For some, the end of the Regular Season signals the beginning of the pursuit of a Super Bowl Championship. The ultimate form of validation after sixteen games of grueling work and endless hours on the practice field and in the meeting room. With that said, for many, the end of the campaign symbolizes a reprieve from four months of disappointment, along with the hope of potential improvement over the course of the Offseason. That’s right, folks. For a large number of fans too great to quantify, the real season begins now. Unfortunately, in most cases that feeling of optimism oftentimes goes hand in hand with the acquisition of a new Head Coach, or in other words, the termination of his predecessor. The old adage, What Have You Done For Me Lately, is no more appropriate in the sporting world then when it comes to coaches, and the Monday following the final Sunday of the Regular Season is a day that generally lives in infamy among that small fraternity, for it is the day that many of them lose their jobs. Whether it’s a failure to meet lofty expectations, or to develop promising talent, losing a power struggle within a fractured front office, drawing the ire of an overbearing owner, preaching the same message for so long that the words have lost their meaning, or simply losing far too many games, just about every skipper will meet this inevitable fate. In other words, sans retirement, all roads in the coaching world lead to Black Monday. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the latest carnage that has become an annual tradition, along with some of the names and faces that could be calling the shots once the dominoes have fallen.
Before we get into the terminations and openings, let’s take a moment to touch upon one man, who for all intents and purposes was a proverbial Dead Man Walking for nearly half of the season, yet surprisingly managed to beat the reaper and change his fate. After refusing to offer him a contract extension, Colts’ Head Coach Chuck Pagano was essentially a lame duck heading into 2015, thanks to a widely publicized frosty relationship with General Manager Ryan Grigson. Things got a lot hotter for Pagano with the team’s disappointing turnover-laden 3-5 start, which only got worse with the season-ending injury of Andrew Luck. Thanks to the mediocre nature of the AFC South, Indianapolis was in contention to the end, but were ultimately relegated to pulling Quarterbacks off the street for thier season finale. So with no Playoffs to look forward to for the first time since 2011, the consensus was that Pagano, and most likely Grigson, were gone. Hell, even the man himself seemed resigned to his fate. However, as the clock nearly struck midnight on Monday, word out of the Colts’ Camp was that Pagano was rewarded with a brand-new, four-year contract extension, made even more surprising by Grigson’s three-year extension, taking arguably what would have been the most sought-after job opening in the league off the market. Reports range from overwhelming support from the locker room being reason for his stay, to an initial breakdown in negotiations with current Saints’ skipper Sean Payton (more on him in a bit) sending Jim Irsay back to the drawing board. Or perhaps the erstwhile owner watched how the saga in San Francisco played out last year and it’s ensuing debacle of a season, and implored both sides to reconcile. Either way, Pagano and the team he’s warded over for the past four years have managed to evade their fate…. for now at least.
****(We’d also like to applaud both the Lions’ Jim Caldwell and the Chargers’ Mike McCoy for earning a stay of execution. Both coaches were in serious danger of losing their jobs for a variety of reasons, and would have ranked favorably amongst the following candidates. Perhaps we’ll catch back up with them again in a year’s time.)
So without further ado, let’s run down the list of the top twelve candidates (in no particular order) that will be vying to become one of the thirty-two Head Coaches in the NFL.
- Adam Gase, Bears Offensive Coordinator: The most coveted young name on the market belongs to Gase, the 37-year old OC of the Bears, whose track record mentoring Quarterbacks is getting rather ridiculous. Never mind the work he put in with Peyton Manning as the Broncos’ OC from 2012-2014, this is the guy that tutored Tim Tebow in his lone starting term in Denver. If that alone wasn’t enough to grab the attention of executives around the league, becoming the only guy on this planet that has managed to figure out the enigmatic Jay Cutler cements his standing at the top of the Market. Spending the last five years learning at the feet of John Fox doesn’t hurt either, so get ready to hear this guy’s name quite a bit over the next week.
