NFL coaching carousel news? Already? Week 6 just ended. Can’t we let this season breathe a little bit?
Ahhh … no. In case you haven’t been paying attention, two head coaches (and two general managers) have already been fired. At least three more head coaches appear to be on thin ice. We’re coming up on the midway point of the regular season, and there’s no use pretending this stuff isn’t going to happen, because it has already started.
The two coaches who have been fired so far — Houston’s Bill O’Brien and Atlanta’s Dan Quinn — have a combined 100 wins, including the playoffs. Knowing that, there are very few coaches who have a right to feel completely safe — especially with so much time left in the season.
Which is why, no, it’s not too early for informed coaching buzz, or talk of buyout clauses, interim labels and coach-GM dysfunction. And it’s never too early to look ahead to the next crop of candidates.
So we’ve been calling and texting NFL folks in the know, taking a look around the league at what does and doesn’t make sense, in order to provide you with a list of coaching-related notes to prepare you for the inevitable chaos to come. Enjoy.
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Next wave of NFL coaching candidates
The weirdness of the COVID-19 season isn’t going to save any jobs
The 2021 salary cap is going to drop as a result of COVID-19-related revenue losses, but coaches don’t count against the cap. That’s why an industry source gave a simple reply when asked if teams might keep coaches to save costs: “NBA.” If Doc Rivers can get fired after a short, financially strapped season, so can big-name NFL coaches.
Expect up to three more NFL head-coach openings by season’s end and possibly a few more in the offseason. Last year’s total of five head-coaching changes was the fewest since the 2009-10 cycle, when only three teams changed. But that was coming off a historic 2008-09 offseason in which 11 teams changed coaches. And the following cycle, in 2010-11, eight teams changed.
History tells us the fact that there were only five openings last year means the market will overcorrect, and there should be a lot more this year.
Industry sources are certain Eric Bieniemy will get one of these jobs
The Chiefs’ offensive coordinator has been on the head-coach interview circuit the past couple of years but hasn’t managed to get one of the jobs. His contract expires at the end of the season. The Chiefs would love to have him back, but they know he’s probably gone.
Houston definitely has interest, and some believe Bieniemy could already be the front-runner there. The quarterback, overall roster talent and organizational structure will be important to him, and the Texans can offer that, with the willingness to tie a new general manager to the coach. Bieniemy is the marquee Rooney Rule candidate in a year with revamped rules to encourage the hiring of Black coaches. He’s far from the only qualified coordinator or assistant coach. Hiring Bieniemy should be the floor for diversity hiring this year.
Josh McDaniels looms large once again
Former Patriots executive Jack Easterby, who ironically was brought into the Houston organization by O’Brien, has massive influence in that organization right now and is likely to direct both hires. That has fueled some speculation of a Nick Caserio/Josh McDaniels pairing in Houston, but McDaniels still carries some baggage from the Indianapolis fiasco of a couple of years ago.
McDaniels is a guy on whom you’d have to sell ownership if you wanted to hire him, which we aren’t even sure Easterby does. Easterby and McDaniels did have a relationship when in New England together, so the connection is worth watching. And winning with Cam Newton at quarterback the season after Tom Brady left would remind everybody why McDaniels is so well regarded as an offensive mind in the first place.
Is Gase long for New York?
Someone involved in the shaky Adam Gase-Jets marriage says his job has not been considered a “week-to-week thing” internally. That might not matter, as change seems inevitable, but it could happen later than many expect.
One league exec pointed out that the Jets might even be better off letting Gase finish out the misery over 16 games, for a few reasons: This isn’t a roster that will ignite a winning streak anyway, a mini-tank might aid quarterback positioning in the 2021 NFL draft (though players and coaches never go for that), and the only natural interim option would be defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose relationship with the current staff appears tenuous.
Williams went 5-3 as Cleveland’s interim coach in 2018, but that team had hope. This team has upheaval. The Jets are hoping to show some semblance of offense with the returns of rookie second-round pick Denzel Mims, third-year quarterback Sam Darnold and free-agent acquisition Breshad Perriman, who played in Week 6 and caught four passes for 62 yards. But that’s all wishful thinking, as many in the league have lost faith in a coach who has well-documented problems with some of his players.
There could be several GM openings, too
As we mentioned, the Texans and Falcons jobs are already open. Industry sources are watching the Panthers and Giants for potential openings, and some believe Washington will hire a general manager at some point as well.
