While this coach hiring season will lack the panache of its college football counterpart, the NFL could see some fairly sweeping changes this offseason, as well as the return of some familiar faces. In conversation with a handful of folks plugged into the process, the theme of this year (at least right now, a few weeks before we might see our first dismissal) is second chances. The market for future head coaches seems to be boiling over with former head coaches who have already had a shot but have worked their way back up the ladder of interest.
The reasons for this, I think, are twofold:
• Aside from the success of Kliff Kingsbury (which also comes with some qualifiers, given the load carried by assistants Vance Joseph and Jeff Rodgers) owners are watching as certain hires deemed “outside the box” or without enough seasoning are flaming out spectacularly or, at the least, can cause their organization to stick out like a shock of red hair in a sea of brown, black and blonde. They are not fond of this feeling, which is why the process has largely been devoted to risk-averse maneuvers for the longest time. Also, while coaches like Andy Reid, Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh were outside-the-box hires at the time, the fact that they, along with other tenured coaches like Bruce Arians and Mike McCarthy, are sitting in first place as owners begin the process doesn’t bode well for the idea that they should pluck someone from (relative) obscurity.
• The most recent series of experiments involving college coaches has not gone well. We’ll get to potential openings in a few paragraphs, but it seems like there have been notable personality conflicts between owners of teams with recent college head coaches and their former all-powerful university leaders.
In addition, outside of a few names that we’ll list below, the hot-rising-I-know-Sean-McVay-and-coach-quarterbacks market has pretty much dried up. We went from a glut of up-and-coming offensive minds to a bit of a dearth.
In September I released my annual comprehensive list of future head coaches, which this year included 49 names. As I did last December, here’s a more targeted look at how the next couple of months could play out, based on conversations around the league.
Raiders: already open
With Jon Gruden’s active litigation against the NFL in progress, Las Vegas has to balance its past with the near future. Rich Bisaccia has done a fantastic job as an interim during incredibly difficult circumstances, and the Raiders still have an outside chance of making the playoffs after knocking off the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. He should be in play despite the fact that interim-to-permanent head coaches have historically struggled. However, it would seem a clean slate is expected, perhaps with a different head of personnel as well.
Bears: very likely open
Rumblings of Matt Nagy’s dismissal have already reached the stage of full-fledged reports. While the Patch.com report that Nagy would be let go after the Bears’ Thanksgiving game against the Lions proved to be incorrect, it did, according to Fox’s Jay Glazer, force the Bears’ owner to address the team and admit that a firing may still take place. The Bears, like the Giants, are an organization determined to emerge from any uncomfortable situation looking like it did the right thing. So will they allow the situation to cool down for a few weeks, and give Nagy his space to coach against the Cardinals, Packers and Vikings before considering a move? That would make sense from a public-relations standpoint while still helping the Bears get a leg up on some of the other teams waiting for Black Monday (which, by the way, is not really a thing anymore. I believe once the first team makes a move, you’ll see a slew of them in formation right behind so teams don’t feel like they’re frozen out of the process).
Jaguars: likely open
I think that when an owner says the head coach has lost his trust, and the coach, who has also been woefully unprepared throughout his first campaign, has failed to develop the most important asset in franchise history, there is little reason to reconvene for a second season. The Jaguars remain a plumb job for someone with NFL experience who can design an offense and handle game-management situations. Had the Jon Gruden email scandal never materialized, there’s a good chance we would have still been focusing our collective coaching ire on Urban Meyer, making the idea of keeping him all the more difficult from an optical standpoint. While it’s surprising Meyer has not already fled northern Florida for one of the legacy college football openings, it would be even more surprising if Jacksonville tried to sell us on a second season of his tenure, with Trevor Lawrence currently rated as one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL.
