The N.F.L. Coaching Carousel Takes a Big Turn. Who’s Next?
There was a head coach fired before him, and there will be head coaches fired after him, but no firing this year can truly compare to the Green Bay Packers cutting ties with Mike McCarthy.
It may sound like a take on the old breakup line, but the significance of the firing has little to do with McCarthy — it’s all about the team that fired him.
In their 98 seasons, the Packers have had just 15 head coaches. One has his name on the team’s stadium (Curly Lambeau), one has his name on the Super Bowl trophy (Vince Lombardi), and another won five championships as a player (Bart Starr). None of the 14 coaches before McCarthy were fired midseason.
Considering how rarely this position opens up, the Packers’ coaching vacancy might be one of the most coveted jobs in recent sports history.
Who are the candidates?
Josh McDaniels, currently the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, is the most obvious head coaching candidate. He has a more impressive résumé than several current head coaches do, he is considered a master of the modern N.F.L. offense, and he has shown an ability to work well with superstars.
The wrinkle is that McDaniels shocked the N.F.L. world shortly after last season when he agreed to become the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts only to withdraw his name on the day the team announced the hiring. Indianapolis instead hired Frank Reich away from the Philadelphia Eagles, but the memory of McDaniels’s publicly embarrassing a franchise is surely seared into the minds of general managers throughout the league.
Other N.F.L. coaches who might be considered include Vic Fangio, the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears; John DeFilippo, the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings; Kris Richard, a defensive backs coach who has revamped the Dallas Cowboys this season after having helped build the Legion of Boom secondary in Seattle; Eric Bieniemy, the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs; and, in what would take a rather enormous leap of faith in terms of age and experience, Zac Taylor, the 35-year-old quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Rams.
There are a few top candidates from the college ranks as well. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, who is preparing for the College Football Playoff, is the most obvious candidate, but teams looking to make a splash on the level of the Rams, who hired Sean McVay when he was 31, will take a hard look at Kliff Kingsbury, who was recently fired as the head coach at Texas Tech. The 39-year-old Kingsbury has a career coaching record of just 35-40, but it was in his offense that Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes developed. Rumors have already swirled that several top college programs are interested in Kingsbury, and Fox Sports reported that McVay had approached him about finishing this season on the Rams coaching staff.
Who else might be hiring?
So far, the only team on the coaching market besides the Packers is the Cleveland Browns, who fired Hue Jackson last month. That team has improved under the interim coach Gregg Williams, but the Browns’ ownership made it clear that it intends to explore its options this off-season. (One of those options is likely to be McCarthy).
One obvious candidate on the hot seat is Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals. The team has unraveled as this season has progressed, with the defense, Lewis’s specialty, being the biggest problem. The longtime coach has survived plenty of scares over the years while compiling a 130-119-3 record, but between the team’s collapse this season, his career playoff record of 0-7, and the reports that his contract for next season is a team option, it is seeming less and less likely that he can make it through another poor finish.
At one point it seemed as though John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens was in just as much trouble as Lewis, but a recent three-game winning streak has muddied the waters. The winning streak, and its relevance to Harbaugh’s job security, could be a hot issue in the coming weeks as Joe Flacco returns from injury. The team has been winning with the rookie Lamar Jackson starting in an offense that relies so heavily on quarterback runs that even Michael Vick expressed reservations about its long-term efficacy.
Making the right choice between Flacco, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who had been struggling before his injury, and Jackson, who may be winning largely because of teams being unfamiliar with his style, could be what decides Harbaugh’s fate.
Other coaches who on the hot seat include Todd Bowles of the Jets, Dirk Koetter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Steve Wilks of the Arizona Cardinals and Doug Marrone of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Depending on how the N.F.C. East shakes out, Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys and Jay Gruden of the Washington Redskins could be in trouble as well.
Who makes the call?
For most teams, the general manager (and sometimes the owner) will pick a new coach. Not so in Green Bay. Mark Murphy, the president of the Packers, will be the chief decision maker in the hiring of a coach. He consolidated power in January when he had Ted Thompson, previously the general manager, transition to a lesser role with the team. Murphy then promoted Brian Gutekunst to general manager, but Gutekunst reportedly agreed to have the coach report to Murphy, not himself.
It was Thompson who hired McCarthy, so it is difficult to predict what direction the team will go with this rare vacancy. But whomever is hired will have the task of mending fences with Aaron Rodgers, one of the game’s most talented players, who has become highly frustrated as the team has consistently lost regardless of his level of play.
“I’m just thinking about these next four games and realizing how important leadership is in the tough times, trying to get guys to dig deep and play with that pride,” Rodgers said shortly before the announcement of McCarthy’s firing on Sunday. “The conversations will take care of themselves down the line. I know my role is to play quarterback to the best of my abilities. That will be my focus the next four weeks, and then we’ll go from there.”