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GamePlan: Why Trading NFL Coaches Is Less Common Now, but Could Happen This Year

Not too long ago, teams were swinging these types of deals every few years. It's complicated, but could make sense. Plus, previewing games and story lines for Week 13.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn walked his new football coach Lincoln Riley across the top of the Coliseum on Monday, with the Los Angeles skyline and San Gabriel Mountains as the backdrop, and with each step he punctuated a loud and clear message.

The time for pleasantries has come to an end.

The West Coast’s preeminent college-football power had done this conventionally forever. The Trojans found Pete Carroll when he was a failed NFL coach, coming off a year off, and his successor was Lane Kiffin, a former Carroll assistant who’d landed at Tennessee. After that, the program poached Steve Sarkisian, another former Carroll lieutenant and Kiffin staff-mate, from Washington, and promoted Clay Helton, who’d been a Sarkisian assistant.

It’s hard to blame USC for that, because, really, that’s how football hires work at just about every level of the sport. But it also got the Trojans absolutely nowhere—they’re 96–53 with one conference title since Carroll left, after going 97–19 with seven conference titles and two national championships under him.

That’s why this year, they stopped trying to outsmart everyone, and started to throw their weight around as a school that has money, history, location and access to top talent to offer a football coach. And they wound up with one of the most accomplished 30-something coaches in the history of college football, and one of the sport’s brightest offensive minds.

If it seems like the obvious move, then so be it. No one at USC is complaining.

All told, just six coaches (Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Urban Meyer, Ryan Day, Brian Kelly and Riley) have made the College Football Playoff twice, and two of them switched jobs this week—with LSU’s pulling off a similar heist, in stealing Kelly away from Notre Dame. And those two didn’t switch jobs to go to the NFL. They switched college jobs.

A lot of people have asked me what I think the effect of a wild, wild week in college football will have at the sport’s highest level. And to me, it’s sitting right out in the open for everyone to see.

USC and LSU weren’t hanging out, worried about being polite to their fellow bluebloods.

They were worried about getting it right.

And I’d bet there are NFL teams out there watching this now, teams that may be on the precipice of sending their coaches the way of Helton or Ed Orgeron, pondering taking a similarly cutthroat tact to get their operations right again. Of course, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a USC/LSU–style coach pillaging in the pros. But there’s no reason why some team couldn’t drop the pleasantries like Bohn did, and make it happen again.


We’re past Thanksgiving and into the final stages of the NFL season, which means the last six weeks this year (and not five, as it was back in the days of 16 games). And it means we’ve got plenty to get to in the GamePlan. Including …

• A look at the weekend’s best games, starting with one on Monday night.

• How the Cardinals have managed Kyler Murray’s return.

• Some (improving!) gambling advice.

• A few coaching names you might not know.

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But we’re starting with some coaching names that you definitely do know.


If you’re diving into comparing big-game hunting in college with big-game hunting in the pros, you gotta start here: It’s not quite the same.

The way it works in college football, one school can pry another’s coach, in most cases, simply by paying a buyout in his contract. The NFL’s anti-tampering rules make it far more difficult to poach a peer’s coach.

But it’s definitely not impossible. In fact, it used to be relatively common, even if it was incredibly complicated and usually came at a very heavy price.

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In 1997, the Jets traded their ‘99 first-round pick, ‘98 second-round pick, and ‘97 third- and fourth-round picks to the Patriots for Bill Parcells (the league made the Jets throw in a $300,000 donation to Patriots charities too, just to show that everyone got along in the end). Three years later, the Jets traded Bill Belichick, and fifth- and seventh-round picks to New England for first-, and fourth and seventh-round picks.

Two years after that, in 2002, the Buccaneers traded first-round and second-round picks in both ‘02 and ‘03 to the Raiders for Jon Gruden. And four years after that, the Chiefs threw the Jets a fourth-round pick to expedite Kansas City’s hire of Herm Edwards, with New York and Edwards’s conducting a sort of mutual parting, and Edwards’s having a long-standing relationship with Chiefs GM Carl Peterson.

