Let’s do some math.
Since the year the current CBA was agreed to—a CBA that lead to new TV deals, which showered owners in disposable cash with which to pay plenty of fired coaches—there have been 57 head-coaching changes (not including interim coaching switches) over eight hiring cycles. Only six clubs (New England, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Seattle) haven’t hired coaches over that span.
That adds up to 26 teams accounting for more than two coaching changes per team since 2011. Take that, and you may be able to guess the affect on the candidate pool.
It’s been sapped dry.
The effect has forced teams in recent years to take chances on younger or less experienced candidates. It’s worked out in some cases, as with Sean McVay in Los Angeles. It hasn’t in others, as seems to be the case with Vance Joseph in Denver. And this is looking like the year that the destabilization of the NFL coaching ranks approaches its nadir.
One prominent agent said he regards the 2019 crop of prospective head coaches the weakest he’s seen in decades. That situation, I’m told, was part of the reason Baltimore slammed the brakes on the persistent buzz that it would part ways with John Harbaugh after the season. Why make a change, after all, when the most attractive candidate for an opening is already on your payroll?
So this is the backdrop to all the movement coming over the next week. Some teams may look at the landscape and decide to give their coach a stay of execution. Others will get creative with their coaching searches. And teams will take chances, like the Rams and Broncos did two years ago, or like the Titans and Cardinals did in 2018 on one-year defensive coordinators who’ve since gone in divergent directions.
This much we know: There aren’t easy answers for teams that are looking.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to give you players to watch in the college football playoffs this weekend, and in Week 17 in the NFL, and we’ll answer questions from you, the readers, on the Browns’ potential mindset going into Sunday (with the rival Steelers and Ravens vying for the AFC’s last playoff spot), running back value, the Cowboys’ coaching situation, Matt Patricia’s punctuality, and much, much more.
But we’re starting with the 2019 NFL hiring cycle, one arriving to more uncertainty and unusual twists than any I can remember in the past. There’s no obvious belle-of-the-ball candidate. The closest thing is probably a guy who’s coaching in college (Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley). What you do have is a number of candidates the casual fan isn’t aware of, and others they might not be too inspired by.
That said, hope exists. Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll weren’t the most popular hires in 2000 or 2010, respectively, and both of them have been OK. Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh weren’t exactly brand-name candidates ahead of landing their jobs, which all three have held for more than a decade. Each of those five coaches, in case you didn’t pick up on it, has won Super Bowls. And their teams, as a result, have been spared taking part in the explosion of New CBA coaching tumult.
OK, so if you’re not so lucky, and your team is out there looking? Or you just want to know what’s happening? Here’s the word around the NFL campfire:
• The Harbaugh announcementreset the plans of several teams, including the Jets and Broncos (with the Dolphins having lurked as a potential suitor for the Ravens’ coach). So do the teams that coveted Harbaugh take their ball and go home? I’d say … not until Harbaugh actually signs his extension. As Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio has pointed out, it’s not hard to see a scenario in which someone goes to Baltimore with draft picks. Which would make good sense, given that Harbaugh is still regarded as a top-tier head coach in NFL circle.
• Another one to watch in that regard could be Miami’s Adam Gase. If EVP Mike Tannenbaum takes the fall (we told you Monday, it’d be a shocker if both Gase and Tannenbaum survive), Gase and GM Chris Grier could remain. So do the Dolphins just elevate Grier in responsibility or find someone to replace Tannenbaum? If they take latter route, would they dig into Gase’s power (i.e. control over the 53-man roster) to lure that someone—a move that would require adjusting Gase’s contract and open the door for him to look at other jobs? I’m told other clubs are monitoring this one. It’s not crazy to think a team like Cleveland, which tried to interview Gase on the recommendation of Jimmy Haslam’s buddy Peyton Manning in 2014, then did interview him in ‘16, could lie in the weeds, with Baker Mayfield as bait. Again, if it’s Gase and Grier’s show, this is status quo. But some change could bring more change.
• As for the Browns and what I believe, again, is a wide-open search, remember that Jimmy and Dee Haslam have kicked the tires on a lot of coaches over the last few years. Gase was one they liked. Another: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The big question on McDaniels would be more about how he’d mesh with GM John Dorsey.
