar in New York. It’s also possible Payton’s fiery personality and controlling nature might not be viewed as positives to the Giants.
2. Josh McDaniels — If you can’t see McDaniels as anything other than the former Broncos head coach who couldn’t even last two full seasons in Denver in 2009-2110, then you’ve forgotten all about Bill Belichick’s initial struggles in Cleveland. But McDaniels has done some impressive career rehabilitation work as the Patriots' offensive coordinator from 2012 on, and he wouldn’t have personnel authority to worry about in New York as he unwisely did in Denver.
The Giants also like to hire head coaches who have had a taste of failure at some point, and thus are hungry to re-prove themselves. McDaniels’s stint with the Broncos qualifies him on that front, and he’d come with Belichick’s full blessing, which would carry something along the lines of an honorary link to the Giants’ Super Bowl-winning past.
3. Ben McAdoo — The current Giants offensive coordinator finding himself elevated to the top job would register as a shock to some observers, but that it’s even a possibility speaks to how highly he’s thought of within the organization. Giants owner John Mara is known to consider McAdoo future head coaching material, and the organization wants to find a way to keep him on staff and working with quarterback Eli Manning no matter who winds up replacing Coughlin.
One rather bold way to ensure that happens is to overlook McAdoo’s lack of head coaching experience and accentuate his hiring as a way to keep the best of the Giants’ offensive progress of 2014-15 in place. Maintaining Manning’s comfort zone would be the biggest reason to show that kind of faith in McAdoo, not to mention the continued development of Beckham in New York’s offense. If New York can’t decide on a consensus great candidate to take its job, I could see the Giants deciding to gamble on McAdoo’s upside.
• Sorry, but I’m not buying the thought that New York will go hard after Nick Saban, even though the Alabama head coach might be inclined to listen to the Giants, who nearly hired him in 1997, over Jim Fassel. Saban almost certainly will want autonomy when it comes to the personnel department if he returns to the NFL, and the Giants simply do not give that kind of juice to head coaches, believing in a clear-cut GM/coach separation of powers. That mindset was forged decades ago, when George Young was the team’s top personnel man, and it’s not changing. Even for Saban, the mastermind.
I’m also not inclined to see Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo as a serious candidate to get this job, even though he’s also well-respected within the organization and has previous NFL head coaching experience, in St. Louis. Spagnuolo simply didn’t have enough success in his return to New York's staff this season to warrant the promotion. The cupboard is fairly bare on defense, through no fault of Spags, but his guys finished dead last in the league in total defense, and 32nd against the pass. Those are killer bullet points on his resume, and the Giants would struggle like heck to sell his hiring to their fans.
• I have all the respect in the world for the body of work Coughlin turned in with the Giants, and the exemplary way he conducted himself as the face of the franchise. But the facts are that his teams missed the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, and they weren’t playing in the old “Beast of the East” NFC East division in recent years. How many coaches can survive that kind of dry spell?
Coughlin’s late-game clock mismanagement was glaring at times, and as they lost game after game in the final two minutes this season, I kept thinking that if his Giants couldn’t win this year’s woeful NFC East, when would you ever like their chances more?
Citing the John Madden and Bill Walsh examples, 10 years in the same job is still about the shelf life for NFL head coaches, and I was convinced in late 2013 that Coughlin’s best work in New York was already behind him. The past two years, and consecutive 6–10 finishes by the Giants, only made my case stronger, not his. Ending the team’s Coughlin era is a move New York probably should have made two years ago.
• I’ll give 49ers owner Jed York props for standing up and facing the music Monday after firing one-and-done head coach Jim Tomsula Sunday night. But that’s the extent of the credit he deserves. While everyone else could clearly see the disaster in the making that Tomsula’s hiring was last offseason, York and 49ers GM Trent Baalke seem shocked that the move didn’t work out.
But now York and Baalke are to be trusted to once again find the next guy to not measure up to Jim Harbaugh? That’s rich. That’s like the guy who tells you he was lying to you before, but telling you the truth this time. Promise.
