The next wave of NFL head coaches: Names and trends to know for 2020

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Friday, December 6, 2019

A month from now, fans of six or so NFL teams will be refreshing their browsers and checking their phones for news about a coaching search. Who's interviewing where? Which teams have asked permission to interview whom? Who are the leading candidates? When can coaches whose teams are in the playoffs interview, exactly?

It is the NFL's early-January rite, and we all got a reminder of its proximity this week when the Panthers dismissed coach Ron Rivera. There are now two head-coach openings in the league -- in Carolina and Washington, where Jay Gruden was let go earlier this season -- and more to come, either before or right after the season.

NFL industry sources who track these things are following the situations with the Falcons, Jaguars, Cowboys, Browns, Lions and Giants as potential teams that could make a coaching change. There's nothing decided yet, of course, and with one-quarter of the season to go -- for all but the two teams that played Thursday night -- there's still time for situations to improve or worsen in a couple of places.

History tells us to expect six-to-eight openings (even though history also tells us teams don't help themselves by turning over coaches so frequently), and so the attention of fans in places where the coach is on thin ice turns to, "Who can we get?"

Last year was all about fresh faces. NFL people couldn't believe the level of inexperience teams were willing to accept in their new coaches. Kliff Kingsbury got the Arizona job mere weeks after Texas Tech fired him. The Packers hired Matt LaFleur after he'd spent one year as a playcaller. Zac Taylor rose from a relatively obscure place in the Rams' coaching hierarchy to coach of the Bengals. Brian Flores got the Dolphins job after one year as the Patriots' defensive coordinator (and without the title!). The Browns promoted Freddie Kitchensafter a half-season as their offensive coordinator.

There were a couple of exceptions. Vic Fangio paid decades worth of dues and got rewarded with the Broncos job. Tampa Bay brought back former Arizona coach Bruce Arians. And the Jets hired Adam Gase weeks after the Dolphins had fired him. For the most part, though, teams overlooked experience for potential, and we wondered if that might start a trend.

It could, of course. Multiple sources interviewed for this story said teams are still likely to lean toward offensive-minded coaches in their January searches. Team owners and general managers want fresh ideas on how to score more and more points, and those who have guided this year's successful offenses likely will get looks. Offensive coordinators such as Greg Roman (Ravens), Eric Bieniemy (Chiefs), Kevin Stefanski (Vikings), Nick Sirianni (Colts) and mercurial favorite Josh McDaniels (Patriots) are expected to get phone calls and interest and likely interviews.

Dan Campbell, the Saints' tight ends coach who was once an interim coach of the Dolphins, is on some teams' list of interesting candidates. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll could parlay his Year 2 success with Josh Allen into some interviews. Teams might want to pick the brains of 49ers run game coordinator Mike McDaniel or passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur (yes, Matt's brother). Could the way the Seahawks' run game looks right now mean interest in offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer? It might be too soon for Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, but he's well-regarded as a long-term candidate, and again... last year a lot of guys got massive promotions.

On the defensive side, sources say to pay attention to guys like Dennis Allen, the Saints' defensive coordinator and former Raiders coach, as well as Robert Saleh (49ers), Matt Eberflus (Colts), George Edwards (Vikings) and Kris Richard (Cowboys). Allen isn't the only former NFL head coach running a defense right now, and strong finishes and/or playoff runs in places like Buffalo, Philadelphia and Kansas City could put coordinators like Leslie Frazier, Jim Schwartz and Steve Spagnuolo back on radar screens.

Out-of-work former head coaches Rivera and Mike McCarthy should get attention from some teams and possibly jobs from teams that want experience. Patriots special teams coordinator Joe Judge is held in high esteem inside and outside of that building. And of course, there will be the annual list of college coaches, such as Baylor's Matt Rhule, Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley, Iowa State's Matt Campbell and Florida's Dan Mullen. Of that group, Rhule, who was a finalist for the Jets job a year ago, is thought to be the most likely to make the jump.

So that's the list as it stands, and it's likely longer than the actual list of guys who'll get interviews. But you get the sense of what's out there. The group surely has some future stars and some future flops, and good luck to the teams trying to figure out which is which. The NFL's head-coach-hiring process is too fast and too frenzied. Too often, teams make major, franchise-altering decisions after spending four or five hours with a candidate and feeling they have to hurry to get their guy in place. Too often, the decision is governed by the wrong priorities -- we need a defensive guy or we need an offensive guy or we need a guy who's Facebook friends with Sean McVay.

Here, then, is my annual plea to teams in search of a new coach: Don't hire a guy because you like his playbook. Hire a guy because he's a leader. Do your digging and find out how players and assistant coaches and trainers and equipment managers respond to your candidate. Does he inspire? Can he unite disparate groups of people behind a common purpose? Can he hold people together when things get difficult?

McVay's offensive ingenuity isn't the sole reason -- even the main reason -- he has been successful in Los Angeles. His command of the building is. Players, coaches and everyone else there responds to him because he commands a reassuring authority. He makes sure the trains run on time. He makes sure people are in the best possible position to succeed -- and that they know they are, and that they know why.

Andy Reid's scheme creativity isn't the reason he's about to go to the playoffs for the 15th time in 21 seasons. Bill Belichick's defensive genius isn't the reason the Patriots have dominated the league for nearly two decades. Pete Carroll knows his X's and O's, of course, but he wins in Seattle because he knows his people.

