Early Coaching Carousel: Daboll’s Likely Landing Spot, Lions Are Wide Open, Who’s Making the Call in Houston?

Plus, your mailbag questions on Cam’s and Garoppolo’s futures, whether the failure of recent Ohio State QBs affects Justin Fields’s draft stock, PJ Fleck as an NFL coaching candidate, and more.
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Before we jump into the mail, a few things to get to on the coaching carousel …

• Houston’s situation is fascinating, and this much we know—Texans owner Cal McNair has a lot of people in his ear, with the search firm Korn Ferry, a loosely-assembled advisory committee and EVP of football operations Jack Easterby in the mix. That has made some candidates leery on what the path out of this will look like for the next coach and GM, with so many competing interests in play.

It’s also the job that I see Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy having the clearest path to. Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes has surfaced as a champion for his coordinator, delivering a high recommendation to Texans QB Deshaun Watson, and making Watson himself an advocate. There are also GM candidates like John Dorsey (a close friend of Korn Ferry exec Jed Hughes) and Chiefs exec Mike Borgonzi that would easily pair with Bieniemy.

• Believe it when people tell you Detroit’s process is wide open. Those interviewing there will have a fair shot, the Lions are open-minded, and the structure they set up will be based on the people they hire. The other upshot of this job, as I see it—because of the presence of president Rod Wood and cap chief Mike Disner, a scouting type can go there and, well, be a scout. Given the complexities a GM job can entail, I’d see that as a plus.

The presence of Chris Spielman, as we mentioned Monday, is a concern for some. But I do see where he could be a good resource for the GM and coach, if things are lined up right.

• Conversely, I think the Panthers could go either way, with an evaluator or a cap/analytics type for their vacant GM job. If it they choose the former path, with Matt Rhule carrying a big stick in the organization, there are names we’ve connected with him this week. One is Saints assistant GM Jeff Ireland, a Baylor alum who I’ve heard Rhule respects greatly. Another is 49ers VP Adam Peters, who played for Rhule at UCLA 20 years ago, and has maintained a relationship with him.

But I do think that owner David Tepper at least wants to look on the other side of the fence. He had interest in Andrew Berry last year before Berry took the Cleveland job. So one name to watch is Browns VP of football operations Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. While he’s not a big name, the guys in San Francisco rave about him, and he was among Berry’s most important hires in Cleveland.

• There might be some recency bias involved here, but the name with the most heat on it right now is Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. We’ve previously connected him to the Chargers job, and I think if Urban Meyer doesn’t wind up taking the Jaguars job, Daboll will be in play there. The obvious thing the two places have in common—one has a great young quarterbacking prospect and the other’s about to get one.

Another Daboll connection to Jacksonville would actually be through the Patriots. Jags SVP of football administration and technology Tony Khan—son of owner Shad Khan—has taken advice from Bill Belichick in past, with Belichick being a leading advocate for Doug Marrone in 2017. I believe Belichick would give his former assistant who did two tours in Foxboro a strong recommendation (it might help him, too, to get Daboll out of the division).

While we’re there, if Daboll gets a job, Bills QBs coach Ken Dorsey would a strong candidate to replace him in Buffalo, with receivers coach Chad Hall another capable in-house option.

• Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has become another name that’s moved to the front of the line, with how he’s maximized both Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry in Nashville. I believe the Falcons and Jets will take a good look at him. And it’ll be interesting to see how owners connect with him, given that Smith’s dad, FedEx owner Fred Smith, runs in those circles.

With this being the sort of year that lacks a ton of obvious head coach candidates, I think it’s probably foolish to plant your flag and say this guy or that guy is going to get hired. But Smith should be in the mix for multiple jobs.

And with that, let’s dive into your mail …

NFL Mailbag: Daboll head-coaching spots, Cam Newton and Jimmy Garoppolo futures, PJ Fleck as NFL coaching candidate

From Gordon James (@BawdyBlueBoy): Has Cam Newton reached the end of his career? Is there any reason the Patriots would give him a contract considering his poor play?

