There is no set menu for NFL teams when they go looking for a new head coach in January. It will be more like a buffet, with a little bit of something for everyone.
There are at least two dozen credible candidates this year, with seven to 11 teams considering a switch at the top. And while there doesn’t seem to be a slam-dunk, must-have candidate, there are several quality candidates for every type of scenario — old coaches, young coaches, offensive coaches, defensive coaches.
Here is a deeper look at the top candidates for 2021 (in no particular order):
▪ 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh: The Niners have shown steady progress in Saleh’s four years as coordinator, ranking in the top five in yards allowed for two years in a row and going all the way to the Super Bowl last season. He’s 41, comes from the Pete Carroll coaching tree, and the players seem to love his high energy and leadership style. Saleh is a native of Michigan and would seemingly be a great fit for the Lions.
▪ Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy: Two factors that have worked against Bieniemy in his quest to become a head coach: His background is with running backs, not quarterbacks, and he doesn’t call the plays in Kansas City. But Bieniemy has learned from the best in Andy Reid, has coordinated the NFL’s top offense over the last three seasons, and is beloved by his players and peers. The Chiefs have been pushing Bieniemy hard as a head coaching candidate the last few years, and chances look good he will get one of the jobs this year.
▪ Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll: Has 20 years of NFL coaching experience, apprenticeships under Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, and seven years of offensive coordinator experience with four teams. Daboll has done an incredible job with Bills quarterback Josh Allen, most notably improving his completion percentage from 52 percent as a rookie to 68 percent in Year 3. Should be on the short list for any team wanting to develop a youngster or get more out of their veteran QB (ahem, Philadelphia). If Daboll does get a job, keep an eye on him bringing along a couple of his old Patriots buddies, Matt Patricia and Nick Caserio.
▪ Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith: Has been with the Titans since 2011, and is so highly regarded that he survived three coaching changes, a rarity in the NFL. As the offensive coordinator for the past two years, Smith has overseen one of the NFL’s most efficient and explosive offenses, turning Ryan Tannehill into a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback and the Titans into a Super Bowl contender. The Titans’ immediate improvement under Smith should intrigue a lot of teams with young quarterbacks.
▪ Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo: It doesn’t matter that he only has two years of coaching experience. Mayo has spent 10 years learning from Bill Belichick, and he is where the NFL is trending — a young guy (34) who excelled as a player and can connect with the locker room while also maintaining discipline. Mayo is a rising star and I wouldn’t be surprised if he lands a head job within a few years.
▪ Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham: The Giants are ninth in points allowed in Graham’s first season after finishing 32nd last year. Spent seven years with the Patriots, worked alongside Brian Flores and Joe Judge the last two years, and may soon get his own shot.
▪ Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley: He’s only in his first year as a defensive coordinator, but the NFL has taken notice of what he has done with the Rams’ defense, which is first in yards allowed and third in points allowed.
▪ Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady: He is only 30 years old and in his first year as an NFL offensive coordinator, but he has been brilliant with the Saints, LSU, and the Panthers, and likely will get his shot at head coaching very soon.
▪ Others to watch: Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods; Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus; Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni; Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich; Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
▪ Marvin Lewis: At 62, he’s not ready to hang up his whistle, and his Bengals tenure looks better with age, with seven playoff appearances and four division titles in 16 years. Would be interesting to see what he could do with an organization that actually spends money.
▪ Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: No one can argue with his football acumen. But he hasn’t been a top candidate the last couple of years since spurning the Colts. His best chance may be with the Buccaneers if they move on from Bruce Arians.
▪ Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier: A great “experience” candidate. He was a player, a defensive coordinator for four teams, and a head coach with the Vikings. Frazier also has had the Bills’ defense humming the last three years.
▪ Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen: His tenure as Raiders head coach from 2012-14 was a disaster, but that organization was a coach-killer. Allen has been great as Sean Payton’s defensive leader for the last six seasons, interviewed for the Dolphins’ top job in 2019, and should be in the mix for a few jobs this year.