• The ouster of Bucs coach Dirk Koetter has been considered a forgone conclusion since September, but there’s been chatter over the last couple weeks that this one isn’t quite over yet. I’ve heard Tampa wants to make a splashy hire, if they are going to go get a new coach, which contextualizes Mike McCarthy’s name being connected to the job. If that’s not there for them? Maybe Koetter survives. A big issue, though, is that the vast majority of Koetter’s assistants are on expiring contracts, so Tampa would need to commit to those guys for another two years, and all of them would have the chance to leave on their own volition if they saw Koetter as a lame duck going into 2019.
• Speaking of McCarthy, the Jets are another team to watch there. They’ve done their research on ex-Packers coach. And even though there might some question about fit in the New York market, my expectation is that McCarthy will be under consideration there next week. He and ex-Lions and Colts coach Jim Caldwell, both of whom have coached in the Super Bowl, are examples of coaches on the other end of the spectrum—given the lack of hot young names on the market, some teams will value experience and the ability to assemble a staff over the chance to catch lightning in a bottle. In the case of McCarthy and Caldwell, there’s also the benefit of both having background coaching the quarterback position, and having done so with all-time greats.
• Regarding assistants, there could be some interesting offensive coordinator movement, and a name at the top of that list is right off Koetter’s staff. Per sources, Bucs OC Todd Monken’s contract is up. And I believe he’ll be a hot candidate for coordinator openings, and even could get an interview or two at the head-coaching level. His creativity and blending of college and pro concepts have more than a couple teams intrigued.
• Lions OC Jim Bob Cooter is another coordinator on an expiring contract who could look around—and will garner interest. The marriage with Matt Patricia hasn’t been perfect, and other teams seem willing to chalk up the Detroit offense’s decline in production to that reality. If Cooter bolts, Patricia does have a QBs coach with coordinator experience on staff, in George Godsey, if he doesn’t turn to a vet he has a background with, like ex-Patriots OC Charlie Weis.
• There’s a persistent drumbeat out there on potential changes coming in Atlanta at some level. Yes, Dan Quinn is safe. But changes on his staff seem inevitable at this point.
• College coaches will be in the mix, even though that interest is usually kept quiet (with recruiting concerns a reason why). Lincoln Riley, as we said, will have opportunity—and past just this year, which should enable him to pick his spot. (And he’s already got one of the best jobs in the sport, so there’s no need to rush.) I’d expect Iowa State’s Matt Campbell’s name to surface in more than one place—a couple people on the scouting trail brought his name to me in September, and I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback on him since. He’s a Northeast Ohio native (he’s actually from the same town as Paul Brown), so Cleveland would certainly be interesting, and he’s the type of hire that may allow the Browns to make a run at holding on to Freddie Kitchens. Other college coaches to watch who have an interest in the NFL are Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Baylor’s Matt Rhule. And I wouldn’t be stunned to see Florida’s Dan Mullen, who is said to have NFL aspirations, start to pop up somewhere along the line.
• Two college names that I’ve learned to group together, while we’re there—Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Stanford’s David Shaw. Both have won in places that have unique challenges. Both are coaching at their alma mater. Both are well compensated, loved and happy in regions where they have deep roots in. Both can win eight or nine games a year with their college teams and be celebrated for it. And both have garnered more than a little interest from the NFL. That’s a long way of saying a lot of NFL teams love those guys, but it’d take a lot to lure them to leave what they’ve got now. Maybe the presence of ex-Northwestern AD Mark Murphy in Green Bay—Murphy hired Fitzgerald as head coach at NU—will be enough to coax Fitzgerald to the NFL. I just wouldn’t count on it.
We had more nuggets in my Monday Morning Quarterback column if you want to check those out, and we’ll have wall-to-wall coverage of all movement across the football landscape over the next week or so on the site. So look out for that, as we look ahead to the weekend:
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Five NFL players in the spotlight for Week 17.
Rams DT Aaron Donald: What he’s doing really is insane. He has 19.5 sacks, a record for defensive tackles (the old mark of 18.0, by ex-Viking Keith Millard, stood for 29 years), and that’s despite having two sacks negated, and a game left in the season. He needs 3.5 sacks to break Michael Strahan’s all-time record. Which seems like a lot until you realize he had four earlier this year against the team he’s playing Sunday, the Niners.
Titans QB Blaine Gabbert: From the numbness on his right side to his absence at practice to what he said on Nashville radio, there weren’t many good signs on Marcus Mariota’s status on Wednesday. Maybe he heals up quickly. But until we see that, it sure looks like Tennessee, in an all-or-nothing game against the Colts, will be leaning on Gabbert, who … wasn’t terrible at all in the win over the Redskins last week.
