Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hands the ball off against the Jets. Editorial Credit: Jamie Lamor Thompson, Shutterstock.
It's the first week of January and in the National Football League, that means the coaching carousel is up and running at full speed. The 2020 regular season has finished and six of the league's 32 organizations have fired their head coaches and are looking for replacements.
Having the right coach is more important to an NFL team than perhaps any other professional U.S. sport. Coaches not only have a say in roster and personnel decisions, but are also entirely responsible for weekly and yearly strategic gameplans. Oh, and they have to know how to motivate every player on the roster, from the undrafted free agent to the star multi-millionaire quarterback. So an organization can't just hire a strategic mastermind, or a fire and brimstone motivator, or a schematic whiz. They need someone who can do all three - and then some.
In short, these teams are looking for a unicorn.
Top coaching candidates this year include Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Tennesee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Salah, Buffalo Bills offensive cordinator Brian Daboll, and longtime college coach Urban Meyer. Here are the six NFL organizations they could end up coaching in 2021.
The Los Angeles Chargers (7-9 in 2020)
While they did finish with the best record of any team on this list, the Chargers also placed third in the AFC West this season under former coach Anthony Lynn despite a roster loaded with talent. Players like defensive end Joey Bosa, safety Derwin James, and wide receiver Keenan Allen are all among the best in the league at their positions, plus Los Angeles seem to have its QB of the future in Justin Herbert. The organization also has the 13th pick in 2021 Draft and has nothing but cap space, making the Chargers job incredibly appealing to the right kind of coach.
The search will be led by the Spanos family, who have owned the team since 1984. Dean Spanos is the chairman on paper, though he has ceded operational control to his sons A.G, President of Business Operations, and John, President of Football Operations, in the last few years.
The Detroit Lions (5-11)
Like several other organizations on this list, the Lions are looking for both a general manager and a coach. Historically, a team will try and hire a GM first and then let them decide on a HC, but Detroit may already have a frontrunner for its head coach in Salah. The defensive whiz grew up in Dearborn, MI, and has years of experience locally, including playing tight end for Northern Michigan University and coaching for Michigan State and Central Michigan.
The Lions might prioritize the Salah hire because the organization is in dire need of some stability. Former coach Matt Patricia was let go after Thanksgiving and the organization is currently being run by Rod Wood, who had never worked in sports prior to becoming the team's President & CEO, as well as Sheila Ford Hamp, who took over as Principal Owner for her mother Martha Ford Morse in 2020 after her father and longtime owner William Clay Ford passed away in 2014. On top of that, franchise quarterback Matt Stafford, who has played every season of his 12-year career in Detroit, might be on the move this offseason. Salah would bring instant credibility and leadership to a team that is going to need it.
The Houston Texans (4-12)
The Texans job is appealing for one reason - quarterback Deshaun Watson. The 25-year old led the NFL in passing this year by throwing for more than 4,800 yards despite missing most of his offensive weapons. Without Watson, though, the Texans are not in a great position. They don't have their first two draft picks in 2021 and are already more than $15M over the cap, meaning a new coach will need to both boost Watson as well as develop young players quickly.
"We just need new energy," Watson said after the season. "We just need discipline. We need structure. We need a leader so we can follow that leader as players. That's what we need."
Houston is looking for both a coach and general manager, needing to fill both roles Bill O'Brien held before being let go in October. The search will be led by Senior Chair Janice McNair, who co-founded the Texans in 2002 alongside her late husband, Robert, as well as her son Cal McNair, the team's Chairman & CEO, and EVP of Football Operations Jack Easterby, who has managed all football operations and the overall culture of the organization since April 2019.
The Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
The Falcons cleaned house in mid-October, firing both coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff after the team started 0-5. Similar to the hiring situation in Los Angeles, Atlanta is not looking for a coach to lead a rebuild, but someone with enough experience to take a talented veteran roster back to the playoffs. Wide receviers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley make up th top pass-catching duo in the league while 35-year old quarterback Matt Ryan might have the arm for one final playoff run.
Owner Arthur Blank, one of the more hands-on owners in the league, will lead the coaching search alongside President & CEO Rick McKay. The team has already shown significant interest in Raheem Morris, an experienced defensive mastermind who led the Falcons to a 4-7 record after taking over as interim head coach this season.
The New York Jets (2-14)
After firing Adam Gase, who went 9-23 in his two seasons in New York, the Jets are looking for a coach to work under General Manager Joe Douglas. Now in his second season at the helm, Douglas will have the opportunity to pick the right person to reshape a team that hasn't made the playofs in more than a decade.
Because it's the Jets, this coaching search has a bit of drama. Owner Woody Johnson has been President Donald Trump's Ambassador to the United Kingdom since 2017. As a result, he's not expected to sit in on head coaching interviews. That could change when President Elect Joe Biden takes office at the end of the month, though. So Douglas might be incentivzed to wrap up the search before Biden takes office, otherwise Johnson could be around for a much larger role in the process.
The Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15)
Despite having the worst record on this list and in the NFL, the Jaguars opening is perceived as a strong one. It helps having the No. 1 overall pick in a draft that includes Trevor Lawrence, a quarterback from Clemson who is seen as a generational prospect around the league. The Jaguars also a whopping $81M in 2021 cap space and five total picks in the first three rounds of the draft.
Owner Shad Khan will spearhead the search after letting Doug Marrone go earlier in the week and is planning on playing a much bigger role than he has in the past. Khan has previously relied on advisers and consultants to hire coaches but said on Monday that he, along with President Mark Lamping, is conducting the search and will have final say in those decisions.
"A key thing how we would be structuring this is that I'm going to have the general manager and the head coach report directly to me," Khan told ESPN. "That way, really, you have the transparency and the needs and the concerns of both parties without really getting filtered or having a chain of command.
"... You basically hire them about the same time and really you have a perfect alignment, which you need in a winning organization."
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