Gordon, let’s answer the second question first—while I’d be stunned if Newton was back in New England without other reinforcements/competition at the position, I don’t think in any way the door has been closed on his return to Foxboro. He was in an almost impossible situation, given the talent around him, and coming back off essentially a year-and-a-half layoff. As I see it, things in New England probably would’ve been worse without him given where the Patriots were on July 1; this is a 6-9 team right now.

So yeah, I could see the sides working out a deal for his return, particularly when you consider how Newton fit into the Patriot program and handled a lot of failure with grace. But based on how he played, you simply can’t count on him bounce back to his form of a few years ago. You can surround him with new weapons, and hope he rediscovers his stride, but you can’t count on that and put all your eggs in that one basket.

If the Patriots find a better option—like if, say, Matthew Stafford becomes available—and there’s no competition to be had? I don’t know what Newton does then. Maybe Ron Rivera gives him a shot in Washington. If not, I think he’d have to go into a situation where he’d be fighting for a roster spot, and a shot at resurrecting his career. And I don’t know what his appetite for that sort of thing would be.

Obviously, being a former five-star high school recruit, No. 1 overall pick, and Day 1 NFL starter, the circumstance would be weird for him. I don’t think he’d have been willing to go through with it last year—it’d been communicated that he didn’t want to be a mentor/bridge during the 2020 offseason, which is part of why he was available as long as he was. But maybe the way this year went changes that. We’ll see.

From eyeofthetiger (@MarkPhoenix19): Will the NFL borrow from future years to ensure cap doesn't go down next year?

Mark, I’m more confident now than I was a few months ago that the NFL will find a way to at least have a flat (rather than a dropping) cap in 2021, and I think the season getting played on schedule is a key to that. Having all 256 games played, and the playoffs off and running, will set the table for negotiations on new broadcast deals, and if the league can strike new broadcast deals before the League Year kicks off in March, then the chances the owners work with the union to manage the cap increase.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but basically some owners view borrowing from future caps to fund the current year as an interest-free loan to players that they don’t really want to give. Having new TV money locked in, I think, will soften their stance. And having the cap flat would mean fewer players cut, a healthier free-agent market, and a more manageable offseason for teams. If you’re not worried about the “interest-free loan”, just about everyone wins if you avoid the shortfall.

In fact, one prominent owner pointed this out to his peers on a recent call, in a plea to get the games played regardless of who might be missing from the lineup in any given week, which contextualizes the NFL pushing through tough situations for individual teams.

From David Licht (@david_licht): With OSU an NFL breeding ground, why can’t they produce any NFL QB’s? Maybe Fields is just another QB surrounded by a lot of talent......

David, I’m gonna tell you a story that some folks reading this will remember. There was a time, 20 years ago or so, when a coach named Jeff Tedford was consistently having quarterbacks he’d worked with go high in the draft. Through his time at Fresno State, Oregon and Cal, he’d worked with first-round picks Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller.

And one by one, those guys failed to deliver for the teams that drafted them, leading to an examination of how those guys were coached—you may recall the talk of how all those players threw from the “shelf” (a loaded position with the quarterback holding the ball at his ear). And once again, this became a buyer-beware storyline ahead of the 2005 draft, with another one of Tedford’s proteges coming into the NFL after a starry college career.

That player was Aaron Rodgers.

I hope the reason I’m telling that story is obvious. It’s fair to ask questions based on history, of course. Tua Tagovailoa looking average tools-wise as a pro leads to questions of how much his success at Alabama was what was around him—which Mac Jones will now have to answer for. Likewise, Ryan Day’s ability to get a 50-touchdown year from Dwayne Haskins will lead to questions on how Justin Fields’s flaws may have been schemed away by Day.

But I’d just say this: It’s not fair to the player to not recognize he’s an individual. Fields’s personality, for example, is way different than Haskins’. His skillset is too. So while I do think Haskins’s failure should cause some fair examination into Fields’s success, I sure don’t believe that should be reason alone to pass on the Buckeye junior in April.

From FDT (@Michael_Scarnn_): Do you think [Anthony] Lynn is fired and if so what would the percentage you’d put on it?

