- Which teams are making coaching changes, and which top candidates should get the call?
Several NFL teams got a head start on the off-season by firing their head coaches before Week 17. There will be more moves coming before the end of Black Monday, the first day after the close of the regular season.
We’re tracking all the coaching news, and what the fallout may be, below.
Chargers fire Mike McCoy
• Tale of the Tape: Everything started well for McCoy, who won a wild-card round game after a 9–7 debut in 2013. The Chargers went 9–7 the next season, too, but failed to make the playoffs. And then ... the bottom fell out. San Diego slipped to 4–12 and 5–11 in McCoy's final two seasons with the club, giving him an overall mark of 27–36.
• What went wrong: With little margin for error in a loaded AFC West, the Chargers were undone by two factors: 1.) Their inability to finish off close games, and 2.) Horrendous injury luck. Nine of the Chargers' 11 losses this season came in one-score games, while 19 players—including key pieces like Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Brandon Mebane, Brandon Flowers and Manti Te'o—wound up on injured reserve.
"We've had an opportunity to win every game we've been in," McCoy said this week, before his team's season-ending, 37–27 loss to Kansas City. "And unfortunately, there's a different reason each week for the number of losses we've had."
The tone for the season may have been set before it even began, as the Chargers engaged in a standoff with first-round pick Joey Bosa. The Ohio State product's holdout did not end until late August, and he did not make his first appearance until Week 5. Bosa was incredible once he joined the lineup, finishing his rookie year with 10.5 sacks, but certainly the situation cast a pall on the early proceedings. And that's on top of the incessant relocation chatter that followed the Chargers again this year.
The writing on the wall for McCoy perhaps came as early as Week 1. The Chargers led 27–10 in the second half against those same Chiefs, only to lose 33–27 in overtime.
QB Philip Rivers had another strong statistical season, with 33 touchdowns and nearly 4,400 yards passing, but he was as guilty of the crushing mistakes as anyone. He threw 21 interceptions on the year, while San Diego turned it over at least once in 14 of its 16 games.
• Possible replacements: Requested interview with Panthers DC Sean McDermott. Other potential names include: Jim Schwartz, Dave Toub, Austin, Matt Patricia, Kyle Shanahan, Josh McDaniels
• Ideal hire: Patricia. He won't have to wait much longer to get a chance. He's smart, energetic and has done a brilliant job with the Patriots' defense. Plus, the Belichick ties always give assistants a bit of an edge during the interview process. Patricia was one of the Browns' candidates last year before Hue Jackson took that job.
Look, whether they're playing in San Diego or Los Angeles or Las Vegas or on the moon next season, the Chargers badly need someone to energize the ranks. Their fans may not have been outnumbered each week (although it looked close in Week 17), but the split was far too close to 50-50. This franchise has gone through the motions the past two years, and it shows in the results.
Hiring a defensive-minded coach would allow the Chargers to build on some of the momentum they found on that side of the ball this season, be it from Bosa or free-agent steal Casey Heyward. It would threaten to disrupt Rivers, but ... well, McCoy came from an offensive background and it didn't pay off.
Keep an eye on Toub. SI's Greg Bedard mentioned him as a fit for the Chargers. It would be a change of pace for a team that could use one.
49ers fire Chip Kelly, GM Trent Baalke
• Tale of the tape: For Kelly, it was one-and-done. The 49ers finished just 2–14 this season, with their only two wins coming against the Rams. They also featured one of the worst run defenses in NFL history. Baalke’s run at GM, which began ahead of the 2011, included a successful breakthrough early on—the 49ers improved from 6–10 to 13–3 in his first season, then advanced to the Super Bowl the following year. But Baalke then pushed Jim Harbaugh out of his coaching post and replaced him with Jim Tomsula, who, like Kelly, lasted just a year.
• What went wrong: It really cannot be understated just how bad the defense was, particularly on the ground. Even though they held their final two opponents under 100 yards rushing, the 49ers still coughed up more than 2,600 yards for the season. The pass defense, stout by comparison, allowed a TD a little more than once every nine attempts by an opposing QB.
Of course, a lot of the defensive breakdowns can be tied back to Kelly’s ineffective up-tempo offense. The 49ers had the lowest time of possession in the league (2:10 per possession before Week 17’s loss), which left their defense on the field for about 34 minutes each game.
