NFLTR Review: Playing Matchmaker For Current Head Coaching Vacancies

So much for a quiet year of coaching moves. Eight teams fired HCs, so in this issue of NFLTR Review we find them new ones:

  • Matching jobs to candidates
  • Intrigue & office politics in HOU & MIA
  • Playoff & Super Bowl predictions

Playing Head Coach Matchmaker

Two weeks ago, we previewed the NFL coaching cycle under the premise that it could be one of the slower ones in years. At the time, there were only three locked-in vacancies while the others were more up in the air. 

Fast forward to now, and we’re back at the accustomed rate of change in the NFL. Eight teams are looking for new head coaches, including the Dolphins and Giants after the surprise firings of this cycle and the Texans who just fired David Culley after one year. And the dust hasn’t completely settled, as we’re waiting on definitive word from the Panthers and Seahawks, even if the expectation is they stand pat. 

That means it’s probably good to reassess where things stand. There’s a lot more competition for available coaches and the landscape looks different in terms of choices those candidates will have. Our 2022 Head Coach & GM Tracker is a great resource to see how the search processes are going for each team, with interviews updated in live time as they’re requested and completed. 

There are a ton of variables that play into a coaching search, especially if a team is also hiring a new general manager like the Giants, Vikings and Bears are right now. No two teams have the exact interview list but there is competition. Timing is important too, with some candidates, oftentimes the most highly-touted, on teams that will make deep runs into the postseason. 

With heavy attention paid to our tracker, here’s an educated guess at how things could shake out over the next few weeks:

Bears: Bills DC Leslie Frazier

Hiring coaches in the NFL is a crapshoot, as evidenced by the fact there’s about 20-25 percent turnover every single year. There are a few trends you can zero in on, however, to predict how things will go. Oftentimes organizations will opt for a palate cleanse and steer the search in the opposite direction of the unsuccessful coach they’ve just fired. If they hired a defensive coach, they might opt for someone with an offensive background. If they hired a disciplinarian, the next tack might be going after someone with a reputation as a player’s coach. If they’ve picked from one particular coaching tree, they might prioritize a different lineage the next time around. 

Connections are also important, especially for organizations with a more old-school and traditionalist bent. The NFL is like any industry — decision-makers will hire someone they’re familiar with over someone they’re not if both candidates are qualified. 

Both of these are why Frazier is worth paying attention to for Chicago, with the caveat that the result of their GM search could be important. They’re conducting both searches at about the same time which suggests the GM isn’t handpicking the next coach, although they obviously could have input. It appears the Bears have been consulting with Bill Polian and Tony Dungy, and Dungy in particular has raved in public about Frazier. 

The 62-year-old Frazier has Buffalo’s defense playing tremendously well and has for a few years now. His first head coaching stint with the Vikings was marred by instability at quarterback but the hope is Justin Fields represents a key building block that would make things different. Frazier’s choice of offensive coordinator (perhaps Bills QB coach Ken Dorsey?) would be crucial, as Fields is key to this franchise’s long-term hopes. 

It is worth noting that out of nine interview requests so far, five have a background on the defensive side of the ball. Defense is the identity of the franchise, and Frazier’s biggest contribution could be shepherding a return to the top of the league in that category for a unit that has been solid, but not great, since 2018. 

Broncos: Cowboys DC Dan Quinn

There’s quite a bit of smoke connecting Denver and Quinn, too much to ignore. Personally, I would be underwhelmed if Denver went this direction. Is Quinn dramatically different than what Vic Fangio brought to the table? Perhaps you could argue he’s a better leader, and his win percentage is certainly a few ticks greater.

He also had the benefit of far better quarterback play with Matt Ryan than Fangio was ever able to dream of in his tenure in Denver. If I had to pick just one to run my defense, I’d also easily take Fangio, as his scheme is less reliant upon having a talent advantage than Quinn’s. 