“They’re very hard to do,” said ex-Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, who was in New York for the Belichick trade, and did the Edwards deal for the team. “There’s a lot of moving parts. It’s rare for a reason—you have to have an agreement between the teams, between the coach and his new team, and a comfort level from ownership in letting a head coach walk to another place. It’s very complicated.”

In the above cases, it happened, in large part, because things weren’t entirely rosy between the head coach and his team. The Raiders/Bucs situation in 2002 is a great example—Gruden had communicated to owner Al Davis that he wanted out. Over time, then Oakland exec Bruce Allen and Gruden’s camp had back-channeled word on that out, and the Bucs (who’d actually made a run at Parcells that offseason too) emerged as a suitor, eventually getting word back to the Raiders that they’d be interested.

Somewhere along the line, delicate as the situation was, the Bucs and Gruden gained the knowledge that contract terms could be worked out without incident. In that way, this one was similar to those involving Parcells and Belichick, where the teams and coaches had a working knowledge that deals would get done before the actual trades.

But really, the initial acrimony was the key, giving each situation an individual motivated to find a new beginning, and a team amenable to do the idea of moving on.

Could we find a couple of those in 2021?

“My first thought seeing all this in college football was thank God you can’t steal from other teams in the NFL this way. Thank God,” said one NFC exec this week. “It destabilizes the sport and the makes the gap between the haves and have-nots bigger.”

But, the executive continued, if he were looking, it’s also a path he’d consider.

“In the NFL, just going through the names of candidates this year, you might say, ‘Yeah, those are decent names,’ and then wonder who else is out there,” he went on. “I can see where [what just happened in college football] might embolden you be like, ‘How do I pull away someone else? Especially since there’s a crop of coaches out there that might have reached logical conclusions with their teams.”

That was the thought in 2014, when Cleveland sensed blood in the water in San Francisco and made a real play for Niners coach Jim Harbaugh. The teams, I’m told, had talks, and the Browns were willing to part with a pair of third-round picks to get Harbaugh—who was coming off his third straight appearance in the NFC title game. The trouble, in the end, was making all those moving pieces Tannenbaum mentioned fit together. Ultimately, Harbaugh decided against going, and obviously that was the end of the discussions.

I’d heard another example the other day of a well-respected and tenured coach in a similar situation more recently. Other teams sensed it, and three teams wound up calling his team to inquire about his potential availability. Long story short, the coach, and team, wound up turning their season around, and the coach ended going nowhere.

So not only can it happen, and it’s actually been in play lately.

Maybe this is the year it happens.


The piece that blew up the Harbaugh trade is an important one. This isn’t like trading a player. The contract doesn’t travel with the coach like it does with a player. And the coach has the power to put an end to any discussions by simply deciding he doesn’t want to go.

Which means, as our exec said, finding coaches who have “reached logical conclusions with their teams” would be an important piece to the puzzle in 2021.

That said, there are reasons for teams to investigate that this year, in particular. If you’re the Bears, and you make a change after the season, would you see if GM Ryan Pace, a former Saints exec, might be able to land native Chicagoan Sean Payton, who’s now in a bit of QB purgatory in New Orleans? If you’re the Raiders, would you turn over some rocks to see if Mike Tomlin, who’s facing quarterback and general-manager retirements in the coming years, and has been in Pittsburgh as long as Bill Cowher, could be pried free?

Would Seattle and Pete Carroll consider a move for Carroll to coach a win-now team (he is a former Vikings assistant), while the Seahawks move Russell Wilson and start a rebuild?

This isn’t to say, to be clear, that Payton, Tomlin or Carroll are eyeing the exits. But if you’re one of those teams, and you’re looking at relatively shallow candidate pool, one where retreads could rule the hiring cycle, this would be a logical year to at least consider a swing for the fences. There are also other reasons why now could be the time.

• Teams have never been more willing to part with high-end draft capital. Laremy Tunsil and Jalen Ramsey fetched multiple first-round picks for the Dolphins and Jaguars. And if you’re willing to pay that much for a left tackle or corner, it stands to reason that an established, Super Bowl–winning coach would be worth the same. Or more.

