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2021 NFL Offseason Head Coaching Carousel Primer

Which jobs will be open and who will be chosen for them? Looking at hot coordinators, former head coaches, young up-and-comers and others who could be hired.
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We are a few weeks away from the regular-season finale and the start of the playoffs, which also means we are a few weeks away from a full-throttle Black Monday the likes of which we have not seen before. As complicated as the COVID-19 pandemic has made life during the regular season, a spike in cases and holiday travel restrictions may make the coaching search even more chaotic than it has been in years past.

In terms of where things stand right now, I’ve heard some interesting things about the first round of interviews that will take place virtually before in-person interviews are allowed on Jan. 4, which means a heightened focus on the challenge of making someone’s in-person energy translate over a laptop. Might this favor younger candidates? Might this bail out coaches who struggle with that nebulous concept of commanding a room? It will almost certainly result in an increase in interviews, as teams can roll through a ton of shorter, introductory-type Zoom calls without the commitment of a full, four-hour block. In that way, it might benefit lesser-known candidates and give them a chance to establish themselves for future cycles.

One semi-interesting thing to watch: multimedia supplementation. Could coaches come armed with more than their typical arsenal, especially if the interview is all virtual? The possibilities are endless, especially for someone creative enough to show (and not tell) an owner what they would be getting. I’ve heard both sides of the coin. It could set a coach apart (if you can come across well on Zoom amid a year when everyone has tired of the video conferencing service, chances are you can translate the message to a bunch of twentysomethings). It could also distract from the hardcore, detail-oriented process that owners and their cadre of search firms, yes-men and other hangers-on are used to.

Another note of interest: Last year’s hiring cycle was weird. A collegiate coach came out (Matt Rhule), a special teams coach and total wild card was hired (Joe Judge), and two ex-coaches were also brought in for second gigs (Ron Rivera and Mike McCarthy). That means a relative glut of coordinators who may have been at the front of the line last year got passed over and remain available.

Let’s set the stage with our look at which jobs are open, which jobs might become open and which coaches may get a chance to fill those vacancies …

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OPENINGS

Current openings:

• Lions (head coach and GM)

• Falcons (head coach and GM)

• Texans (head coach and GM)

Projected additional openings:

• Chargers (head coach)

The Chargers have had one of the league’s most talented rosters for some time now, but the results have not followed. Anthony Lynn is a good coach who ran into some bad luck. Given Justin Herbert’s rise, it would not be shocking to see the team pivot in a different direction.

• Jets (head coach)

Wholesale changes are coming to the future home of Trevor Lawrence (maybe!). This will have to be one of the most carefully chosen hires in modern NFL history. An unprecedented amount of draft capital is at stake, especially if the Jets do not hold onto the pick or are moved by Lawrence to trade back.

• Jaguars (head coach and GM, which is already open)

Doug Marrone is playing out the string at this point. Though the Jaguars are playing hard, it would seem like the next era of Jacksonville football is soon to be upon us.

• Bears (head coach and GM)

The Bears have a good roster with a quarterback problem, which means it’s both a GM problem and a coaching problem. This is a good year to nab a promising young candidate, which may motivate the Bears to take their chances here.

Wild-card openings:

• Eagles

Who knows what will happen? The Eagles are not that far removed from a Super Bowl, though it feels that way. Carson Wentz has bottomed out. Their aging roster has reached its expiration date. Might it be time for a bold move to shake things up?

• Buccaneers

If the all-in Buccaneers fail to reach the playoffs this year, it would be a stunning indictment of the entire operation from the top down. Bruce Arians is also in his late 60s and has a stockpile of talented young coaches who he might want to pass the headset off to.

There could also be a general manager hire made in Washington, as the team does not have an official executive with that title. And Carolina bears watching, as Rhule inherited Marty Hurney, and it would make sense if he is able to weigh in on someone who could align the personnel side with coaching.

2021-nfl-offseason-head-coach-carousel-robert-saleh-brian-daboll-tony-elliott

Left: Robert Saleh; center: Brian Daboll; right: Tony Elliott

CANDIDATES

Before the season started, we put out a list of 46 potential future candidates. Below are the ones most likely to find work in 2021.