Denver currently has 11 interviews out to coaching candidates, the most extensive of any team so far. If they do zero in on Quinn over other candidates like Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett, it’ll probably be because they have more confidence in his experience, including a run to the Super Bowl with the Falcons, and the staff he’ll bring along with him. This Broncos team is widely viewed as just needing an upgrade at quarterback to become true contenders. Perhaps they’re just looking to play it safe at head coach and hit a double. 

Dolphins: Buccaneers DC Todd Bowles

The very fact that Miami made the surprise decision to fire HC Brian Flores offers some clues as to what they’re looking for in a replacement. The consistent theme coming out of Miami in the wake of Flores’ dismissal indicates the way he handled his staff and interacted with others became a problem owner Stephen Ross felt he had to address. You can bet the next hire is going to be someone known for their people skills and that’s a consistent theme on their interview list so far. 

The Dolphins also presumably don’t want to take a step back from what they’ve built so far, including a defense that’s capable of making a lot of teams look silly on any given day if everything is clicking. Bowles isn’t on their interview list yet — Cardinals DC Vance Joseph, who held the same position for the Dolphins in 2016 before being hired by the Broncos as their head coach, is — but he checks a lot of those boxes. 

Bowles worked for the Dolphins as well and was actually their interim head coach in 2011, going 2-1 to close out the season. He regularly produces outstanding defensive units that are known for their ability to cause havoc for offenses. He’s also known as a player’s coach and had some success with the Jets considering their struggles at quarterback. 

If the Dolphins want a version of Flores who gets along better with everyone, Bowles or Joseph wouldn’t be bad replacements. 

Giants: Bills OC Brian Daboll

The Giants have not made any head coach interview requests yet, as they are focused on their general manager search with the goal of having that person play a key role in hiring a new coach. The early, early word is Bills assistant GM Joe Schoen opened as an early favorite. If he were to get the job, or any of the other GM openings, the natural connection for head coach would be Daboll. 

This would make a lot of sense if it were to play out this way for New York. Their offense has been miserable for years and Daboll has helped engineer one of the biggest developmental leaps in NFL history by Bills QB Josh Allen. Even if he can’t do the same for Daniel Jones, he could be a big help for the next quarterback after Jones which might be as soon as 2023. 

Jaguars: Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich

Given how things have played out in Jacksonville, this opening is easily toward the bottom of those potentially available. Between ownership questions, a decade of dysfunction and the presence of holdover GM Trent Baalke, it’s hard to picture top candidates prioritizing the Jaguars even if they have Trevor Lawrence. That’s partially why there’s so much momentum for Alabama OC Bill O’Brien, as he’s apparently happy to sign on with Baalke

I’m not the highest on Leftwich, as I’m skeptical of coaches who rise to prominence for their work with quarterbacks who are essentially another coach on the field. But he does have connections to Jacksonville as a former first-round pick, an offensive background to help develop Lawrence, and is generally viewed as an even-keel personality who can relate to players. 

All of that ought to sound appealing to the Jaguars after this past season. 

Raiders: Interim HC Rich Bisaccia

Bisaccia isn’t the sexy choice for this job. Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh is. But it’s hard to argue with the results from Bisaccia too much given Las Vegas is in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and only the second time since 2002. 

Like most special teams coaches, Bisaccia has flown under the radar for his entire career until basically lucking into this opportunity. His calm demeanor has been exactly what the Raiders have needed to stabilize them in one of the most turbulent seasons even. He has a good rapport with QB Derek Carr and that could help his case as well. 

Texans: Former Dolphins HC Brian Flores

It’s pretty obvious Texans GM Nick Caserio wants another Patriots coach to help steer his rebuild and was just biding his time for the right one. Flores has the advantage of experience over Patriots LB coach Jerod Mayo, but Mayo might have the advantage in the long run. Anyone who has ever come into contact with him raves about his leadership ability. 

Regardless, after a year of speculation about QB Deshaun Watson joining Flores in Miami, it would be beyond fascinating for it to be the other way around. 

Vikings: Former Eagles HC Doug Pederson

In my opinion, the Vikings have the top vacancy this year given the wealth of options, the ability to start with a clean slate and a lot of flexibility and the patience ownership has given coaches in the past. I also think Pederson as a former Super Bowl-winning coach is the clear top candidate in this year’s cycle. It’s a natural match. 

