We’re approaching Week 2 of the NFL season, which means a handful of fan bases have a pretty good idea of whether their head coach needs replacing *cough* Cincinnati *cough*. During my training-camp travels this summer, I spoke with 20 current and former NFL personnel executives who make it their business to know who’s got next in the NFL head coaching carousel. (Refer back to this list in December for an idea of how these coaches were regarded before the fortunes and failures of the 2017 season.)
But first, a Q&A with a surprise name on this list, one of two first-year coordinators who cracked the Top 10. Marquand Manuel, 38, was elevated to defensive czar in Atlanta after two seasons as secondary coach under Dan Quinn, three seasons as an assistant in Seattle and eight seasons as a defensive back for six different NFL teams. The former sixth-round pick is a magnetic presence with a unique approach to coaching that focuses on enabling players to coach one another. This spring he asked Ricardo Allen to give a presentation on open-field tackling. Says Manuel: “You get in there and you present something that you take ownership in, and you say, ‘I live by this,’ it makes everyone else feel you.”
Manuel, who is rarely left speechless, was at a loss for words only once in our conversation—he was trying to describe what makes his all-time favorite player so special.
KLEMKO: What perspective gained from being a player helped you through the ranks in your coaching career?
MANUEL: One of the things that really gave me an advantage, is never forgetting that you put it in. The years you sweated on the field—not taking away from [coaches] who didn’t, I have high regard for those guys—but when you understand how to gravitate to a guy and meet him at the now. Most people have a philosophy and they’re like, I’m gonna teach my philosophy. But your philosophy has to be different for every player. Meet them at the now, which means, right where they are, take them as far as you can take them. When you understand that Ricardo Allen can pick up something faster than player X, how do I reach player X? You sat in Player X’s seat. You’re trying to engage with guys, and always ask guys not just, Do you understand, but, Why are we doing this? If you can also answer the why, player or coach, it helps you on the field. A lot of coaches told me to do something, not the how-to or the why.
KLEMKO: So how do you reach Player X without boring Ricardo Allen?
MANUEL: All the years that you play, always remember this: the ownership is to the brotherhood. I signed up for giving back. I signed up for being able to tell each player in the room, I’ve been where you are. I’m here now as a veteran to give back. So I want to teach them to give back as well, and give grace abundantly. I think most players have this anti-give mentality. If I give to you, you’re gonna take my job. You can’t have that mentality. You start a presentation and let them finish it, because you know Ricardo understands it, and now everyone is engaged.
KLEMKO: What did you have Ricardo present to the defense?
MANUEL: He’s one of the best in the league outside of Earl [Thomas] that I’ve seen tackle in open field. It’s the thankless stat, how many touchdowns he saved. I had him teach, what is being a great middle field eraser to the entire room in the spring. It was awesome. You take ownership. You get in there and you present something that you take ownership in, and you say, I live by this, it makes everyone else feel you. That’s what I learned from being a player.
KLEMKO: What did you learn from Pete Carroll in Seattle?
MANUEL: Pete taught me how to keep it fresh. I remember vividly after our first practice we had in town when we played Denver, he hit me on the tail and said, M, don’t go getting too serious on me now. It’s just the same game we’re getting ready to go play. It kept me in the perspective of, why not have fun while you’re doing this. Bad things happen, how to do you bounce back?
KLEMKO: What’s the legacy you want to leave? How do you want players to remember you?
MANUEL: I’d like to have a relationship with players that’s different than boss and employee. Not that we’re buddies, because it’s a hierarchy there. However, when we have a relationship, and I call to check on you, you know it’s genuine. And when I’m correcting something you’re doing, I’m never attacking the character of the man, but I’m attacked the content of what you did on the field. Tempers are going to flare. How do we come back down?
My philosophy is, Are you better now than the moment that you met me? Are you a better man? Are you a better player? I always want you to have the first person who took you out there to play football in mind, because that love that you have for that part of the game, even though you’re making a lot of money now, I’m gonna keep you from forgetting that.
KLEMKO: Why do so many teams fail to return to a Super Bowl after losing? How do you avoid that hangover?
MANUEL: Being blessed to have gone to back-to-back Super Bowls in Seattle, Kenny Norton taught me this: This moment in time is never going to come back. For him to be on those championship teams, he said, you have to approach it as if you’ve never done it before. It’s all mental. Are you willing, mentally, to put in the work from the first day you step out there? Not to get back to where you were, but to put in the work to just to compete? Then the games take care of themselves.
KLEMKO: Is there a player you’ve coached or played with whose personality or intangibles you look for when you talk to prospects?
