We are now into the mad annual scramble where all of the NFL teams that fired their head coach and/or General Manager are trying to hire replacements.
It’s a short compressed hiring cycle, because the NFL Draft takes place in April, and teams want their entire coaching and scouting staffs to be in place ASAP so that they can go evaluate all draft candidates and try to decide who to pick in that annual lottery. There is also free agency which begins in the second week of March at the start of the new league year.
6 teams fired one or both of their head coach or GM. There are weird rumours that the Houston Texans may end up looking for a head coach soon due to friction between Bill O’Brien and team leadership, but those are definitely stretch rumours, given that the Texans are still in the playoffs.
There is a long-standing rumor that the LA Rams want to trade for a head coach from another team (names like Sean Payton or Sean Payton keep being mentioned). Needless to say, in true military and political fashion, all of the parties potentially involved are denying this is a possibility (which leads many cynics to conclude that it will indeed happen).
The list of known candidates for the teams is generally agreed, and it is a depressing list, not because of the candidates themselves, all worthy people, but because it shows (a) the lack of imagination in NFL hiring practices, and (b) the sameness of NFL franchises when it comes to hiring.
The list of candidates for NFL teams always consists of most or all of the following:
1. The interim head coach (if the previous head coach was fired during the season. This may or may not be a serious interview)
2. One or two non-serious minority guys (to allow the team to comply with the Rooney Rule)
3. Hot Co-ordinators
4. Any Hot College Coach presumed to be interested or possibly persuabable to come to the NFL
4. Former NFL head coaches who have re-established themselves as co-ordinators
5. Former NFL head coaches out of the game (if they can interest them)
6. Other position group coaches who may be Hot (usually temporarily based on this year’s results)
Recently fired head coaches will either sit on their buyout money for a season or join a new head coach on his staff. They rarely get a shot at another head coaching interview (Chip Kelly last year was an exception, but see what just happened to him?)
The result of this reasoning loop is that, leaving aside the interim coaches (who mostly do not get the job), the list is a fairly short one. It currently seems to consist of the following:
Hot Co-Ordinators: Kyle Shanahan (very hot), Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia (I wonder which team they work for?), Harold Goodwin, Frank Reich, Anthony Lynn
Minority Guys: Teryl Austin, Teryl Austin, some guy named Austin
Hot College Coaches: NONE (some guy named Nick Saban continues to insist he is not interested)
Former Head Coaches: Mike Smith
Ex Head Coaches: NONE (they are on TV for a reason – it’s a lot more fun than running an NFL team)
Other Position coaches: Tom Cable (also former head coach)
The Rooney Rule is, sadly, being used as a fig-leaf by many teams to obscure the reality that, mostly owned by crusty old white guys, they tend to want a white guy in charge of the players. Teryl Austin has publicly declined at least one interview with a team in the past once he determined that he was not a serious candidate, and the team was possibly simply trying to comply with the Rooney Rule.
Teams always try to hire a Hot Co-ordinator first. They are drawn to them like moths to a flame. When the Dallas Cowboys began winning Superbowls in the early 1990’s, his offensive and defensive co-ordinators (Norv Turner and Dave Wannstedt) were snapped up in short order to become head coaches. Neither man has proved to be a consistently good head coach. Turner remains a respected offensive co-ordinator; Wannstedt is essentially out of football after bouncing all over the NFL and college.
Many other co-ordinators were promoted to head coach, and discovered quickly that it was a job that they either could not do well or did not want to do. Most of them were fired and went back to being good (and in some cases great) co-ordinators. The Dallas Cowboys currently have Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli as their offensive and defensive co-ordinators respectively. Both men were head coaches without much success, but are clearly back in the right job. Jim Schwartz was a failure as a head coach first time round, but remains an excellent defensive co-ordinator.
The role of head coach is a multi-faceted one, and coaching is only part of it. Co-ordinators promoted to head coach tend by nature to focus on the side of the ball that they came from, which leads to a number of head coaches who were offensive co-ordinators continuing to call plays during games. This tends to disenfranchise the team’s offensive co-ordinator, and de-focusses the coach. Ditto defensive minded coaches who try to run the defense in games. That usually results in issues with the offense not being addressed (Todd Bowles). There are too many game-day distractions and this often shows up in other detail areas such as clock management, where teams routinely screw up basics because nobody is paying attention on a continual basis during games.
HIring teams and GMs tend to place way too much emphasis on co-ordinators from successfully (especially Superbowl-winning) teams.
The “hire the Hot Co-Ordinator” approach has therefore resulted in significant disappointments over the years, particularly as teams hired co-ordinators away from the New England Patriots, only to discover that they did not function at all well outside of the unique environment of excellence that Bill Belichick created and maintains in that franchise. The two enduring co-ordinators of the 2000s Patriots dynasty (Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis) were hired away to become NFL and college head coaches respectively. Neither man succeeded in their new jobs, they both looked over-matched and out of their depth. Crennel is back doing what he does best as a co-ordinator in the NFL, Weis is living on his golden parachutes from 2 college teams. Eric Mangini had two spells as a head coach without success, was caught up in the Spygate scandal, and is now in limbo. Josh McDaniel, hired by the Denver Broncos in 2010, began with an unbeaten run in the 2010 season and looked like a genius coaching hire for a season, before the team lapsed into mediocrity and he was fired, going back to New England. The jury is out on Bill O’Brien in Houston.
College head coaches are a hit-or-miss proposition, mostly miss. Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Chip Kelly were all college head coaches who spent time in the NFL and found that some of the natural advantages that they enjoyed in college such as superior recruiting, stacked schedules, and total roster and team control either did not exist in the NFL, or were completely different in nature.
Occasionally teams succeed by going outside the box. The Baltimore Ravens raised eyebrows when they hired John Harbaugh, who was a special teams coach, not a co-ordinator, but they have won a Superbowl under his tenure. However, that remains an isolated exception. Most teams think that the Hot Co-Ordinator is the safe and/or exciting and sexy option.
In the meantime, Jeff Garcia has still not been interviewed by the 49ers. They might just need to interview him eventually, since their GM and head coach positions are regarded as the least attractive in the league right now. The 49ers are likely to be short of suitors when the recruitment cycle music stops.