Who are top head-coaching candidates?

Posted Dec. 19, 2011 @ 7:26 p.m.
Posted By Hub Arkush

It's already a given there will be new head coaches in Jacksonville, Miami and Kansas City in 2012, and it is somewhere between possible and more than likely the Colts, Bucs, Chargers and Rams will have new field generals, as well. Add the chances of Andy Reid throwing in the towel in Philadelphia, Dan Snyder being Dan Snyder in Washington, a new GM wanting his own guy in Oakland, and a loss of patience in Buffalo, and there will be somewhere between six and 11 new head coaches in the NFL next season. The big questions are: Where will they come from, and who will they be?

You have to start with Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher and Jon Gruden. He can sign as many lifetime broadcasting contracts as he wants, but if the right job comes along, Gruden will take it. But it says here that job is at least a year away and Gruden stays in ESPN's booth for now. What I'm hearing is that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross will make Cowher an offer he can't refuse. If Cowher does choose to say no, it will be because he's heading to Kansas City or San Diego, and Fisher will end up in Miami. Herm Edwards and Eric Mangini will also apply for spots in this group, but I don't see either of them being serious contenders.

The next group of desirable candidates will come from former head coaches who are currently coordinators having some success, including Dom Capers, Gregg Williams and Wade Phillips. We should add Brian Billick to this list, that rare coach with a ring who hasn't had a second chance. I'm guessing those three coordinators stay put, but Billick lands somewhere with a young quarterback in place and some veteran talent to develop. The Rams, Bucs and Jaguars all fit that description.

Now we come to the second tier of former head coaches who failed quickly but have had some success as assistants since. At the top of this list are Mike Mularkey, Mike Tice and Scott Linehan. Tice's and Linehan's stars have faded recently as their clubs have faded for various reasons, but expect Mularkey to get several interviews and be a finalist somewhere. Josh McDaniels is rumored to be a front-runner in Kansas City, so he probably belongs on this list, too, but you have to ask yourself why, since he's been as big a bust as an offensive coordinator in St. Louis as he was as a head coach in Denver.

Which brings us to the most interesting list, the up-and-comer looking for his first top job, a type that seems to be getting harder and harder to find every year. On offense you have to start with coordinators like Rob Chudzinski in Carolina, who I think will be one of the hotter names out there, and Bill O'Brien in New England, who probably scored big points for himself by getting in Tom Brady's face on the sideline and living to laugh about it. Chudzinski did a great job developing Philip Rivers in San Diego, and no one thought he could get as much from Cam Newton as a rookie as he's gotten this year. We'll also hear about Joe Philbin in Green Bay, Rick Dennison in Houston and Pete Carmichael Jr. in New Orleans, but they will come up short due to the perception that the credit for their success should go to their head coaches.

Teams looking for a defensive-minded leader will focus on Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati, Chuck Pagano in Baltimore, Rob Ryan in Dallas, Jerry Gray in Tennessee and Vic Fangio in San Francisco. Ryan will wait at least a year due to Dallas' uneven season and his over-the-top personality, but I'd expect all the others to get interviews.

Here are a few more names you'll hear that don't quite fit any of the categories I've mentioned above. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz will be rumored in K.C. because he and Scott Pioli were together with Bill Belichick in Cleveland. Jim Fassel and Mike Martz will come up, but not seriously. If the Colts' job opens up, keep an eye on Indianapolis "game-day consultant" Jim Tressel and Packers QB coach Tom Clements. Bears special-teams coordinator Dave Toub, Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and Packers assistant head coach/ILBs Winston Moss are names that will also come up.

Thirty-one names and no more than 6-11 jobs to go around. It will be more than interesting to see which of these men are holding the golden tickets.