MANUEL: I’ve been blessed in my career. I’ve coached in three of the last four Super Bowls, around staffs that have been amazing and guys who taught me a lot. And it’s hard to single one guy out, but it’s Kam Chancellor. He’s the ultimate man’s man. If I could come back and do it again as a player, I would do it like him. Not just the physicality that he brings to the game, but the content of his character. Down in, down out, the integrity. The ugly jobs that no one wants; he takes them. He won’t raise a hand and claim credit for anything. That team is better because of that man. I love every player I get an opportunity to coach, but what he brought to the table probably will resonate with me for the rest of my life. On the days, I felt, were hard for me as a coach, he always had that [slams fist into open palm repeatedly] to bring me up. That’s what I look for when I talk to guys. Not everybody is that mature right away, but he has something that God has given him. His soul is different.
KLEMKO: What is your priority with this group and how has it changed year to year?
MANUEL: Our philosophy, together, is can we trust one another to go out and finish every week, everything we put our mind to. Can we accomplish our goals? I’ve been around a lot of coaches who say, We’re gonna do this, this and this. First meeting, I open the mic. Rooks, you’re not allowed to talk. What do you want this defense to be in 2017?
The NFL’s Top 10 Head Coaching Candidates
1. Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England Patriots (age 41): New England’s offensive coordinator since 2012, McDaniels could have had just about any job in the NFL he wanted for the past three offseasons, but hasn’t found the right fit. He’s technically a re-tread after a humbling two-year stint in Denver, but at 41 with a PhD in Belichick-Brady football, he’s far and away the No. 1 coaching free agent.
2. Matt Patricia, defensive coordinator, New England Patriots (age 43): New England’s defensive play-caller runs a bend- don’t-break unit that gets aggressive in the red zone and allowed the fewest points in the NFL last year. He’s a renowned expert on offensive line protections.
3. Teryl Austin, defensive coordinator, Detroit Lions (age 52): Austin’s cut-and-dry, zone-based defense has oscillated from a Top 3 performer to a middling unit that collapsed against the run in last year’s playoff loss at Seattle. The former secondary coach is partly responsible for the development of shutdown corner Darius Slay, and is said to have impressed in his various interview opportunities.
4. Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles (age 51): The former Lions head coach has led the transformation of a defensive unit that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in points and yards allowed in 2015. Schwartz coaches in profanities and has an abrasive reputation with some around the league.
5. Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, New York Giants (age 57): He runs a complicated, heavy-blitzing defense that has begun to put all the pieces together. The former Rams head coach is one of the most unpredictable defensive play-callers in football, with a knack for putting one-dimensional players in a position to thrive.
6. Jim Bob Cooter, offensive coordinator, Detroit Lions (age 33): Detroit’s offensive coordinator since 2015, Cooter distilled the offense for Matthew Stafford, utilizing a slower pace and a diversity of formations to take advantage of Stafford’s ability to judge defenses in pre-snap. For Cooter, much will hinge on an offensive boon in Year 3.
7. Kris Richard, defensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks (age 37): The former NFL defensive back has quietly diversified and expanded Seattle’s base Cover 3 defense and added more blitzing and man coverage than predecessors Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn, both of whom got head-coaching opportunities after stints in Seattle. Richard, like many Carroll protégés, will interview very well and will benefit from a Quinn endorsement.
8. Mike Vrabel, defensive coordinator, Houston Texans (age 42): Another Belichick disciple, Vrabel had a leadership role in arguably football’s best defense in 2016, and now takes over as defensive coordinator with Romeo Crennel moving to assistant head coach. Considered a tremendous motivator, Vrabel would be one of the most successful former players to ever become a head coach.
9. Dave Toub, special teams coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs (age 55): Considered one of the great special teams coaches of all time, Toub, 55, helped develop Devin Hester into arguably the greatest return man in NFL history during his decade in Chicago. If a special teams coach is going to get the nod to lead an NFL team in the near future, it will be Toub.
10. Marquand Manuel, defensive coordinator, Atlanta Falcons (age 38): Dan Quinn handed over the reins of Atlanta’s defense, including playcalling, to this former defensive back from Miami. That’s a big deal for Quinn, who opted for Steve Sarkisian to replace Kyle Shanahan on the offensive side, in part, because he preferred an experienced playcaller.
NOTABLE: Mike Smith, Pat Shurmur, Harold Goodwin, Scott Linehan, Todd Haley, Paul Guenther, Mike McCoy, Darrell Bevell, Frank Reich
Andy Benoit contributed to the compilation of this list