- Hue Jackson, Bengals Offensive Coordinator: Everywhere this guy goes, success follows. Hue Jackson is one of the most innovative and aggressive offensive minds in the league today, helming the Bengals’ balanced attack over the past two seasons. The 50-year old is outstanding with young Quarterbacks (Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton), and has plenty of experience in the league (15 years), including a one-year stint as the Oakland Raiders’ Head Coach. And by the way, has anyone seen the marvelous job he’s done with A.J. McCarron leading Cincinnati’s offense? A strong, confident personality, Jackson is sure to be a hit with the locker room and media wherever he ends up.
- Josh McDaniels, Patriots Offensive Coordinator: Another bright offensive mind that failed in his previous stay as a HC, sentiment around the league is that McDaniels could be willing to test the waters again after returning to the Patriots for another sterling four-year term. Though his stay as the Broncos’ skipper lasted just twenty-eight games, his success with New England makes that past failure seem like ancient history. In seven total seasons in Foxboro, his offenses never ranked worse than eleventh, even with Matt Cassell driving the unit in 2008. After all, his mentor, Bill Belichick, failed in his first tenure leading a franchise, and he’s been reportedly advising his young ward (39-years old) on being very selective with his next opportunity. With Pats’ Quarterback Tom Brady entering the twilight of his illustrious career, it’s no longer a matter of if, but when McDaniels makes his departure.
- Teryl Austin, Lions’ Defensive Coordinator: Now on to the defensive side of the ball, where Austin has been doctoring quiet the resume over the past decade. Coaching Defensive Backs for NFC Champions Seattle (2005) and Arizona (2008) bolsters a lengthy resume’, that is highlighted by the 2014 Lions’ Defense, which he coordinated to 2nd in Total Defense (300.9 yards) and Third in Points Allowed (17.6). Even after the departure of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, the 50-year old did a solid job of keeping his unit together (18th Overall) through Detroit’s recent rocky 7-9 campaign. Austin has been an avid interview in each of the previous two Offseasons, and is a good bet to finally land as a Head Coach in 2016.
- Sean McDermott, Panthers Defensive Coordinator: When your team goes 15-1, the Coaching Staff is bound to get a load of attention, with McDermott at the front of the line after crafting one of the stingiest defenses in the league over the past five years (Ranked no worse than Tenth in Total Defense since 2012). A longtime assistant of Andy Reid in Philadelphia (1999-2010), the 41-year old joined Ron Rivera in 2011 and has done a tremendous job with what has largely been home grown talent. Whether it’s former Defensive Player of the year Luke Kuechley or front-runner for this year’s award Josh Norman, this guy has quite a lengthy track record developing talent on the defensive side of the ball, which should appeal to a number of executives these days. As the Panthers aim for a deep postseason run, it may take a while before he picks a job, but our feeling is that he’ll be worth it.
- Tom Cable, Seahawks Offensive Line Coach: Here’s a guy who enjoyed a largely mediocre tenure as a Head Coach, but is widely respected as an assistant, coaching Offensive Lines at a number of stops, including the Falcons (2006), Raiders (2007-2008), and most recently the Seahawks (2011-present). Cable has served as Pete Carroll’s Assistant Head Coach since 2011, and has done a marvelous job of getting the most out of an Offensive Line that has oftentimes looked a train wreck. With that said, Seattle has ranked no worse than Fourth in Rushing Offense in each of the last four years, including third this season, and that’s without a healthy Marshawn Lynch in the Backfield for a large part of the campaign. As is the case with McDaniels, we’re betting that his successful tenure as one of Carroll’s prime lieutenants in the Pacific Northwest will wash away the bad taste left by his stay in Oakland.
- Sean Payton, Saints Head Coach: The proverbial Wild Card of this group, Payton should be the first domino to fall once his murky situation with the Saints is cleaned up. The general sense around the league is that with a sizeable rebuild ahead in New Orleans, the 52-year old would be willing to make his exit. After all, he can’t do any better in the Big Easy than guiding the downtrodden franchise to ther first-ever Super Bowl Championship after decades of futility. However, with two years remaining on his current contract, there would be compensation headed the Saints’ way, which is reportedly only a Second Round Pick. With very few peers on the offensive side of the ball, he has the potential of immediately improving whatever team he chooses, particularly if they already have a Quarterback he would favor. Whatever he decides to do, Payton (87-57 over the past ten years) will likely be the biggest fish on the market.
