When the calendar hits December, two NFL stories dominate: The playoff race, and the hiring/firing season of coaches and general managers.
Two teams, Washington and Carolina, already have fired their head coaches. In the next three-plus weeks, several more teams will do the same, as the NFL has steadily averaged about seven coaching changes per year for the last two decades. One league insider has 10 teams on his list of upcoming coaching and/or GM changes.
“There were a lot of teams that were shockingly disappointing,” the source said.
Which teams may be looking to move on from their head coaches and/or general managers? And who will be the top candidates this year? Here is the buzz from three league sources with close ties to the coaching industry:
■ First, let’s talk Patriots. Nick Caserio is set to be a free agent this spring, and he is expected to take full advantage of his freedom, after the Patriots blocked him from becoming the Texans’ GM in June. Caserio should be a hot candidate this year, and he is expected to listen to any and all offers. The Giants and Panthers look like good situations for Caserio, and one source said that Caserio still considers the Texans an option, despite the report last week stating that they will keep their management structure the same for next season. The source did not expect Caserio to return to the Patriots, but did not rule it out, noting that the Krafts could step up with a big offer to Caserio at the last minute out of “desperation,” similar to what they did with Josh McDaniels two years ago.
■ As for McDaniels, he is expected to aggressively pursue head coaching jobs again this year, but he only got interest from one team last year, and finished third. It is unclear how much his flip-flop on Indianapolis from two years ago will affect his market this time around.
■ There is certainly a possibility of Caserio and McDaniels teaming up — the Panthers and Giants could be good options for that — but one source proffered that Caserio might pair up with Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the former Patriots assistant who is having an excellent season and is expected to be one of the top head coaching candidates this year.
■ Another Patriots coach who should at least get one or two head coaching interviews is Joe Judge, the special teams coordinator since 2015 who this year also added the job of wide receivers coach. The word is the Patriots have been grooming Judge to take over as offensive coordinator if/when McDaniels leaves.
■ Did not hear any buzz that Bill Belichick is ready to step down from the Patriots. “I think he would probably stay for one more year after [Tom] Brady,” one insider said. “I could easily see him, if he did leave, becoming a president of some other team or an executive VP or something like that.” Like the Giants? “Of course.”
■ There was unanimous consent that the following head coaching jobs will come open in addition to Washington and Carolina: Atlanta, Dallas, Jacksonville, and the Giants. Dan Quinn’s Falcons have been a massive disappointment; the Giants have regressed under Pat Shurmur; Doug Marrone, GM Dave Caldwell, and executive vice president Tom Coughlin are in big trouble in Jacksonville; and nobody’s seat is hotter than Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.
■ There was mixed opinion about three coaches being one-and-done: Cleveland’s Freddie Kitchens, Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury, and Denver’s Vic Fangio, with Fangio the likeliest of the three. The fact that these coaches are even on the list does not speak well of last year’s hiring cycle.
■ There was also mixed opinion about whether the Lions will give Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn another year. One insider anticipates a “total blowout,” but another noted that the Lions are usually patient and might give the two ex-Patriots one more year to get it right.
“I don’t think it comes open, but you’ve got to watch it,” a third insider said.
■ The Jets have said they will bring back coach Adam Gase for another season, but one insider noted that Gase was hired by current owner Christopher Johnson, and said “all bets are off” because Woody Johnson is returning next year from his stint as US ambassador to the United Kingdom.
■ Fangio might not be the only one in trouble in Denver, as one insider predicted that John Elway could be on the outs. The Broncos are set to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season, Elway hasn’t been able to find a quarterback, and a new owner, Brittany Bowlen, will be taking over soon enough.
■ So, who are the top coaching candidates? For the second straight year, the crop has several impressive résumés, but overall lacks “wow” factor.
■ The 9-3 Bills are one of the NFL’s biggest surprises, and they may get picked apart after this season. Daboll should be a top candidate, as should defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, a former head coach who has led one of the NFL’s top defenses for the last three years. The Bills could also lose assistant GM Joe Schoen.
