The NFL head coaching market was never going to maintain the pace of the last couple of years, when 10 head coaches were hired in 2022 and seven in 2021. This year, only five teams have made a change at the top.
But while several head coaches kept their jobs — Brandon Staley, Dennis Allen, Josh McDaniels, Kevin Stefanski, Mike McCarthy, Ron Rivera, and Sean McVay — most of their teams had to find a scapegoat. As of Friday, eight teams had fired their offensive coordinator, and five teams their defensive coordinator.
Let’s take a look at the latest happenings on the coaching circuit:
▪ The Patriots are one of 13 teams — yes, 13 — looking for an offensive coordinator. The eight teams looking for just an offensive coordinator are the Rams, Patriots, Jets, Commanders, Ravens, Chargers, Buccaneers, and Titans. The five teams that need a head coach (Cardinals, Panthers, Colts, Texans, and Broncos) also need offensive coordinators.
The Chargers are arguably the most attractive job because of the opportunity to coach Justin Herbert. But the Chargers are also in a tricky spot. If whomever they hire fixes the offense and gets more out of Herbert, he will almost certainly be hired away as a head coach, leaving the Chargers with another void to fill.
The Ravens job is second because of the expected presence of Lamar Jackson, though some coaches may be scared away by having to coach a non-traditional quarterback.
The Patriots job looks decent for a coach looking to prove himself. But with a questionable quarterback (Mac Jones), mediocre talent on offense, a coach who gets all of the credit (Bill Belichick), and an organization that isn’t known for paying top dollar for coaches, the Patriots’ opening has some pock marks.
▪ This year could be the first time in Belichick’s 23 offseasons that he is hiring an outside coach to be his offseason coordinator. He can’t just hire anyone at the snap of the fingers. The Patriots have to follow the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview two external candidates who are a minority or female.
Of the Patriots’ five known candidates, three would satisfy this criterion — Oregon associate head coach Adrian Klemm, Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell, and Cardinals receivers coach Shawn Jefferson. The other candidates so far are Bill O’Brien and current Patriots tight ends coach Nick Caley. Last year, the Patriots circumvented the Rooney Rule when they didn’t officially name Matt Patricia the offensive coordinator.
All five candidates this year have ties to Belichick as his former players or coaches. None other than Caley (Jets) has been requested to interview for another offensive coordinator opening.
▪ The biggest name in this cycle is Sean Payton, and a league source said this past week that if the Chargers job didn’t come out, Payton would be most interested in the Panthers and Texans jobs — teams that can afford his $20 million-per-year demand, can give him power over the football organization, and have a blank slate at quarterback. The Texans are arguably the most attractive, with a boatload of cap space and picks Nos. 2, 12, 34, 66, and 74 in this year’s draft (though a few would have to be traded to the Saints in order to get Payton). Payton could handpick his quarterback in the draft, and would probably nudge Nick Caserio out of the way in a year or two.
The Panthers would probably have to give up a bit extra in a trade for Payton since they are in the same division as the Saints, but that’s an easy call to get the coach they want. It appears plausible that Payton could be a package deal with Tom Brady in Carolina.
Payton interviewed with the Broncos this past week, but the fact that Russell Wilson had to call Payton and sell him on coming to Denver probably speaks to Payton’s hesitation.
▪ Names you have seen a lot of over the past week — Ejiro Evero and DeMeco Ryans. Evero, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator, and Ryans, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, were requested to interview by all five teams with a head coaching vacancy. The Broncos had the No. 7 defense this season, Evero’s first as a coordinator, while the 49ers finished No. 1 in points and yards this year under Ryans.
▪ The Buccaneers suffered bad injury luck this season, but no offense led by Brady should finish 25th in points, so it was no surprise to see offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and a bunch of coaches get the heave-ho on Thursday. The Buccaneers also had one of the most bloated staffs in the NFL, with five assistants with “coordinator” in their title, and 30 coaches on the payroll, compared with 20 for the Patriots.
The Buccaneers have proven that they will do whatever it takes to keep Brady happy, and will likely take another run at him this offseason. Firing most of the staff could be viewed as telling Brady they’ll even let him pick the coaches.