The Vikings cleaned house because it was clear the previous regime had hit a ceiling and was never going to do better than contend for a wildcard spot at best. Pederson’s Super Bowl pedigree is a major selling point in this case. Their roster needs some work but they ought to be competitive straight away, which is important for Minnesota’s owners. Pederson also offers a different approach than previous HC Mike Zimmer, which will be welcomed judging by some of the quotes from players following Zimmer’s dismissal. 

From Pederson’s point of view, coming to the Vikings should offer a lot of perks, assuming he’s aligned with whomever they hire at general manager, as that led to his downfall in Philadelphia. There’s a lot to work with on offense and there’s already a decent option in place at quarterback in Kirk Cousins. He could opt to try and maximize Cousins, or trade him for what could be a decent haul, then bring in his own guy at quarterback. 

This Week In Football

  • The first week after the regular season ends is always a major one in terms of coach movement. This year was no different. 
    • It wasn’t a surprise when the Bears fired HC Matt Nagy on Monday. It was a little more unforeseen when they also let go of GM Ryan Pace, making it a clean sweep of their leadership structure. 
    • The Vikings also executed the clean sweep, letting go of both Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman. Zimmer had been there for eight years, Spielman 16. The latter was a bit of a surprise as there had been some thought he’d get the John Elway sendoff and move to a senior consultant role, allowing a new general manager with a fresh perspective to come in. There’s a good chance more significant changes are coming in Minnesota. 
    • New GMs mean new coaches, even if it takes a year to evaluate. That was true in Denver even though by all accounts GM George Paton and HC Vic Fangio got along. Three straight losing seasons and no playoffs wasn’t enough to justify a fourth, though, and now Paton will put his stamp on the team
    • There’s always a surprise every year and Miami was responsible for it this year, abruptly firing HC Brian Flores despite winning eight of his final nine games. The outcry was swift, but some of what’s come to light since then hasn’t painted Flores in the best light. If things hadn’t changed, it’s reasonable to assume he’d have been on the hot seat a year from now. As things stand, he instantly becomes one of the more intriguing candidates for other teams. 
    • The Giants reversed course on the status of HC Joe Judge by the middle of the week, completing what was one of the swifter falls from grace in recent memory. Judge’s “culture” was controversial from the moment he signed on with a resume as thin as an NFL head coaching candidate has had in a while, but as opposed to last year when the Giants finished the season strong, this year they flatlined. Keeping Judge was untenable. Did he have the best setup? No, and the “retirement” of GM Dave Gettleman is proof of that. But Judge made it clear he wouldn’t have known how to play no matter what hand he was dealt. 
    • On Thursday, the Texans also fired a coach who was expected to be safe at one point, dumping HC David Culley after just one year, a year in which he was given a roster many, including myself, predicted to go 0-17 and eked out four wins, the same as Houston managed the year before with Deshaun Watson. The Texans tried to spin it as “philosophical differences,” but the truth is they hired Culley knowing they’d probably fire him sooner rather than later. There’s been too much noise about GM Nick Caserio having wandering eyes and the candidates who have been linked to that job all have New England backgrounds. 
    • On that note, something that’s worth paying attention to is the lack of interview requests for Patriots OC Josh McDaniels, who had as much buzz as any other candidate entering this week. McDaniels is reportedly waiting until after the Patriots are done in the playoffs to interview, but it’s not hard to connect the dots between him and the Texans. It’s also worth noting, perhaps just as a coincidence, that the reporter who broke that story covers the Texans, not the Patriots. 
    • It’s been an assumption for a while that the Raiders would join the list of teams hunting for a new head coach and general manager at the end of the season, but not so fast. Las Vegas running the table to get into the playoffs has earned interim HC Rich Bisaccia some credit. There’s not a real strong sense of what happens next for the Raiders. Perhaps they bring Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh back to the NFL. It’s no longer a foregone conclusion that GM Mike Mayock is gone, but if he is, would former Browns and Chiefs GM John Dorsey be an option? A lot of questions we’ll update you on in a week. 
  • As mentioned earlier, the dust has yet to completely settle on this hiring cycle. All reports and indications have been that both Seahawks HC Pete Carroll and Panthers HC Matt Rhule were safe. However, neither Seattle owner Jody Allen nor Carolina owner David Tepper have confirmed that publicly. There are already coaching changes underway for the Panthers after a disappointing season where they underachieved. In addition to the hunt for a new offensive coordinator which notably includes O’Brien, former Washington HC Jay Gruden and Vikings OC Klint Kubiak, the Panthers fired three assistants including their ST coordinator, OL coach and DL coach. 
  • More changes around the league are probably on the way as coaches take promotions and others evaluate further changes, but the Lions have already gotten things started by moving on from OC Anthony Lynn. This wasn’t a big surprise after HC Dan Campbell took over play-calling duties midseason. It’ll be interesting to see where Lynn, who is highly experienced and highly thought of, lands next. 
  • One final point of interest for front office movement: Steelers GM Kevin Colbert is expected to officially retire following the 2022 NFL Draft. Colbert has been going year-to-year for a couple of years now, so this is something that’s been on the horizon. There’s a strong chance he’ll pick who he believes to be the successor to QB Ben Roethlisberger and then call it a long and successful career. 
  • As we enter the Spring of the Quarterback (I’m trying new names so I don’t type QB carousel 50 million times the next four months), we can set the initial expectation for a few situations. In Cleveland, the Browns plan to move forward with Baker Mayfield for the 2022 season, which will be a contract year for the former No. 1 pick, rather than seek a replacement. Mayfield seems to be on board with that plan as well, for now. The Texans hope to trade Watson by the start of the league year on March 16, but as always, the legal situation remains a key variable. There could be some movement on that front in the coming weeks, though. And in Seattle, there aren’t any current plans to trade Russell Wilson. That’s not the final word though. Team brass is meeting this week to chart a course forward after the Seahawks’ first losing season since 2011. And Wilson could still have something to say, though he hasn’t escalated things from what we say last offseason. Stay tuned…
  • The Bucs gave big money to a big dude, inking DT Vita Vea to a four-year, max of $73 million extension. The deal puts him just outside the top five defensive tackles in terms of average annual salary. It’s a huge amount for a nose tackle like Vea whose impact is immense, but not always on the stat sheet. Look no further than Tampa Bay’s defensive splits with and without Vea in recent years to see his value, though. 
  • In notable and random news, with it yet to be determined if it’s impactful or not, the Rams brought 37-year-old S Eric Weddle out of retirement to sign to the practice squad due to a rash of injuries in their defensive backfield. Weddle last played in 2019, which feels like eons ago. For him to have anything left in the tank is astounding. It does not sound like the Rams are counting on him for too much at this point but this is right on brand for them in terms of name value and thinking outside the box. 