• The money for first-time head coaches has escalated past the $5 million mark and, in cases where coaches are coming from college, the big, very-long-term contracts done at that level are making it even more expensive to go that route. So if you’re willing to pay $6 million per on a multiyear deal for someone’s coordinator, or $8 million or $9 million per for a college coach, why not pay, say, $14 million per for a Payton or Tomlin?

• Likewise, coaches see what just happened, too. They see Mel Tucker getting a 10-year, $95 million deal at a second-tier Power 5 job after three years as a head coach. They see Kelly and Riley leveraging big raises off their already outsized salaries. So if a sitting coach isn’t happy with what he’s pulling in, or is motivated to take advantage of developments in the sport, might he be more amenable to jumping ship?

• The new television deals just made a whole bunch of obscenely wealthy owners even wealthier, and in a postpandemic world of entertainment, it’s gotten harder to get people excited and out to the stadium. Nothing brings hope quite like a blockbuster coach hire.

And here’s where we’ll reiterate the point that these sorts of transactions are enormously difficult to pull off. In fact, if you were planning to try to pull one off in January, you’d probably want to get going on that now.

“You have to, in my mind, if I’m doing it, get the groundwork laid 60 to 90 days before it actually occurs,” said one prominent coaching agent who’s been involved in such talks. “Say it’s Payton or Tomlin; it can’t be, the season ends, and then you do it. That’s when it actually happens, of course, but normally, the way I’d think about it, you’d almost have to be 90 days into it by then.”

Of course, when you get there, you might have to act like the whole thing was done much faster than that—to preserve the best interests of everyone involved. Which, of course, seems to be exactly what happened this week at USC and LSU.

But if you’d ask people in L.A. or Baton Rouge right now if all that was worth it, my guess is you’d get a resounding and unanimous chorus of yeses. As such, it’s not hard to see where an NFL team might see such a move as worth it, too.

And throw out all the courtesies to other teams while they’re at it.


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FIVE STAR MATCHUPS

1) Patriots at Bills (Monday, 8:15 p.m.): Before last year, the Patriots won 11 straight AFC East titles, and 17 division titles in 18 years—with the one exception coming in the Tom Brady–less year of 2008. And you could argue that the most sustainable threat to that dominance came at the end, with what Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane were building in Buffalo. Well, here we are, in 2021, and the Bills are the division champs, and the Patriots are the upstarts trying to regain control of the East. The two teams play twice in a 20-day stretch to sort things out, and this one, coming on a Monday night and in the raucous atmosphere of Orchard Park, couldn’t feel much bigger.

2) Broncos at Chiefs (Sunday, 8:20 p.m.): Denver followed its 3–0 start with a four-game losing streak, and you could be excused if, at the time, you figured the Broncos’ brass should move its focus to 2022—and who might coach and quarterback that team. A month later, here’s Vic Fangio’s bunch, with a chance pull into a first-place tie with mighty Kansas City. And the Chiefs, believe it or not, have rebounded on the strength of a surging defense. Coming out of the bye, do we, finally, see the Chiefs offense we’ve gotten so accustomed to seeing? The Broncos’ defense won’t make it easy, and as such this is a good referendum game for both teams.

3) Chargers at Bengals (Sunday, 1 p.m.): Brandon Staley’s group has been very up-and-down since starting the season 4–1, and it’s fair to look at it and wonder if the Ravens’ defense drew up a blueprint for slowing Justin Herbert and the high-flying Charger offense (emphasize taking away Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and disguise just about everything else). And now, the Chargers get a Bengals team that’s rolling again in December in Ohio. So beyond just getting to see 2020 quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Herbert duke it out, there are very real stakes here.

