As we usher in a new year, we look ahead as a handful of teams prepare to usher in new eras of their own with new coaches.
- Why the 2022 hiring cycle could be the quietest in years
- Will we see any other firings?
- Peeking ahead to the 2023 hot seat
2022 Coaching Cycle Preview
Traditionally this coming Monday would be Black Monday; the day where dissatisfied owners around the league fired their coaches in the hopes of a fresh start. The expansion of the schedule has delayed the reaper for a week but we already have seen two coaches get the ax and one more is expected.
Will there be more? That’s part of what makes the coaching cycle unusual and interesting this season. Typically around half a dozen coaches are let go each year as the turnover in the NFL is relentless.
However, this year there are only three vacancies we can reliably project going into the final two weeks of the season. The Raiders and Jaguars have already fired Jon Gruden and Urban Meyer respectively after each was beset by scandal during the season. The Bears are widely expected to fire HC Matt Nagy as his program has stalled out after four seasons. Beyond that, nothing is certain.
In this issue of NFLTR Review, we’ll preview what to look ahead for during the 2022 hiring cycle, including:
- What other vacancies could we see?
- Best fits for the current jobs
- Looking ahead to 2023
Who Else Is On The Chopping Block?
If Las Vegas, Jacksonville and Chicago remain the only vacancies, it would be the fewest head coach openings since 2010 when only Buffalo (Chan Gailey), Seattle (Pete Carroll) and Washington (Mike Shanahan) changed coaches.
Still, things are not quite settled elsewhere, and there are four more possibilities to keep an eye on for a potential job opening.
If I had to put on my Nostradamus hat, I would guess the Vikings end up joining the hunt for a new coach this offseason. Current HC Mike Zimmer has been in his position since 2014 and has compiled a solid 71-55-1 record during his tenure. But Minnesota has made the playoffs just three times in Zimmer’s eight seasons and is on the verge of a second straight losing season. Beat reporters covering the team have consistently indicated a playoff appearance this year would be important for Zimmer to keep his job.
The playoffs aren’t out of reach for the Vikings but ESPN’s FPI projects them to have just a 17 percent chance of making the postseason. They’re currently the first team out in the playoff standings at 7-8, one game behind the 8-7 49ers and Eagles. They also have to hold off the Saints who are 7-8 and finish with the Panthers and Falcons. The Vikings play the NFC-leading Packers in Lambeau this week before closing out with a home game against the Bears. Even if they can go 2-0 to get to 9-8, they’re not positioned well in the tiebreakers via ESPN’s Playoff Machine.
Minnesota has been achingly close to more wins this season, with a 4-7 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. That’s been the theme of Zimmer’s tenure so far, however. A team that can get close to contending but never make it over the hump into a legitimate threat. The Vikings have seen eight years of that and while they could take a step backward, it’s hard to blame them for seeking out a higher ceiling if it comes to that.
There’s been too much chatter about Texans GM Nick Caserio evaluating current HC David Culley’s status to ignore. Still, the indications at this point seem to be leaning toward Culley getting another season in Houston. He’s already equaled the team’s win total from a miserable 2020 and his experience provides a steadying factor.
There are no illusions about Culley being the long-term answer, however. He’ll turn 67 before the start of next season and his hire was out of left field anyway for a job that objectively was the worst in the NFL last offseason. It’s not much better now with the Texans still in the throes of a deep rebuild and needing to figure out the situation with QB Deshaun Watson.
Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer has reported that Caserio has a candidate in particular in mind for the job, though he didn’t say who. Given his roots with the Patriots, it’s possible it’s someone like OC Josh McDaniels or maybe even LB coach Jerod Mayo. McDaniels might have better options than Houston at this point. But if he were willing to take the job, he’d be the kind of clear upgrade it could take to move on from Culley.
Current Broncos HC Vic Fangio is trending toward missing the playoffs for the third time in as many seasons. For that reason alone, he has to be in the discussion as a potential firing this year, especially considering first-year GM George Paton isn’t the one who hired him.
Still, there are some mitigating factors. Fangio’s specialty is defense and that side of the ball has been really good, this year especially. He’s arguably been held back by Denver’s inability to find a solution at the quarterback position the past three seasons. There haven’t been any whispers about Paton itching to get rid of him, and with a new owner set to take over early next year, it might make more sense to defer the hiring of a new head coach until then.
This is the true wildcard. The Seahawks are wrapping up what will be their first losing season since Carroll’s second year in charge after an embarrassing loss to the Bears that dropped them to 5-10. No one can say for sure what is going to happen, but major changes appear inevitable in Seattle.
A segment of the fanbase has been discontented with Carroll’s old-school, arguably outdated philosophy for a few years now, and it appears QB Russell Wilson is also a member of that group. Wilson has voiced his displeasure with increasing intensity in recent offseasons, and he could end up forcing his way out if he and Carroll can’t get on the same page about what is needed to turn the team around.