Playoff Bracket Predictions

We’re on the verge of what the NFL is calling Super Wildcard Weekend and I must confess, I’m a little less excited for the playoffs than I was at this time last week. The Colts and Chargers slipped up and in their place we’ll be watching the Raiders and Steelers in the postseason instead. The Raiders are a fine team with their fair share of gritty upsets this season, but I would much rather watch Jonathan Taylor run over defenders or Justin Herbert sling lasers than the shell of Ben Roethlisberger chuck it 40 times within five yards of the line of scrimmage. 

Still, there are a lot of compelling matchups on the slate and the lack of truly great teams this year could make for some exciting viewing, especially in the AFC. I feel reasonably confident about the Packers emerging from the NFC, but the AFC has been wide open all season and that shouldn’t change now. 

March Madness style, here’s my best guess at how things will play out over these next four weeks:

Wildcard Round

Raiders at Bengals

These two teams played back in Week 11 and it was not particularly close, with Joe Mixon and the defense taking over in the second half to push Cincinnati to a 32-13 win. It was the first step of the Bengals hitting their stride over the second half of the season, and while they’re not really seen as Super Bowl contenders, they can absolutely make some noise. The defense is a legit top-10 unit and between Joe Burrow and his elite group of receivers, plus Mixon, the Bengals can do a lot of damage multiple different ways. 