4) Ravens at Steelers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m.): Baltimore’s really banged up. Pittsburgh’s scuffling to find its stride. But this is always a street fight. And rather than give you my own take on how these go (the first one I saw in person was the 2008 game in which Ray Lewis hit Rashard Mendenhall so hard, he basically caved his chest in and ended his rookie year) I figured I’d give you a gem of a quote I got from John Harbaugh a decade ago on the rivalry: “It’s almost surreal. All of a sudden, everything’s different. You go into this dark place. It’s like you’re in this globe, in a good way, and suddenly there’s nothing outside of that moment, outside of that stadium. It’s unique to these games, and yet, both teams are so comfortable in that place. It’s where we’re supposed to be. It’s where they’re supposed to be. It’s hard to describe.” And all these years later, the head coaches are still there, and the style of play, largely, will be the same.

5) Washington at Raiders (Sunday, 4:05 p.m.): So no, a 5–6 team’s playing a 6–5 team isn’t the sexiest matchup. And yes, it’s here because the Week 13 slate is a little light. But there are stakes here. The Football Team has lodged itself right back into the NFC East race, with two games left against the division-leading Cowboys. And the Raiders, with a win and a little help from Denver, could find themselves in a three-way first-place tie by late Sunday night. Truth is, the coaches and players with both of these teams have shown a ton of resilience the last three months, and have earned themselves into this spot. Which, again, is a big one, even if it’s not the most appealing game on paper.

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FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW

What does a healed-up Cardinals team look like in what could be sloppy December conditions in Chicago? After Arizona outlast Seattle on the road two weeks ago, Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury confirmed to me what I figured anyway—that having Colt McCoy gave the team the flexibility to play it on the safe side with Kyler Murray. And then he added that the idea that the giving him that Sunday, plus the bye week, to get fully healthy was part of his calculus too. “No question,” he said. “Just with where he was at, to see him tweak it and have some kind of setback just wasn’t the right play for us. And so to be able to have Colt come in as he did, you can’t ask for a better result. Hopefully he, J.J. [Watt], D-Hop [DeAndre Hopkins] can get rejuvenated, rested up and be ready to go in two weeks.” Obviously, with Watt, the idea that he’d be back this soon was optimistic. But with the other two, I’m interested to see if gaming things up this way pays dividends right away. And besides that, getting to see Arizona go north, with the forecast a little sketchy for Sunday, should be good, with the possibility still out there that they might wind up having to go to Lambeau in January.

Can Tua Tagovailoa keep it rolling against an aggressive Giants defense? I can’t blame anyone for not paying attention to the progress of Tagovailoa after Miami’s 1–7 start. But since then—believe it or not—he’s been remarkably efficient. Check out the numbers over the last three weeks (he missed Week 9 due to injury), since he came off the bench to help the Dolphins to beat Baltimore in Week 10:

Vs. Ravens: 8-for-13, 158 yards, 104.0 rating

At Jets: 27-for-33, 273 yards, 2 TDs, INT, 108.7 rating

Vs. Panthers: 27-for-31, 230 yards, 1 TD, 108.3 rating

Miami’s offensive staff, led by play-caller George Godsey, has made what’s looked like a concerted effort to focus more of what the Dolphins are doing on Tagovailoa’s strengths, with an emphasis on the RPO game that helped to make him a star at Alabama, a move that’s also accentuated Jaylen Waddle’s explosiveness with the ball in his hands. And Miami’s won four straight as a result, with the Giants coming in Sunday. With New York comes defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s complex scheme, and a defense that’s going to throw a lot at a young quarterback and is adept at dealing with college-styled concepts (we saw both of those things in the Eagles game last week). So this should be a good test to see where Tagovailoa is. And obviously, it’s a huge game for the surging Dolphins.

How do the Jets deploy Zach Wilson this week? Last week, the No. 2 pick hit season lows in completions (14), attempts (24) and yards (145)—and New York wound up outlasting Houston. It was Wilson’s first game back from injury. And I can say that there was at least some level of concern with where Jets’ young quarterback’s first two months of games left him, which is one reason why the team wound up bringing his throwing coach, ex-NFL quarterback John Beck, on board midseason. So now, are they willing to loosen the reins a little? I thought Robert Saleh’s comments this week were, to that end, interesting. “Go be Superman and save the play but try to execute the offense in rhythm, and when the rhythm breaks down, go do what you were famous for at BYU,” Saleh told the media Monday. “Clark Kent would walk around until someone calls for help; when the play breaks down, that’s Mike LaFleur yelling for help. Go save him.” My sense is striking that balance has been an issue for Wilson this year, in that Wilson’s propensity too often is to look for the big play, with the Jets trying to get him to play within structure. And that maybe we’re seeing the message for the rest of year emerging—and maybe they just want Wilson to go play his instinctive game. I’m fascinated to see what becomes of it.