FDT, I know the Spanos family really likes Lynn. I also know the wheels have been turning on that decision. There were a lot of people asking, after a blowout loss to the Patriots and an ugly victory over Atlanta if the Chargers would move on, and I don’t think making a move then, in early/mid-December, was a real consideration. That’s more on principle than anything—Dean Spanos doesn’t fire coaches in-season, something that’s held true with Mike Riley, Marty Schottenheimer, Norv Turner and Mike McCoy.

But that doesn’t mean the family hasn’t ruminated on it. Obviously, they have. And I think the contractual situation they’re in with Lynn (they gave him a Band-Aid one-year extension last year to avoid having him coach into a contract year) actually makes it more difficult to bring him back in 2021. My guess is Lynn—who, again, was just what the team needed when he was hired, and is very well-liked—is gone on Monday.

From Danny Stern (@DStern719): What are your thoughts on PJ Fleck? What is his potential upside as a head coach and would he be a good fit for the #Jets?

From Nifty (@BIGNiftizzle): Prediction for NY Jets HC?

Danny, Fleck’s upside as a head coach is simple, and that’s his ability to do more with less. At Western Michigan, he went from 1-11 in 2013 to 13-1 and the Cotton Bowl in 2016. At Minnesota, he went from 5-7 in 2017 to 11-2 in 2019, with a cameo in the Top 10 and a win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. So there’s proof that, in places that aren’t exactly considered traditional powers, he can maximize his resources.

That said, the flipside is how his program is sold—college football fans have gotten familiar with the phrase “Row The Boat.” Fleck’s a protégé of Greg Schiano’s, and he’s used the slogan the same way Schiano once used (and is again using) “Chop” at Rutgers. And it’s part of a super enthusiastic, super energetic package that is uniquely Fleck.

Would guys in the pros buy into that? I have to think that Fleck, a smart guy who both played and coached in the NFL, would have a good idea of how to use (or not use) the tactics that have worked for him in college. And so that makes him an interesting coaching prospect at a time when more NFL teams are at least sniffing around the college game for viable candidates.

As for the Jets, I’m not sure Fleck himself fits there, but I do have a few names for you. One would be Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Another would be Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, who pulled his name out of consideration in New York two years ago. And while I don’t think it happens, owner Woody Johnson’s thing for the Harbaughs, tied to his pending return from the UK, just makes me wonder if he’ll take a swing at the Michigan coach, who has been in contract extension talks with his alma mater.

From DefendTheDen (@Vretz2121): Are you hearing any names gaining traction for the Lions GM/ HC vacancies? Still Dimitroff/ Saleh as the favourites? Also, with the history of finding a franchise QB outside 1, why would the Lions part with a 32-year-old franchise guy in Stafford?

Defend, as I said above, I think the Lions’ jobs are the most wide-open of the lot. I think new controlling owner Sheila Ford Hamp and Wood are genuinely looking for the best person for one of the two jobs, with the idea that they’ll build around that person. And I think a good part of the early interview process has been to information-gather, and learn more about how it’s been done successfully in different places.

My sense is the Lions (again) are going to go with a scouting type on the GM, and are looking for a “leader of men” as head coach, which is one reason why I’m bullish on the idea of pairing 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds in Detroit. The feeling is, on the GM side, with Disner there, they can afford to tweak the job to fit an evaluator; and on the coaching side they’ll need a guy who has the strong presence to unify the entire operation.

I’m with you on Stafford. If I’m the Lions, I’m hanging on to him. Beyond just playing well now, he also buys you time to find the next guy. And if you’re not wild about, say, Alabama’s Mac Jones or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance where you’re picking, then you can wait on finding the next quarterback, and get to work on building the rest of the roster up. That idea worked pretty well for a bunch of years in KC with Alex Smith as the quarterback.

From Yooo (@GiantsVidal1027): Will the giants fire Dave Gettleman? And who could potentially replace him?

Yooo, it’s an interesting question, and I think, whenever it happens, the Maras would like to give Gettleman a graceful exit, given all the years the GM has given the organization. I also believe, whenever it happens, Gettleman would really like to head back to Cape Cod with his head held high. And that’s why I think this weekend’s game against the Cowboys is being analyzed the wrong way in some corners.

See, I actually think winning the game, and the division, might give everyone a reason to look at Gettleman either moving to an advisory role or into retirement. That’s just a guess, and a reading into some things, but that’s my feeling on it.