■ On the offensive side, other than McDaniels and Daboll: Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman is doing amazing work and should get his first head coaching chance after nine years as a coordinator. Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is getting promoted heavily by Andy Reid and should be a finalist for several jobs. Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was named by two insiders as a name to watch, as he has done a great job with Kirk Cousins and that offense. Indianapolis offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni was a hotter candidate earlier this year but has cooled a bit with the Colts’ offensive regression of late.
Browns offensive coordinator Todd Monken was a hotter candidate last year but may have been dragged down a bit this year by the Browns’ dysfunction. The Buccaneers’ Byron Leftwich will probably get some interest but is likely a year or two away from being ready. One dark horse name is Eagles quarterbacks coach Press Taylor, who should soon enough become a head coach like his older brother, Bengals coach Zac Taylor.
Former Packers coach Mike McCarthy wants back in, as does Dolphins consultant Jim Caldwell, who I’m told is over his health issues. Caldwell could be a great option for Washington as it seeks stability and someone to develop Dwayne Haskins.
■ Defensively, 49ers coordinator Robert Saleh got named as a top candidate by all three sources with the work he has done with the league’s second-ranked defense. Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, a former head coach with the Raiders, got named as a top candidate by two sources.
Former Browns head coach Mike Pettine should get interviews after having a solid year as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. Former Panthers coach Ron Rivera should get interviews, and he looks like a good fit for the Cowboys or Giants, but it might be tough to get another job so quickly. Marvin Lewis, spending the year at Arizona State with Herm Edwards, wants to be an NFL head coach again, and could also be a good fit for the Redskins, where he was defensive coordinator in 2002. Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Falcons assistant head coach Raheem Morris should also get interviews.
■ A few college coaches will get looks: Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, who already is being connected to the Cowboys; Iowa State’s Matt Campbell; Baylor’s Matt Rhule, who considered the Jets’ job last year; and Florida’s Dan Mullen. One source doubted Jim Harbaugh will return to the NFL this year: “If he would’ve done it, it would have been last year with Miami.”
■ One insider predicted that at least five or six GM-type jobs will open up, after only two changes last year (Raiders, Jets). Washington’s Bruce Allen, the Giants’ Dave Gettleman, Jacksonville’s Caldwell, Denver’s Elway, and Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff are in trouble, with Detroit’s Quinn and the Rams’ Les Snead as long shots. One source said the Panthers’ job is actually open and that current GM Marty Hurney, who was kept on by owner David Tepper, will move into more of an advisory role. And the source said he still believes the Texans will try to add someone to the front office, Caserio or otherwise.
■ Former longtime Texans GM Rick Smith, who left the team after the 2017 season, is going to pursue GM or executive vice president positions and should be a top candidate. Vikings assistant GM George Paton is expected to be a top candidate, as well. Other names to watch are the Bills’ Schoen, 49ers VP of player personnel Martin Mayhew, Chiefs director of player personnel Mike Borgonzi, Saints assistant GM Jeff Ireland, and Bears assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly.
Ravens having historic season
The Ravens have revolutionized the running game, and not just because Lamar Jackson is 23 yards away from joining Michael Vick as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with a 1,000-yard season. The Ravens’ trio of Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Jackson is putting together a historically great season, the best rushing attack the NFL has seen in more than 40 years.
The Ravens are averaging 5.6 yards per carry, which would set a post-1970 merger record (1997 Lions, 5.51). Jackson leads the NFL at 6.98 yards per carry (Raheem Mostert is next at 5.86), while Edwards (5.05) and Ingram (5.04) rank fourth and fifth.
The Ravens are the first team since 1977 to average at least 200 rushing yards per game, averaging 207.8, the seventh-most since the merger and the most since the 1976 Steelers. The 1973 Bills hold the record at 220.6 per game.
Related: Tom Brady on Lamar Jackson and Ravens’ offense: ‘Pretty tough to stop’
And not only is Jackson on pace for 1,302 rushing yards, which would shatter Vick’s record of 1,039, but the Ravens are on pace for 3,325 rushing yards, which would break the 1978 Patriots’ record of 3,165.