But if that were the case, the Buccaneers perhaps would have fired head coach Todd Bowles, and made a run at Payton. The Buccaneers may just be moving on from the Brady era, and giving Bowles a chance to pick his own staff instead of inheriting Bruce Arians’s coaches.
▪ The Lions didn’t make any hires but did score one of the biggest wins when offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, requested by the Panthers, Colts, and Texans for their head coaching jobs, decided to stay with the Lions. The Lions finished No. 5 in points in Johnson’s first season, and the analytics loved the Lions’ offense, ranking them No. 2 behind only the Chiefs in expected points added per pass play. Jared Goff had 29 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions and surely celebrated the news.
▪ With the Cardinals hiring Monti Ossenfort as general manager, it could increase the chances of Brian Flores getting the head coaching job. Flores had a solid interview with the Cardinals in 2018 and is one of the Cardinals’ initial seven candidates this time. Ossenfort, the Titans’ director of player personnel for the last three seasons, and Flores were young scouts with the Patriots in 2006-07 and worked together in the organization through the 2018 season.
LET’S MAKE A DEAL
Ravens: Jackson still our quarterback
If there was any doubt that Lamar Jackson’s lack of a long-term contract played a part in his absence from last Sunday’s playoff loss to the Bengals, Jackson posted Monday to social media, “When you have something good, you don’t play with it. You don’t take chances losing it. You don’t neglect it … You pour into it. You appreciate it.”
Jackson and the Ravens have been stuck in a contract stalemate for two years, and it is coming to a head now that Jackson is set to be a free agent in March.
Jackson wants a five-year, fully guaranteed deal similar to the one signed by the Browns and Deshaun Watson. Jackson’s problem is the Ravens view Watson’s deal as an anomaly and have the franchise tag at their disposal.
The Ravens can apply the tag by March 7, and would have until July 15 to sign Jackson to a long-term extension, or else he can only play on the franchise tag. Jackson has until the middle of the season to sign his tag, though, and could sit out all of training camp before missing a paycheck in the regular season. Complicating the negotiation is that Jackson is serving as his own agent.
The first decision for the Ravens is whether to give Jackson the exclusive or non-exclusive tag. The former, which seems likelier, guarantees Jackson a salary of about $45 million next season and takes Jackson off the market. A non-exclusive tag guarantees Jackson a salary of $32 million but allows him to sign with another team, for the price of two first-round picks. Considering that Watson just fetched three first-round picks, the Ravens almost certainly won’t give up Jackson for two.
GM Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh were effusive in their praise of Jackson at a news conference on Thursday and gave every indication that they want Jackson to be the Ravens’ quarterback for the long term.
Harbaugh and DeCosta defended Jackson for missing last Sunday’s game, saying he was “close” but too hurt to play. Harbaugh said he wants Jackson as his quarterback “100 percent, 200 percent.” He called him an “incredible competitor,” a “very bright guy” with “a massive heart,” and defended Jackson’s durability after he got hurt in each of the last two seasons. Harbaugh also said that the Ravens will seek Jackson’s input in hiring an offensive coordinator to replace Greg Roman.
“Lamar Jackson is our quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no question about it.”
A cynic might say the Ravens are just playing nice to give the appearance of harmony and improve their leverage if they have to trade Jackson. DeCosta certainly left himself some wiggle room. When asked if Jackson will be the Ravens’ starting quarterback next September, DeCosta didn’t say yes.
“I don’t see any reason why he won’t be,” DeCosta said.
When asked if he would trade Jackson, DeCosta didn’t say no.
“That’s something that we’re not going to talk about at this point,” he said.
Get ready to hear Jackson’s name a lot over the next six months. His contract status is likely to be contentious, drawn-out, and the biggest story of the offseason.
Pederson’s staff gets creative
Doug Pederson and his coaching staff pulled off the “Philly Special” against the Patriots in Super Bowl LII, and had another bit of successful trickery in the Jaguars’ comeback win over the Chargers last Saturday, thanks to attentive film study.
