Who are the top head coaching candidates?
The NFL’s coaching carousel is heating up.
Gus Bradley and Jeff Fisher already are out. And it’s likely that Rex Ryan, Todd Bowles and Mike McCoy will all be looking for work soon.
In truth, this isn’t a great year to be looking for an alternative. A year ago, Adam Gase and Hue Jackson were both red-hot candidates. Each of them was deserving and prepared for a head coaching gig, and were both stronger candidates than anyone currently on the market (I still cannot believe Hue took that Browns job).
Here’s a rundown of this year’s top candidates.
McDaniels falls under the “retread” category, but he feels like a new coach.
In his first job, he became too involved with organizational politics and didn’t focus enough on what he’s best at: finding and developing talent, and installing a creative and multiple scheme.
My former boss, and ex-Broncos’ GM, Ted Sundquist, has written in detail about what plagued McDaniels in Denver. Namely, trying to imprint a leadership identity that wasn’t always authentic, rather than allowing his true personality to govern how he led. That’s an issue that has hindered many Bill Belichick disciples, trying too much to act like Belichick rather than themselves.
Now, McDaniels is a hot commodity again. And rightly so. Ever since he returned to Foxborough, he’s choreographed the most dynamic offense in the league. Of course, having Tom Brady execute that is an advantage that other coordinators don’t have, but the sheer volume of formations, plays and differing styles that McDaniels has installed, and run, to an elite level is nothing short of startling.
I think he’d fit really well in L.A. But having said that, I believe he’d fit well anywhere.
One thing to keep in mind is McDaniels leaving is no forgone conclusion. Per league sources, Belichick held initial discussions last year about who may take over the Patriots offense were McDaniels to leave (a list that included Chip Kelly). But McDaniels ultimately opted to stay. After all, why not stick around with Brady for as long as he plays?
It’s easy to forget Haley had a short stint as the Chiefs head coach. But he did, and it was unremarkable.
He falls into a similar category as McDaniels: A guy who flamed out at his first stop but has rebuilt his reputation with the Steelers, and done so behind a future HOF quarterback. For me, Haley is best suited as a coordinator.
For the life of me I cannot see a team employing Fisher as its head coach. Forget the intangible stuff that we often focus on: How do you sell it to the fans? How will players react? And so on. He just isn’t a very good coach. Period. So why employ him?
While there remains a strong affection for him in the league, he’s never proven he can develop a quarterback, build a sustainable offense or win consistently. You kind of need those things to compete for championships.
I can certainly see an owner bringing him in as a “Vice President of Football Operations” somewhere. But he should never be a head coach again.
Coughlin appears to be the backup play in Jacksonville in the event they don’t land a “bigger name” (a silly way of conducting a job search, by the way. Get the best guy for the job). He certainly brings experience, the understanding of how to build a culture and has the most proven “CEO” skills of any candidate on the market.
Smith is essentially the Coughlin alternative, without the championships.
He has done a remarkable job of adapting his system and play calling in-season to turn the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense from a poor one into a good one. And easy to forget just how good a job he did in his early-to-mid Atlanta Falcons reign.
But he’s a good example of how thin the market is. Would you trust Smith taking over your team? Of course. Would you trust him to win division championships? Absolutely. How about Super Bowls? Nope.
I like Smith, and he’s earned another shot, but he shouldn’t be at the top of anyone’s list.
Schwartz highlights the weak pool of candidates this year. Since he left Detroit, he’s undergone somewhat of a rejuvenation by leading some of the best defensive units in the league in Philadelphia. But his on-field coaching credentials have never been in question (particularly on defense), the issue is how well he can run a program, and whether his style is sustainable.
McVay is another on a list of creative offensive minds. Were he to get a job this offseason, he would be the youngest head coach in the league, replacing Gase in Miami.
This may be a year too early, but in an offseason of unknown or “meh” candidates, why not take the gamble?
Jay Gruden is largely credited with the Washington Redskins’ multiple offense, but it’s McVay who calls the plays. He is a master of sequencing, setting up concepts early in a game or drive that pays off later.
McVay’s offense is one of the most multiple and expansive in the league. Making it among the best at keeping defenses off balance. Most importantly, he’s found ways to accentuate all the talent at the Redskins’ loaded skill positions. Whether it’s isolating Jordan Reed, creating 1-on-1 matchups for DeSean Jackson or creating separation through play design, McVay has done it all.
His inexperience is likely to hold him back, but I’d anticipate teams doing their due diligence on the rising star.
