The National Football League’s most unpleasant tradition is upon us again, and by the end of the day Monday as many as nine NFL teams could join the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns, who fired Mike McCarthy and Hue Jackson in-season, searching for new head coaches.
This year's list of coaches in trouble is a little cloudier than usual because it features more men on the bubble than dead men walking, and there are two unusual factors that will have an outsized influence on how many teams make changes.
The first is that the woods are full of former head coaches looking for second or third chances, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the crop of hot, young assistants in the pipeline looking for their first shot is unusually thin. And with the recent successes of rookies like Sean McVay, Matt Nagy and Mike Vrabel, we’re hearing some teams are disappointed there isn’t a stronger group from which to pick.
The second issue is the NFL has a shortage of minority head coaches right now. The 2018 season began with eight minority head coaches of the NFL’s 32 – Todd Bowles, Mike Tomlin, Marvin Lewis, Hue Jackson, Anthony Lynn, Vance Joseph, Ron Rivera and Steve Wilks – and Jackson is gone already, with all but Tomlin and Lynn now on the endangered species list.
And the hot list of new first-timers is short on minority candidates.
This may not affect individual teams' decisions, but it has folks in the league office and some owners among the league’s power brokers more than mildly concerned.
With that as the backdrop, here's PFW's list of the top potential 2019 head-coaching candidates.
Best "Available" College Coaches
Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan – Harbaugh cannot have made it any more clear that he is not interested in the NFL right now, and yet people keep throwing out his name. He would be the best coach on the market if he were available, but he isn’t.
Harbaugh has everything he could ask for right now at Michigan, where he is driven more than anything by a burning desire to win with the Wolverines. He will likely end up back in the NFL before he’s done, but not yet, not with unfinished business in Ann Arbor.
David Shaw, Stanford University — Shaw has been near the top of this list each of the past two or three years, and he is no more likely to leave Palo Alto now than he was a few years ago.
He would be the perfect fit in Cleveland, New York and possibly even Green Bay, but he is very happy right where he is and he’s one guy we’re not sure will ever make the leap.
Lincoln Riley, University of Oklahoma — Riley is the new flavor of the month off the job he’s done in Oklahoma, but at 35 years old, he’s smart enough to know his NFL opportunities will only get better and more lucrative with a few more years of success. We're also hearing that he might be facing a lot more risk than reward if he makes the leap too soon. He’s also a hot name, but still a bit of an unknown to NFL owners, with whom he's never interviewed.
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern University – The job he's done at Northwestern makes Fitz among the most underrated and underappreciated coaches in the game, and we’d be stunned if Packers President Mark Murphy, the former Northwestern AD who hired Fitzgerald, didn’t at least try and get him to come in for an interview.
However, Fitzgerald is also awfully happy where he is, turning down the Michigan job a number of years back to stay in Evanston, and we’re hearing he might not have the NFL itch as badly as some.
Better the Second Time Around
Josh McDaniels, New England Patriots offensive coordinator – Yes, McDaniels is probably ready now and interviews will be there for him, but there are two issues to consider here.
The way he stiffed Chris Ballard and Jim Irsay last year has to have left a bad taste in others’ mouths besides theirs, and who wants to take a chance on him doing it again?
Beyond that, isn’t the most likely scenario that he did it because he’s going to be the next head coach of the New England Patriots and is willing to wait even if it’s another year or two?
Mike McCarthy, ex-Green Bay Packers head coach – Yeah, this will frost Packer fans, but the facts are there are fewer than 20 coaches in NFL history who’ve compiled better records than McCarthy did in Green Bay, and if Aaron Rodgers was a big reason for McCarthy's success, then wasn’t the coachg also most likely a big reason for the quarterback's?
Other than A-Rod, McCarthy did more with less than any coach in the NFL the past decade-plus, and he should have multiple suitors, if he doesn’t want to take a year off.
