Last year, it was like there was a scoreboard validating each assistant coach’s candidacy.
Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith got interview requests from all seven teams with openings. Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady and Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy had such overtures from six of the seven teams, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was 5-for-7, and Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, a latecomer to the party as a first-year coordinator, wound up scoring four interviews.
And if that was a sign that last year the NFL very much knew what it was looking for in that particular cycle, the opposite could wind up being the case this year.
We’re three days out from Black Monday, and if you’re looking for this year’s version of Smith or Saleh—the it candidate to whom everyone will want to talk—then good luck, because it sure seems like that guy doesn’t exist in 2022.
“Every team’s list of top-five candidates won’t be the same this year,” said one experienced coaching agent.
Given what the NFL’s been looking for the last couple of years, that might not be a bad thing. If there’s less-fervent competition for a small number of candidates, that could, theoretically, allow for teams to take their time with the process. And since there won’t be a couple of boxes every team feels like it has to check—the must-talk-to candidate—it stands to reason that more teams will cast a wider net.
That, in turn, would open up the chance there’s real competition among candidates for the jobs, rather than competition among teams for candidates, giving the proverbial under-the-radar guy, like Mike Tomlin in 2007, a better shot at landing the job. Anyway, in a month or so, we’ll know if it worked out that way.
But for now, as we dive into the 2022 hiring cycle, it means there’s less certainty heading into the regular season’s final weekend than I can ever remember before.
Welcome to the first GamePlan of 2022, and the last one of the ’21 regular season. Inside the column this week, we’ve got a ton of on-field content to get to you. Including …
• A complete look at our first-ever slate of 17th games, starting with a showdown in the AFC West.
• Hunter Renfrow on the resilience of the Raiders’ receiver room.
• My (cooled-off) gambling advice.
• What Antonio Brown’s NFL future looks like.
But we’re starting off the field, with the coaching carousel, which I know all of you can’t wait to get to.
So what might that wide-open field of candidates be looking at come Monday? I’d say, in all likelihood, fewer openings than usual.
The Jaguars, of course, already have one, and have been interviewing candidates the last couple of weeks. The Raiders do, too, although they may well be in the playoffs when we get past the weekend—they’re win-and-in against the Chargers on Sunday night. The Bears should make it three. And after that? The Vikings and Broncos seem to be trending that way, and a few others are worth at least keeping an eye on.
Here’s what I’m hearing heading into Week 18.
• The Jaguars have already interviewed ex-Eagles coach Doug Pederson and ex-Lions and Colts coach Jim Caldwell, and sat down with Buccaneers DC Todd Bowles earlier in the week. They also plan to interview Cowboys OC Kellen Moore and tried to get Dallas DC Dan Quinn in, too (he’s thus far declined). Pederson is said to be well positioned here, and there’d be merit to his hire, without question, in that he has head coaching experience, and experience developing a young quarterback. But my understanding is that the Jaguars’ plan is to do the opposite of what they did last year—and run a wide-open search, and not pigeonhole themselves into a certain type (e.g., offense vs. defense, CEO vs. guru, young vs. old) and let that search take them where it will. One thing that’s created hurdles already is the team’s decision to hang on to GM Trent Baalke. There are potential candidates who simply won’t go there now, because of Baalke’s history with coaches.
• The idea that the Raiders could stick with Rich Bisaccia shouldn’t be completely ruled out—owner Mark Davis likes his interim coach, and came out of the Jon Gruden mess wanting to give him a real shot. It’d be more economical, too, and Vegas is a win Sunday night from the playoffs. Now, the Raiders have done their homework on outside candidates. So while they haven’t taken advantage of the new rules that allow interviews (I’m told they held off on that because they wanted to take their one shot at playoff-bound coaches during the conventional time early in the postseason, rather than scramble to do interviews with the regular season still going on), they are prepared to start a search when the time comes. For now, general manager Mike Mayock’s status is up in the air.