If you’re shopping for a creative offensive mind, Shanahan may be the best bet. His work with quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense has been sensational, devolving an expansive and balanced attack that features one of the best boot-action packages in the league (the way he has incorporated, and improved, Matt Ryan’s mobility into the system has been a game-changer).
Like his father, Shanahan is proving he can adapt his system to the talent he has (and there’s a lot of it in Atlanta), as well as develop talent in the building to fit his rather basic inside/outside-zone run scheme.
Whether or not he is the total package with regards to leadership and steering the ship is a different question. But if a team is looking to develop around a young quarterback, Shanahan would be a very smart hire.
Lynn may be a year away from receiving serious consideration, but he’ll be the backup plan for many teams.
Almost everyone you talk to around the league mentions Lynn as a future coaching star. The former Bills running backs coach (who was promoted in-season to be the offensive coordinator) has outstanding leadership traits and is beloved by the players he has coached.
What he’s proven since getting the OC gig is how quick he can adapt. Early on, he was a poor sequencer, but he has improved greatly as the year has gone on and he has become a dynamic play caller. The Bills’ option offense is essentially unique. And while Greg Roman installed it, it has taken off under Lynn.
It’s unlikely Shula’s name will be at the top of any teams “wish list,” but those with quarterback concerns (pretty much every coaching vacancy ever) should certainly take a look.
Shula has been the key cog in the development of Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers’ exotic offense. He has found a way to blend spread-option concepts and West-Coast principles (and a whole host of run-pass options) in order to limit Newton’s bad, and promote the extraordinary positives.
But it’s not just Newton. The Panthers run one of the most creative run schemes in the league. And they’ve done so for years despite having deficiencies at the tackle spots.
Shula may have missed the boat after helping the Panthers to the Super Bowl a year ago, but his resume stands: He’s developed a young quarterback, built around him, helped that player play to an MVP level and runs an exotic offense.
Jim Bob Cooter
Talking of quarterback development, Cooter has helped take Detroit’s Matthew Stafford from a very good player to an MVP-caliber one.
Earlier in the season, I detailed some of the changes in Detroit’s system since JBC became the play caller last season, and since then things have only improved.
Cooter’s offense is essentially the one Peyton Manning ran for years. It’s nice to still have someone who thinks the “levels” concept solves all problems (seriously, Cooter and the Lions run two-, three- and four-man levels concepts constantly). And he’s helped turn Stafford into a spread-timing quarterback rather than one who was limited to diagnosing isolation routes.
Rather than pull back on Stafford (as were the early reports), Cooter cut Stafford loose, letting him operate more from the line of scrimmage and allowing the quarterback to call his own plays when they jumped into the no-huddle.
Whether or not he has the “CEO of the Organization” skills remains a valid question. But I’m sold on all things JBC as an installer of an offense and game-day play caller.
Patricia is Belichick’s second-in-command in New England. Most inside and outside the league believe he’s the likely successor to Belichick, even if McDaniels does not opt to leave in the near future.
As much as teams across the league would like to interview him (and I believe he’s a future superstar) he’s shown no signs that he is ready to move on from the Patriots just yet, and likely will remain in Foxborough for at least the next two years.
Austin has been a hot commodity over the last few years and so I thought I’d include him. But in all honesty, I’m not really sold.
Detroit does nothing extraordinary on defense (though at times they play almost entirely out of a base “mug” front). And at times it feels like Austin’s reputation was inflated by the year he had Ndamukong Suh destroying opponents’ game plans.
Folks around the league believe Austin has shown more “head coaching traits” than others on the list. As someone who isn’t around him or the team day-to-day I can only take their word for it. He will certainly get interviews this offseason.
The College Guys
The league office itself has long been enamored with Shaw. I remember having a conversation with a league official two years ago in which he waxed about Shaw and how the league was actively courting him and making it known to owners the Stanford coach was a guy they wanted in the league.
However, he has a great job at Stanford and seems more than content after recently signing a contract extension. Perhaps the Los Angeles Rams job would interest him (and the Rams-league office connection is strong), but it seems likely that he’ll remain at Stanford for years to come.
I had to put Harbaugh on this list because he enters every coaching discussion. And that’s fair, if you have a coaching vacancy and you don’t reach out to Harbaugh you’re not doing your job.
But he isn’t leaving Michigan. At least not until he’s beaten Ohio State, won a national title, and turned the program into a self-sustaining juggernaut.