“Jim Harbaugh is a good football coach,” York said. “His success at Michigan doesn’t surprise me at all. We need to make sure that we look forward to the next head coach. In terms of Jimmy T, we took a chance on somebody that we believe strongly in, certainly his character, his leadership ability, what he was able to do. And ultimately that didn’t work out.....You have to learn from mistakes. You have to learn from failure. And we didn’t get this one right and we need to make sure that we get the next one right and we need to make sure that we learn from this season.”
Harbaugh’s success at Michigan didn’t surprise York. But Tomsula’s failure in San Francisco did? Most everybody else batted 2-for-2 on those predictions, but York and Baalke went 1-for-2, and act like they still want a pass for it.
• When York talked about the lessons of his Twitter habits, it sounded more like a therapy session than a press conference. You wanted to interrupt and ask him when his parents were expected home.
“I’d say the biggest thing, I think I’ve taken things too personally,” York said, when asked what he learned the past year. “Interactions with the media, some of the criticism from fans, I think I’ve internalized that too much and I’ve taken it too personally. I think I’ve done things and we can get into tweets that I’ve sent and thank god you can’t see tweets that I didn’t send. Those things aren’t helpful for the team.
“As much as I’d like to share how I feel about the team, it’s not helpful for our club for me to talk about how I feel when we win, how I feel when we lose. It’s ultimately a distraction. It’s hard enough to win football games in the National Football League. It’s harder when you have somebody that tweets something that’s a distraction to the club and I can’t do that. I think you’ve seen me take a step back from twitter and from other social media.”
I’m sure in Vegas they noticed York’s words of self-discovery and substantially bettered the 49ers odds of winning the Super Bowl next season.
• San Diego fired offensive coordinator Frank Reich on Monday and retained head coach Mike McCoy, and that means the Chargers might have gotten their calls mixed up once again. Multiple sources in the NFL have told me they see Reich as a potential head coach some day, while McCoy’s results in his three seasons in San Diego have proven the law of diminishing returns.
The Chargers didn’t have a running game that came anywhere close to matching their Philip Rivers-led passing game this season, but Melvin Gordon’s disappointing rookie season and an ever-shuffling offensive line were largely to blame. Still, Reich seems to have been identified as the fall guy, and thus the Chargers’ mystifying move opens the door for McCoy to re-hire Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator for next season.
• In the course of reporting my annual Black Monday preview two weeks ago, I heard very divided opinions on former Bills head coach Doug Marrone’s candidacy for another top job in this year’s hiring cycle. One source predicted Marrone would be among the most popular names to interview for the openings, saying he was very well thought of by the league’s committee that refers candidates to teams. Others told me Marrone wouldn’t move the needle much, and wasn’t considered a particularly valuable member of Jacksonville’s coaching staff this season, where he spent the year as associate head coach/offensive line coach.
But Marrone’s name is suddenly everywhere with teams eager to interview candidates. He's been linked to scheduled interviews with the Browns, Dolphins and Eagles, and in addition, the Saints are thought to be high on him as a potential replacement for Sean Payton, should New Orleans and Payton mutually part ways. In the case of the Browns and Eagles, both teams have interviewed Marrone before for openings. And Miami makes sense, given that Marrone has ties to Bill Parcells, and one of Parcells's proteges, Mike Tannenbaum, is running the Dolphins’ coaching search.
Marrone went 15–17 in his two seasons in Buffalo, but I guess I’ve potentially under-rated the value of any coach capable of putting up a winning season with the Bills, like Marrone did in 2014 (9–7). At least that’s what Rex Ryan tells me.
• Mike Shanahan will reportedly interview a second time for the Dolphins' head coaching job on Tuesday, and the former Denver and Washington head coach also has reached out to San Francisco to express interest in the 49ers vacancy. I am not surprised by either one of these developments, because I know Shanahan, 63, has been eager for one last shot on an NFL sideline.
While I wouldn’t think Shanahan would be in the favorite's role in either of those openings, perhaps his involvement speaks to the shallow nature of this year’s hiring pool, and maybe offers a nod toward the success of older coaches like Arizona’s Bruce Arians, Seattle’s Pete Carroll and Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer. Experience and age are making a bit of a comeback in terms of NFL coaching.