Way-too-early look at 2019 head coaching candidates
As mentioned by the title, this is way too early to consider the top coaching candidates that may arise by next season. Heck, we’re still waiting for one last opening to be filled this year (thanks, Josh!).
With that said, here are the most likely candidates to emerge in my mind:
THE MATT NAGY TRACK
By far, the surest way to become a hot coaching candidate is to be a young “QB guru.” Matt Nagy, Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Adam Gase, etc. All were hired before they turned 40 years old, all based on their reputation for forward-thinking offenses.
Given that, the two most likely candidates to fit that bill for next year will be JOHN DeFILIPPO (Eagles QB coach turned Minnesota OC) and MATT LaFLEUR (Rams QB coach turned Tennessee OC.) Both of them earned rare head coaching interviews as QB coaches, and that buzz should only grow as they take control of their own offenses this year.
Of the two, DeFilippo appears to be more polished and “ready,” having already served as an OC in the past (albeit for 1 year in Cleveland.) He comes across as a confident leader despite being only 39 years old. That said, you can make an argument that LaFleur (38 years old) may be in a better position to succeed this year. Tennessee has all the pieces in place for a quick turnaround, while the Minnesota QB situation is still TBD.
If I had to bet on any assistant landing interviews next offseason, these two would be at the top of the list. They check every box that teams want in modern head coaches.
THE MATT PATRICIA TRACK
Pats DC Matt Patricia finally landed a head coaching job this year, after years and years of being a top candidate. In that same vein, I think this year may lead to some jobs for “perpetual” candidates.
Two obvious names would be Philadelphia DC JIM SCHWARTZ and Kansas City ST coordinator DAVE TOUB. Quite frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t get more attention this offseason for their fine work (although Toub may still be in play in Indy.) For Schwartz, another great year for Philadelphia would be hard to ignore. Meanwhile, Toub’s had about 15 great years in a row that the NFL keeps ignoring, which only speaks to a stigma about special teams coordinators. With the right coordinators around him, I have no doubt that he could be a great head coach.
“Repeat success” may be crucial to breakout Jacksonville DC TODD WASH. His unit was obviously among the very best in the NFL, although there’s a perception (and a legitimate one) that he benefited from an overwhelming amount of talent. That said, if the team is a top 3 defense again, he’s going to become a mainstream candidate in a more major way.
Two more coordinators that have been candidates in the past may benefit from new situations: TERYL AUSTIN (now the DC in Cincinnati) and JAMES BETTCHER (now the DC for the N.Y. Giants.) Austin falls into that Matt Patricia camp of having been interviewed year after year, only to come up empty. However, a strong year with a talent Cincinnati cast may be what pushes him over the edge: the same happened to Adam Gase, who proved to be successful after switching teams and thus broke through with a job offer. If the Bengals’ D plays well, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Cincinnati taps Austin to be Marvin Lewis‘ official “heir,” taking over in 2019 or 2020.
For Bettcher, only 39 years old, the Giants job represents a big opportunity as well. Bruce Arians raved about him in Arizona, but Bruce Arians tend to rave about all his coaches. However, if Bettcher can repeat his success with a new organization, he’s going to be hard to ignore as a candidate.
Perhaps the most controversial name on this list will be JOSH McDANIELS. There’s been a lot of debate about whether his runaway bride routine really did amount to “career suicide” as his agent suggested. I’m not so sure. Teams will be reluctant to interview McDaniels now, and he’ll be reluctant to interview with them in turn. However, part of the problem that Indianapolis ran into was the awkward delay of the playoffs; they had a deal in place, then had to wait 3-4 weeks until the Patriots finished their Super Bowl run. If circumstances are different next year (say the Patriots somehow lose in R1 or R2), then perhaps a team will feel better about hiring him and having that announcement right away with no lag time.
THE STEVE WILKS TRACK
At this time last season, hardly anyone knew about Steve Wilks, a first-year Carolina DC who parlayed that season into the Arizona Cardinals head coaching job. The same may happen to some potential “breakout” candidates around the league.
Let’s keep that Carolina Panthers theme going and mention two of their assistants. ERIC WASHINGTON had been their DL coach, and will now step into Wilks’ shoes as the DC. Similarly, Wilks tapped LB coach AL HOLCOMB to follow him to Arizona. Candidly, I didn’t know anything about either Washington or Holcomb until those announcements, but after watching some interviews online, I came away impressed with both. It’s not ridiculous to think that Ron Rivera‘s coaching tree may produce its third head coach in a row; after all, they’d be following a similar formula to Wilks.
Of course, earning a job after one season is difficult, so the younger coordinators with more experience may be safer bets. Among those, I’d look long and hard about San Francisco DC ROBERT SALEH. Saleh’s only 39 and coming off a “so-so” year, but the Niners are loaded with cap space and primed for a breakout season. If they’re this year’s darling of the NFL, that shine will rub off on an up-and-coming coach like Saleh.
In Atlanta, DC MARQUAND MANUEL fits that same bill. A solid player in his day, the 38-year-old has rocketed up the ladder quickly in the coaching ranks. He’s most known for a bad incident at the Combine where he asked Eli Apple if he was gay or not, but besides that faux pas, he’s earned nothing but praise for his work. If Atlanta’s speedy D can take another step up, Manuel will make himself a true player for head coaching jobs as well.
A few other names to note would be Denver DC JOE WOODS and Atlanta DB coach JEROME HENDERSON. Both of them, along with all the other candidates mentioned in this section — Washington, Holcomb, Saleh, and Manuel — are minorities who may earn extra attention thanks to the Rooney Rule.
THE PAT SHURMUR TRACK
Once a rising star assistant, Pat Shurmur saw his reputation take a major hit after he flopped as the head coach in Cleveland. However, he “reset” his career with a few stops along the way and ended up getting his second chance. In that same way, these coaches may reemerge on the radar.
Among them, I’d keep an eye on new Green Bay DC MIKE PETTINE. In hindsight, his “failed” run with the Cleveland Browns wasn’t so terrible after all given the trainwreck that followed. He’s proven to be an excellent coordinator with the Jets and Bills in the past, so if he can do the same with the Packers, he’s going to re-establish himself as a player again in the same way Jim Schwartz did (theoretically) with the Eagles.
Another failed coach, with fewer excuses, would be GUS BRADLEY. Teams may be reluctant to hire him again, but he’s in a great situation as the DC for a talented Chargers team. If the Chargers can make a deep run this season, Bradley may get himself some interviews again.
And here’s the ultimate long shot that may be scoffed at: but I wouldn’t rule out Atlanta OC STEVE SARKISIAN either. His rookie season as the Falcons play-caller was bumpy from start to finish, but it’s never easy to jump into a new role in a new league. In theory, that chemistry should be better in Year 2. Like Bradley, he’s in a great situation given his roster; the Falcons have the talent to be a top 5 offense. If Sark can prove that he’s adjusted to the NFL (and proven his sobriety), he may be able to resuscitate his stock enough to earn some interviews.