When the Chargers were looking for a new head coach after the 2016 NFL season, the team reached out to ex-Packers GM Ron Wolf for help. Wolf mentioned how impressed he was with Bills interim head coach Anthony Lynn, who interviewed for the Jets’ head coaching job back in 2015. Weeks later, the Spanos family and GM Tom Telesco interviewed Lynn and had a similar experience, eventually hiring him.
For the crosstown Rams, who were also searching for a new head coach after 2016, they asked agents which coordinators their players would follow, and they reached out to network broadcast crews asking which assistants owned the room during production meetings. Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay’s name kept popping up, and at season’s end, they moved quickly. McVay’s interview confirmed all they’d heard, and he was their head coach inside of two weeks.
This is where the Panthers are now, where the Redskins have been for the last few weeks and where other teams who haven’t fired their coaches yet are quietly lurking. And as the Rams’ and Chargers’ stories would indicate, these teams sure aren’t going at it alone. Each is buoyed by an infrastructure that supports the 10-day (or so) hurricane of interviews and hires that happens at the beginning of every January.
Now, we’ll introduce you to that infrastructure.
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Welcome the updated Game Plan! As explained earlier, we’re going to publish the NFL mailbag on Wednesdays and the Game Plan on Thursday. You’ll still get much of what you’ve come to expect in the weekly lookahead to the weekend—college and NFL players to watch, plus a few new elements (my power rankings ballot!).
This week, that means …
• A couple big names playing for college football bluebloods on conference championship weekend.
• Your Week 14 Watch List.
• A power-ranking that has the 10-2 Patriots … fifth.
But we’re starting by introducing the people who will play significant roles in the upcoming NFL head coaching carousel.
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Some of these people you’re not going to have heard of before, and others you’ll be surprised to see on this list based on how well-known they are and how quietly they’ve made their business on this front. All touch the process.
Trace Armstrong: The former Dolphins star who was once expected to become the czar of the union became an agent years back, and he has emerged as one of the leading reps of coaches. He jumped from CAA to Athletes First in 2016, bringing a robust roster that included stars at the college levels (Urban Meyer, Brian Kelly) and pro (Mike McCarthy) to the group headed by Dave Dunn. Armstrong has Chicago’s Matt Nagy and Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur, and will factor in this year with candidates like New England OC Josh McDaniels on the market.
Bob LaMonte: The dean of coaching agents, LaMonte has eight current head coaches (nine, if you count Redskins interim Bill Callahan), and has long been tied to the coaching tree originating with Packers coach Mike Holmgren’s staff in the 1990s. Andy Reid, Jon Gruden and Sean McVay are among the headliners on his client list.
Brian Levy: The veteran agent has a long list of coaches, the majority of whom are African-American, and many of whom are rising in the profession. He reps Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, ex-Broncos coach Vance Joseph, ex-Cardinals coach Steve Wilks and Chiefs OC Eric Bienemy, who’ll likely be in high demand after interviewing with the Jets, Bucs, Dolphins and Bengals last year.
Jimmy Sexton: College football’s most powerful agent has his hands in the pro game too, with five NFL head coaches among his clients. As is the case with many of these guys, Sexton has strong roots in certain coaching trees, notably Nick Saban’s and Bill Parcells’s. As is true with Armstrong, Sexton has a few younger agents that help him manage a robust roster of coaches.
Others: Veteran Bryan Harlan (John Harbaugh) and hybrid player-agents Rick Smith (Kyle Shanahan) and Brian Ayrault (Bill O’Brien) have remained factors in what’s become a very competitive landscape.
Troy Vincent, EVP of Football Operations: Vincent’s decades of experience working in the game, and more recently having his sons recruited at the major college level, has made him a valuable resource for franchises looking for background information ahead of a search. As a league exec, he’s also been active outside his day job—one example would be how he organized a quarterback coaching summit for African-American coaches earlier this year.
Dasha Smith, Chief People Officer: Smith just started working at the NFL a few weeks ago, so she’s a bit of a projection on this list. But the previous czar of human resources, Robert Gulliver, was a valuable contact as the gatekeeper of information compiled by the league’s career advisory panel. That panel conducts mock interviews with prospective head coach and GM candidates, and compiles background information, all of which is important for teams to have ahead of a search.