Panthers: possible, but would be precedent-setting
Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer have been incredibly aggressive this season, especially in an effort to repair the tumble Carolina took after a 3–0 start. They traded for two starting defensive backs and brought back Cam Newton to patch up the quarterback situation. The result? Almost nonexistent playoff chances and a spot deep in the queue for next year’s quarterback carousel. The Panthers dealt Teddy Bridgewater (one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL this year) and brought in Sam Darnold, who will end this season no further from his NFL reputation as a mistake-prone, replacement-level passer. They were unable to jam themselves into the receiving line for Matthew Stafford. If you’re David Tepper, who is desperate for an answer at the position, do you view what has happened as an indictment of the coach you hired? Was there anything to the fact that Rhule’s name was bandied about during this chaotic NCAA coaching cycle? How does that play? Still, this would be an industry-shaking move just two years into a seven-year contract.
Vikings: possible, if they miss the playoffs
I would imagine the Vikings’ job is being discussed by people whose job it is to prepare for possible openings. Does that mean they will move on from Mike Zimmer, whose contract runs through 2023? Not necessarily, and it would be one of the more surprising vacancies on this list. However, the Vikings have a solid roster, enjoy above-average quarterback play and have one of the best receiver tandems in the NFL. They have been this way for quite some time, but outside of the Case Keenum miracle season, are what their record suggests: a good team that makes the playoffs every other year, sometimes punches above its weight class but often falls slightly below expectations. I think a lot of teams would be O.K. with this, honestly. Minnesota is relevant almost every year. The Vikings have a dependable product. Zimmer, even at 65, would be a marked improvement for a lot of NFL teams.
Texans: likely to very likely open
My guess is that the Texans went into last year’s process knowing that it would be difficult for them to have their choice of dream candidates, given how chaotic the organization appeared. It would make some sense for them to reemerge onto the market to see if they could land the person of their dreams and if not, keep David Culley who, say what you will about the hire, has gotten a threadbare roster to well outplay its capabilities. If the Texans can find the right match, perhaps someone with some Patriots ties who has familiarity with general manager Nick Caserio, then they could pounce.
Dolphins: unlikely to be open, though a playoff run would help, too
Brian Flores has won four straight games and is coming up against a Giants team that struggles to put up points consistently. Their win against the Patriots to start the season obviously looks better in hindsight now. Tua Tagovailoa has posted a quarterback rating of 100 or better in each of his last three starts and has thrown only one interception in that time. While he did not ascend at the rapid pace of a Justin Herbert, his steady growth should be noted, especially given the patchwork nature of his offensive line.
Seahawks: possible, if Pete Carroll chose to retire
Pete Carroll is 70 and appears to be staring down the prospect of a two- or three-year rebuild with a noticeably unhappy quarterback and little defensive identity. While he is the ultimate optimist, could he decide that parting ways now is for the best? It would be stunning to see Carroll demand the trigger be pulled on a Russell Wilson trade, but what if he is left with no choice? Does a contender elsewhere make more sense?
Broncos: possibly open, if they miss the playoffs
Vic Fangio isn’t making any decision easy, but this is a difficult situation. Anytime a general manager inherits a coach, as George Paton has done in Denver, there is always going to be a question as to how long he’ll want to keep the previous staff in place. It would be hard to cut ties with Fangio, long regarded as one of the best defensive minds in football, and watch him immediately snap onto a high-octane staff forming elsewhere, perhaps in the division. If the Broncos upset the Chiefs this weekend, the carousel gets very interesting. Denver remains one of the true blueblood jobs in the NFL, making it a fly trap for available coaches when there is a vacancy.
Giants: unlikely to be open, but …
As we noted with the Bears, the Giants abhor (and rightfully so) the idea of firing someone in-season. They allowed Joe Judge to move on from offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, a longtime friend of the organization, which, to me, signals some long-term faith. Following the Tom Coughlin separation, the Giants have had Ben McAdoo for less than two seasons and Pat Shurmur for two seasons. I find it unrealistic to believe they’ll be two-and-out again. Changes may come in the personnel department, though my prediction is that any movement with Dave Gettleman is ceremonial. In the past, the Giants have offered longtime lieutenants the chance to move into advisory roles, which would make sense for Gettleman. Our Albert Breer floated the idea of pairing Judge with a familiar lieutenant, which would be just about the only way the Giants could realistically keep Judge and replace a head of personnel. Inheriting a coach is a disastrous prospect for a GM.