The Achilles heel is the offensive line. Burrow was sacked more than any other quarterback and the Raiders have a terrific duo of edge rushers in Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue. Can they make Burrow feel the pressure in his first ever playoff game? Burrow does have 14 interceptions this season, but just three in his seven starts since the bye. 

The Raiders have also been nails since the last time the Bengals saw them. Six of their last seven games have been decided by three points or fewer, and Las Vegas has a 5-1 record in those games. Carr has a lot more experience than Burrow but this will also be his first playoff game. 

Ultimately, I expect this game to be closer than the last time these two teams met. I think the Raiders’ luck runs out here, though, ending what’s been an incredible run in a rollercoaster of a season. 

Patriots at Bills

This will be the third time these two teams have met this season. The first matchup was a 14-10 Patriots win played in howling winds in Buffalo. First-round rookie Mac Jones attempted three passes and New England rumbled for well over 200 yards on the ground. 

The Bills fared much better in the second matchup, winning 33-21 on the back of a banner day from Josh Allen. It was one of four straight wins to close the season that helped stem some concerns from Buffalo’s midseason slump. The weather on Saturday night is going to be much more similar to the first meeting between these two teams, however. 

The Bills’ run defense is going to be tested again, while Jones is going to have to prove he can handle more on his plate. Limiting mistakes will be crucial for both teams. That’s a staple of a Bill Belichick-coached team, and when the Patriots have followed that formula, they’ve won more often than not this year. They haven’t always followed that formula, though. 

In the end, I think the Bills are the better team, even if the Patriots are dangerous and well-built for football in January. 

Eagles at Buccaneers

Back in Week 6, the Eagles lost to the Bucs 28-22 in a game that wasn’t as close as that score suggests. Since then, Philadelphia reimagined its offense to be one of the best rushing attacks in football and went on a tear to end the season as the last NFC team in the postseason. 

Their only win over a team with a winning record is against the Saints, however. On paper, Tampa Bay should be a strong favorite to win this game and advance to the divisional round, especially with Tom Brady having an incredible season. They’re currently 8.5-point favorites. 

There is a path to an upset, though. The Buccaneers rank third in the NFL in rush defense but only 17th in terms of yards per carry. Some teams have gotten the better of their defense on the ground at times, particularly if they can hit the edges and get away from the monstrous Vea in the middle. The Eagles might be able to have similar success, particularly with the added element of Jalen Hurts as a rusher. 

Then it comes down to the Eagles’ defense to put the clamps on Brady and the Bucs offense enough to eke out the win. While Tampa Bay has a lot of injuries on that side of the ball, Philadelphia has struggled against top-tier quarterbacks this season. Add it all up, and it feels like the Eagles give the Bucs a scare at least, even if they don’t have the horses to pull off a win this year. 

49ers at Cowboys

I don’t know that Jimmy Garoppolo is better than 20th in the NFL or so in terms of starting quarterbacks. But he deserves credit for gutting through his injury and getting San Francisco into the postseason. If everything around him is going smoothly, you can win games with Garoppolo. The problem is things seldom run smoothly for long in the NFL. 

That’s why the Cowboys should have an edge in this game. Dak Prescott is a much better quarterback, particularly when things break down. He has a host of weapons around him and despite the bumps in the road, Dallas is the league’s No. 1 scoring offense. San Francisco’s secondary is a major weakness, even if the defensive line is playing well. 

Flipping things around, Dallas’ defense has the ability to wreck offenses between a formidable pass rush and ballhawks on every level. Garoppolo has shown himself to be turnover-prone at times. San Francisco’s rushing attack is a legitimate challenge but the Cowboys could neutralize that by jumping out to a lead. The key will be avoiding turnovers, something Dallas hasn’t always been able to do. Absent that, the Cowboys should be able to advance. 

