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NFL Head Coaching Candidates: Who’s in Line as the Carousel Starts to Spin

There’s already one opening, and sure to be more. As struggling teams start thinking about 2019 and potential changes at the top, the ranks of candidates include hot coordinators, intriguing names from the college ranks—and a few wild cards (but not Condi Rice)

On Sunday morning, an unexpected name surfaced as a potential candidate for the Browns’ open head-coaching position: Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. Both Browns GM John Dorsey and Rice herself quickly dismissed the ESPN report, with Rice noting that while she is not ready to coach, “it is time to develop a pool of experienced women coaches.”

Those efforts are underway, to open the door for qualified women who have experience playing or coaching football, to also have an opportunity to work their way up the ranks. The dearth of women currently in the pipeline is why, when the NFL expanded its Rooney Rule to include women, it limited that expansion to cover only executive positions in the league office.

While Dorsey said the Browns do not have Rice on their growing list of candidates, they did promise to search far and wide for their next head coach. By firing Hue Jackson after Week 8, they got several weeks’ head start on other teams who will be launching their own coaching searches at season’s end—though other teams considering a change are no doubt quietly assembling their own lists. One big factor in deciding whether to make a coaching change is confidence that you’ll find someone better.

This year’s group of potential candidates looks thinner than in past years, in the view of multiple people with experience navigating the head-coach hiring cycle. Several insiders said they had a difficult time coming up with enough names to match the number of potential openings. There has been an average of about seven head coach openings per year over the last decade, largely filled by other NFL teams’ coordinators or recently fired NFL head coaches, with just a handful of exceptions (in the past five years, only Jon Gruden, retired for 10 years, and Bill O’Brien, hired from Penn State, didn’t fit that description). That’s a lot of turnover, with candidates being pulled from the same places each year, thus thinning the ranks.

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With the NFL becoming more receptive to college-style offenses, will teams also be more open to pulling a head coach from the college ranks? Will the success of Rams coach Sean McVay, hired at age 30, spur teams to look younger? It’s also possible that teams considering a change might decide to hold on to the coach they have. And if the Packers or Ravens were to part ways with veteran Super Bowl-winning coaches Mike McCarthy or John Harbaugh, both reportedly on the hot seat and their futures depending on how the rest of the season goes, it’s a safe bet neither would be out of work for very long.

As we head toward this year’s hiring season, here’s our list of the top names to watch for NFL head coach openings in 2019:


John DeFilippo, Vikings OC

The 40-year-old former James Madison quarterback is the safest bet on this list to be leading an NFL sideline next season. He built his reputation as Carson Wentz’s quarterbacks coach for the North Dakota State product’s first two years in the NFL, and helped craft the Eagles offense around backup Nick Foles’ strengths during last year’s Super Bowl run. The Eagles’ regression this season, after losing DeFilippo and OC Frank Reich, now in Indianapolis, may serve to boost his esteem in the eyes of decision-makers around the league. While Kirk Cousins is coming off a tough loss to the Bears on Sunday night, the new Vikings QB is on pace for career highs in passing yardage, touchdowns and completion percentage. DeFilippo interviewed for the Bears and Cardinals jobs last offseason, and the 49ers vacancy three years ago. He has experience coaching in Cleveland, where he was the OC in 2015; the Jets, who may also be looking for a new coach to pair with 2018 first-round QB Sam Darnold, wanted to interview DeFilippo for their OC job two years ago but were blocked by Philadelphia.

Josh McDaniels, Patriots OC

We all remember what happened last February, when the Colts had an agreement in place to make McDaniels their next head coach, and even scheduled a press conference to announce his hiring days after the Patriots’ season ended—only for him to back out at the 11th hour. McDaniels was fired by his agent, Bob LaMonte, and returned to New England amid speculation about whether he would be the coach-in-waiting to succeed Bill Belichick. (McDaniels has said there is no such arrangement.) Despite what happened in February, and his failed 28-game stint as the Broncos head coach, McDaniels will no doubt be considered for jobs again this year. The question, as it has been for the last few years, is whether there will be a job he’ll be willing to leave New England for. Green Bay, were it to come open, might be one that he’d strongly consider, with the opportunity to coach a 35-year-old Aaron Rodgers and plenty of time to find and groom Rodgers’ successor.

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Kris Richard, Cowboys DBs coach

The Cowboys’ defense has looked different this year, and one big reason is Richard, who took over play-calling duties from defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Richard joined the Cowboys this season after eight years in Seattle, where he not only adopted the aggressive and physical style of the Legion of Boom years, but earned valuable experience leading a group of strong-minded players. In the past two years Richard interviewed for the Bills and Colts head jobs, and a strong indicator of how he’s viewed is that the Cowboys would like to keep him at the head of their defense even if they do make a change at head coach.

Zac Taylor, Rams QBs coach

It sounds weird to talk about a coaching tree for a 32-year-old head coach, but with teams looking to replicate the Rams’ home-run hire, the Sean McVay tree figures to be hot. Taylor, 35, was the starting QB for Nebraska and spent a year as a backup QB in the CFL before getting into coaching. McVay calls plays for Los Angeles, but Taylor does have some experience as an NFL play-caller, when he was named the Dolphins’ interim OC for the second half of the 2015 season.

