A market-correction may be coming to the NFL head coaching ranks.
Twelve months after teams were scurrying to race one another to hire the next “It guy,” competing for the services of a bevy of coordinators who had never been head coaches before, we may see just the opposite occur. After watching guys like Freddie Kitchens, Zac Taylor, Brian Flores, Kliff Kingsbury and Vic Fangio struggle mightily for much of the season, with rookie head coach Matt LaFleur the lone exception – I’d anticipate NFL owners going in a largely different direction this time around.
The closer we get to Black Monday, and the more owners who send signals that they might not be up for a full-scale head coaching search – despite how acute the need for one may be – the more I can’t help but wonder if we may not even see a single first-time head coach hired in 2020 (aside from college head coaches who have never done that job in the pros before). With each week it looks more likely there might be closer to six openings rather than the 10 some braced for at mid-season.
Fewer jobs available, overall, with a series of very high profile jobs likely to be among them (like the Giants and Cowboys) that are likely to put a serious premium on past experience, coupled with intense interest in college coaches could lead to a landscape that is particularly challenging for current NFL coordinators on either side of the ball. It’s not that difficult to imagine a scenario in which they are shut out entirely, particularly if multiple high-profile college coaches make the leap.
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In a normal year you might expect any owner who won four games or less to be seriously considering a change. But the Lions (three wins) already ruled it out and I don’t know anyone in the NFL who believes the Bengals (one win) or Dolphins (four wins) is even remotely thinking about it, and the Skins (three wins) already did it. The Giants (four wins) are mulling changes to coaching and/or front office, I’m told, but overall we’ll likely see fewer firings among the bottom half-dozen teams in the league as is normally the case.
Dan Quinn survived several obvious times when a coaching change could have been made in Atlanta and his strong second half could get him to 7-9. The Jaguars (five wins) fired team president Tom Coughlin last week but haven’t dismissed anyone else, at least just yet. The Chargers have to be mulling at the very least hiring two new coordinators, which has some wondering if they would stick with Anthony Lynn despite his great work a year ago. The Browns are considering rebooting the coaching staff and the Cowboys will be moving on from Jason Garrett barring the ultimate holiday miracle and Dallas somehow going on a deep playoff run. There may only be two openings out of these teams in this paragraph.
You start doing the math and there isn’t a lot of room for movement. Even if the Jags and Browns join the fray, as their peers around the league believe should be inevitable, for what it’s worth, we’re probably looking at a conservative hiring season, overall. And, besides the Cowboys and Giants, other teams like the Browns and Falcons would have to prioritize past head coaching experience given the nature of their woes and the types of novice hires those owners have generally made in the past.
So what does all of that mean?
Well, let’s go ahead and say there are six openings, when all is said and done. Who would the crop of potential first-time head coaches from the coordinator ranks have to compete with?
Let’s start with men who are currently out of the NFL and could be interviewed at any time. Ron Rivera is likely to be the most in-demand of that group, and of particular interest to teams like the Giants, Browns and Falcons, I would presume. Mike McCarthy received consideration a year ago and will again this year (though I have to be honest that I don’t see a slam dunk scenario for him unless former colleague John Dorsey brings him to Cleveland a year after opting not to do so). Jim Caldwell’s excellent work under duress in Detroit looks even better given how that team has fared since he left; ditto with Marvin Lewis, who is recharged a year after leaving the Bengals.
Expect at least one of those men to get a job and I’d probably set the over/under at two.
Then there are coordinators who are having very successful stints this year in the NFL, who also have prior head coaching experience. This is a deep and fairly diverse group. There are, however more options that abound that fit this criteria on the defensive side rather than the offensive side, for what it’s worth. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels of the Patriots gets multiple interview requests every year and that won’t be changing now. I believe he is coaching elsewhere in 2020. Might make sense to take the temperature of Vikings offensive coach Gary Kubiak as well, with his vast head coaching experience.
Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and Packers DC Mike Pettine fared poorly the first time around as HCs but will get some interest again. Ditto with Jets DC Gregg Williams, Bills assistant Leslie Frazier, Saints DC Steve Spagnuolo and Bucs DC Todd Bowles.. Hard to see a first-time head coach on the defensive side of the ball breaking through unless he has a transcendent interview.
And then there are the college ranks. From everything I hear, there is not a single candidate more in demand than Baylor’s Matt Rhule right now. Sources tell me the Giants job would have a particular cache with him. And he might just stay in school after just signing an eight-year extension. But owners can be very compelling and he came very close to making the jump with the Jets a year ago; a job that isn’t even remotely close to some of the gigs likely to be tossed his way this January.
Lincoln Riley is coveted as well with his Oklahoma offense continuing to pile up points and churn out pro players. Jerry Jones is beyond intrigued, I hear. He can be pretty compelling. The Panthers and Skins have done a lot of homework on Stanford’s David Shaw. Teams have be trying to lure him out of Northern California for years. Some believe he might listen a little more this time around. And ex-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer couldn’t be flirting more with an NFL job right now if he took out billboards in every city where a firing might occur.
That looks like a fairly formidable strata of coaches to me, especially when weighed against the relative inexperience and resumes of many of the coordinators trying to break through for the first time. Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will be sought after, sources said, with their work with athletic young QBs drawing major kudos. Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski was a finalist for the Browns job a year ago – and should’ve got it most would say now. Chiefs assistant Brian Kafka is under the radar but will be a head coach one day and should get some sniffs this year.
But it’s not going to be easy for most of these first-time guys unless we see more owners opt to move on from what they have either already committed to for 2020, or what they plan to settle for right now. Things tend to ebb and flow in this league, and it looks like January of this year may be quite different from the last.