• One name that’s been connected to the Raiders consistently for the last month or so is Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Does he want back in the NFL? Maybe. My understanding is, despite what’s been said publicly, he wasn’t happy about having to take a pay cut last year. He accepted it only after exploring NFL openings (the Jets and Chargers were among the teams who were asked about him) and finding no interest. After a bounce-back year, and now aligned with an NFL-centric staff, there’s renewed curiosity in him from the pros. So is the NFL noise happening to make the people who made him take a pay cut last year squirm, and leverage more money out of Michigan? Or would he pull the trigger and go? It’ll be interesting to watch this one over the next couple of weeks, since he’s had unfinished business in the league (getting so close to a championship and falling just short), and leaving Michigan now would constitute going out on a high note, having beaten Ohio State and having won the Big Ten this year. He just turned 58, so it’s hard to say how many shots he has left to do it, especially if this fall’s success in Ann Arbor isn’t duplicated. Also, there are natural ties to the Raiders—he got his coaching start for them as an assistant in 2002 and ’03, and Raiders owner Mark Davis made a spirited run at landing him in ’15 (he was Oakland’s clear first choice). Harbaugh turned down Davis just before taking the Michigan job.
• The Bears have been connected to both Harbaugh and Saints coach Sean Payton—but I don’t think they’d get into any sort of bidding war on either. And assuming Matt Nagy’s gone (GM Ryan Pace has a decent chance to survive), I’ve heard they won’t be focused solely on quarterback-developers like they were when they landed Nagy in 2018, with their focus likely on leader-of-men types. It’s also worth noting that owner George McCaskey has been very involved in the NFL’s diversity efforts, and the league has been bullish on the candidacy of Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. Frazier, a star corner on the vaunted 1985 Bears defense, has been raised to me repeatedly in regards to Buffalo’s plans. I’ve heard a few younger candidates that project as leaders, like Patriots LBs coach Jerod Mayo and Colts DC Matt Eberflus, will be in the mix, too. (Obviously, for these types, a plan for developing Justin Fields will be important.)
• There’s a lot of talk through the grapevine about Payton’s future. I think he’ll probably stay with the Saints, where he has a really good setup from a football standpoint and is making very good money. That said, tires will likely be kicked. My sense is he’ll say no on going home to Chicago. And I’ve heard networks are readying to make a run at him, and throw real money at him, to see whether he’d leave the sideline for television. Eventually, my bet is he’ll do that. I just don’t think it’ll happen yet. Also, for whatever it’s worth, if Payton were to leave, I think we’d see some shuffling in New Orleans, but not an overhaul—with GM Mickey Loomis potentially going into a president-type of role, Jeff Ireland replacing him and DC Dennis Allen becoming the head coach. The Saints, of course, want no part of losing Payton, but are pretty well positioned for whenever it does happen.
• Vikings ownership has been meeting on the direction of its football operation, and there’s a feeling that these will likely be Mike Zimmer’s final days in Minnesota. The fate of GM Rick Spielman is less certain, but there is an expectation among those in the industry that he’ll remain in some capacity (whether it’s his current one, or in an elevated executive role with input on picking his replacement). If Zimmer is out, the Vikings are another team expected to cast a wide net in their coaching search. Zimmer, for his part, could well land back in Dallas if he’s let go and Quinn lands a head coaching job somewhere. The Joneses have a strong relationship with, and respect for, Zimmer, to the point where had the Vikings pulled the plug on him earlier, he’d have been a leading candidate to replace Jason Garrett in Dallas.
• The Broncos’ situation remains murky. First-year GM George Paton hasn’t been looking for an excuse to fire Vic Fangio and bring in his own guy—he’s got plenty of respect for Fangio as a coach, defensive play-caller and worker, and the two have worked well together in his short time there. The problem right now is results, and not just with the team’s current win/loss record (Denver was actually 7–6 when it lost Teddy Bridgewater in Week 15). The team’s offense and special teams have lagged behind Fangio’s defense, and the Broncos are in the midst of a sixth straight playoff-less year (most for the franchise in 45 years), and a fifth straight losing season (first time in 50 years that’s happened, and equal to the total number of losing seasons the franchise had in the previous 35 years). I’d expect that Paton and Fangio will meet either after the season finale to discuss the team’s direction, and my guess is the Broncos will move on. Paton’s always done his research on coaches, and two names I’ve heard connected to the job there thus far are Quinn (who I think would have an excellent shot at it) and Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett.