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Eric Bieniemy, Chiefs OC

Andy Reid’s last two OCs, Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy, are both running their own teams now. Seven of Reid’s former assistants are currently NFL head coaches, a track record that speaks both to Reid’s ability to mentor young coaches and to push for them to land opportunities of their own. Bieniemy has also been linked to the recently open job at his alma mater, Colorado.

Dave Toub, Chiefs special teams coordinator

See above. Toub, 56, is one of the league’s top special teams coaches, and while that’s not a common launching  point for a head-coaching gig, he wouldn’t be the first special teams coach under Reid to make that jump (see: John Harbaugh). Last year Toub was rumored to be a candidate for the opening with the Colts, where former Chiefs executive Chris Ballard was leading the search, though he never interviewed. Toub did interview for the Chargers and Broncos openings in 2017, as well as with the Dolphins and Bears in previous years. This offseason he was part of a cadre of special teams coaches who worked with the league office to redesign the kickoff, saving the play via rule changes intended to make it safer.

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Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma head coach

The 35-year-old Sooners coach received plenty of calls this past offseason from NFL teams looking to pick his brain about both Baker Mayfield and the run-pass options sweeping the pro ranks. This year Riley figures to get a different kind of call from NFL teams, looking to gauge his interest in a head-coaching gig. The Mayfield connection is obvious; there’s also the fact that the NFL game is closer than ever to the college game, and thus bringing in a coach from the college ranks might be also be more appealing than ever. But, as we mentioned above, just one coach has been hired directly from college in the past five years, and O’Brien had previous pro experience as Tom Brady’s OC in New England. Riley has had early success at Oklahoma, but this is just his second season as a head coach, and he might not want to give up a fantastic situation leading one of college football’s top programs for the uncertainty and short leashes of the NFL. “It’s hard to see myself ever leaving Oklahoma right now,” Riley told The MMQB’s Albert Breer this summer. That doesn’t mean the Browns, or perhaps the Cowboys if they decide to move on from Jason Garrett, won’t make the call.

Matt Rhule, Baylor head coach

A fellow State College Area High School Little Lion (sorry, had to plug my alma mater), Rhule interviewed for the Colts job last January. Like O’Brien at Penn State, he was hired to take over a football program in the wake of a scandal—at Baylor, university officials were determined to have mishandled reported sexual assaults committed by students, including members of the football team. Rhule has a season of experience in the NFL ranks, serving on Tom Coughlin’s 2012 Giants staff as the assistant offensive line coach.

Dennis Allen, Saints defensive coordinator

Coordinators of hot teams always warrant consideration, and no team is hotter than the Saints right now. It’s been four years since Allen was fired by the Raiders four games into the 2014 season. He had a dismal 8-28 record in Oakland, and Jack Del Rio coming in and led the team to a 12-4 mark two years later did Allen’s reputation no favors. But if the Saints continue to roll, behind not just an explosive offense but also a defense that was New Orleans’ missing championship piece, perhaps he’ll get another look.

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Jack Del Rio, ex-Raiders coach

Speaking of Del Rio, the current dismantling of the now two-win Raiders has only served to boost his stock since he was dismissed for Jon Gruden following a 6-10 season. It seems more likely that the two-time head coach re-enters the NFL ranks as a coordinator, but you never know.

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Others to keep an eye on…

The up-and-comers:Shane Waldron, Rams tight ends coach/pass game coordinator, and Titans OCMatt LaFleur, who was McVay’s OC in ’17 and Kyle Shanahan’s QBs coach in Atlanta in 2015 and ’16, are two other names to watch from the McVay tree in this or future years.

Dan Campbell, Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach and Bill Parcells protégé, was the Dolphins’ interim head coach in 2015 and interviewed with the Colts after McDaniels backed out. Albert Breer has also mentioned Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, for his ability to do a lot with limited resources (the 6-4 Cyclones are ranked No. 25).

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Wild cards: Every year, there’s a rumor that (insert team here) has made a tentative phone call to Nick Saban or his agent, Jimmy Sexton. Every year, Saban stays in Tuscaloosa. The other college coaches plunged into chaos by their names being linked to NFL jobs this time of year also carry the caveat that it would be a tall order to pry them from dream jobs leading their alma maters: Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Stanford’s David Shaw and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald. Bruce Arians, who retired as the Cardinals head coach after the 2017 season, recently told the Canton Repository that he’d consider coming back, but only for the Browns job. But if he’s willing to coach again, could other teams try to make their case? Arians also stumped for his former boss in Indianapolis, Chuck Pagano.Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, the Titans head coach from 2011 to ’13, has been a major asset for Pittsburgh and could warrant consideration from a team like the Browns. One last name: Could John Elway convince Gary Kubiak, who has been a senior personnel advisor in Denver since retiring for health reasons after Super Bowl 50, to return to the sideline? Probably not, but the Broncos yearn for a return to the success of Kubiak’s term.

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