Lions: highly unlikely to be open
I’m only putting the Lions here because there is a chance they will go winless. I don’t believe they will go winless, but when a franchise does go winless, a change in leadership is always on the table. I feel like Dan Campbell has ingrained himself on the city. He’s responsibly handled some prickly administrative situations and is scoring points with the fan base and media for his honesty. Moving on from him at this point would be silly, given that he inherited a husk of a roster left behind by Matt Patricia.
Jets: extremely unlikely to be open
I’m including them on the list only because I live in the Northeast and enjoy sports talk radio, so I know that people on Twitter and WFAN have brought it up. While there are certainly people unhappy with Robert Saleh, the Jets knew this was going to be a process—one that was not going to be solved in one year. The Jets have been down to their third- and fourth-string quarterbacks this year while breaking in an intricate, run-first offense with a brand-new, patched-together unit. While it doesn’t seem this way, some of their bigger problems are getting fixed. We’ll see how Zach Wilson looks from here on out, but with a softer schedule, the Jets should be able to quiet the noise before Christmas.
While Seattle would qualify as the stunner of the cycle, nothing should surprise us. The coaching hierarchy in the NFL is incredibly top-heavy. Some of the best head coaches in the NFL are older than 60, have battled health issues and are worn down by the weight of four decades in a grueling and unforgiving business. Even Sean McVay has talked to our Albert Breer about burnout, and while I’m not even remotely hinting at McVay’s being the surprise—and please don't take it that way—this point is simply a way of illustrating how taxing the coaching life can be.
Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator, Bills
Daboll’s omission from last year’s rookie head-coaching class was a bit of a head-scratcher. That won’t be the case in 2021, though. He is about as close to a lock as one would expect. The Bills are second in points after also finishing the '20 season second. The development of Josh Allen from raw, toolsy passer to MVP candidate is a feather in his cap. He’ll have options.
Nathaniel Hackett, offensive coordinator, Packers
Hackett is the top option on the coaching market for a team in search of a wholesale culture revamp that does not require the extraordinarily risky dive into the college market. As we wrote in September, Hackett has overseen some massive offensive turnarounds in some pretty grim places: Syracuse, Buffalo before Josh Allen and a Blake Bortles/Jaguars run to the AFC championship game. While the lazy will associate him with Aaron Rodgers, Hackett’s body of work far surpasses a few seasons with a great quarterback. Rodgers, though, would likely stand on a table for his offensive coordinator.
Doug Pederson, former head coach, Eagles
The former Eagles head coach is apparently reinvigorated and ready to jump into the cycle. Pederson, I’m told, has a blueprint for his staff and is eager to hop back into coaching. While his tenure in Philadelphia did not end well, with the Eagles’ struggling to find their footing offensively following the loss of Frank Reich to the Colts, it’s difficult to ignore a Super Bowl ring from the Andy Reid tree when you’re a risk-averse owner hoping to make a home-run hire.
Kellen Moore, offensive coordinator, Cowboys
When I said at the top that the next-Sean-McVay pipeline ran dry, there was one glaring exception: Kellen Moore. The 33-year-old may require some more seasoning, but teams have learned from McVay that they’re better off pouncing now than missing out.
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, Patriots
McDaniels should be pragmatic and selective about his final chance to become a head coach, if and when that arises. The scarlet letter from his abdication of the Colts’ job seems to have worn off, which will prove especially true when all these owners with hefty investments into floundering young quarterbacks look around for the best possible option.
Vance Joseph, defensive coordinator, Cardinals
Joseph is a massive part of the Cardinals’ rise this year and has seemingly conjured a top-five defense out of thin air. An ace interviewer, he should be able to sidestep a disappointing run in Denver now that we realize how intensely bad the quarterback situation was (Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian).
Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Colts
In four years, Eberflus has had three top-10 defenses, four top-10 seasons in interceptions and four top-10 seasons in total takeaways (this year, the Colts are currently second). I understand the potential landmine that is hiring a defensive coordinator (your offensive coordinator, if any good, will leave), but Eberflus is regarded as a brilliant mind and I wouldn’t mind having a coach with knowledge of the streamlined coaching-scouting-administrative process that Chris Ballard has set up in Indianapolis.
Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, Ravens
Roman has interviewed in recent years, but despite the initial surge of optimism during the height of Lamar Jackson’s MVP season, Roman remains in Baltimore. As we transition back to more of a run-focused league, his knowledge of creative concepts will be of value. His work this year without his top 900 running backs has been instructive. Baltimore has a top-five rushing offense across the board.
Wink Martindale, defensive coordinator, Ravens
With a premium on experience, this could be the cycle for Martindale, the 58-year-old defensive coordinator who received head coaching interest in 2019 with the Giants before the team went with Joe Judge. Teams would be wise to give Martindale a second look, as it so often goes that the coaches who grind their way through the NFL ladder without relentless self-promotion end up being some of the better candidates. I wouldn’t hate the idea of hiring someone from that organization, which tends to be one of the most loyal in the NFL.
Jerod Mayo, linebackers coach, Patriots
A next-level motivator, Mayo is going to blow the doors off an interview (he was brought in for the opening in Philadelphia last year). He is well liked in New England but with the Patriots surging again, there’s a chance he’ll get plucked before the Patriots can groom him for something more substantial down the line.
Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Buccaneers
Would Todd Bowles leave Tampa Bay? The situation would have to be quite perfect. Bowles learned his lesson after taking the Jets’ job and dealing with an organization in disarray. With the Buccaneers, Bowles is the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the NFL and is a part of Bruce Arians’s (relatively) relaxed coaching environment that prioritizes a life off the field. Arians is also 69 years old, and Bowles would be an obvious successor if and when he decides to pass the torch.
Byron Leftwich, offensive coordinator, Buccaneers
Now a Super Bowl–winning offensive coordinator, Leftwich has earned praise for his work with Tom Brady. While many have assumed the partnership was one-sided, Leftwich deserves credit for the melding of two different systems and the supercharging of Tampa Bay’s running game of late.
Kevin O’Connell, offensive coordinator, Rams
It is difficult to know what to make of the Rams’ offense this year, which seems temperamental when their most critical players are removed from the equation or are injured. The addition of Odell Beckham Jr. unfairly raises expectations to a higher stratosphere. That said, O’Connell has been a coach in grooming since he was drafted by the Patriots in the third round of the 2008 draft. Saddling up next to McVay, amid a season where the Rams should do some damage in the postseason, could help his star rise.
Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Bills
Frazier had a second interview with the Texans before Houston ultimately handed the reins to David Culley. Like Vance Joseph above, Frazier’s one crack at a head-coaching job was marred by awful quarterback play, which Frazier did his best to overcome. He is beloved in Buffalo and would come with a strong recommendation there. The Bills are arguably the best defense in the NFL through this point in the season.
Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator, Chiefs
This feels like a last stand of sorts for Bieniemy, whose contract with the Chiefs expires at the end of the year. He will undoubtedly get interviews again, but it will be up to a team willing to pull the trigger when so many of their counterparts opted not to. I would say this: Being the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Bieniemy has helped Patrick Mahomes acclimate to life in the NFL more than we would imagine. He was also a catalyst in helping them break their early-season slump this year.
Todd Downing, offensive coordinator, Titans
We’ll see what the end verdict is on a non–Derrick Henry Titans team, but the fact is that Downing now has the keys to a valuable offensive system that has produced head-coaching jobs at an alarming rate. He could, at the very least, get his brain picked by a few curious teams this offseason.