And for a few months now, I’ve given you guys the name of Titans director of player personnel Monti Ossenfort for that job. I also think Giants assistant GM Kevin Abrams would look as a strong candidate, with college scouting director Chris Pettit an in-house dark horse. Regardless of whether it happens this year or not, I do believe Joe Judge will have a say in it.

From Anthony (@a2low11): Will Niners be aggressive in the QB market (trade or draft)?

From Mitch Beiter (@MitchBeiter91): Will Josh Rosen stick around in SF? How serious are they about potentially moving on from Jimmy G?

Anthony and Mitch! The Niners plucked Rosen not for this year, but for next year—so I expect he’ll have a spot on their 90-man roster come spring, and is, for now, a nice piece of depth insurance with CJ Beathard ticketed for unrestricted free agency and Nick Mullens set to be a restricted free agent in March. So, yeah, the idea that Rosen could realize his potential working with Kyle Shanahan is intriguing, but I’d read nothing into it on the Jimmy Garoppolo front.

That said, I think the Niners will be open-minded at quarterback in the offseason. If Sam Darnold becomes available, I think they’d explore it, and I think they’ll look at who’s available where they’re picking (they sit at 15th now) too. But Shanahan was right when he said that Garoppolo’s deal has matured into a relatively reasonable one, and the Niners know they can win with him.

Overall, I think that puts the team in a position of power, where they have the flexibility to find an upgrade, without having an overwhelming need to make a change.

From Gerry Levine (@gerrylev): I know this is heresy but with Belichick being 68, looking at a full rebuild and Josh McDaniels possibly leaving for the Chargers what is the possibility Robert Kraft kicks him upstairs?

Gerry, I’d put that at about zero. I don’t think Bill Belichick wants to go out like this, and I don’t think the Krafts are going to push him out any time soon. And they shouldn’t. After all he’s accomplished, that would be absurd. He had a bad year, for the first time in 20 years. The Patriots have a lot of work to do, and there’s very little reason to think that Belichick is the wrong person to lead that effort.

Now, could there be some changes to how they do business? That’s a different question, and one I think merits some investigation. In Wednesday’s GamePlan, we dove into how the Patriots’ roster reached this state of disrepair. And I think it’s fair to examine whether or not the team’s scouting process needs a hard look, and maybe be more inclusive than it’s been in the past. Obviously, this is going to be a critical offseason on the team-building front in Foxboro.

From bryan (@bryan07628819): If the Jets decide to move off the second pick, I think it will be for Sewell not one of the QBs. Thoughts? Is Sewell a better prospect than any of the tackles taken in the draft last year?

Bryan, I’ve heard a little more disagreement on Oregon ‘s Penei Sewell than I expected to a few months ago, but I’ll say that most people can affirm that his ceiling as a player is very, very high. And probably a little higher than Ronnie Stanley, Laremy Tunsil, Matt Kalil, Tyron Smith or Greg Robinson coming out, those being the five guys over the last 10 years I can remember being discussed in a different way than other guys.

I actually really like the idea of the Jets landing him and pairing him with Mekhi Becton long-term. It wouldn’t be the sexiest move with a Top 5 pick, but you may remember the crap the Cowboys took for drafting o-linemen in the first round three times in four years, and how that turned out. In the end, I think it’s quarterback or trade down at 2, but Sewell’s definitely worth thinking about.

From Shedrick Carter (@shedrickcarter2): With a week left in the season, how likely is it that Raheem Morris get the Falcons Job. I think the team needs a total reset and bring in someone with fresh ideas.

Shedrick, based on the stuff I’ve heard, and what I wrote above, I think it’ll really ride on the GM hire. Morris is popular in the organization, and I don’t think Rich McKay or Arthur Blank is adverse to the idea. And he’s geting his chance to interview today. But the new GM will have a say too, and matching the GM to the next head coach will be important.

The good news for Morris is that if he doesn’t get that job, he should find a soft landing as an assistant somewhere else, and his name has reentered that head-coach discussion, meaning a strong 2021 could lead to him getting his second chance to run a team in 2022.