Ken Fiore, VP of Player Personnel: Fiore, along with Smith, has the league-wide contractual information for coaches, which is vital for teams when they are planning ahead of negotiations with agents. On the front end, the teams request permission to interview coaches with other franchises through him.
The Fritz-Pollard Alliance
Rod Graves: The former Cardinals GM is replacing John Wooten as executive director of the group dedicated to diversity among NFL coaches, and that group is influential in matters of the Rooney Rule and with which candidates it chooses to champion in a given cycle. Having Graves in charge makes sense, given his experience after that working in football operations at the league office. As expected, he’s very connected on the ground with teams, which is good for everyone involved.
Charley Casserly: The ex-Redskins and Texans GM has served as a consultant on searches and is a member of the NFL advisory committee. He’s a little bit of a polarizing figure—some love him, some don’t.
Bill Parcells: He’s not quite as involved as he once was, but there’s no question that the Tuna has relished the role of kingmaker in the past. Owners still consult with him, and he’s very connected in certain places like New Orleans, New England, Dallas and Jacksonville, and with both New York teams.
Bill Polian: Polian’s another NFL lifer who’s remained on the fringes of the league after his football work was done. He has strong connections with Indianapolis, Jacksonville and the Chargers, built over decades of on-the-ground work.
Ron Wolf: Wolf is further separated from having worked for teams, but has stayed involved in helping teams in finding front-office and coaching types (he was hired as a consultant on searches done by the Jets and Raiders).
Ernie Accorsi: The ex-Giants GM has been very active on the consulting front, hired to assist in seaches by the Panthers in 2012, the Bears in ’15, the Lions in ’16, the Giants in ’18 and the Cardinals last year.
Gil Brandt: The old Cowboys executive is still out on the scouting trail and has influence in some circles (including with Accorsi and, yes, Bill Belichick).
The New Legends
Bill Belichick: I was told a few years ago that Belichick liked the idea of being a kingmaker like his old boss Parcells is. Those that have gone to him for coaching searches have found a very helpful hand. “He’s a different person in those setting,” said one acquaintance. “He cares about his guys, he wants them to succeed.” Examples of his quiet influence? Two of Accorsi’s consulting ventures were marked by it—Atlanta in 2008 (Thomas Dimitroff) and Detroit in ’16 (Bob Quinn).
Peyton Manning: The ex-Colts and Broncos quarterback likes the information game and being a behind-the-scenes guy, and he’s helped candidates about whom he feels strongly. Adam Gase, his old OC in Denver, was one of those. Manning’s recommendation to his old Tennessee friend/Browns owner Jimmy Haslam led to Gase’s first head coaching interview, in Cleveland in 2014. And Manning’s unsolicited call to Jets owner Christopher Johnson last January certainly made an impression ahead of Gase’s hire in New York.
The Search Firms
Jed Hughes: The Vice Chairman of Korn Ferry is a former football coach who helps one team per year conduct a search (last year he helped the Buccaneers). A lot of NFL execs see the search-firm thing as a racket—a way for owners insecure in their own ability to hire the right football team to find cover in the short term, and a potential fall guy in the long term if a coach or GM fails. One team exec I spoke with called search firms “triage experts” for failing franchises. But there is value in how they can help organize a search and get groundwork done to save time for the club. The criticism comes when an obvious candidate with connections to the team winds up landing the job (a la Bruce Arians in Tampa last year or Doug Marrone in Jacksonville in 2017). That said, Hughes is the leader in this area, with other firms like Heidrick & Struggles also having had some involvement over the years.
Members of the media can be conduits of information and shapers of perception. To many owners, how a new coach or GM will be received matters, and impact in some cases is tangible on the business side.
Sometimes the initial perception is correct. Other times, hires like Doug Pederson in Philly get panned and, well, a lot of people wind up looking dumb.
That’s just another hazard in a process that’s rife with them. Enjoy the circus!
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WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Saints OT Terron Armstead: Will he or will he not play? Whether he’s healthy and ready to go on his ankle injury, limited with it, or replaced by Patrick Omameh will certainly factor big-time into what New Orleans can and can’t get away with against a fearsome 49er front.
Chiefs DE Frank Clark: The Patriots have had a lot of issues at the offensive tackle spots, and this is the type of game KC acquired Clark for. And Clark has four sacks in his last four games.
Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds: Just 21 years old, the middle linebacker is already the leader for a fast-improving Bills defense. And going up against the Ravens run game and the constant threat that Lamar Jackson is with the ball in his hands, Edmunds figures to be pivotal on defense for Buffalo.
Rams QB Jared Goff: Great bounceback performance for Goff last week in Arizona (424 yards, 4 TDs, 120.7 rating), which makes the Sunday nighter against the Seahawks even better. Based on the L.A. offense’s unevenness for most of the year, the Rams need Goff to be a steady hand down the stretch with their playoff hopes in peril.
Giants QB Eli Manning: Just because I’m the sentimental type. And the Eagles secondary is struggling.
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TWO FOR SATURDAY
Utah RB Zack Moss (Pac-12 Championship vs. Oregon, FOX, Friday, 8 p.m.): Moss has been an absolute horse for the Utes. The senior is in the midst of his third straight 1,000-yard season, third straight double-digit touchdown season and second straight year with a per-carry average over 6.0 yards.
“He’s a physical, strong runner,” said one AFC exec of the 5' 10", 222-pounder. “Very productive, deceptive speed, good balance and quickness, and he’s really good inside the tackles, but can break off big runs. … He gets hard yards, he grinds on you, and then he can pop a big one. … He’s just a well-rounded back, blocks well, a good receiver, a real three-down back.”
One comp I got for Moss, from a physical standpoint, was Oakland rookie Josh Jacobs. That said, for now, the first round might be a bit out of reach for him, but Moss certainly has the look of a solid Friday (Round 2-3) pick.
Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray (Big 12 Championship vs. Baylor, ABC, Noon): The true junior has 13.0 tackles for losses, 3.0 sacks, four quarterback hurries and four pass breakups on the year as the leader of an improving Sooner defense. And at 6' 2" and 234 pounds, he’s got a lot of traits that make him look like an ideal 21 century linebacker prospect.
“Long, rangy, productive, and better sideline-to-sideline than he is in the box,” said one NFC exec. “He’ll be better in a 4-3 than a 3-4, and there are questions about his instincts in the run game, and coverage.”
Added an AFC exec, “Excellent looking kid, clean character, has to sharpen his instincts but he’s a really good athlete with a lot of upside—can really run. He’ll be a good a starter in the league.”
Baylor’s offense got off to a quick starter on the Sooners the first time around but Murray wound up playing a pretty significant role (2 TFLs) in OU’s comeback. We’ll see if he can repeat that effort.
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MY POWER RANKING BALLOT
Every week, The MMQB staff votes on our power ranking poll to come to one consensus ranking. Here’s the top five from my ballot this week.
1. Baltimore Ravens: Big step for John Harbaugh’s crew Sunday—they were shut out from halftime until their final possession of the game, and still found a way to summon what it took, behind Lamar Jackson and his offensive line, to get Justin Tucker in range to kick the game-winner. So where they had powerful and spectacular, they’ve now shown themselves to be tough and resourceful too.
2. Seattle Seahawks: Like the Ravens, Seattle has steadily improved over the course of the season. Once carried by Russell Wilson, the offense has regained its physical edge behind Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny. And defensive additions Quandre Diggs and Jadeveon Clowney look like they’re getting comfortable.
3. San Francisco 49ers: I don’t want to ding a team that just went toe-to-toe with my No. 1 team in a driving rainstorm, during a 10 a.m. body-clock game, and lost on a long field goal after missing a field goal attempt of their own. So I won’t. I’ll just keep them in the top three instead.
4. New Orleans Saints: I still believe this is the most well-rounded roster in the league, and they’ll have a shot to prove it against the Niners on Sunday.
5. New England Patriots: Tom Brady and Co. get a finally-getting-healthy Chiefs team in Foxboro on Sunday, and they’ll be tested on a number of different levels. Are they fast enough on defense? Can they score with the Chiefs with Kansas City’s improving defense in the way? I’m excited for this one.
WHAT I'M WATCHING IN WEEK 14
I want to see what Lions can be with Matthew Stafford healthy and upright. It may sound crazy, but I do think Detroit was making progress in Matt Patricia’s second year, even after a few heartbreakers earlier in the year. And I’d love to see where that was going.
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