What’s interesting about this is the way teams decide to pair up the two positions. The Giants, for example, have always instituted a strict separation of powers between the GM and the head coach, but they’re in this awful cycle right now in which they always seem to be replacing one or the other. They fired coach Tom Coughlin after the 2015 season but kept GM Jerry Reese. They fired Reese and coach Ben McAdoo during the 2017 season, hired GM Dave Gettleman months before hiring coach Pat Shurmur, fired Shurmur after two years and are widely expected to fire Gettleman after this year.
Do they stick with the “Giant Way?” Or do they think about matching up new coach Joe Judge with a GM they know he can work with? Teams such as the Bills and 49ers are having success in situations in which they picked the coach first and matched him up with a GM with whom he already had a strong relationship. That could become the trend, in which case the coach hires might take on more importance than the GM ones.
As for GM candidates? The names you hear include:
Caserio, the longtime Patriots exec whose new contract, per sources, allows him to leave whenever he wants to.
Eliot Wolf (the son of former NFL GM Ron Wolf), who’s now working with Caserio in New England after stints with the Packers and Browns. He is still on teams’ lists.
Vikings assistant GM George Paton, who some believe would leave Minnesota for the right opportunity. He got a long look from the Browns last year but decided to stay put.
Usual suspects from the Seattle front office, Scott Fitterer and Trent Kirchner. Veteran personnel man Alonzo Highsmith, also with the Seahawks, helped build talented rosters in Green Bay and Cleveland, along with Wolf.
Bills assistant GM Joe Schoen, Chiefs director of football operations Mike Borgonzi, Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds and Bucs director of player personnel John Spytek.
The key here is to watch the winning organizations. Those are the ones from which other teams like to find coaching and GM talent.
The Broncos are a team to watch … maybe
We’ve talked to a few people who believe coach Vic Fangio will get a third year in part due to all the injuries the Broncos have suffered. His team seems to have fight, which is a good sign, though that 29th-ranked total offense needs to improve.
If things were really to go south in Denver, it’s not crazy to imagine a total overhaul, with Broncos legend and general manager John Elway potentially even getting the boot and the team bringing in a new GM/coach combo. But the idea of the Broncos firing John Elway still just seems tough to believe, doesn’t it?
An audition in Atlanta?
The Falcons like interim coach Raheem Morris a great deal. They know he helped the defense rebound late last season, and they believe he has the demeanor for a head-coaching job. They’ve helped regroom him in a way, as he has coached both sides of the ball since he has been there. And he does have long-ago head-coaching experience from Tampa Bay when he was in his mid-30s (he went 17-31 from 2009 to 2011). All of that said, he’d need quite the impressive 11-game stretch to win the job, and he knows it. The odds seem stacked against him.
Atlanta is not the appealing job it was two years ago, however. This has the makings of a near-complete teardown, with some people around the league openly wondering whether quarterback Matt Ryan or even wide receiver Julio Jones will be shopped at the Nov. 3 trade deadline (their contracts would make that extremely difficult). Plus, it’s difficult to name five impact players on that defense without Google.
The feeling around the league is that Atlanta probably won’t use a search firm, as Houston is doing with Jed Hughes. Team owner Arthur Blank and president Rich McKay will conduct the coach and GM searches.
Hot seats in Detroit
Detroit is feeling the heat internally. People there know the coaching staff must make a spirited push, with the Week 6 victory over Jacksonville easing tension temporarily. Lions brass wants to see the Matt Patricia era work, but Detroit’s propensity for relinquishing leads has become a big concern.
Patricia and GM Bob Quinn entered this season knowing they likely had to win to keep their jobs, and they’re 2-3 so far. Quinn and Patricia were a promising pair with New England’s championship pedigree. Quinn, the former Patriots director of pro scouting, helped hire Patricia, then the Patriots’ defensive coordinator, in 2018. That synergy has helped both sides stay united on personnel decisions, but synergy doesn’t matter much when the record is 11-25-1 together. Maybe it will start to pay off in the next few weeks.
Is Jacksonville a sneaky-good job?
Many potential coaches look at it as one. The Jaguars’ roster is already stripped down but has young talent in spots, not many bloated contracts and 10 draft picks and counting in 2021, including a shot at the No. 1 pick.
Should Doug Marrone get fired before the season ends — he’s 23-33 over four-plus seasons in Jacksonville — it’s not out of the question that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden could ascend to the interim spot and, depending on how the season goes, get the job full-time. But that’s a lot of ifs.