• There’s no question that Seahawks owner Jody Allen, who took her brother Paul’s place, has questions about the direction of the franchise after a mess of a year that could lead to the exit of franchise quarterback Russell Wilson. Thing is, no one I’ve talked to believes Pete Carroll is ready to retire, much less go out after his first 10-loss season, in any capacity, in 27 years. Would Allen fire Carroll? My sense is GM John Schneider is safer than Carroll, and I do think there’s a shot that Allen would decide to go with the status quo for another year. But this one’s at least worth watching, and especially so if the owner’s intent on keeping Wilson. And it’s a little unpredictable, too, given the lack of a track record on Jody Allen.
• I still think Joe Judge will get a third year with the Giants. Where New York goes with its GM position will be telling. Assistant GM Kevin Abrams is very well respected in the building, and I’d expect he’ll get a look. And if he’s hired, I’d say that’s sort of neutral for Judge. If the Giants choose to hire someone connected to Judge, like the Titans’ Monti Ossenfort or Patriots’ Dave Ziegler, that’d be a positive for Judge. If they go outside the organization and outside Judge’s connections, obviously, that would essentially put Judge on notice, and 2022 would become a very big year for him (not that it isn’t already).
• Ditto for Matt Rhule—I think he’ll get a third year with the Panthers. The only thing that makes me hesitate on that would be how the postseason meeting with owner David Tepper goes. Tepper is very involved in Charlotte, and it’ll be interesting to see if he demands a certain level of change in staff. Rhule’s fiercely loyal to coaches he’s got long-term connections to (like coordinators Jeff Nixon and Phil Snow), and he’s brutally honest, so we’ll see how things go when owner and coach sit down and debrief.
• The Texans are the only potential wild card. In Wednesday’s mailbag, I laid out the case for keeping David Culley and the case for moving on—there’s merit in both. I’ve also heard that Houston GM Nick Caserio has an idea who his next (and long-term) coach would be (obviously, Patriots-connected names like Mayo and Josh McDaniels come to mind, if you want to guess whom), and isn’t in a huge rush to get him. Take from that what you want.
Of the 10 teams we named, how many will actually open their jobs up? Set the over/under at a half dozen, and buckle up, because there really is less telling where all this goes than there would be in a normal year.
And get ready, because if this year’s number is as relatively low as expected, then the 2023 hiring cycle could be really wild.
FIVE STAR MATCHUPS
1) Chargers at Raiders (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET): The idea that, if the Jaguars beat the Colts, these two could kneel it out in pursuit of a playoff-clinching tie for both teams is a fun idea. I also don’t think it’d happen—and I’d imagine making a mockery of a game that way would probably draw “conduct detrimental” punishments from the commissioner to each coach and team. That said, if it’s tied with two minutes left in overtime, and one team gets the ball on its own 10, could that team kneel through in pursuit of a tie? Sure, something like that is absolutely in play. But the Colts are probably going to beat the Jags, so my guess is no one’s going to have to worry about any of this.
2) 49ers at Rams (Sunday, 4:25 p.m.): The 49ers are in a win-and-in scenario, and the one area where Kyle Shanahan has held the upper hand on Sean McVay is in their head-to-head matchups: His Niners are 6–3 and have won five straight against McVay’s Rams. This is a big one for Los Angeles, too. While the door is shut on the No. 1 seed, a win would mean getting the second seed, which would mean a potential divisional playoff game would be at home, while a loss would open the door for the Cardinals to take the division from them (Arizona plays the Seahawks), which would put the Rams on the road in the wild-card round. So there are stakes here, plus games between these two teams are usually fun.
