The Patriots are likely going to wade in unfamiliar waters this offseason when they move on from Bill Belichick and look to hire a new coach for the first time in 24 years.
They couldn’t have picked a tougher year to do it.
The Patriots are going to have all kinds of competition for the top candidates. With six weeks to go in the season, almost half of the NFL’s 32 teams are weighing whether to fire their coach.
The NFL averages about seven new head coaches per offseason. Last year there were only five, which means this year should see an unusually high amount. One longtime coaching agent predicted “at least” 10 vacancies.
We already know that the Raiders and Panthers will need new coaches after firing Josh McDaniels and Frank Reich, respectively. Based on reading tea leaves and conversations with league sources, every sign points to the Commanders’ Ron Rivera, Chargers’ Brandon Staley, and, yes, the Patriots’ Belichick being fired.
Several more coaches are in tenuous positions. Jets coach Robert Saleh could be out if his team continues its downward spiral. Bears coach Matt Eberflus may be done after going 7-22 with one of the worst defenses in the NFL the last two years. Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon could be one-and-done. Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy could get fired if he doesn’t win a playoff game. The entire NFC South could get fired, with the Saints’ Dennis Allen, Falcons’ Arthur Smith, and Buccaneers’ Todd Bowles all under .500. The Bills could fire Sean McDermott if he doesn’t make the playoffs, although one league source predicted this past week that McDermott will keep his job because owner Terry Pegula desires stability with his football operation.
There are also a few wild cards — the Titans, if the Patriots or another team tries to pry away Mike Vrabel; the Rams, if Sean McVay decides to finally step down after flirting with it the past several years; the Steelers, if Mike Tomlin decides that 17 years is enough. There’s probably a surprise team that no one sees coming.
With so many jobs likely becoming available, the Patriots may have to promote Jerod Mayo as head coach, because they may have a tough time getting top-flight candidates to interview. That certainly was the case last year when the Patriots interviewed candidates for offensive coordinator.
Two agents who represent coaches said they fear that the Patriots are such a massive rebuilding job — not only with the roster, but in updating the football systems and facilities to modern times, and filling the massive power vacuum left by Belichick’s departure — that they would hesitate to recommend the job to clients who have options.
This year has several unproven but exciting young offensive coaches in line for head jobs. Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is arguably the coach in highest demand. Cincinnati’s Brian Callahan, Washington’s Eric Bieniemy, Philadelphia’s Brian Johnson, Jacksonville’s Press Taylor, the Chargers’ Kellen Moore, and Houston’s Bobby Slowik will be in the mix. Panthers offensive adviser Jim Caldwell could make a lot of sense for that job. And Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is lurking.
On the defensive side, Minnesota’s Brian Flores might get a second chance at a head job soon. Baltimore’s Mike Macdonald, Carolina’s Ejiro Evero, Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo, Detroit’s Aaron Glenn, Dallas’s Dan Quinn, the Rams’ Raheem Morris, and San Francisco’s Steve Wilks will get interviews. Colts special teams coach Bubba Ventrone should, as well. And Belichick, of course, should land another job.
The Patriots will find that the process for hiring a head coach is far different than it was in 2000, before the league developed the Rooney Rule (2003) and enhanced it several times.
Back then, Robert Kraft could hire Belichick without having to talk to other candidates. Now, the Rooney Rule requires a team to interview at least two external minority candidates for a head coaching position. Both have to interview in person.
And Kraft can’t start interviewing coaches whenever he wants. In October, owners approved a rule delaying the start of in-person interviews for head coaching jobs until after the divisional round of the playoffs. The only exceptions are for coaches already employed by the team (i.e. the Patriots could do an in-person interview with Mayo at any time) and coaches who aren’t employed in the NFL (i.e. Harbaugh). Teams and candidates may conduct Zoom interviews prior to the divisional round.
Even if the Patriots want to hire Mayo, or if the Panthers and Raiders want to hire their interim coaches, they still have to fulfill all Rooney Rule requirements.
“The clubs believe that an effective policy deserves a commitment to the established process, and that includes interim coaches,” a league spokesman said.