Colin Kaepernick actually had a strong second half of the year, even if some people tuned him out during his national anthem protests. By the time he was inserted into the lineup, though, Blaine Gabbert had overseen a 1–4 start. Running back Carlos Hyde was the lone reliable producer on offense, before his season ended in December with a torn MCL. The 49ers arguably had the worst wide receivers in the league.
How much of this year’s meltdown was on Kelly? How much was on Baalke? Does it matter? Probably not, although clearly Baalke received more of a shot than Kelly did in San Francisco.
• Possible replacements: Requested interviews with Patriots OC Josh McDaniels, Bills interim coach Anthony Lynn. Other potential names include: Harold Goodwin, Matt Patricia, Teryl Austin, Jim Schwartz, David Shaw, Mike Shanahan.
• Ideal hire: Who knows at this point. Step one will be figuring out who is going to be GM and how much power he’ll be willing to cede to the coach in personnel decisions. If it’s “none” or “very little,” you probably can cross out Shanahan or anyone who has been through the coaching wringer before.
Perhaps Patricia or Austin (or someone else with a defensive background) would be the way to go, considering what a mess that side of the ball has been for the 49ers. No matter what happens moving forward, they have to become tougher to deal with when the opposition has the ball.
This is not going to be an easy sell, aside from the location and the franchise’s history. The roster is in shambles, likely without anything even resembling a starting quarterback in sight.
Gary Kubiak resigns as Broncos head coach
• Tale of the Tape: Kubiak’s first season in Denver was magical—a 12–4 regular season, followed by a Super Bowl win as QB Peyton Manning sailed off into the sunset. Year Two was a lot bumpier, as the Broncos lost four of their final five games to slip out of the playoffs at 9–7.
• What went wrong: For starters, let’s reiterate that this was not a dismissal. Kubiak opted to step down for health reasons—remember, he suffered a “mini-stroke” during a game while coach of the Texans in 2013. Had he wanted to continue on as the Broncos’ coach, he almost certainly would have—at least into the 2017 season.
“When Gary informed me of his decision to step down as head coach, I was obviously saddened and disappointed,” Broncos GM John Elway said in a statement. “But, I understand and respect Gary for doing what’s right for him as well as his family.”
This season clearly wore on Kubiak, who turned 55 in August. The Broncos started hot, winning their first four games, but a Week 5 loss to Atlanta touched off a gradual fade that culminated in three consecutive setbacks—against Tennessee, New England and Kansas City, in Weeks 14–16—that eliminated the defending champs from playoff contention.
Denver simply never found its footing on offense, especially up front. The offensive line was an Achilles’ heel throughout the season, which in turn stunted the run game (27th in the league) and placed additional pressure on the shoulder of QB Trevor Siemian. And Siemian already had to worry about replacing Manning, one of the game’s all-time greats.
For his part, Siemian had a respectable season. Unfortunately for the Broncos, his brilliant games, like a four-TD outing vs. Cincinnati, were all too infrequent. A do-or-die Week 16 trip to Kansas City may have been his worst outing of the year: 17-of-43 for 183 yards and a touchdown.
Of course, the Manning-led offense was a weak spot during the Super Bowl run, too. But this year’s Broncos defense, while still outstanding against the pass and lethal pressuring the quarterback, was not as dominant across the board as it had been in 2015. With key pieces like Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan exiting via free agency, Denver slipped to 28th in total run defense and 18th in yards per carry.
• Possible replacements: Requested an interview with Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan. Other potential names include: Teryl Austin, Vance Joseph, Darrell Bevell, Jim Bob Cooter, Anthony Lynn
• Ideal hire: Shanahan. Is defensive coordinator Wade Phillips part of the Broncos’ plans moving forward? The longtime coach, who turns 70 in August, has been the mastermind behind Denver’s defensive excellence the past two seasons. His contract, though, is set to expire and, usually, it would be up to the incoming coach to pick his coordinators.
If Elway would prefer to keep Phillips around, it without question pushes the head-coaching needle toward the offensive side. New England O.C. Josh McDaniels is out of the question—he tried and failed once before in Denver.
So, the top option among current offensive coordinators could be Shanahan. He has helped turn Matt Ryan into an MVP candidate, but he also maxed out everyone from Brian Hoyer to Matt Schaub to Robert Griffin III. He could do wonders for Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.
Bevell, Seattle’s O.C., is another name that’s come up before around this time of year. Cooter is new to the mix, having served about a season and a half as Detroit’s offensive coordinator. He does have ties to Denver, though—Cooter spent 2013 as an offensive assistant for the Broncos, and Manning sung his praises.