Do two NFC West teams maintain their momentum (good and bad)? The Niners go into Seattle this weekend, and over the last month have reestablished their identity with one of the NFL’s most inventive and difficult-to-handle run games, and an aggressive, attacking defense. In the meantime, the Seahawks have collapsed under the weight of a few gaping roster holes. The Niners have won three straight and four of five. The Seahawks have lost three straight, and six of seven. One more win for San Francisco, and one more loss for Seattle, would help to define each going into the season’s final stretch—with the former a legit playoff contender and the latter playing out the string. Will it still be that way early evening on Sunday?


TWO BEST BETS

Season record: 915 (Our first 20 week!!! And it only took 12 weeks to get there! BOOM!!!)

Washington (+2.5) over Raiders: I just like where the Football Team is. Yes, this one’s out west. But Ron Rivera’s crew keeps improving, and I think this is the sort of game that could be won with a field goal at the end either way.

Rams (-13) over Jaguars: The last few weeks, more physical teams have made the Rams pay. I don’t know that the cross-country-traveling Jags can do it in this spot. And this has the feel of a get-right game for an L.A. group coming off its bye.


ONE BIG QUESTION

Where else could teams look for coaches?

Special teams!

It’s still amazing to me that, 14 years after John Harbaugh got the Ravens’ job, there’s been just one other special teams coordinator hired to be a head coach—that one being Joe Judge, tabbed by the Giants two offseasons ago. And while it’s easy to understand why, because their impact is less obvious than that of a great offensive or defensive coordinator, there’s also a logical case that being a special teams coordinator uniquely prepares a guy to become a head coach. In fact, it’s a case that Bill Belichick has made.

So in the interest of getting some good names out there, I figured it was worth the column space to introduce you, the NFL-viewing public, to a few names worth remembering.

• The Saints’ Darren Rizzi is respected enough leaguewide where teams were bidding on him after the Dolphins fired Adam Gase in early 2019. Rizzi spent nine years in Miami, working for three different head coaches, and was a head coach at his alma mater, Rhode Island, before that. He actually first became a head coach at 29 at the Univ. of New Haven.

• The Cardinals’ Jeff Rodgers was tabbed by Kliff Kingsbury to handle some head-coaching duties, alongside defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, when COVID-19 sidelined him earlier in the year. Rodgers is involved in every level of the football operation, and has been in the NFL for 17 years, having served as a top lieutenant to John Fox in Carolina, Denver and Chicago.

• The Bengals’ Darrin Simmons is similarly an important part of the Cincinnati staff, and was considered for the head-coaching job there in 2019. Simmons is still just 48, but has 24 years of NFL experience, and this is his 19th season leading the Bengals’ special teams. Zac Taylor promoted him to assistant head coach last year.

• Keith Armstrong’s a bit older, at 57, but has been running NFL special teams units for 25 years, and was a defensive backs coach in the league before that. He interviewed for head-coaching jobs in Philadelphia and Chicago a few years back. And being with the champion Buccaneers doesn’t hurt his case either.

• Cowboys special teams coach John Fassel served as the Rams interim coach between Jeff Fisher’s firing and Sean McVay’s hiring, and has long been known for his creativity. The son of late NFL head coach Jim Fassel is very well-liked across the league.

There’s also a good number of quality coaches of color in the special-teams realm—with the 49ers’ Richard Hightower, the Packers’ Maurice Drayton, and Armstrong among them (and Baltimore’s Chris Horton is a name to watch down the line).

Anyway, since this is the time of year we give you coaching lists, this seemed like a good place to get a few good names out there. And make the case that this is one rock teams should look under a little more often.

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