Steelers president Art Rooney said similar rules instituted last year increased the average length of a coaching search from about 13 days to 26. The NFL believes that stretching out the process leads to more diverse outcomes. The NFL has historically struggled to develop diversity across top jobs such as head coach, general manager, and team president, and currently have a minority in 7 of 32 head coaching jobs.
“If you think about hiring a CEO in a week or two, that would be pretty unusual, right? So it is leading to a better process,” said Dasha Smith, NFL executive vice president and chief administrative officer. “The data shows that when you have a more intentional process, you actually end up with more diverse results.”
It will be interesting to see if the Krafts lean on outside consultants to help them navigate the coaching waters for the first time in 24 years. They may find the waters to be pretty rough.
BYE WEEK NIGHTMARE
a mess for Bills
As if this season couldn’t get any worse for Sean McDermott and the 6-6 Bills, last week they experienced every team’s bye week nightmare when players scatter for a long weekend.
Star pass rusher Von Miller, the team’s emotional leader and a key piece of their defense, turned himself into authorities in suburban Dallas on Thursday for allegedly assaulting his pregnant girlfriend. Miller was charged with third degree felony assault of a pregnant woman, punishable by 2-10 years in prison, and he was free on Thursday after posting $5,000 bond.
The Bills and the NFL said in separate statements that they are monitoring the situation and had no further comment. In a text exchange Thursday night with Dallas TV station WFAA, the girlfriend called the incident “a huge misunderstanding” and said, “no one assaulted anyone.”
Regardless of what happens legally, this is going to be costly for Miller and the Bills given the nature of the charges. The NFL has toughened up on domestic violence penalties since the Ray Rice fiasco of a decade ago, and it’s hard to see how Miller doesn’t soon end up on the commissioner’s exempt list, i.e. the NFL’s version of paid leave.
Assuming Miller is taken off the field, it will be yet another blow for a defense already decimated by season-ending injuries to linebacker Matt Milano and cornerback Tre’Davious White. Miller hasn’t done much this year as he returns from an ACL surgery, making just two tackles and one quarterback hit in eight games (averaging 20.4 snaps). But Miller has been ramping up to get ready for the playoffs, and even at less than 100 percent is a force in the pass rush.
This incident could affect Miller’s standing with the team. Miller, 34, has $10.71 million in fully guaranteed salary next year, plus another $6.435 million that becomes fully guaranteed in March. If Miller is suspended by the NFL, the Bills can void the guarantees and get out of the deal.
This is a big mess for Miller and the Bills, and the NFL can’t afford to take it lightly.
having career year
Chargers receiver Keenan Allen has earned five Pro Bowl nods in 11 seasons and won the 2017 Comeback Player of the Year award coming off a torn ACL. But at 31, this season may be his best yet.
With fellow receiver Mike Williams done for the year since Week 3, Allen has stepped up as the Chargers’ dominant weapon. Allen leads the NFL with 97 catches and 129 targets, he’s second with 1,117 receiving yards, and tied for fifth with seven touchdown receptions. Out of 15 skill players on the Chargers, Allen accounts for 32 percent of the targets, 39 percent of receiving yards, and 33 percent of touchdown receptions.
Allen catches everything — his catch rate of 75.2 percent ranks fifth among 59 wide receivers with at least 50 targets. Allen is nine catches from tying his career high of 106, which he could do Sunday against the Patriots. And he enters Sunday on a run of three straight 100-yard games. Earlier this year, Allen had an 18-catch, 215-yard performance against the Vikings.
Bill Belichick this past week called Allen “timeless.”
“As good as he’s been, which has been great, he’s having his best year, which is pretty scary,” Belichick said. “He’s a very difficult player to cover, very strong, great hands, instincts, hard guy to tackle. Obviously, [Justin] Herbert’s got a lot of confidence in him.”
Never too old?
With the new rules for the practice squad giving teams more flexibility to add veterans, it has been a great year to be an old guy waiting for an opportunity.
Three weeks ago, the Saints signed 34-year-old defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to the practice squad and called him up for a game, before the Dolphins snagged him away this past week to their active roster. Linval Joseph, a 14-year defensive tackle, signed on with the Bills at the beginning of November. Anthony Barr, a 10-year linebacker, signed back with the Vikings on Nov. 14. Linebacker Blake Martinez, who retired in Nov. 2022, signed with the Panthers’ practice squad on Nov. 6 and was signed away to the Steelers’ 53-man roster on Nov. 21.