- Mike Shanahan, former Broncos and Redskins Head Coach: We suppose that it was just a matter of time, before the allure of the game drew Shanahan back into the NFL. The two-time Super Bowl Champion has expressed his desire of returning to the sidelines after two years spent away from the game on the heels of his controversial tenure with the Redskins. The further removed that the 63-year old has become from that debacle in the Nation’s Capital, the better he’s looked in the way he handled things, and when it comes to credentials, nobody else on this list even comes close (save our next candidate); Shanahan is 170-138 as a Head Coach, with an extensive track record of building productive offenses and getting the most out of his Quarterbacks (Steve Young, John Elway, and even Jake Plummer to name but a few). However, he won’t come cheap, and will likely demand a certain degree of power in the building, but we believe that someone will be willing to make him a compelling offer.
- Tom Coughlin, former Giants Head Coach: Let’s be clear here; in his press conference on Monday, Coughlin proclaimed that he and the Giants are parting ways, and that he is in fact not retiring. Reports around the league swear that he still wants to be a Head Coach, and with so many wayward organizations looking for a wise, steady hand to guide them, it would come as absolutely no surprise if he was indeed hired tomorrow. With twenty years of experience leading the Jaguars from their infancy, to the Giants’ most recent two Super Bow Championships, Coughlin’s credentials are unquestionable. The only question appears to be his age (69-years old), but any smart executive should quickly dismiss that notion given his youthful passion and enthusiasm for the game. This guy may be the elderstatesman of this list, but one thing is for certain: nobody gets more out of less than Tom Coughlin.
- Doug Marrone, Jaguars Assistant Head Coach: Another Bill Parcells disciple, Marrone seems eager to get back into the fraternity of Head Coaches after surprisingly choosing to leave the Bills amidst their change in ownership a year ago. While his decision to leave (and in turn collect a hefty payday) may leave Owners a bit reticent to hire him, those that do their due diligence will intelligently point out the underachieving state of his former team after his departure. The 51-year old has some solid ties to a lot of great coaches including Parcells and Payton, and when coupled with his previous experience as a Head Coach (Syracuse 2009-2012, Buffalo 2013-2014) should make him appealing to the teams that have to settle for second-tier candidates.
- Todd Haley, Steelers Offensive Coordinator: The theme of second-chances continues with Haley, another Parcells acolyte who has rehabbed his image quite a bit after a disappointing stint as a HC. One of the most dynamic offensive minds in the league, Haley has spent the last four years evolving the Steelers into arguably the most explosive offensive attack in the NFL; Pittsburgh has ranked third and second in Total Offense over the last two years. Granted, he has a reputation as one of the more prickly personalities among the coaching ranks, but there is no denying his value in organizing an offense and calling plays. Also, keep in mind that he did take the Chiefs to the Playoffs in just his second year on the job, before being shown the door thirteen games into the following campaign.
- Jim Schwartz, former Lions Head Coach; Finally, we come to our last candidate, Jim Schwartz, who spent the 2015 term out of the NFL, but has reportedly expressed major interest in returning to the sidelines. Folks will remember that his time spent in Detroit wasn’t all bad, (a 10-6 2011 season propelled the team to it’s first postseason appearance since 2000.), and that Detroit showed very gradual improvement under his watch. The overall discipline of his teams is definitely a concern, but his prowess in coordinating a defense simply cannot be questioned; as the Bills’ Defensive Coordinator in 2014, he guided a loaded defense to a league-high fifty-four sacks, while that same group regressed mightily under Rex Ryan. Despite only being 49-years old, Schwartz has a wealth of experience under his belt, dating back all the way to his days as a Scout on Bill Belichick’s Staff in Cleveland in 1993. After the first wave of hires passes, don’t be surprised if some Owner surmises that this guy has indeed learned from his previous mistakes.
Now, let’s take a look at the quintet of teams that have handed their Head Coaches thier respective walking papers, and whom we believe are prime candidates to fill the void.