Rams fire Jeff Fisher
• Tale of the tape: One season after the Rams finished 2–14 in 2011, Fisher took over and produced a seven-win campaign. The problem is, that’s where he peaked. Fisher never made it to .500 in four seasons in St. Louis, then started this season 4–9 before being let go, with an overall Rams record of 31-45-1. He is now 173-165-1 all-time, tied for the most coaching losses in NFL history.
• What went wrong: Many of the problems began at quarterback. Fisher inherited Sam Bradford, who was average at best in 2012 and then suffered a knee injury in ’13. From there, the carousel spun through Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, Nick Foles and finally Case Keenum. This season, Fisher stuck with Keenum past the halfway point of the season, despite the organization’s April move to trade up for the No. 1 pick in the draft to take Jared Goff.
Goff has done little since his insertion into the starting lineup to prove the delay a mistake.
The QB always makes for an easy target. There were issues all over the field this season, starting with the abysmal play of Los Angeles’s offensive line. Between their ineffectiveness up front, their lack of playmakers in the passing game and game plans that often seemed to ignore running back Todd Gurley completely, the Rams didn’t exactly put their quarterbacks in favorable positions.
Still, Fisher might have survived the season had the Rams not totally unraveled, starting with a Week 11 loss to the Dolphins. A 42–14 home loss to the Falcons—one of five home losses for Fisher this season at the Coliseum, in which L.A. averaged 12.6 points—was the final straw.
“This was solely a performance-related issue,” said Rams COO Kevin Demoff at a press conference announcing the move. “When you look at the team, and where it is, and how we get better moving forward—for the fans, for the players, for the coaches, for the organization—we wanted to make sure games like [the Atlanta loss] doesn’t happen again.”
• Possible replacements: Requested interviews with Cardinals OC Harold Goodwin, Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan, Buffalo interim coach Anthony Lynn, Patriots OC Josh McDaniels, Patriots DC Matt Patricia, Washington OC Sean McVay, Jacksonville's Doug Marrone. Other potential names include: Jon Gruden, David Shaw, Sean Payton.
• Ideal hire: Shanahan. At that same press conference, Demoff shot down the idea that the Rams would turn their sole attention toward offensive-minded candidates because of Fisher’s defensive background. Those reversals of course tend to be the norm for NFL franchises, but it’s not unheard of to stay the course to some extent.
That said, the Rams have one of the game’s most exciting young backs in Gurley, plus a QB in Goff who—unless they’re willing to throw in the towel already on their substantial investment—has to be the assumed starter moving forward. The combination requires vision and creativity on offense, points lacking badly during Fisher’s tenure. A sharp offensive coordinator could help, but it’s more likely the Rams focus on fixing those problems from the top down.
So, any of the league’s rising offensive coordinators could be considered here. The MMQB’s Peter King also mentioned the possibility of a wild-card option like Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen.
Shanahan carries name recognition and generated plenty of buzz guiding Atlanta’s offense to astounding heights this year (on top of the possibility he’d bring his father Mike along as some sort of advisor in the front office). McDaniels could be much better in his second job than he was in his first, but there would be hesitancy because of what happened in Denver. Shanahan would be a more exciting move for a franchise in need of a splash.
Jaguars fire Gus Bradley
• Tale of the tape: Bradley won a total of 14 games (and never more than five in any one season) during his nearly four years at the helm in Jacksonville. His .226 overall win percentage (14–48) is one of the worst in NFL history. Rather amazingly, despite those numbers, this will be the first season under Bradley’s watch that the Jaguars finish in last place in the AFC South.
• What went wrong: How much time ya got?
The most painful mark on Bradley’s record is that he never came close to replicating the defensive success he oversaw as a coordinator in Seattle. The Jaguars’ pass defense finally took a major step forward this season, thanks in no small part to rookie cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but it was too little, too late. Jacksonville ranked 28th, 26th and 31st in points allowed during Bradley’s first three seasons; it sat 26th headed into Week 17 this year.
Which brings us to Blake Bortles. Those points-against numbers are inflated because Bortles has been a turnover-prone headache through much of his three years (and counting) as Jacksonville’s quarterback. He recently threw his 11th career pick-six—the most by a quarterback over his first three NFL seasons—and has 51 career INTs. He’s also fumbled 27 times, including a league-high 14 last year.