3) Patriots at Dolphins (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): This will be a good litmus test for New England. The Patriots’ on-the-fly rebuild has been impressive, as was their seven-winning streak. But—of course, there’s a but—they’ve beaten just two teams with winning records this year, and one was a totally injury-depleted Titans team at home. That’s why it’s tough to get a great read on where the ceiling for this group is, so seeing New England avenge its season-opening loss to the Dolphins might bring some new context in that regard (and it’d keep the team’s division title hopes alive, though those hinge on the Jets’ upsetting the Bills). And as for Miami, how this home game goes will probably help paint how we see the Dolphins going into the offseason, especially after last weekend’s blowout loss to the Titans.
4) Steelers at Ravens (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): The Steelers need a win, a Colts loss and for the Chargers-Raiders game not to be a tie to get in. The Ravens need a win, a Colts loss, a Chargers loss and a Miami loss or tie to get in. So there is a scenario, and not an unrealistic one, where Indy’s up big at halftime of the early window, and this game suddenly loses meaning to the playoff picture. And that’d be too bad, because this has been, for my money, the NFL’s best rivalry over the last 20 years. But even then, it’s still likely going to be Ben Roethlisberger’s last game, and that means it won’t be irrelevant. (Yeah, I wrote in circles there a little … but you get the picture.)
5) Cowboys at Eagles (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET): There are realistic scenarios for Dallas to move up from the No. 4 seed to No. 3; getting to the No. 2 seed would be more difficult (they’d need the Rams, Cardinals and Buccaneers to lose). So this carries some meaning, if only because the Cowboys could avoid a trip to Lambeau and maybe get a second-round home game. As for the Eagles, they already know they’ll be the sixth- or seventh-seed; and that means, if everything holds, they’ll either be going to Tampa or L.A. for the wild-card round. And then there’s the possibility these teams play again next weekend, which adds another layer of intrigue to the whole thing—particularly since they won’t have any clue about that at kickoff, since this game is being played Saturday. We’ll see how Mike McCarthy and Nick Sirianni play it.
FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW
I know we touched on this in the MMQB column, but I think it’s worth crediting the Raiders’ players for getting here—all the same as we did interim coach Rich Bisaccia four days ago. That locker room has been through a lot this year. The internal tumult goes back to the summer, with the upper reaches of the organization being cleaned out, starting with the ousting of team president Marc Badain, and things only got worse from there, with Jon Gruden’s firing and Henry Ruggs III’s deadly DUI to follow. So that the group of players there could compartmentalize all of it, and fight through a 1–5 stretch that lasted into December, to rally and get here is remarkable. And to me, there was one group of guys that really made a difference—and that’s the receivers, given what they experienced in losing Ruggs the way they did.
“It’s definitely been a tough, tough year,” third-year slot Hunter Renfrow told me. “We still love Henry, even though he made a mistake. But as far as Zay [Jones] and Bryan [Edwards], so many people have doubted us and wondered if we need a true No. 1 receiver. We have the talent to get it done, and all I’ve seen is them just go to work every day and say, We’re going to get better. And Zay’s had two really good weeks the last couple weeks, Bryan’s come along and DeSean [Jackson] has been leading everyone as well, a veteran presence. I’m so proud of those guys, but also it doesn’t mean much if we lose next week. So we gotta go get a win.”
And that a win would mean this much—and get the Raiders into the postseason for the first time in six years—is a tribute to how those guys have approached it, even with much bigger matters at hand all around them,
Who’s the AFC’s top seed? Obviously, the new playoff format makes the No. 1 seed more valuable than it used to be—you’re the only team that gets a bye. Which is not only a nice break to get after the NFL’s first 17-game season, it also means if you get to the conference title game, you’ll be playing a team that’s carrying an extra playoff game on its legs. As of right now, four teams (Titans, Chiefs, Bengals and Patriots) have a shot at getting there. A Chiefs win Saturday night would eliminate Cincinnati and New England from that mix. And then it’d come down to whether the Titans beat the Texans (which they should). An interesting sidelight to all this? Both the Chiefs (who play the Broncos) and Titans are playing teams that have decisions to make on their coaches.