****(While the Saints’ Sean Payton is reportedly a prime candidate for a number of the following openings, and we fully expect him to be coaching somewhere else in 2016, New Orleans will be excluded from this list due to the fact that he is still currently under contract with the organization, and in fact thier Head Coach… for now.)
- Cleveland Browns (3-13, Last in AFC North): While it comes as no surprise that the league’s most dysfunctional organization has once again put themselves in this position, it is a bit surprising that they have apparently redefined the term rock bottom. Monday, Owner Jimmy Haslam promptly fired both Head Coach Mike Pettine and General Manager Ray Farmer in a move that surprised absolutely NOBODY. While the former became more frustrated by the day with the antics of Johnny Manziel, his biggest sin was never really improving the product on the field (30th in Points Scored, 29th in Points Allowed), thanks in large part to the latter’s utter ineptitude in supplying the team with talent, despite every opportunity to do so. Seriously, armed with four First Round Picks over the last two Drafts, all Farmer managed to net was the quartet of Justin Gilbert, the aforementioned Manziel (both 2013), Danny Shelton, and Cameron Irving (both 2014). Needless to say, both men earned thier pink slips on this one. However, what was in fact surprising was the swift appointment of analytics expert Sashi Brown to VP of Football Operations followed by the appointment of former New York Mets’ Executive Paul DePodesta (of Money Ball fame) to an ambiguous title of his own, which has left many scratching their heads. This is what it’s come to folks, the Browns are reaching out to Major League Baseball for answers. And it is that level of instability (three HCs in four years) that will likely keep any of the big fish from remotely approachng the job, even if they get to pick thier own GM. Expect Haslam and the analytics duo to hire a General Manager first, and then likely settle for another of the second-tier candidates. Candidates: Jackson, Haley, Schwartz
- San Francisco 49ers (5-11, Last in NFC West): In another dismissal that shocked nary a soul, the 49ers parted ways with Jim Tomsula after a dreadful year that saw the roster decimated by a unique confluence of injuries, retirements, and departures. The ensuing campaign that followed the mass exodus of talent and leadership went about as well as you would surmise, leaving the former NFL Europe skipper completely out of his depth and now out of a job. For a team that had participated in three consecutive NFC Championship Games from 2011 to 2013, the regression has been absolutely stunning; The Niners ranked dead last in the league in scoring (14.9 points per game), and next to last in Total Offense (324.4 yards per game) behind the likes of Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert under Center. Owner Jed York addressed the Media on Monday and provided us all with the proverbial My Bad after the whole Jim Harbaugh fiasco that prompted said exodus. However, he curiously left GM Trent Baalke (who was very anti-Harbaugh) in power, which could make one of the truly historic franchises in the sporting world a little less coveted in the eyes of the big names on the market. With that said, the Niners will have a plethora of cap space along with some solid young players to build around, making the position appealing on a number of levels. York and Co. have aimed quite high with their list of interviews (Payton, Shanahan), but we’ll see if they were indeed realistic in their ambitions in about a week or so. Candidates: Gase, Shanahan, Jackson
- Miami Dolphins (6-10, Last in AFC East): While not quite on the level of the previous two teams on this list, the Dolphins aren’t exactly a modicum of stability by any means. Though Stephen Ross is far from an overbearing Owner, he hasn’t ran the steadiest of ships either; after investing quite a bit of money on both sides of the ball (Ndamukong Suh, hello?!?!?!), the team greatly underachieved (8-8 in 2013), as Head Coach Joe Philbin (1-3) was ousted after just four games, while Interim Head Coach Dan Campbell (5-7) was determined to go down swinging, firing a number of assistants (first Defensive Coordinator Kevin Coyle, followed by Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor) on two separate occasions. Oh, and General Manager Dennis Hickey was 86ed on Monday, only to be quickly replaced with Scouting Director Chris Grier. Seriously, though we don’t have proof of it, this organization may have set a record for most pink slips handed out during the course of five months.. Anyways, with VP of Operations Mike Tannenbaum firmly in charge, control for any candidate will likely stretch only so far, but Ross has deep pockets, and has always aimed for the stars in the past (though he’s frequently missed), so there’s always the chance that he’ll finally land that elusive big fish (or not). And a bit of news of note; word out of Miami is that the Dolphins are open to cutting ties with Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, whom they just signed to a hefty $77 million payday back in the Summer, if it would persuade said big fish to accept the job. Candidates: Shanahan, Coughlin, Jackson
