Imagine you’re hiring a top executive for a Fortune 500 company, and you’re competing with other top executives for candidates. Over the years, there has been a lot of turnover in the industry, and a small number of companies have had success pulling from a particular pool of candidates. Other companies have tried to mine the same pool to varying degrees of success to the point where the pool ran dry.
And what if that pool was, by definition, filled with people without experience having actually done the job? Maybe you’d try and look at another fishing hole.
This is where the NFL coaching carousel is in 2023.
The early success of Sean McVay in Los Angeles and Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco spurred a rush to find them next version of them that’s been running for half a decade now. In the year they were hired, 2017, four of the league’s six new head coaches were aged 46-and-under and first-timers in the top role. Shanahan and McVay came from the offensive side. The other two—Vance Joseph and Sean McDermott—came from the defensive side.
In the five coaching cycles since, 37 head coaches have been hired. Twelve of them have been 46-and-under, first-time NFL head coaches. That number grows to 15—if you count Matt Rhule, Joe Judge and Kliff Kingsbury, who were also in that age range and had offensive backgrounds at the NFL level (Rhule and Judge as coaches, Kingsbury as a player). Former Dolphins and Jets coach Adam Gase would be a 16th in that age range, and with an offensive background.
Meanwhile, just five defensive coaches in that age range got their first shot, and only 11 coaches with previous NFL head-coaching experience were hired.
Will this be the year things swing back around?
I think Monday we’re going to see the resulting reality of all this—the pool of young offensive coaches isn’t as prevalent as defensive coaches. As I see it, you have a handful of young offensive coordinators (Philadelphia’s Shane Steichen, Buffalo’s Ken Dorsey, Cincinnati’s Brian Callahan, Detroit’s Ben Johnson) that’ll be in the mix, but the numbers are on defense, where a backlog of capable candidates (New England’s DeMeco Ryans and Jerod Mayo, Dallas’ Dan Quinn, Philly’s Jonathan Gannon, Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo, Detroit’s Aaron Glenn and Pittsburgh’s Brian Flores) are waiting.
There are even a couple, in Joseph and the Rams’ Raheem Morris, who have previous head-coaching experience, too.
Add that to the dynamic we wrote about on Friday in our Future GMs column—with owner-driven searches likely to lead to more experienced coaches being hired into head coaching jobs—and this figures to be a different looking hiring cycle. Which, if you can put yourself in the shoes of that fictitious CEO, would actually make a lot of sense.
Along those lines, here’s what the rumor mill is churning out, going into Week 18…
• The Panthers-Saints game won’t draw a rating tomorrow, but how Carolina plays could impact the carousel. Interim coach Steve Wilks has done an admirable job, keeping his team in the playoff mix until Week 17, and owner David Tepper is conscious of the climate in his building—the locker room is solidly behind Wilks, who has enabled a reworked coaching staff to build a hard-edged identity behind a punishing run game over the second half of the year. If Wilks stays, it’d have to be with a detailed plan for the offense. The Panthers, after firing Matt Rhule, spent a good amount of time researching young offensive coaches, an indication of where Tepper was leaning with his search. Wilks could bring in someone such as Philadelphia QBs coach Brian Johnson—if he gets the job. I know Carolina people believe a good showing Sunday at New Orleans could well impact Wilks getting that shot.
• As for Carolina GM Scott Fitterer, I’ve heard he’s been involved in laying the groundwork for finding the next coach, so I think Tepper will keep him (I know he likes him) and his staff, particularly if Wilks is the guy. That one scenario where I think there could be a new GM—if Tepper gets smitten with a coach like he did with Rhule in 2020, and that coach has leverage to push for his own GM.
• I’d say the same goes for Broncos GM George Paton and Colts GM Chris Ballard—two of the most respected on their side of the business. Which brings us to the belles of the ball.
• The first one is ex-Saints coach Sean Payton. Geography is in play for Payton, as are quarterbacks and money. And I’m just not sure any job will open that checks all those boxes. I don’t think Indianapolis would appeal to him like it once did when Andrew Luck was there. The Broncos, with their Walmart money, could throw a bag of it at Payton. But is he willing to hitch his second, and probably final, shot as an NFL head coach to Russell Wilson? Or, for that matter, Kyler Murray in Arizona depending on what happens with Kingsbury? The Chargers, to me, remain the one with the most to offer, and the one Payton would want, and I don’t think that job opens. In the case of Payton does take a job, he’s probably going to want to bring a GM with him, and my feeling is that GM would be Saints assistant GM Jeff Ireland or ex-Bears GM Ryan Pace.