“There are no untouchables in this organization,” GM David Caldwell, an embattled figure himself, said via Jacksonville.com. “My vision of looking at this team is this is going into our first year. We’ve got to correct this and make sure that, regardless of how people got there, they have to live up to their abilities. With that being said, I do still believe in Blake very much. The head coach will have a lot of input as to who the quarterback will be.”
The Jaguars showed promise in the passing game last season, with both Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns topping 1,000 yards. No Jaguar will reach 1K this year, dragged down by Bortles and the lack of a sustainable rushing attack.
• Possible replacements: Requested interviews with Cardinals OC Harold Goodwin, Patriots OC Josh McDaniels, Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan. Other potential names include: Tom Coughlin, Matt Patricia, Doug Marrone, Sean Payton.
• Ideal hire: McDaniels. Look no further than McDaniels’s current boss, Bill Belichick, to see how a coach can turn it around given a second shot—Belichick was fired by Cleveland after posting a 36–44 record; he now has 200 wins with New England. Any concern in Jacksonville over McDaniels’s shaky first stop could be countered with the fact that Bradley had no prior NFL head coaching experience. Is it better to have a coaching retread or a rookie?
McDaniels without question will again be one of the hotter names this off-season, should he choose to leave New England for another shot. That’s a potential sticking point: If McDaniels is waiting for a perfect opportunity, does he see one in a team that hasn’t been able to compete in the downtrodden AFC South?
If so, his experience—both as a head coach and within the Patriots’ organization—give him a leg up. Again, this would be a script flip, switching from a defense-first coach to an offensive-minded one.
Something to watch, though: The Jaguars closed the season strong under Marrone’s interim leadership. He, too, has prior head coaching experience.
Bills fire Rex Ryan
• Tale of the tape: The Bills finished 8–8 in Ryan’s first season, one game back of where they’d been under Doug Marrone in 2014 and well short of the playoff berth Ryan had promised. This season played out in much the same fashion—the Bills knocking on the door of competitiveness, only to slip back to mediocrity. They were 7–8 this season when Ryan was fired and 15–16 overall during his tenure.
• What went wrong: It felt like it was never one thing with Buffalo. When the offense played well, the defense didn’t. When the defense played well, the offense didn’t. Mix in coaching mistakes, like what took place in Week 16’s loss to Miami—the Bills had just 10 men on the field for a critical Dolphins run in OT—and it’s no surprise this team landed right around .500 again.
“I’m responsible for everything,” Ryan said of the 10-men-on-the-field error. “But everybody professionally has a job to do. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen, and it should have never happened, but it did happen. And it cost us the game. That’s how I look at it. That play right there contributed mightily in costing us the football game.”
He was let go a couple days later.
The Bills’ defense didn’t measure up in 2015, despite Ryan’s reputation as a defensive-minded coach. There was little to no tangible progress this season, either, despite Ryan bringing on his brother Rob as the defensive coordinator. The Bills allowed 30-plus points five times on the season, all losses.
One element that did click this season was the Bills’ run game, although that required a change at offensive coordinator two weeks into the year. The Bills entered Week 17 atop the NFL in rushing yards, rushing TDs and yards per attempt, paced by LeSean McCoy.
QB Tyrod Taylor approached 600 yards on the ground for the season, but he also may be viewed as part of the Bills’ problems. All indications headed into Week 17 were that Buffalo may bail on Taylor’s contract this off-season and explore other options at QB. Interim coach Anthony Lynn, who will be under consideration for the permanent job, voiced support for Taylor sticking around.
• Possible replacements: Scheduled an interview with Cardinals OC Harold Goodwin, requested to speak to Panthers DC Sean McDermott. Other potential names include: Anthony Lynn, Tom Coughlin, Teryl Austin, Todd Haley, Kyle Shanahan, Josh McDaniels, Sean McVay.
• Ideal hire: Could it be Lynn? One reason the Bills let Ryan go ahead of Week 17 reportedly was so they could get a brief glimpse at Lynn’s leadership. If the 48-year-old does not stick as Buffalo’s coach, he certainly will be considered for a job elsewhere.
Whether or not he’s the right fit here depends to a great extent on how close the Bills feel they are. If they continue to believe they are built to win now (and there are ample reasons to buy in), trying to take a stride forward without completely tearing things down could be the play. In that case, Lynn would be the guy.
Coughlin would make for an outside hire, but a similar approach. If he returns to coaching, it won’t be for a multi-year rebuilding project—it will be to push a talented team over the top. The Bills have been within striking distance of the playoffs for multiple seasons now, so this job could appeal to him.