The names you’ve heard all season

• Robert Saleh, defensive coordinator, 49ers

Saleh already has support from the Michigan state legislature for the Lions job, what else does he need? All joking aside, he would stand out in an interview like that particularly because of his emphasis on culture creation and player engagement, along with his regional ties to the area. The Lions are going to go with the polar opposite of Matt Patricia with this hire, and Saleh will come across as a breath of fresh air—not to mention someone who might be able to engage a fan base in need of a jolt. He is intense, can win a press conference and a year ago was the coordinator of a Super Bowl–bound defense.

• Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator, Bills

For those who believe Josh Allen did not just become Josh Allen, Daboll will become more than just a pleasant curiosity once the Bills are out of contention. There will likely be an opening in Los Angeles featuring a solid young quarterback with tons of promise that makes a lot of sense for someone like Daboll. The same could be said for the opening in Houston, where there is a little bit of familiarity between Daboll and Texans executive vice president Jack Easterby (the pair worked together for a year in Kansas City, but both have roots in the Patriots system).

• Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

Some team is going to get itself a fine head coach. One totally unscientific guess as to why he’s still out there? Bieniemy has made the rounds and interviewed a bunch of places. That might lead an owner to wonder if they are missing out on a reason why one of their competitors did not hire Bieniemy. It’s ridiculous, of course. But this is merely an effort to get inside the heads of those who let him go back to Kansas City twice now. Look at how incredibly fun the Chiefs’ offense is. How many times does Andy Reid have to tell reporters and fellow coaches that the creative roots of that system are firmly planted in the mind of Bieniemy?

If you’re looking for youth

One thing to consider before we get to the names: It sounds like we will have a wave of new general managers, after most of them survived last year’s firing purge. It sounds like teams are looking young with their general managers, which could theoretically also mean young with their head coaches. If you give the keys of the organization to a 40-year-old wunderkind, what are the chances he’ll hire a 60-year-old lifelong coordinator? Just food for thought, which makes this section of particular interest.

• Joe Brady, offensive coordinator, Panthers (age 31)

Brady is a star in the making. I cannot say I’ve heard anything about him connected to Job A or Job B in particular, but I would liken this to an early investment in a prized stock. Brady reshapes offenses in a significant way wherever he goes. I’ve talked to other smart offensive minds who gush about the way he finds the best in every high-powered offense and blends it into something easy to understand and execute for his quarterback.

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• Brandon Staley, defensive coordinator, Rams (age 38)

I have a longer read on Staley here. I have heard him compared to Sean McVay or, maybe more practically, someone who could match wits with McVay and be his defensive counterpart. Staley was one of the biggest hires McVay has made at the professional level after dumping the legendary Wade Phillips. The Rams were making a bit of history this season directly related to his in-game adjustments, as explored in the longer piece.

• Mike McDaniel, run game coordinator, 49ers (age 37)

I think there will still be a push to find people who can re-create Kyle Shanahan’s offense this offseason, and no one is familiar with its essence quite like Mike McDaniel. To be the run game coordinator of Shanahan’s offense is a bit like being the chief of the pit crew. Nothing works in San Francisco without the running game firing on all cylinders. McDaniel is a fascinating person to talk to who can engage a room.

• Patrick Graham, defensive coordinator, Giants (age 41)

Graham was on our preseason watch list and has blown away expectations. There may not be a single coordinator in the NFL getting more out of their respective unit than Graham with the Giants’ defense in 2020. Their win over Seattle was a signature achievement for the 41-year-old Yale alum, who cut his teeth in the Patriots’ organization before following Brian Flores to Miami and, eventually, Judge to New York.

• Mike LaFleur, pass game coordinator, 49ers (age 33)

The younger brother of Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, Mike was instrumental in San Francisco’s 2019 run to the Super Bowl and is steeped in a passing game that can create yards after the catch better than most. At some point, his direct ties to two of the best young offensive minds in football will be discussed in much greater detail. For a lot of the Shanahan assistants, it’s a good opportunity for them to interview in depth after the expedited sessions amid a Super Bowl run a year ago.

• Arthur Smith, offensive coordinator, Titans (age 38)

Smith took the reins of Tennessee’s offense and helped establish Derrick Henry as not just a changeup back but the epitome of a game-defining sledgehammer. He also resurrected the career of Ryan Tannehill and oversaw the rise of A.J. Brown. Smith has been a lifer in Tennessee but is deeply knowledgeable of several offensive systems. He has found success with a custom version of Shanahan’s wide zone scheme in Nashville.

