Note: The Raiders were excluded from this list because, apparently, they've already found their next head coach.
5. CHICAGO BEARS
Some coaches might be leery of this job. John Fox, a proven head coach, just got canned after his team started a rookie quarterback and played with no wide receivers. A 5-11 season was all but guaranteed. How secure will the next coach be?
GM Ryan Pace must determine what style of offense best suits Mitchell Trubisky. Pace came up through the Saints front office. That team was built around Drew Brees, Sean Payton and a vertical passing game. That’s a great approach in the climate-controlled Superdome, but it doesn’t work in the inclement weather and slow track of Soldier Field. And it doesn’t fit Trubisky’s style, anyway. Trubisky is a timing and rhythm thrower who can also make plays on the move. He best fits a zone running-based offense that’s built around play-action and intermediate crossing patterns.
This isn’t to say the Bears need a Shanahan style offensive-minded head coach. But they certainly need someone who at least brings that sort of coordinator with him. Pace might have better candidates to choose from if he goes the defensive route, given that he quietly has a top-10 unit there already. Of course, a big reason it was top-10 is coordinator Vic Fangio did a fantastic job installing blurry, nuanced hybrid zone coverages. Those gave quarterbacks fits. If Fangio follows Fox out the door (which is likely), you’re left with a defense that’s decent, but only decent, especially considering it may need to replenish at cornerback (starters Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara are both free agents).
Stylistically, Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel could be seen as a good fit. Vrabel has spent much of his playing and coaching career in Romeo Crennel’s intricate system. But will Pace take a chance on a coach with just one year of coordinating experience? He may see a safer option in Dennis Allen, who has four years of coordinating experience, plus head-coaching battle scars from his three years in Oakland. Allen, who is still only 45, just turned around the perennially unfixable Saints defense. Pace, more than anyone, can appreciate how exemplary that is.
Best Fit: Dennis Allen, Saints defensive coordinator
4. DETROIT LIONS
The Lions gave Jim Caldwell a .500 caliber roster; he managed to go a little above .500 and make the playoffs twice in four years, but apparently that didn’t matter. And so here they sit, looking for a replacement. Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is reportedly at the top of their list. The question is: Who would Patricia bring as his offensive coordinator? That was one concern teams had last season when Patricia was passed over for head coaching jobs.
It’s an especially important question because the Lions have an offense that can succeed right now. Just like Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford’s reputation within the NFL is sterling. Coaches talk privately all the time about wanting to build an offense for him simply because his physical toolkit is second only to Aaron Rodgers. (Every coach believes they’re the guy who can harness a QB’s talent.)
Patricia has been highly visible in New England, but much about him remains a mystery. We can surmise what kind of defense he’d run; under Bill Belichick, it’s been a fundamentally sound, coverage-based scheme with a lot of personnel rotations and different D-line fronts. For the most part, that would suit Detroit’s personnel, especially given that second-round rookie cornerback Teez Tabor showed such improvement down the stretch.
But Patricia’s offensive beliefs? That’s what the Lions must find out. GM Bob Quinn, who spent 16 years in the Patriots front office, might already have an idea. If he doesn’t, and if what he hears from Patricia isn’t satisfactory, this becomes a fascinating search, as the Lions are playoff-ready. But for now…
Best Fit: Matt Patricia, Patriots defensive coordinator
3. ARIZONA CARDINALS
Upon promotion to general manager in 2013, Steve Keim inherited an offense in need of rebranding and a defense that, while far from flawless, had a handful of stars: Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and Adrian Wilson.
Keim has a similar landscape again. On defense, the stars are different—Peterson remains, but with him now are Tyrann Mathieu, Chandler Jones, Markus Golden, Deone Bucannon and scintillatingly gifted (but raw) rookies Haason Reddick and Budda Baker. Still, the results have been tremendous. Aside from No. 2 corner, there are no concerns on that side of the ball. It might be prudent for Keim to do what someone once did for him: promote from within. Thirty-nine-year-old defensive coordinator James Bettcher is an under-the-radar head coaching candidate whom some perceive as another Todd Bowles.
But the whispers within league circles suggest Keim wants an offensive-minded head coach, most likely one who values traditional dropback pocket passing— essentially, another Bruce Arians. Josh McDaniels is the biggest name out there, but there are multiple jobs that come with a ready-made quarterback, and Arizona isn’t one of them. Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is a possible candidate, but his passing game isn’t as sophisticated as Arians’ was. Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy’s stock has sky-rocketed in the past month after Andy Reid appointed him as the play-caller. It doesn’t hurt that Nagy’s predecessor, Doug Pederson, is now a Coach of the Year candidate in Philadelphia. But Nagy, given his inexperience, represents a serious gamble. Someone with previous head coaching experience and many more years of play-calling would be safer. Keim may want to consider an older branch from the Andy Reid tree.
Best Fit: Pat Shurmur, Vikings offensive coordinator
2. NEW YORK GIANTS
New GM Dave Gettleman spent 14 years with the Giants before his successful four-year run at the head of Carolina’s front office. Given his experience and age (66), he might not be interested in a long-term rebuilding effort, especially for a team that has so much defensive talent along the front line and backfield, as well as a quarterback who, though 37, can still play. Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch know their franchise needs a firm shaking, not an overhaul. A head coach with prior experience is in store, preferably one who will update, but not rewrite, the offensive and defensive playbooks. All the better that the candidate who most fits this description happens to currently work for a division rival.
Best Fit: Jim Schwartz, Eagles defensive coordinator
1. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
What is Andrew Luck’s status? That is what candidates will ask first when discussing this opening with their agent. If Luck is healthy, this is the most attractive job by default. Fans and talk radio hosts might debate the legitimacy of Luck’s superstar reputation, but football people don’t. Within the league, he’s seen as a first-tier quarterback, no ifs ands or buts. There are usually no more than seven of those in the NFL at a given time; rarely is one waiting to get a new head coach.
Jim Irsay understands this, and given that he’s been under fire for, in the minds of some, “wasting” Luck’s prime years under the defensive-minded Chuck Pagano, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Colts owner nudges new GM Chris Ballard toward offensive candidates. Luck has spent his career in systems that feature deep dropbacks. That plays to his predilection and ability to push the ball downfield, but it also subjects him to more hits. Given what Luck’s body has recently gone through, Ballard might be inclined to find a coach who will install a passing game that’s both complex and quick-timed. That’s an unusual combination, but there’s a certain quarterback in New England who has mastered it. The Colts could go hard after the guy who has helped that quarterback most recently.
Best Fit: Josh McDaniels, Patriots offensive coordinator
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