▪ Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris: The former Buccaneers head coach is 4-4 this year after taking over for Dan Quinn and likely will be in the final conversation for the Falcons’ full-time job this offseason.
▪ Others to watch: Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio; Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz; Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles; former Lions coach Jim Caldwell.
▪ Iowa State’s Matt Campbell: Several NFL teams have pursued Campbell in recent years, and his stock continues to rise with an 8-2 season and Big Ten Coach of the Year Award. Campbell is signed through 2025, but let’s see what happens if and when a team (the Jets?) throws a pile of money at him.
▪ Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh: He was 44-19-1 with a Super Bowl appearance in four years with the 49ers, but I’m not sure he would get much interest in this hiring cycle should Michigan fire him. Harbaugh is a great coach but has a tough personality that wears out a lot of people.
What Newton stands to make
The Patriots signed Cam Newton to a one-year deal worth the minimum $1.05 million, and only half of it guaranteed. But the contract had a total value of $7.5 million based on incentives and bonuses. So, how is he doing?
What he will/should make: His $1.05 million base salary; $656,250 for being active for 15 games; and $2 million for playing in 86 percent of snaps ($250,000 each for 13 percent, 20 percent, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80).
What Newton won’t make: His last playing-time incentive, $250,000 for 90 percent of snaps, which is impossible for him to reach; a $43,750 roster bonus for missing one game; Pro Bowl and All-Pro bonuses totaling $1 million; and playoff incentives totaling $2.5 million — $1.5 million tied to making the playoffs (which he would get if the Patriots find a way to sneak in), and $250,000 for each playoff win, up to $1 million.
If Newton were benched over the final three games, his playing time could slip below 80 percent and even 70 percent, which could cost him up to $500,000. But I imagine Bill Belichick doesn’t want to do wrong by a player who has completely bought into the program.
All told, assuming the Patriots don’t make the playoffs and that Newton plays in the final three games, he will have made $3,706,250, or about 49 percent of the contract’s maximum value. That’s less money than the Raiders, Saints, Packers, Browns, Bears, and Texans are paying their backup quarterbacks, though perhaps the 6-7 Patriots got what they paid for.
Players Association got this one right
Kudos to the NFL Players Association for making sure that hundreds of disabled ex-players don’t see their benefits get reduced.
“They made a really tough choice to do the right thing and step up and fix it,” said attorney Brad Sohn, who represents numerous former players in lawsuits against the league.
The trouble started in March, when the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that brings labor stability through 2031. But hundreds of ex-players were furious with the new deal over cuts that were made to disability benefits.
In the new CBA, ex-players who were collecting up to $138,000 per year in disability benefits from the NFL would have had that amount reduced by the amount of Social Security disability benefits they collected, which would have cost roughly 400 former players about $2,000 per month.
Former Panthers safety Eric Reid expressed public outrage over the new stipulations, and former players Don Majkowski and Aveion Cason sued the NFL and NFLPA in July. Players collecting disability from the NFL have been rendered unable to work a normal job.
“You have families that really needed this money,” Sohn said. “I spoke to clients back in March who were palpably scared. People were freaking out.”
These new changes were set to take effect on Jan. 1, but Tuesday, the NFLPA announced that its board had voted unanimously to push the deadline back by three years, to 2024.
The NFLPA did not announce how it would fund the changes but is likely shifting its own money around to make it work. The issue will come up again in three years, but they have given themselves some time to figure it out.
“They saw the problem and dealt with it before it became a horrible reality, and not at an insignificant cost to themselves,” Sohn said.
▪ The NFL hasn’t officially shut the door on “local bubbles,” but the league sees no need to take that step. Since requiring all teams to adopt “intensive protocols,” which put significant restrictions on the amount of time spent at the team facility, the NFL has seen a nearly 50 percent reduction in COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks. This past week, 21 of 32 teams didn’t have a player test positive, and the NFL’s Dr. Allen Sills said that 70 percent of the league’s new cases don’t have any “high-risk close contacts” affiliated with them.