The key factor in this is Seahawks owner Jody Allen, who keeps a low profile but is said to be concerned about the current direction of the franchise. The table looks like it’s being set for Allen to have to choose between Carroll and Wilson. That means sometime in the next few months, there’s a strong chance Allen will either sign off on firing the only Super Bowl-winning coach in Seattle history, or on trading away a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Get your popcorn ready.
Best Fits For Current Vacancies
The truth is that nobody really knows anything when it comes to figuring out which coaches will or won’t be successful. We can pinpoint some attributes that probably help, like leadership and adaptability when it comes to scheme. We’re terrible at projecting which coaches will embody those attributes, though. I stumbled upon this article while researching this piece assessing the 2018 coaches. They got some stuff right like naming Titans HC Mike Vrabel the best long-term bet. But former Lions HC Matt Patricia was dubbed the “safest” hire, while Colts HC Frank Reich was supposedly the shakiest. I don’t need to tell you how those two situations have turned out.
Still, throwing up your hands and saying “IDK” makes for terrible content. So here’s my best stab at things.
Bears: Former Eagles HC Doug Pederson
With coaching candidates, there’s often a ton of projecting teams have to do. When it comes to Pederson, though, he’s already reached the mountaintop by leading the Eagles to their first-ever Super Bowl in 2017. There are some questions given how his time in Philadelphia ended, but in my opinion, Pederson is the clear-cut top candidate available in this cycle.
Chicago has a lot going for it as a vacancy, including a talented young quarterback and ownership that will extend a lot of leash to candidates, which has to be a refreshing change of pace for Pederson after Philadelphia. It’s easy to see first-round QB Justin Fields having a lot of success in similar ways to how Carson Wentz had a big year under Pederson given Fields’ athleticism and big arm.
Jaguars: Former Lions HC Jim Caldwell
Last year in a similar piece, I recommended Caldwell as the best hire for Jacksonville. I still think he makes sense for pretty much the same reasons. He has a long history of getting the best out of young quarterbacks, and ensuring Trevor Lawrence‘s development is of paramount importance to Jacksonville. He also has success as a program and culture builder, leading the Lions to three winning seasons and two playoff appearances in four years.
It is worth pointing out that he has been out of coaching since 2019 when he had to take a step back to address health issues. He’ll also be 67 next month so he’s probably not a long-term solution for the Jaguars. Still, at this point the Jaguars just need to take a step in the right direction after a decade of ineptitude. Caldwell can start something that others can hopefully build on.
And even though the allure of a talent like Lawrence is strong, there’s a strong case to be made the Jaguars are the least-appealing coaching job that will be available due to the struggles of ownership. That’s a factor when looking at candidates like Pederson who might have more options.
Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich is getting a ton of buzz for the job and if I had to bet, I think Leftwich will ultimately be the hire. But I just am hesitant about coordinators who build their hype off working with elite quarterbacks who are basically coaches in their own right. See Adam Gase, Bill O’Brien, Mike McCoy and McDaniels.
Raiders: Buccaneers DC Todd Bowles
The Raiders’ opening should be an attractive one as well given Las Vegas is currently on the brink of a playoff berth, even if they end up falling short in the end. They already have a very good starting quarterback option in veteran Derek Carr and an offense with a lot of pieces already in place. Defense has been where the Raiders have fallen short in recent years and that’s where Bowles could be the most attractive candidate for Las Vegas.
Bowles is highly regarded across the NFL for his defensive acumen. He runs an aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme that can pants teams if they’re not ready for it. They dismantled both Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers last year en route to a Super Bowl. And Bowles’ biggest issue when coaching the Jets was the lack of a quarterback, something that wouldn’t be an issue in Las Vegas with Carr.
Looking Ahead To 2023
We mentioned earlier how the rate of change for head coaches is usually around six or seven per season. In the past two decades, whenever there have been one-year lulls like it looks like we might see this year, the following year or two have been huge in terms of coaching changes.
After there were just three new coaches in 2010, that number jumped up to eight the following season, seven the year after that and eight again in 2013.
In 2008 after only four new coaches were hired, a staggering 11 teams made changes at the top in 2009.
And following another lull in 2005 with just three hires, more than half the league turned over in the next two seasons.
What that means is that the hot seat in 2023 is shaping up to be as crowded as Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
- Giants HC Joe Judge and Panthers HC Matt Rhule got a third year to prove their programs are working but they need to make real progress to earn a fourth and it’s probably fair to be pessimistic based on what we’ve seen so far.
- If Culley and Fangio survive the end of this season, they’ll almost certainly be on the hot seat in 2023. Denver will have a new owner ready to put their stamp on the team at that point, and the Texans will be looking to kick their rebuild into the next phase.
- Washington HC Ron Rivera will be entering his third season in D.C. still looking for his first winning record, with an owner who isn’t historically known for being patient.
- Lions HC Dan Campbell and Jets HC Robert Saleh have been selling multi-season rebuilds in their first year to try and take away some of the sting from what have been double-digit losses. Campbell can probably survive another season like that. I’m not so sure about Saleh.