Saving jobs in Chicago?
The Bears are 5-1, somehow, and a run to the playoffs could spare not only coach Matt Nagy but also GM Ryan Pace, in spite of the disastrous outcome of the Mitchell Trubisky pick. Most people with whom we’ve talked think the Nagy/Pace pairing gets another year at least, which means another shot to try to solve the quarterback situation there.
The way the Bears are playing, they aren’t going to have a very high pick with which to do it.
Is Anthony Lynn safe in L.A.?
While the Chargers appear headed for another disappointing season, the feeling around the league is that Lynn will get more time … for now. The organization loves Lynn, and he hasn’t lost the locker room.
He’s 3-13 the past two years in games decided by seven points or fewer, however. A second consecutive season as a noncontender could force the organization’s hand, especially as it tries to drum up interest from the Los Angeles fan base.
The emergence of rookie quarterback Justin Herbert could buy Lynn time. Herbert has flashed star potential through four starts and has a good rhythm with offensive coordinator Shane Steichen. The Chargers might not want to disrupt that.
Could Joe Burrow be playing for someone else in Cincy?
At 3-18-1 so far, second-year coach Zac Taylor hasn’t impressed, but he came in with little experience and plenty of roster holes, and you have to think the historically patient Bengals are willing to live with his growing pains. That said, everything is about rookie quarterback Burrow now. And if the franchise gets to the end of the season and decides Taylor isn’t the guy to shepherd Burrow to long-term NFL success, it absolutely could look elsewhere.
The Bengals seem to be in every game, but they don’t win many of them. Taylor’s offense has helped Burrow put up solid counting stats (1,617 passing yards, sixth in the NFL), but Burrow is on pace to be sacked 64 times and his 50.1 Total QBR ranks 26th in the league. Taylor must get it fixed by season’s end.
There’s always a surprise …
Everybody you talk to about this stuff says that every year. “There’s always a surprise.” And if we knew where the surprises would come from … well, they wouldn’t be surprises. But look at a situation such as Minnesota, where well-regarded coach Mike Zimmer is in his seventh season, won a road playoff game last season and just had his contract extended through 2023.
There’s no indication from anyone reliable that Zimmer is in any immediate trouble. But he is 1-5 with a team that had playoff aspirations and has a ton of money sunk into its quarterback. If things continue to go this badly, the extension isn’t likely to keep him safe.
Put Minnesota on your back-burner watch list, along with long-shot possibilities such as the Cowboys giving up on Mike McCarthy after only one year, or Bill Belichick retiring in New England. No concrete reason to expect it as of now, other than weird things happen.
Who’s got next? Candidates for head-coach openings
OK, you want to know who the candidates are going to be for these openings? We’ve already addressed Bieniemy, who seems the most likely hire. After that, there’s a good bit of buzz around Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who’s likely to get multiple interviews. One big reason why? He’s good at what Kyle Shanahan is good at: creating explosive plays without a dominant quarterback. Only Dallas is producing more yards per game than Tennessee’s 422, despite the Titans’ ranking 11th in passing offense. Should Smith leave, Bill O’Brien, who gave Mike Vrabel his first NFL coaching job, could be a favorite to join Vrabel’s staff as offensive coordinator if that’s what he wants. O’Brien also could turn out to be the head-coach apple of some team’s eye, be it an NFL team or a college team.
Others names we’ve heard include Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer (word is the Seattle culture has been good for him, and convincing Pete Carroll to “Let Russ Cook” has been no small accomplishment), Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and, as usual, McDaniels.
It can be tough for defensive coaches to get traction in head-coaching interview circles, but a couple of defensive coordinators to watch include San Francisco’s Robert Saleh and a list of former head coaches: Buffalo’s Leslie Frazier, New Orleans’ Dennis Allen, Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles and, if the Chiefs were to win again, maybe even Kansas City’s Steve Spagnuolo.
Saints assistant Dan Campbell has some head-coaching experience and would like another shot, and some teams have him on their radar. 49ers offensive assistants Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel are names of interest. Guys working behind hot coordinators such as Bieniemy and Roman also could get interviews, which means you look at prospects such as Chiefs assistant (and longtime Andy Reid favorite) Mike Kafka as well as Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban.
Remember, this is a list made before Week 7. A lot can still happen. Some of the guys whose prospects look good now can fade if their teams struggle. Some we don’t know about could jump into the mix. (Who will be this year’s Joe Judge?) But this should at least give you a taste of whom to watch as talk continues to heat up.