Bears LB Khalil Mack: Chicago at Minnesota is fascinating—the big 2018 favorite now fighting for its playoff life, facing the dark horse that’s grown into the bully on the block. Mack, as you might have noticed, is a big reason why the NFC North has turned Chicago’s way this year. Against the Vikings offensive line, it stands to reason he’ll show it again on Sunday.
Ravens LB CJ Mosley: With the division title on the line for Baltimore, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is going to do his best to make sure Baker Mayfield doesn’t get going—and part of that will be muddying what he’s looking at. As the nerve center of the front seven, Mosley will most certainly be key to that effort.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
A pair of draft prospects to keep an eye on in the bowl games.
Clemson DE Clelin Ferrell (vs. Notre Dame, Cotton Bowl, ESPN, 4 p.m.): The fourth-year junior is up to 20 sacks over the last two years, and going up against Notre Dame’s well-regarded offensive line brings opportunity for Ferrell to shine on an important piece of tape. “He plays his ass off,” said one AFC exec. “High motor, smart. He’s not elite athletically. But he’s fine. He compensates for that.” The reason we’re spotlighting Ferrell is that I asked this exec to give me the best prospect on the Tigers’ vaunted line. “For me, it’s Clelin followed closely by [Christian] Wilkins,” said the exec. “There’s more value in an edge rusher too,” the exec said. “But Wilkins can really play anywhere across the front, so he’s versatile and [offers] value.” No matter how you stack them, seeing the Tigers’ front going head-to-head with the Irish O-line provides a nice litmus test for evaluators grading them out.
Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray (vs. Alabama, Orange Bowl, ESPN, 8 p.m.): By now, you know Murray’s 2018 was bonkers—4,053 yards, 40 touchdowns against seven picks en route to the playoffs. That, of course, is why there’s been so much speculation that he might pay back his baseball signing bonus to enter the 2019 draft. Would that be a good idea? It depends. If he’s cool going in the second or third round and loves football too much to resist giving it a shot, then sure. But if landing outside the first round would be a gigantic letdown for him, sticking to baseball might be best. “He’s a really talented athlete, rare speed and dynamic playmaking ability,” said an NFC scouting director. “He’s really small for a QB at 5’9”-ish. A pro offense will have to be tailored to his skill set, and teams will have to have a plan for him. I do not see him fitting a true West Coast style or similar pro-style offenses. The game is changing and being a lot more innovative on how to use special athletes, so he’d find a home and could be special. There’s a lot to figure out over the next few months if he does come out, but a special talent like him is hard to find.” As for Murray, go ahead and call this a nice problem to have.
From Mac (@Kingdonk78): Any chance the Browns throw Sunday’s game by sitting their starters just to give the Steelers the finger?
Great idea, Mac! But I’m not really sure that John Dorsey or Gregg Williams or anyone in between is wrapped up in playing spoiler. And I’d bet the demons that Baker Mayfield creates for himself this week are the ones in purple. In fact, let’s help Baker with that!
Baker, and I know you’re reading … The Ravens are actually the stolen version of the Browns. Plus, late Steelers owner Dan Rooney voted against the Browns’ move in 1996, so you could pay him back for that by kicking the door to the postseason back open for his old team. So ... time for revenge?
Speaking of the Steelers …
From Jason Viana (@jasonviana): How has James Conner’s performance and plug-and-play scenarios like the Rams this weekend [where C.J. Anderson rushed for 167 yards filling in for Todd Gurley] impacted Leveon Bell’s market for 2019? Even factoring Saquon Barkley’s year and the minimal impact on the Giants record, will RB values continue to stagnate?
Jason, I’m not sure Bell will get back what the Steelers offered him in July, and I think passing on the $14.55 million he was due this season was a big mistake. Bell has 1,541 touches, and turns 27 in February, which is an advanced age for a running back. He has suspension history, drug history, and will be 14 months past his last snap when he hits the market in March.
I just think most teams will look at this, and then turn to the draft or a lesser free-agent back like a Tevin Coleman and ask: “Is this a commodity I have to pay through the nose for?” Most running backs aren’t, and not because they don’t make an impact, but because they’re too easy to find.
Yes, Bell is a special talent. But given all the strings attached, and though it only takes one team with lust in its heart, I can see where he’d fall short of the kind of windfall Todd Gurley scored last summer.
From Pedro A. Esteves (@Paydroe22): Any chance Jason Garrett gets fired if the Cowboys get bounced in the first round of playoffs?
Pedro! They made the playoffs! And I hope you can enjoy that, because it’s not the birthright it once was in Dallas.