If you’re looking for experience

• Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Bills

The defensive play-caller for the first-place Bills, Frazier has had success as a head coach in the NFL before and would be warmly recommended from all levels of the organization in Buffalo.

• Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Buccaneers

With current perspective in mind, his time as the head coach of the Jets should be considered a smashing success. Bowles has Tampa Bay’s defense again primed to be one of the league’s top units. He’s also beloved by the locker room.

• Jim Caldwell, former head coach, Lions

Like Bowles, perspective changes the optics. Though he is 65, Caldwell has a career winning record in both of his prior coaching stops. He had the traditionally moribund Lions closer to sustained success than any of their other recent head coaches, which is no small feat.

• Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, Chiefs

Spagnuolo, who was the head coach of the Rams for three seasons (2009–11), has remade his career in Kansas City. He has now won Super Bowls in two stops as a defensive coordinator (Kansas City and New York), both places in which he inherited a basement-dwelling defense and morphed it into a championship contender.

• Raheem Morris, interim head coach, Falcons

Morris, who stunned the football world by nabbing the Buccaneers’ head coaching job post-Jon Gruden in 2009, has put together a strong résumé outside of the head coaching chair ever since. After he supplanted Dan Quinn as the interim coach of the Falcons, the team has won four of its last seven games.

• Dennis Allen, defensive coordinator, Saints

The Saints have the league’s No. 1 defense, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. Allen, formerly the Raiders’ head coach, has pieced together one dominant season after another with this high-powered Saints defense.

• Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Colts

While Eberflus has not been a head coach before, he is coming into his own as a sought-after coordinator talent at the age of 50. The Colts have the NFL’s fifth-best defense in terms of DVOA, though Eberflus’s mark on the system has not been as widely discussed. Before coming to Indianapolis, Eberflus was a long-time Cowboys assistant.

• Marvin Lewis, former head coach, Bengals

There’s a good chance Lewis has at least had some preliminary conversations with owners by this point, given that he is not bound by current restrictions on active coaches and coordinators. His name still carries a lot of weight around the NFL and given how the Bengals have bottomed out following his ouster, his tenure could be viewed in a much friendlier light.

• Jim Harbaugh, head coach, Michigan

This is an obligatory blurb to recognize the existence of this thought. No one, not even Jim, it seems, knows what is going to happen minute to minute with Jim Harbaugh. He could be the head coach at Michigan in 2021. He could be the head coach of the Jets in 2021. He could be the head coach of Grand River Academy All Boys School in Austinburg, Ohio. Nothing would surprise me.

If you’re looking for a hire that may shock the field

• Tony Elliott, offensive coordinator, Clemson

As teammate Jenny Vrentas mentioned in our most recent Weak-Side podcast, Elliott is a fascinating name who has made the rounds. The star play-caller was connected to the Cowboys’ opening a year ago, and, with Deshaun Watson’s team needing a head coach, all possibilities should be considered on the table.

• Bill Cowher, legendary Steelers head coach, CBS analyst

While this seems like a red herring, Cowher’s reemergence onto the head coaching carousel doesn’t feel like an accident. Perhaps he wants to coach again and this is a not-so-subtle way of signaling to owners everywhere that he is open to overtures. We’ve seen coaches of Cowher’s stature have success coming back to the game, especially if they’re able to recruit a stable of high-powered young coordinators, allowing the respected Cowher to assume a CEO-type role.

If you’re looking in college

• Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern

Fitzgerald was linked to an opening in Green Bay (and the rumors about him and the Bears have existed seemingly forever) and he could easily continue to see his name bandied about at the professional level. The 46-year-old has built a stable power at Northwestern, never known as a football outpost. Teams devoid of personality and culture may look at Fitzgerald as a slam-dunk hire.

• Matt Campbell, head coach, Iowa State

A name that circulated a bit over the last hiring cycle, Campbell would be perfect for a young roster devoid of personality and direction. Given the (relative) success of Rhule in Carolina (all things considered), teams may be inclined to take another swing at a collegiate coach who can create something sustainable and convert a 53-man roster into a stable of believers.