Raheem Morris, defensive coordinator, Rams
Morris, the former Buccaneers head coach, did a nice job as an interim with the Falcons last year and had the difficult task of taking over for Brandon Staley after a historic run in 2020. The Rams are still among the best defenses in the league, and if Morris can find a way to artfully incorporate Von Miller down the stretch, there is little doubt his name will be volleyed around.
Mike McDaniel, offensive coordinator, 49ers
A bit of a sleeper pick here, but I’ll ask: If there has been one person Kyle Shanahan has brought with him at every turn—every single stop—could there be some inherent value there that teams are missing? McDaniel has been the run guru behind a lot of Shanahan’s brilliant outside zone attacks and as the 49ers are revving up for a late-season charge buoyed by their running game, McDaniel deserves some recognition and would be worth pulling in for an interview.
DeMeco Ryans, defensive coordinator, 49ers
While one could make an argument that Ryans may need a little more seasoning, the NFL veteran turned defensive coordinator is a burst of energy and a strong schematic mind. Ryans is in San Francisco, a hotbed of assistant coaches with plenty of strong options to draw from to build a staff.
Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator, Cowboys
Quinn brought the Cowboys along from one of the worst defenses in the NFL last year to one of the best this year. Though his time in Atlanta was pockmarked by a memorable Super Bowl loss, Quinn seemed to have the overwhelming support of his players. He is direct, honest and positive, trying to connect in an age of you-do-what’s-best-for-you-and-I’ll-do-what’s-best-for-me.
Dennis Allen, defensive coordinator, Saints
This would be Allen’s first season as defensive coordinator when he has not finished with a top-10 defense in terms of net yards per attempt allowed. Allen, who interviewed for the Eagles’ vacancy last year, had a previous head-coaching stop in Oakland, soon after the passing of Al Davis. Could he get another shot?
Patrick Graham, defensive coordinator, Giants
Yes, the Giants are bad this year. Yes, the defense has struggled at times. But with Graham, as we did last year, it’s important to look at what he’s doing with the talent he has in place. This Giants’ defense is not world-beating by any stretch, but they have had some significant performances this year, and if you were to separate the offense’s destructive ineptitude from the whole of the team’s performance, Graham’s talent would shine a bit brighter.
Bubba Ventrone, special teams coordinator, Colts
Want a true wild card? I have been an advocate for special teams coaches in this space for a few years now. Ventrone could be the next up-and-comer with a real shot, much like John Fassel and Dave Toub before him. Ventrone carries himself like a head coach, which could separate him from the pack and help elevate the best of what owners like about special teams coaches: They handle a majority of the roster, they are forced to adjust on the fly and make the most out of players who may have just been handed to them.
Joe Brady, offensive coordinator, Panthers
Even if the Panthers’ staff is displaced at season’s end, there could be a chance Brady receives requests given how well he performed on the interview circuit last year. The 32-year-old, whose work with Joe Burrow propelled the LSU quarterback from unknown transfer to No. 1 pick, has performed admirably with a carousel of quarterbacks in Carolina, including working Cam Newton into the fold after just a week on the job.
Brian Callahan, offensive coordinator, Bengals
A newcomer to the list, Callahan, the son of offensive line guru Bill Callahan, has taken the Bengals’ offense to a new level this year. The 7–4 Bengals are sixth in both points and net yards per passing attempt. There is little doubt Callahan, with his NFL lineage, could assemble a loaded staff.
Ryan Day, head coach, Ohio State
While this could be a game of new contract chess, there will be an opening in Chicago with a quarterback who needs developing. Day happened to get the best out of that quarterback at Ohio State. We’ve seen this scenario in the past, with Lincoln Riley and Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, for example, and it has almost never come to fruition. As we said up top, the appetite for college coaches has seriously dropped thanks to Meyer. That said, Day was a hot name a year ago and could have remained so during the season.
Matt Campbell, head coach, Iowa State
Campbell has turned down overtures in the past and remained fiercely loyal to an Iowa State team made up of some veteran players. Though when Campbell feels he is ready to move on, he’ll have options. If Notre Dame doesn’t strike, don’t be surprised if the NFL comes calling.
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