- Bengals HC Zac Taylor and Cardinals HC Kliff Kingsbury have taken real steps forward in their third season that were truthfully needed to secure their jobs. Arizona has clinched a playoff berth and the Bengals are in good position to win the AFC North. Could they survive a step back in 2022 though?
- Miami’s seven-game winning streak has turned the temperature down considerably on HC Brian Flores, as has the return of the defense to a high level of play. But the Dolphins eventually have to transition from rebuilding to contending, and Flores has to show he’s the man for that job in 2022.
- 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan remains one of the best play-callers in football. That’s a trump card that has helped cover for other parts of being a head coach that he doesn’t do as well at, as evidenced by his mediocre 37-42 record so far. San Francisco will transition in 2022 to Shanahan’s hand-picked QB upgrade, Trey Lance. If Lance and the 49ers flop, Shanahan could run out of leash fast.
- 2022 will be Brady’s age-45 season. If he decides to call it a career after that, will Buccaneers HC Bruce Arians have any interest in continuing to coach at the age of 71?
That’s already 11 potential vacancies that can be spotted even looking ahead all the way to 2023. Life has a way of tossing in unexpected additions as well, so even if some of these coaches perform well, others may join the list. One way or another, I don’t expect to be writing about a boring coaching cycle at this time next year.
This Week In Football
- I’m starting to feel like a wartime newspaper with the weekly casualty reports. This week in notable injuries:
- 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo has a torn thumb ligament. San Francisco has not ruled him out yet but first-round QB Trey Lance has taken all the reps so far. I am not an NFL player but I did suffer a torn UCL in college and it’s hard to imagine being able to effectively throw a football. Other more professional medical experts have shared similar opinions and it seems like Lance will get at least one more start.
- It’s incredibly hard to hide from this most recent COVID-19 variant, especially if you’re not vaccinated. So it’s not a big surprise that Colts QB Carson Wentz tested positive given how the virus has been running through the team recently. Wentz still has a chance to test out of the protocol if he remains asymptomatic after the NFL followed the CDC’s lead and relaxed its protocols. But if he were to miss Sunday’s pivotal game against the Raiders, it would be exactly what many were warning about regarding how being unvaccinated could hurt the team before the season.
- We lost another running back to the dreaded Achilles injury on Sunday when Jaguars RB James Robinson collapsed while executing a run fake. The speedy return of Rams RB Cam Akers has provided hope that modern medicine might be conquering this injury as well. Hopefully, Robinson can follow that same path.
- The Steelers have had major run defense issues all season and have not been able to replace DL Stephon Tuitt, who has been out with a knee injury suffered during camp. Pittsburgh will have to make do for the rest of the season without Tuitt and the hope is the veteran can return for 2022, when he will be equally as needed.
- It doesn’t come as a big surprise, but it is notable that Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger essentially confirmed publicly for the first time that he expects Monday night’s game against the Browns to be his final home game in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger is in the final year of his contract, but while he could technically play for another team, the prevailing opinion from Steelers beat reporters is that he will retire for good at the end of this season. It’s an end of an era in Pittsburgh.
- In other quarterback news, it’s becoming harder and harder for Seahawks QB Russell Wilson to dodge questions about his future, though he’s still giving nothing but vague answers on the topic. A little more concrete is reporting that an extension is not an option for Seattle and Wilson, which makes sense given Wilson’s frustrations. He has two more years remaining on his current contract.
- The quarterback circus in Carolina continues, with the team announcing this week that Sam Darnold would be reinserted as the starter following a weird platoon in Week 16. While there’s little reason to expect Darnold to miraculously start playing better, it’s understandable for Carolina to try and create the slightest bit of momentum given they’ve already guaranteed his option (which remains one of the most baffling decisions I can remember an NFL organization making in some time). All of this has predictably not reflected well on HC Matt Rhule, with fans booing him and starting a chant to fire him in the team’s final home game of the season, a 32-6 loss to the Buccaneers. Still, it appears he’s going to get a third season to try and prove his “process” works in the NFL.
- Two years ago, Rhule was also a strong candidate for the Giants head coaching job that ultimately went to Joe Judge. The two are now in remarkably similar straits, with identical 10-21 records and young quarterbacks struggling to live up to their draft status. The Giants also appear to be willing to give both Judge and QB Daniel Jones another year and hope for better. The organization remains high on the potential of both, so we’ll see if they’re right. They’ve been wrong a lot the past 10 years.
- With teams allowed to begin interviewing candidates now, the Jaguars and Raiders kicked off their coaching searches. Jacksonville has an extensive list already with eight candidates who have been either requested or scheduled for interviews. Former Eagles HC Doug Pederson and both Buccaneers coordinators Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich are some of the standouts. Las Vegas won’t kick its search into gear until its playoff status is more clear, but they are expected to interview Bowles as well.