How do the Buccaneers come out of this mess? Tampa Bay has had a pretty uneven few weeks. They were shut out by the Saints, bounced back with a strong performance in Carolina, then needed a furious comeback to beat the Jets in Jersey. And amid that comeback you had the Antonio Brown mess, which the team has been managing since. Meanwhile, everything gets very real a week from now, and the Bucs don’t have the sort of momentum they were carrying into January last year. That, I think, makes Sunday’s home game against the Panthers—beyond the normal seeding implications—a big one. How does Tom Brady look? Where is he with guys like Cyril Grayson (last week’s hero), Breshad Perriman, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson? And is there any stylistic change (more two tight end looks?) to how the Bucs are playing offense? This is an interesting spot that the Bucs are in.
How does the Giants-Washington game go? The Washington Football Team had big goals for this year and didn’t accomplish them, so going into the offseason on a high note would be nice. But this, obviously, should be an interesting litmus test for Joe Judge, and how his team is responding to him. To me, part of his rambling postgame presser Sunday had to be meant to be received by his team—on his old boss Bill Belichick’s principle that you don’t talk to the media, you talk through the media. Well, if that’s the case here, his message to the guys was that he was happy with the work they’re putting in, even if the results haven’t always followed. So how did the team receive that message? Maybe we’ll get a little window into that Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
TWO BEST BETS
Season record: 17–17. I got cocky. That’s on me. My 10-game winning streak snapped with an 0–2 week, with both the Jets and Ravens covering in losses. Time to get back on the horse …
Dolphins (+7) vs. Patriots: Going to Miami in January is always tough for northern teams, and even Bill Belichick hasn’t been immune. While the Dolphins are out of it, I think Brian Flores will have his group ready to at least play a competitive game. Gimme the Pats, but in a close one.
Titans (-10.5) at Texans: This feels like one of those leave-no-doubt games for the Titans—and the prospect of getting a week off, with the looming return of Derrick Henry, gives Tennessee plenty of motivation to go make a statement in this one. Also, I was tempted to take the Niners to cover against the Rams, but the QB uncertainty made me back off there.
ONE BIG QUESTION
Will Antonio Brown get another shot to play in the NFL?
I polled a handful of NFL executives Thursday about this, and only one said yes.
“I’d say no,” said one NFC exec. “He always finds himself in the middle of some s--- and never takes accountability for it. I don’t doubt his passion for football. But he needs some time away from the game to get himself right. He should take a page from Brandon Marshall’s book and get the help he needs. Jumping from one team to the next will only delay it.”
“I doubt it,” said an AFC exec. “It’s every time, and he’ll be 34.”
The one yes came from another AFC exec, who said, “I don’t see it happening until next season. He’s talented, teams will get desperate, and some GM and head coach will need to win games and roll the dice.”
At this point, if Brown’s going to follow through with what he said he’d do, which is get surgery, it’ll have to be next year. And yes, there are teams, like the Seahawks, Chiefs and Saints, that have shown interest in the past, that could again.
But I’m with the guys who have their doubts, and the reason why, really, is because I believe most, if not all, teams will look at what happened in Tampa Bay, see how set up that situation was for Brown to succeed, and conclude that if it wasn’t happening there, it wasn’t going to happen anywhere.
All you have to do is really take stock of it. Bruce Arians runs one of the most player-friendly programs in the NFL, where guys can absolutely, 100% be themselves. Brown had the backing of Tom Brady, who’s as powerful an advocate as any player in the NFL can have as a teammate. The Bucs got Brown his first Super Bowl ring 11 months ago and had him positioned nicely to get another one. And Brown had been integrated into the offense and became more than just the cog he was last year (which is why I think his loss will sting).
All of that was going for Brown. He still couldn’t make it work. And it’s not like this was a second chance. After the Steelers, Raiders and Patriots, it was more like a fifth chance.
So a team thinking, under those circumstances, that it would get a different result? To paraphrase an old saying, that’d be the definition of insanity.
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