Steelers at Chiefs

It’s almost a more interesting question to ask whether the Steelers will be able to cover the spread than whether they have any legit chance of winning. These two teams played three weeks ago and the Chiefs had one of their best games of the season in a 36-10 win. They’re currently favored by more than two touchdowns, which is the highest ever for a wildcard game. Perhaps the Steelers can ugly it up and keep the score close for a half or so. 

Cardinals at Rams

For the better part of this season, the Cardinals looked like they might be the team to beat in the NFC. They started 7-0, including a convincing win against the Rams. But in what’s becoming an all too familiar pattern, Arizona has wilted down the stretch. They’re 1-4 in their last four games. 

The Rams haven’t had a smooth ride either. Matthew Stafford has been about as prolific as expected but he’s also dealt with bouts of ill-timed turnovers and leads the NFL in pick-sixes. The Rams picked up a reputation as a team that could be outmuscled midway through the season, and they haven’t completely shed that label. 

Can the Cardinals take advantage of that with their running game? Can they force Stafford into some turnovers? This is a great matchup to end the weekend with, and I think the Cardinals have what it takes to pull off what technically would be an upset. 

Divisional Round

Cardinals at Packers

When these two teams met in the regular season, it went all the way to the final play of the game, with Green Bay edging out a victory. The Packers are healthier now than they were then, so even if it’s hard to beat a team twice in the same season, I think Green Bay is situated well to do that. 

Cowboys at Buccaneers

Another rematch. Tampa Bay kicked a go-ahead field goal with two seconds on the clock to beat Dallas in the first game of the NFL season back in September. This Cowboys defense has really come together since then, though, while the Bucs have been worn down by injuries over the course of the season. Injury luck is a huge factor this time of year, and I think the Cowboys have what it takes to topple the Bucs and announce themselves as true Super Bowl contenders. 

Bengals at Titans

Tennessee limped through the back half of its schedule, but still exceeded expectations and earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC after the Chiefs slipped up to this same Bengals team. The Titans could be close to full strength, with Derrick Henry rejoining A.J. Brown and Julio Jones in the lineup. The Titans may be one of the worst No. 1 seeds ever on paper, but they’ve shown it’s not wise to underestimate them. 

Bills at Chiefs

Back in Week 5, the Bills toppled the Chiefs 38-20 in a game that seemed like it could be signaling a changing of the guard in the AFC. It didn’t turn out to be quite that clear, as Kansas City rattled off a winning streak to reassert themselves as one of the top teams in the AFC, while the Bills stumbled and then picked themselves back up. They meet once again, and the stakes are high. 

Buffalo’s defense is better than it has been in recent seasons, but so is Kansas City’s. Despite the presence of superstars Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, this game very well could become about the two defenses which have helped stabilize the teams through rough patches. It’s a heavyweight battle, and the winner should be the favorite to advance to the Super Bowl. 

Championship Round

Cowboys at Packers

There are some awesome storylines here, with the return of HC Mike McCarthy to Lambeau Field another wrinkle in the long-running rivalry between these two storied franchises. Dallas has what it takes to win this game. But the Packers just feel a cut above the rest of the NFC this year. Give me Green Bay. 

Chiefs at Titans

The Titans thumped the Chiefs the last time these two teams met, harassing Mahomes all day en route to a 27-3 victory. Kansas City seems to have things more in order now than they did earlier in the season, especially on defense. You get the sense things could fall apart again at any moment for this Chiefs team but if they make it this far, it’d be their fourth straight AFC championship game. They’re still the team to beat until they prove otherwise. 

Super Bowl

Packers vs Chiefs

Finally. We get Aaron Rodgers vs Mahomes, and on the highest possible stage. For my taste, this is the best possible Super Bowl matchup out of any in this field (yes better than Patriots vs Bucs). We get two of the most talented quarterbacks of all time, one at the beginning and one closer to the end of their career, looking to cement their legacy. Is it the Last Dance for Rodgers and the Packers? Can they close out the storybook ending? I think they can.

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