- Tennessee Titans (3-13, Last in AFC South): Oh, but they wouldn’t be the last team to fire their skipper in season, as the Titans lowered the guillotine on Ken Whisenhunt, after a mere twenty-six games into his tenure. Interim Head Coach Mike Mularkey did his best to keep the ship somewhat afloat, but it was an ultimately fruitless endeavor, as Tennessee was arguably the worst team in the league in 2015. A miserable Offense (30th in Total Yards, 31st in Turnovers) negated the play of what was actually a pretty solid defense (12th in Total Defense, 8th in Sacks) under the watchful eyes of Ray Horton and Dick LeBeau. Despite playing in a perennially winnable division, and the presence of a promising young Quarterback (Marcus Mariota), along with the No. One Pick in May’s NFL Draft, there are a number of factors working against this franchise when attempting to lure a Head Coach of some repute to the Music City. The Ownership Group has long been a point of contention in Tennessee, with the franchise perhaps on the fast track towards sale in the near future. Furthermore, General Manager Ruston Webster was not retained after the expiration of his contract, leaving the organization without much direction at the moment. It’s also a distinct possibility that Mularkey could me retained just for stability’s sake. However, with too much uncertainty to garner the interest of any of the bigger names, look for the Titans to take their time and hire a GM before finally settling on a Coach that can develop the skills of Mariota and build the offense. Candidates: Cable, Schwartz, Marrone.
- Philadelphia Eagles (7-9, 2nd in NFC East): In arguably the most shocking of terminations, the Eagles told Chip Kelly to hit the road… all with one game left to play on the schedule. After accruing more power in the Personnel Department in the Offseason, Kelly was largely deposed on the strength of the many mistakes that he made in that role (not mention alienating a number of prominent players and executives), with his refusal of relinquishing said power sealing his fate. Sam Bradford (19 TDs, 17 TOs) failed to live up to expectations, while DeMarco Murray (702 yards, 3.6 y/c) was an unmitigated bust after leading the league in rushing just a year ago, just to name a few of the disappointing acquisitions. The team had spent three years evolving into Kelly’s vision, but instead of reaping the rewards of postseason success, experienced little more than regression during his tenure. Owner Jeffery Lurie soon realized that the building was fractured, and quickly acted to make things right. However, this now leaves Philadelphia without a Head Coach and General Manager, which leads us to believe that Lurie will try to tempt one of the big fish with the promise of some personnel power, despite the failure of Kelly. With that said, expect whomever is hired to be far more conventional than his predecessor, with plenty of experience in the NFL ranks to boot. Candidates: Gase, Payton, McDermott
- New York Giants (6-10, 3rd in NFC East): Lastly, in a move that many around the league had expected for quite some time now, the venerable Tom Coughlin stepped down from his post with the New York Giants, whom he had led for the past twelve years, in which he hoisted a pair of Lombardi Trophies (2007, 2011). However, four cosecutive campaigns without a postseason appearance (consequently the franchise’s longest drought since the seventies) ultimately sealed his fate, but curiously not that of General Manager Jerry Reece. Coaching wasn’t the problem in the Big Apple, but a severe dearth of talent was a big factor in thier failures. A series of poor drafts coupled with a never-ending list of injuries kept Coughlin from exercising the most out of the roster, which makes us believe that whomever fills his shoes will have quite a bit of work ahead of them, even with the presence of the likes of Eli Manning and Odell Beckham included. With that said, this is arguably the most appealing of all the open jobs, as the Mara family has been nothing but a modicum of stability and consistency in ownership, with a plethora of resources at their disposal. Add the allure of the bright lights of New York City to the mix, along with a proven Super Bowl MVP at Quarterback and you have what is in all likelihood the first domino to fall. Expect one of the big names to jump at the opportunity to lead Big Blue. Candidates: Payton, McDaniels, Marrone,