“That’s remarkable, considering what’s happening in the rest of the country,” Sills said, “the fact that the incidence rate continues to go up, and ours has actually gone down.”
▪ The NFL also has tightened its circle in the last two weeks. The NFL was conducting approximately 7,800 tests per day across the league around Thanksgiving, but the last two weeks the numbers have been about 7,000 as it limits the number of people in and out of buildings.
“We have intentionally decreased those numbers of people allowed inside the team environment,” Sills said, though the teams have had the discretion to determine which support staff to cut out.
▪ Sills reiterated that “we have zero intention of in any way trying to jump the line with regard to a COVID-19 vaccine,” and that the NFL is planning the rest of the season as if a vaccine won’t be available.
▪ The NFL has also been recording and observing data with regard to myocarditis, the heart condition that is one possible side effect of COVID-19. Sills said the NFL has “really not seen a high incidence of those types of issues” and is pooling its data with the other pro sports leagues, with their findings to be published relatively soon.
Inside play-action numbers
Was curious this past week to look up play-action passing stats — which quarterbacks use it the most, and who uses it most effectively. The findings, with raw numbers provided by Pro Football Reference (through Week 14):
▪ Highest percentage of pass attempts as play-action (league average: 23.7 percent): Ryan Tannehill (37.2 percent), Cam Newton (35.5 percent), Jared Goff (33.9 percent), Jimmy Garoppolo (32.1 percent), Baker Mayfield (32.1 percent),
▪ Lowest percentage: Ben Roethlisberger (7.9 percent), Drew Brees (15.1 percent), Deshaun Watson (16.7 percent), Derek Carr (17.0 percent), Philip Rivers (17.2 percent).
▪ Highest yards per attempt with play-action (league average: 7.5): Nick Mullens (9.4), Dak Prescott (9.2), Tom Brady (9.1), Tannehill (9.1), Kirk Cousins (9.1).
▪ Lowest yards per attempt: Carson Wentz (4.8), Roethlisberger (5.3), Joe Burrow (5.8), Andy Dalton (5.9), Carr (5.9), Daniel Jones (5.9).
Newton is 21st in yards per attempt (7.1).
Difficult decision for Raiders?
Marcus Mariota looked fantastic in relief of Carr on Thursday night, like he was finally healthy and back to his old self. Mariota looks likely to start the Raiders’ final two games given Carr’s groin injury, and he could give the Raiders a difficult decision this offseason.
Carr is on the books for $19.625 million next year. Mariota has a complicated contract that would pay him a minimum of $11.875 million in salary and a maximum of $22 million when factoring in achievable incentives for playing time, wins, and playoff performance.
It’s probably too expensive to keep both Carr and Mariota, especially with the cap likely to decrease next year. Both QBs have little to no dead money, making either movable in a trade or release. And the dollars are about the same — the Raiders may actually pay Mariota a little more as their starter next year.
Since Mariota would likely make between $16 million-$22 million next year as a starter, that price tag may make it tough for the Raiders to trade him. Carr, a more proven commodity, may have a more tradeable contract. If the Raiders decide they want to keep Carr, they may need Mariota to restructure his contract to facilitate a trade.
Five of the league’s most downtrodden franchises are in the thick of the playoff race. The Bills, one of three teams (Lions, Browns) not to have won a division title since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002, are on the verge of winning their first since 1995. The Browns, Buccaneers, Dolphins, and Raiders are also in the playoff hunt. All five have reached the postseason three times or fewer since 2002 … Home teams went 6-8 on “Thursday Night Football” this year … The Colts will have punter Rigoberto Sanchez available on Sunday. He has missed just two games after having a cancerous tumor removed on Dec. 1. Doctors found the tumor the prior week, but Sanchez still kicked against the Titans that Sunday. “I asked the doctor if it could get any worse and he said, ‘No,’ ” Sanchez said. “So then I’m like, ‘OK, I’m going to play. I’m going to do it for my brothers. They need me.’ That’s what it was.”