- Did your NFL team just fire its head coach? Well, here's a not-at-all behind-the-scenes look at what goes into finding the franchise’s next head honcho.
A new year is upon us, and with January comes the most topsy-turvy, logic-allergic and strangely gripping chunk of the NFL calendar: head coach-hiring season. Compared with the league’s annual staffing stampede, the playoffs are a snooze: Josh McDaniels may call some unpredictable plays for Tom Brady, but they’re nothing, surprisewise, measured against what he’ll do once he agrees to become head coach of the Colts!
See, only in head coach-hiring season are the NFL’s billionaires and their well-paid footmen set wholly free to inflict their particular brand of wisdom on their franchises’ football operations. Owners can’t bench players or call plays, but they can choose which headset-toting mope will be responsible for doing so. And the NFL apparatus has mopes at the ready—cheapskate teams have the recommendations of the Career Development Advisory Panel to consult (“first-tier candidates” reportedly include such spring chickens as Jim Caldwell and Ken Whisenhunt), while freer-spending clubs can retain headhunters to recommend the retreads that are perfect for them. (“Have you considered ... Ted Marchibroda?” “Isn’t he ... dead?” “Hmm. We’ll have someone look into that.”)
This offseason we happen to be blessed with eight vacancies, enough to assure us at least a handful of head-scratching hires, and enough, also, to remind us how often teams whiff on their appointments. Better still, for those of us rooting for disaster, NFL franchises seldom learn from their mistakes. Accordingly, expect at least some of the eight searches to proceed something like this.
The first man to interview will be the offensive guru. Just look at what Sean McVay has achieved in L.A., or what Kyle Shanahan—er, never mind. Owners know that high-scoring, pass-centric offenses have proved essential for winners recently. The owner is probably also stuck with a frustrating and well-paid onetime top pick at quarterback. The offensive guru, who comes bearing spread formations, a youthful visage and, more often than not, a visor, promises to unlock the talent a since-fired GM swears he spotted several drafts ago.
Alas, the interview hits a snag when the owner Googles the offensive guru and notices that his teams have gone 11–25 in Big 12 play. Who’s next? How about the guy who just got fired? What this candidate has going for him is that he is not hard to picture stalking an NFL sideline. Indeed, the owner likely saw him doing so just weeks ago, on a flat-screen in a luxury suite while averting his eyes from his own team’s implosion. “It was a learning experience,” the once and future head coach tells the owner. “I learned that my teams are capable of great success when I’m not surrounded by so many incompetents and underminers. I look forward to reaching those heights while changing no more than one percent of my approach.”
“Thanks for your time,” the owner says. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you, Hue,” the footman adds, as he shuffles the coach out of the owner’s office. Following him, getting careful consideration, is the guy who went 3–1 as an interim coach two years ago. This guy is beloved in NFL circles; he’s long overdue for his shot, retired coaches say. He really fired his team up in Weeks 14 through 17 that one year; they played like they really probably wanted him to get extended. “We were in that fourth game till the end, too. You can look it up.” His pitch falls flat when the owner does just that and finds that NFL.com never even bothered to cut video highlights of any of those four games. “Get me a rising star,” the owner says.
At this point the footman pulls out the number for whichever Patriots coordinator is getting head coach interviews this year. “This guy is practically Bill Belichick’s brain,” the footman tells the owner. “They say there never would have been a Patriots dynasty without him. We’re going to be Foxborough South.” “Didn’t you tell me the same thing before I interviewed Romeo Crennel? And Eric Mangini? And Charlie Weis?” the owner asks. “Besides, it says here that until last year he was the ... assistant deputy safeties coach? I don’t think so.”
Where, outside of Bill Belichick’s staff, the footman wonders, could he find a rising star? His thoughts turn to former Patriot Mike Vrabel, who debuted reasonably well in Tennessee. What about a former player, one young enough that he could still relate to millennials, one whose entry into the coaching ranks was so recent that it had likely eluded even attentive football fans? I’ve got it, he thinks. Eric Weddle! He’s done a great job running the Ravens’ defense these last few years. His hopes are dashed when he finds out Weddle has not been Baltimore’s defensive coordinator but its starting free safety.
With the team’s options narrowing, the owner orders his pilot to chart a covert course for a college town, in fruitless pursuit of the college coach who is just using the interview for leverage. “Is there any chance he’s just using us for leverage?” the owner asks. “No way,” the footman replies. “Sure, in his current role, he has greater job security, better hours, only three tough games a year, and a built-in advantage landing the sport’s best players. But we could give him a relatively small raise!” The interview goes poorly. Its existence is reported by multiple national NFL writers even before the plane lands, and once it gets underway, the coach struggles to name even a single player on the team’s defense. He twice steps out to take phone calls from his agent. By the time the owner and the footman return home, the coach’s college contract has been extended through 2030, and State’s athletic department has agreed to build him a vacation home in the south of France.
Looking for the last person in the world who’d use the interview for leverage, the team calls Condoleezza Rice. She passes. She doesn’t like the team’s O-line depth.
The owner is getting cranky. ESPN, Fox Sports 1 and the NFL Network are all wondering why the team hasn’t made any progress in its search. Many of the analysts suggest that the owner himself might be responsible for everything that has ailed the franchise over the past decades. Shouldn’t he sell the team rather than subject its fans to more shortsighted decisions? Well, almost all of the analysts say that. But one, the ex-coach on TV with a .500 career record who last coached a decade ago, says the team has a bright future. The owner, he says, is demanding but forward-thinking, and the roster is just a solid draft class away. “Hire this man!” the owner orders. “Spend whatever it takes!” But the ex-coach has bad news when the footman reaches him. “I’m sorry—Mark Davis just gave me $75 million to run his scouting department.”
Finally the owner is out of patience. He has to leave for his long-planned four-month vacation on David Geffen’s yacht. “Just hire someone,” he says. Congratulations, then, are in order for new head coach Gus Bradley.
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