The Jaguars lined up for fourth and 1 as if they would run a quarterback sneak up the middle. Instead, they gave the ball to Travis Etienne on a jet sweep, and he gained 25 yards around the edge to set up the winning field goal.
The Chargers “were in a base six-one front, which is something they had done across the season, so it was specifically put in to attack that front,” said Jaguars offensive coordinator Press Taylor, who was on Pederson’s Super Bowl staff five years ago. “We liked the idea that it sold the sneak and the push element that’s been so common. Trevor [Lawrence] converted a sneak on a 2-point play earlier. All signs just fell to that being something we believed in.”
Taylor said the Jaguars aren’t afraid to borrow ideas from anywhere. He said they got the inspiration for the Etienne play from Penn State, who ran it in this month’s Rose Bowl. Against Houston this season, the Jaguars tried a play that Taylor saw in a Bo Jackson clip on Twitter.
“We tried it with [Jamal] Agnew, and it didn’t work like it did with Bo Jackson doing it,” Taylor said. “That’s one of the things you get an opportunity to do, you get a chance to be creative. Sometimes the players send us ideas, things like that. You get a chance to all come together and build this thing together.”
Neutral site wouldn’t be a bad thing
The NFL may have its first neutral-site conference championship game next week if the Chiefs and Bills win this weekend. Playing the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta was the NFL’s compromise solution for the Bills losing the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage over Damar Hamlin’s on-field emergency.
This may not be a popular take, but I’m intrigued to see a neutral-site game, because I think the NFL may have stumbled on to a fun idea. A neutral-site game would tap into the energy of college football rivalry games during the tailgate, and a 50-50 crowd can be electric in a close fourth quarter, as we saw in the Patriots’ recent Super Bowls against the Seahawks, Falcons, and Eagles.
Conference championship games could become mini-Super Bowls, with a weekend-long celebration in the host city. The NFL can bid out the sites, and could even hold some of these games in cold-weather cities such as Green Bay or Foxborough. A neutral-site game almost certainly would generate more revenue for the owners and players. The NFL said Friday that Chiefs and Bills season ticket-holders bought more than 50,000 tickets within 24 hours of going on sale.
Yes, the No. 1 seed would lose a home game. The fans would lose out on one, too. But they can still travel to the game or watch it for free on TV. And Chiefs and Bills fans in the Southeast could attend a game they otherwise couldn’t.
Plus, the current playoff setup is tilted too much toward the No. 1 seed, who gets the only first-round bye and home-field advantage. It would still be plenty of a reward to get the only bye, a home playoff game, and a neutral-field conference championship game.
Dolphins GM Chris Grier said this past week that “with Tua [Tagovailoa], he is our starting quarterback. I mean, I don’t know how we can say it any more clearly.” Bringing him back in 2023 is easy — Tagovailoa is owed just $4.738 million, fully guaranteed. But the Dolphins will really tell us how they feel about him in May, when it comes time to pick up a fifth-year option for 2024 that would fully guarantee a salary projected to be about $22.4 million. More likely, the Dolphins decline the option and let him play out the season. It’s worth the gamble given Tagovailoa’s injury history and inconsistent play … The competition committee is going to be busy trying to fix special teams plays. This season saw just nine return touchdowns (three punt, six kickoff), the fewest in history and down from 11 last season. The punt play, especially, may need to be tinkered with, as there have been just five return touchdowns in the last two years. The NFL also needs to do something about the onside kick, because teams went just 3 of 56 this season (5.4 percent), and one of those was a surprise onside kick by the Jaguars in the first quarter. Two years ago, the NFL limited the number of receiving players in the “setup zone” to nine. Another player may have to come out to make onside kicks fairer … Good job by the college all-star games to give opportunities and platforms for assistant coaches. The Patriots and Falcons are coaching the East-West Shrine Bowl, but head coaches Bill Belichick and Arthur Smith will be in advisory roles as the assistants take the reins. The Senior Bowl, instead of selecting two NFL teams to coach, created hybrid staffs of assistants. Patriots defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington gets to be a defensive coordinator for the week.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.