And there’s no better old-man-on-the-couch story than Joe Flacco, who wasn’t in training camp this year and hasn’t been in a locker room since early January. The Browns finally called two weeks ago in the wake of Deshaun Watson’s injury, and with Dorian Thompson-Robinson in concussion protocol, Flacco is slated to start over P.J. Walker on Sunday against the Rams.
“I love playing this game, and any time an opportunity kind of presents itself, you just got to be patient and see what’s in store for you,” said Flacco, who turns 39 in January. “There are so many things that add to it now, having young kids and feeling their excitement about it. And when you are away, it puts things in perspective a little bit.”
The Browns are 7-4 despite injuries and inconsistent play at quarterback, and seem genuinely excited to have Flacco, their fourth starting QB of the season.
“He throws a very pretty ball,” receiver Amari Cooper said. “I don’t know if it’s intentional or what, but when he drops back and he lets it go, the whole motion is like poetry in motion.”
Given the number of quarterback injuries across the league, and given Flacco’s sudden opportunity in Cleveland, guys such as Matt Ryan or, say, Tom Brady are probably rethinking their retirements.
Hundreds of NFL players will bring attention to charities and causes this weekend with the league’s My Cause, My Cleats initiative. This year, coaching staffs and full organizations are getting involved.
Before Sunday’s Jets-Falcons game, both teams will participate in the “Knapp Stair Climb” to raise funds and awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.
Greg Knapp was a longtime NFL offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who was hit on his bicycle by a distracted driver in July 2021 and died five days later. He coached for the Falcons from 2018-20 and was set to join the Jets in 2021.
“Every day there are 50 distracted driving deaths in America,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “That number needs to change. Put your phones down, and try to do your best to save a life.”
Aaron Rodgers is back on the practice field, three months after tearing his Achilles’. Perhaps he’s just trying to keep himself and his teammates motivated, but why is he risking it? The 4-7 Jets are going nowhere, and will be irrelevant by the time Rodgers is able to play in Week 16 or so. A Rodgers return at that point would make no sense, other than to keep his name relevant . . . The NFL is going to love this factoid from OptaStats: Thursday’s 41-35 Cowboys win over the Seahawks was the first game in NFL history with 75-plus points and no punts. It was just the sixth game ever with no punts, including postseason. The NFL has a mantra — plays + passes + penalties = points. “That’s the formula for fandom,” NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said two years ago. So while the penalty situation was frustrating for fans — 19 accepted penalties for 257 yards, the most in a game this year — the NFL loves ticky-tack defensive penalties that create more scoring opportunities . . . Patrick Mahomes gets his first career game at Lambeau Field on Sunday night. “I’m extremely excited for it. I’ve watched it my whole entire life,” he said. Mahomes has yet to play at Atlanta, Carolina, Dallas, or the Giants . . . The NFL Draft is becoming a Rust Belt event. Cleveland hosted in 2021, Detroit gets it in 2024, Green Bay in 2025, and Pittsburgh has requested 2026 or 2027 . . . Desean Jackson will be an honorary captain Sunday at Eagles-49ers after retiring as an Eagle this past week after 15 seasons . . . This season could be the first since 2005 without a 100-plus-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. There have only been two kickoff return TDs all season . . . Entering this week, NFL teams had punted inside the opponent’s 40-yard line 16 times. The Saints lead the NFL with three, the Patriots and, surprisingly, the Chiefs are tied for second with two, and nine teams have one . . . In his news conference Tuesday, Panthers owner David Tepper let it slip that they thought the Texans were going to draft Bryce Young. That jibes with what I heard from one league source, who said Texans GM Nick Caserio had a trade with the Bears locked and loaded for the No. 1 pick. But the Texans backed off, the Panthers pounced, and the Texans are mighty happy that they ended up with C.J. Stroud at No. 2 instead . . . Funny to see that both Super Bowl teams will be staying at resort hotels at Lake Las Vegas, about as far away from The Strip and still be in greater Las Vegas as you can get (roughly 20 miles, or a 30-minute drive). The AFC team gets to use the Raiders’ palatial Intermountain Health Performance Center. The NFC team gets stuck at UNLV.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.