• The wild card for Payton, to me, would be Miami. Outkick’s Armando Salguero, who’s been around the Dolphins for decades, reported Thursday that first-year coach Mike McDaniel may not be safe if Sunday’s game against the Jets goes the wrong way. I didn’t hear that. And, honestly, the only way I could see that is if someone like Payton—who Miami offered a four-year, $100 million deal last year—is the endgame. Otherwise, I think McDaniel sticks, probably with changes to his defensive staff.
• Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy and Chargers coach Brandon Staley should be safe. The former has navigated major injuries to his quarterback and left tackle, and can get to 12 wins if the Cowboys beat Washington. The latter is in the playoffs in his second year. But I’ve heard enough to not be 100% on either happening, in the case that the first round of the playoffs goes poorly for either guy. And, yeah, Payton’s been connected to both of those jobs (and with his affection for living in Southern California, and Justin Herbert being there, and his long-standing connections to the Cowboys, you wonder if he’s come off the idea of making $20 million per year to take those jobs).
• Meanwhile, there’s an expectation that Broncos CEO Greg Penner’s first search as Denver boss will be focused on experienced names. He, and minority owner Condoleezza Rice, as well as Broncos icon John Elway, have connections to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, and I’d expect Harbaugh to be in the mix for this one. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is another obvious name to watch, given the job he’s done in Dallas, and his connections to both Paton and Wilson (Quinn was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator for Wilson’s two Super Bowl seasons).
• Where Colts owner Jim Irsay goes with his search is anyone’s guess. But Harbaugh is a name to watch. Obviously, Harbaugh knows Irsay well, and played for him in the ’90s. Also, a guy who I think would be among Harbaugh’s picks for a GM—Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds—is already in Indy. So there are reasons why the fit there would make sense, with a roster that bears some similarities to the one Harbaugh had in San Francisco a decade ago. If it’s not Harbaugh, one name to keep an eye on is Bills defensive coordinator and former Colts assistant Leslie Frazier, particularly if, as expected, Bill Polian and Tony Dungy help Irsay with the search. (I also can’t totally rule out Jeff Saturday sticking because of Irsay’s affection for his old center, though that seems unlikely.)
• A couple of other GM names connected to Harbaugh would be ex-Jaguars, Eagles and 49ers exec Tom Gamble, and Ravens director of football research Scott Cohen (or maybe someone from Baltimore’s personnel department such as Joe Hortiz). So…does Harbaugh leave Michigan? The program is in good shape, and he has a really good team coming back. But NCAA sanctions are looming, and those calls to the Panthers were made, I’m told, because of his curiosity about that job, which tells me he’s really thinking about it.
• Things remain in flux in Arizona. GM Steve Keim remains on a health-related leave and his future with the team is up in the air (I wouldn’t rule out him sticking in some capacity after his leave), and word is that owner Michael Bidwill is strongly considering promoting VP of player personnel Quentin Harris and VP of pro scouting Adrian Wilson into GM roles in a co-GM type of setup (those two are filling in for Keim on an interim basis now). As for Kingsbury, everything appears to be on the table—a firing, a negotiated exit or a fifth season in the desert. If Kingsbury’s gone, I’d expect Joseph to be a leading candidate, if not the lead candidate to replace him.
• The big question in Houston is whether GM Nick Caserio will exit this season with the same level of power he had to potentially run a third coaching search in three years. There are a lot of internal questions on Lovie Smith’s viability as a head coach going into 2023, although Smith has made his case to owner Cal McNair, and with the team playing hard down the stretch. Still, I’d say the likelihood is he’d be gone, with Gannon, the Eagles’ DC, and Ryans, the Niners’ DC and former Texans captain, as top candidates to take his spot. Flores, given his relationship with Caserio, would be another name to watch.
• While Tampa Bay and New Orleans could be potential surprises, I think the Buccaneers and Saints stand pat, but potentially with significant changes to their offensive staff. I could also see such changes happening on defense in Cleveland and offense in New England (where ownership has voiced its displeasure to those in the building with an unconventional setup on that side of the ball).