Nearly a third of all NFL head-coaching jobs could become vacant after the 2011 season. In addition to the Jaguars, teams that could (emphasis “could”) make a change presently include, in no particular order other than the order in which I scan through the league’s eight divisions, the Dolphins, Colts, Chiefs, Chargers, Giants, Eagles, Vikings, Buccaneers, and Rams.
So who will replace these coaches? Beyond Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, and Jeff Fisher, there aren’t many (any) obvious candidates.
Let’s consider the three categories from which head coaches typically emerge: former NFL head coaches, current NFL assistant coaches, and college head coaches.
Former NFL head coaches: In the hopes of not omitting anyone (a sentiment that applies to all three categories), the list of former NFL coaches who could return — and who currently are coaching — includes Cowher (whose “plan” to not coach in 2012 could change dramatically if the Giants job opens up), Jon Gruden, Fisher, Tony Dungy (who consistently has said he’s not coming back), Brian Billick, Jim Fassel, Dennis Green, Marty Schottenheimer, Eric Mangini, Jim Mora, Steve Mariucci, Brad Childress, Jack Del Rio, and Herm Edwards.
Of those, Cowher, Jon Gruden, and Fisher seem to constitute the “A” list. Billick wants back in, but he recently said he thinks Jacksonville will look to go younger and cheaper, which means he won’t be cheap. (Or young.) Edwards could be a surprise choice in Miami, if Carl Peterson takes over the football operations. Mangini also has been linked to the Dolphins, although reports that he has been consulting with owner Stephen Ross are erroneous.
There’s another group of former NFL head coaches to consider — those who aren’t yet former NFL head coaches. Though it’s unusual for a newly-fired coach to get an NFL job right away, John Fox did it last year when jumping from Carolina to Denver. The fact that Fox has instantly made the Broncos into a contender could make other former head coaches instantly attractive. That list could (emphasis “could”) include Tony Sparano, Jim Caldwell, Todd Haley, Norv Turner, Tom Coughlin, Andy Reid, Leslie Frazier, Raheem Morris, and Steve Spagnuolo.
Of those, Reid would be the most likely to land somewhere else right away, if he’s fired in Philly (or if he decides it’s time to walk away). Also, a return by Coughlin to Jacksonville could be intriguing. Spagnuolo also could get consideration elsewhere in 2012 as a head coach, although if Reid stays in Philly it makes sense for Reid to lure the team’s former linebackers coach back to town to run the defense.
Current NFL assistant coaches: For starters, plenty of former NFL head coaches currently are working for other NFL teams. The list includes Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Chiefs quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn, Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, Vikings linebackers coach Mike Singletary, Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice, Chiefs defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, and Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.
Of that group, Phillips and Haslett are the most intriguing. Phillips has been a head coach three prior times, but his immediate transformation of a historically bad Texans defense merits consideration for a fourth opportunity, as linebacker Connor Barwin told NBC SportsTalk on Friday. In Washington, the performance of Haslett’s stout defense has been overshadowed by a continuously struggling offense.
McDaniels already has been linked to the Chiefs, but that will be a difficult sell, given McDaniels’ performance in Denver and, more recently, St. Louis.
The universe of assistant NFL coaches who have never worked as NFL head coaches yields a smaller range of relatively obvious choices. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the fraternal twin of Jets coach Rex Ryan, badly wants to make the next step. Unlike Rex, who successfully kept a sock in it until he became a head coach, Rob arguably is talking a bit too much for a guy who isn’t a head coach. (Rob also needs to visit the barber.)
Beyond Rob Ryan, there aren’t many/any hot names, which typically come from the staffs of the hottest teams. In Green Bay, there’s a perception that Mike McCarthy is primarily responsible for the success of the franchise, which undermines the contributions of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and quarterbacks coach Tom Clements. On defense, assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Winston Moss could get some consideration, as could outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene (who also would benefit from a trip to the salon).
The 9-2 49ers also should generate some candidates, starting (and perhaps ending) with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. With head coach Jim Harbaugh getting nearly all of the credit for the team’s performance, Fangio is really the only name that currently stands out.
Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano may not get much buzz given that it’s his first year on the job, but that assignment has become a launching pad for head coaches. If the Ravens play deep into the postseason, Pagano could get consideration.
Another first-year coordinator seems to be the perfect fit for the one vacancy that already exists. In a Wednesday visit to PFT Live, Mike Dempsey of 1010XL suggested Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as the next coach of the Jaguars. It makes sense, on every level. Gruden fits Brian Billick’s “young and cheap” demographic, but Gruden also brings name recognition of his older and more expensive brother. The name carries the most weight in northern Florida, where Jon won a Super Bowl and where Jay was a mainstay in the Arena League. Then there’s the fact that Jay Gruden has gotten the most out of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who was drafted one round behind Blaine Gabbert.
(As a reader has pointed out in the comments, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer could end up being considered for one of the various vacancies. Ditto for Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who served as the interim coach in Buffalo and who has gotten some consideration for prior vacancies.)
College head coaches: The instant success of Jim Harbaugh after stints with Stanford and the University of San Diego (not to be confused with, as I have in the past, San Diego State University) could reverse the perception that college coaches can’t get it done in the NFL. It shouldn’t. Harbaugh is the exception to the rule that the most important skills possessed by college head coaches — recruiting — are largely wasted at the NFL level.
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz periodically is mentioned as a candidate to coach at the NFL level, and he’ll again be linked to Kansas City if Haley is fired. Beyond Ferentz, the list currently is short to nonexistent.
UPDATE 10:00 a.m. ET: I deliberately omitted former Packers coach Mike Sherman from the list of former NFL head coaches who could return, since he hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2005 and he has generated little or no buzz since being fired by the Packers. But Jason La Canfora of NFL Network reports that the Jaguars contacted Sherman even before firing Jack Del Rio. If true, it means that Brian Billick’s “younger and cheaper” description of the Jags’ job requirements perhaps should be reduced to simply “cheaper.”