That the Ravens compare to teams from the 1970s — a different era of football in which the run dominated over the pass — is remarkable. Equally remarkable that in a pass-happy era, the Ravens have the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense with a near 50-50 split between passing yards (2,555) and rushing yards (2,494). They have 718 more rushing yards than any other team, average 0.71 yards per carry more than anyone else, and have 24 more rushes of 10-plus yards than the next-best team.
Simply put, the NFL hasn’t seen a rushing attack like this in more than four decades. And I’m not sure anything can stop it, other than an injury to Jackson.
Top defender race wide open
With four weeks to go, the Defensive Player of the Year award looks wide open. Let’s look at the top candidates (in no particular order):
■ Buccaneers DE Shaquil Barrett: Leads the NFL with 14.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, and is third with 13 tackles for loss.
■ Saints DE Cameron Jordan: Second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks, and tied for third with 13 tackles for loss.
■ Titans CB Logan Ryan: Leads the NFL with 17 passes defended, is sixth among defensive backs (and first among cornerbacks) with 85 tackles, and has filled up the stat sheet like none other, with 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 4 interceptions.
■ Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore: Arguably the top cover corner in the league the last two years, Gilmore is tied for fourth with four interceptions (including a pick-six) and tied for sixth with 13 passes defended.
■ Patriots S Devin McCourty: Leader of the NFL’s best defense happens to lead the NFL with five interceptions.
■ Patriots LB Jamie Collins: The Patriots’ leading tackler is also filling up the stat sheet, with 6 sacks, 3 interceptions (one for a touchdown), 3 forced fumbles, and 5 passes defended.
My vote would probably go to Barrett, but Ryan and Gilmore are close.
The drop-off in Tom Brady’s statistics from last year to this year is sharp: Completion percentage (65.8 to 61.1), yards per attempt (7.6 to 6.7), and passer rating (97.7 to 88.2) are all way down. And his passer rating has plummeted (21st in the NFL) even though he has only thrown six interceptions. Brady’s frustration with the team is obvious, and one league source said, “He’s not going to stay there. Hell, no. There’s too much water under the bridge there,” though I believe cooler heads can prevail between now and March, when Brady and the team have to decide on his future. Perhaps the Patriots can get him Odell Beckham, who is owed $14.25 million next year but has no dead money and can be easily traded by the Browns . . . Leading the NFL in passer rating this season? The Titans’ Ryan Tannehill, of course, at 113.9, though he has only started six games. But if the Titans make the playoffs, he deserves serious consideration for MVP, and at minimum should be the Comeback Player of the Year . . . The 49ers practiced at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., all week between last week’s game at Baltimore and this Sunday’s game at New Orleans. This is their second extended road trip of the season, as they practiced for a week in Youngstown, Ohio, between a Week 1 win at Tampa Bay and a Week 2 win at Cincinnati. “It was good for us in Youngstown. It will just bring the team closer together,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said . . . Did you know, Part I: The Bills have not allowed a 20-plus-yard touchdown pass this year. Every other team has allowed at least two, the Patriots have allowed three, and the league average is six. The only big touchdowns the Bills have allowed were a 27-yard rush by Saquon Barkley, a 65-yard rush by Miles Sanders, and a 101-yard kickoff return by Jakeem Grant . . . Did you know, Part II: The Patriots have only had five 1,000-yard rushers in Bill Belichick’s 19 full seasons: Corey Dillon (1,635 in 2004), Stevan Ridley (1,263 in 2012), LeGarrette Blount (1,161 in 2016), Antowain Smith (1,157 in 2001) and BenJarvus Green -Ellis (1,008 in 2010). Sony Michel, with 645 yards (53.8 yards per game), needs 355 yards in his last four games (88.8 per game) to reach the mark . . . First-year coaches are 34-61-1 (.359) this season, with the Packers’ Matt LaFleur (9-3) holding the only winning record. Something for NFL owners to consider in the next month — it’s easy to fire a coach, but a lot harder to find a good one.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.