Those guys are hard to find, yes, but it's important that teams go into this process looking for the right things. I remember asking Packers GM Brian Gutekunst in training camp what he liked about Matt LaFleur, and the first thing he said was, "Based on the people I talked to that have worked with him, I really thought he'd be a really good match, not only short-term with Aaron [Rodgers], but kind of long-term with developing quarterbacks." Quarterback might be a narrow focus, but it's certainly an important one, and Gutekunst's answer reveals a long-term focus as opposed to a fix-it-now mentality. I don't know if LaFleur will work out for the Packers long-term (though the early returns are clearly encouraging). But it's important that Green Bay was viewing him as something more than just a former McVay assistant.

So keep it in mind, fan of team making a coaching change. Watch the process. See what you can glean from the decision-makers' comments on what they liked about the guy they ended up hiring. See what kind of overall leadership vibe he gives off in his early days. Don't worry about whether his scheme or his background fits the personnel you have in place, because if he's a good coach he'll adjust his thinking to fit his players and if he doesn't do that he won't be there long anyway. Watch to see how he gets his people to respond and perform and unify. That's when you'll know what you really have.

Some other stuff I've found to be of interest around the NFL this week:

Watch for front-office changes, too

Seems as if the past couple of years have seen a bunch of coaches fired, but not a lot of turnover at the general manager level. The front-office landscape could shift a bit this offseason, however. Panthers owner David Tepper already has said he plans to hire an assistant GM and a vice president of football operations, which could mean a shift in role and/or responsibilities for current GM Marty Hurney.

Some of the places where coaches are on the hot seat could find GMs and/or other front-office execs on the hot seat as well, most notably Atlanta, Jacksonville, Washington and the Giants. And there remains the situation in Houston, where the Texans last offseason fired GM Brian Gaine and tried to hire away player personnel director Nick Caserio from the Patriots only to be accused by the Patriots of tampering. Houston withdrew its pursuit of Caserio, but multiple sources expect that pursuit to pick up again this offseason.

Caserio's contract expires this offseason, which would allow Houston, Carolina or other interested teams free rein in pursuing him. Like most front-office contracts, his doesn't expire until after the draft, so it's possible things could continue to be sticky if New England tried to make it so. But if the Pats know he wants out and has a chance to be a GM or VP somewhere else, they probably wouldn't want him hanging around their draft room anyway.

Caserio has a New England connection with Houston coach Bill O'Brien, who has the decision-making authority in the organization since Gaine's firing, along with Texans Executive VP of Team Development Jack Easterby. There also are those who believe Caserio could go somewhere as a package deal with McDaniels as head coach, though that obviously would rule out Houston, where O'Brien is surely safe.

Could Eli Manning leave behind Big Blue?

The "very likely" Monday Night Football start by Manning for the Giants as a result of Daniel Jones' injury could throw a new name onto an offseason quarterback market that we've previously detailed as very interesting.

If Manning starts all four of the Giants' final four games and plays well, he could make a case for a job somewhere else in 2020. It's difficult to know Manning's mindset on the topic of whether he'd want to go play elsewhere after 16 years and two Super Bowl titles with the Giants. But if Manning, who turns 39 in January, wants to keep playing, he'd have to go to a team that offered him at least the potential for a starting job. He could end up in a place like Chicago and be next year's Ryan Tannehill to Mitchell Trubisky's Marcus Mariota. He could play for his hometown Saints if Drew Brees decided to retire. Wouldn't it be ironic to see him in New England if Tom Brady left? And the Chargers could be looking ... oh wait. Never mind on that one.

It's not clear if Manning could be a viable quarterback for a team in need in 2020. He wasn't playing well before the Giants benched him for Jones. He hasn't played especially well in about four years. But if he starts the next four games and rekindles some of his old magic, it's not crazy to think teams might take a look.

A non-update update on the CBA

We've tried in this space to keep you apprised of what's going on in the collective bargaining agreement negotiations between owners and players. We haven't done that in a while, and the main reason is that not much is going on. Sources close to the situation say there have been some staff-level conversations but no actual, face-to-face owner/player negotiations since the beginning of October. It seems as if each side is reluctant to take the next major step toward the other. The NFLPA hasn't felt urgency to get to the negotiating table all along, but the owners' side appeared to feel some earlier this year and now, for some reason, no longer does.

Now, you might hear chatter about a deal being "close," but this is semantics. My sources tell me that once the two sides agree on the 17-game season and the adjusted revenue split that goes along with it, a deal could come together quickly. Enough work has been done on other issues that the framework of a new CBA is largely in place. The problem is, those two pieces -- the expanded regular season and the revenue split between players and owners -- are the most major pieces, and agreement on those could take a long time. Owners haven't shown much willingness to move toward the players on the revenue split, and the players haven't shown interest in agreeing to lengthen the season without some sort of significant financial concession that would make it worth exposing their bodies to more punishment.

Discussions could pick up any time, of course, and if the owners give the players what they want on the revenue split, it's possible there could be a deal struck before the end of the current league year. At the moment, though, there are no discussions taking place that would push a deal any closer to completion than it was two months ago, and there are no such discussions scheduled either.

The current CBA expires at the end of the 2020 season, but this offseason could be a weird one if there's no new deal in place before it. As the "Final League Year," it would carry special rules, such as no post-June 1 designations on released players and the ability of teams to use the franchise tag on one player and the transition tag on another. Both sides would prefer, in an ideal world, to have a new deal in place by March to avoid such weirdness and take advantage of the things they've negotiated in the new deal. But the new league year is a little more than three months away, and that's not a lot of time.

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