Mike Munchak, Pittsburgh Steelers O-line coach — There is a belief around the league that Munchak didn’t get a totally fair shake in Tennessee, where he was the head coach from 2011-13; and he is one of the best teachers in the game, an excellent communicator with players, and ready for another shot.
Gus Bradley, Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator — Yes, Bradley swung and missed during his four-year tenuire in Jacksonville (2013-16), but he’s an outstanding defensive coordinator who’s bounced back really well with the Chargers and may have learned from his mistakes. Bradley is a dynamic personality who will interview well again and may be ready for another go.
Best of Remaining Retreads
· Ex-Indianapolis Colts HC Chuck Pagano
· Ex-Arizona Cardinals HC Bruce Arians
· Ex-Detroit Lions/Indianapolis Colts HC Jim Caldwell
· Philadephia Eagles DC Jim Schwartz
· Buffalo Bills DC Leslie Frazier
First-Timers Ready for Shot
Vic Fangio, Chicago Bears defensive coordinator — There is no hotter name in the league right now and no more controversial candidate.
With the defensive juggernauts Fangio has built in San Francisco and Chicago, and after years of prepping for this moment, he is arguably the best defensive coach in the league.
But Fangio is also 60 years old, and 60-year-old rookies are as rare as they come. Is he one of many, many great coordinators who might not he head-coach material? Why wasn’t he hotter after the 49ers or even last season with the job he’s done in Chicago? He is great with the media but won’t take any guff from anyone, and how he will interview is an unknown.
Dave Toub, Kansas City Chiefs special teams coordinator — Toub is as well thought of among special-teams gurus as Fangio is on defense, and his age is not a barrier. With the success special teams coaches have had in head positions, we don’t understand why he doesn’t already have one.
Toub can be a bit “prickly,” another no-nonsense kind of guy, but his ex-players swear by him, and when you get to know him he is a really high-character guy and very easy to get along with. We expect this will be his year.
Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator — He's a long-time assistant who’s paid his dues, and there is no hotter coaching tree in the league right now than Andy Reid’s. With the recent instant success of Doug Pederson, Matt Nagy and Frank Reich, it’s hard not to envision Bieniemy getting multiple interviews, and while we hate to even have to mention it, his minority status is another plus.
Brian Flores, New England Patriots linebackers coach — Flores’ one-year success as the Patriots untitled defensive coordinator is a small sample size, but he is well known and well respected around the league, and some believe he has been even more important this year to Belichick than McDaniels. Flores is only 37 years old, but he has 14 years in the league and should get a close look. He might suffer slightly from the shaky first year of Matt Patricia, but he is a much different personality and will interview well.
One thing we have heard, though, is like other Belichick assistants, don’t be surprised if Flores chooses to wait a year or two.
Matt Eberflus, Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator — The Colts' rookie DC is lesser known to fans and media, but no surprise to folks around the league. He’s overseen a remarkable turnaround with the Colts defense, and at 48 he has plenty of experience. Eberflus was the defensive coordinator at Missouri for eight years before making the leap to the NFL in Cleveland in 2009, and then Dallas in 2011, where he recently was tutored by Rod Marinelli before joining Reich in Indy.
Dan Campbell, New Orleans Saints tight ends coach — Campbell, most recently a Sean Payton disciple with the title of assistant head coach/tight ends for the past three seasons, played 11 years in the league at tight end before beginning his coaching career in 2010 in Miami. In 2015, Campbell led the Dolphins to a 5-7 record as the interim head coach after Joe Philbin was fired, so he does bring head coaching experience under difficult circumstances.
Best Of Remaining First-Timers
· Dallas Cowboys pass game coordinator/secondary coach Kris Richard
· New Orleans Saints OC Pete Carmichael
· Minnesota Vikings DC George Edwards
· Tennessee Titans OC Matt LaFleur
· Los Angeles Rams QB coach Zac Taylor
· Indianapolis Colts OC Nick Sirianni
· New York Giants DC James Bettcher
· Seattle Seahawks DC Ken Norton Jr.