This, the season of the 17th regular-season game, requires slightly more patience for this coaching carousel. In past years, we might have had more clarity on how many NFL head-coaching jobs will open. Heck, the 2019 season brought two head-coach firings in the first six weeks.
But the latest collective bargaining agreement brings us more football, which means more playoff spots — and more chances for coaches on the hot seat to save jobs. A little more than a month from now, 14 teams will have wrapped up a 17-game schedule and will prepare for the playoffs.
Couple that new dynamic with a pandemic that affected the wallets of team owners, and the hiring-and-firing cycle could be slimmer than usual. But who are we kidding? This is the NFL, where change is a formality and impatience is a way of life. There’s one current opening — the Raiders job — and more will follow.
After checking around the league, we bring you an updated look at the 2021 coaching carousel, all the moves that could happen as the season ends and the names you need to know:
If the Bears job opens up, there are already rumblings about a candidate
The first job everyone mentions when you ask about potential openings is Chicago, where it seems as if coach Matt Nagy would need a miracle to save his job. He has gone 32-28 in four seasons but is 0-2 in the playoffs and 4-8 this season. Eyes are on the general manager’s office there. Ryan Pace’s status is a mystery. He could get a chance to hire a second coach and oversee the team’s building around quarterback Justin Fields, but if ownership were to have a coach in mind who wanted a different GM, the Bears could move on from both.
And speaking of that job, there’s a fair bit of smoke connecting Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to Chicago. The question then would be who he would bring as offensive coordinator to oversee the development of Fields. Current Bills quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey could be a candidate, though he is also a candidate to get the Bills’ offensive coordinator job if the current holder of that job, Brian Daboll, gets a head-coaching job elsewhere. Daboll remains high on the list of candidates expected to get interviews this time around, as he was last year.
Bills owner Kim Pegula has been a strong backer of Frazier as a candidate in recent years. Frazier, who coached the Vikings from 2010 to ’13, was a finalist for the Texans’ job last year but lost out to David Culley (and might be lucky he did). — Graziano
Could Seattle be a surprise opening?
The market almost always brings one unexpected opening, and some around the league are pegging Seattle as a potential wild card. Pete Carroll has 116 wins since 2010, so it’s hard to imagine him not having a major influence on the direction of the Seahawks.
But at age 70, is Carroll willing to go through a mini-rebuild? Even though Seattle’s roster isn’t as bad as its 4-8 record indicates, changes at some level appear necessary. The philosophical differences with quarterback Russell Wilson — mainly, the direction of the offense and aggressiveness in personnel — are palpable and must be addressed in the offseason. One league source compared the QB-coach relationship to Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, a partnership that slowly deteriorated. Because Wilson is generally considered easier to work with than Rodgers, perhaps this one is more salvageable. Acting team owner Jody Allen probably wants answers to what went wrong this season. — Fowler
The Seattle situation is fascinating, and complicated by the fact that Carroll and the team’s braintrust are signed to long-term contracts that run three or four more years. A lot of owners wouldn’t dream of parting ways with a coach who has that much time and money left on his deal, but Seattle’s owner is the richest in the league, and the salary would be a drop in the bucket.
I agree with you that it would be a surprise, and I still think Carroll gets to have some say in how the end of his tenure is handled. But with Wilson widely expected to be playing somewhere else in 2022, you can’t rule out the possibility of sweeping changes in the Pacific Northwest. — Graziano
Urban Meyer won’t be one-and-done … right?
People around the league are keeping an eye on Jacksonville, where perennial collegiate winner Meyer sits at 2-10. Jacksonville has a staggering 126 losses since 2011, so it can afford to be patient with Meyer. If Meyer stays, changes to the staff could be on the way. — Fowler
I can’t get a handle on the Jacksonville situation. If Meyer does stay, there would likely be major changes on the coaching staff. He has done nothing to indicate he’s in any way a difference-maker at this level, hasn’t always seemed overly into the job and has made a number of missteps that have made the organization look bad.
It’s tough for a team owner to admit a mistake after just one year, but Shad Khan has clearly made one, and it’s likely a matter of when not if on Meyer. Bringing him back could just be delaying the inevitable. General manager Trent Baalke could be on the hot seat whether Meyer comes back or not. — Graziano
End of the road for Mike Zimmer in Minnesota?
Three double-digit-win seasons have kept Zimmer in Minnesota for eight years, but the shine is starting to wear off. People close to the organization are wondering if sweeping changes will happen this offseason.
Nothing is imminent. Minnesota wouldn’t have made a change this week, anyway, with the team playing the Steelers on Thursday night. And the 5-7 Vikings are still in the NFC wild-card hunt. Zimmer, to his credit, has encouraged Kirk Cousins and the Vikings to go vertical more often this season, eschewing his conservative ways. But whispers persist that his hard-charging style has affected the locker room. That style works when you win. The defense, long Zimmer’s signature, has fallen to 26th overall in yards per play allowed (5.8). And the loss to the winless Lions might punctuate the spiral.
General manager Rick Spielman’s case is complicated by his tenure. He has overseen personnel for Minnesota owner Zygi Wilf since 2006, and the roster isn’t considered bad — though the secondary has fallen flat. One idea floated from a league official: Spielman moves into a cushy senior role, handing over personnel to a new GM. Wilf could respect him enough to keep him around. — Fowler
How good is the Raiders’ job, and could they clean house?
Interim coach Rich Bisaccia could get a formal interview for the permanent job at the end of the season, but this one could feature an array of candidates to replace Jon Gruden.
I’ve talked to multiple people around the league who believe this might just be the best job available: brand-new facilities, exciting new home in Las Vegas, sneaky-good roster, a franchise quarterback in Derek Carr and an ownership committed to winning. After all, owner Mark Davis gave Gruden a 10-year deal and plenty of patience on the job before derogatory emails ended his tenure abruptly.
Davis might lean on a committee for help. He has long valued the opinion of former Packers GM Ron Wolf, for example. People like that could have a say.
Davis hasn’t tipped his hand on the future of general manager Mike Mayock, who never had autonomy under Gruden. — Fowler
It’s certainly possible Mayock could end up staying, but it sounds to me like the expectation of most people around the league is that the Raiders clean house and start over. Mayock was Gruden’s pick after all, and he doesn’t have front-office experience beyond what he has accrued with Vegas. He’s well liked, and it’s obviously possible he and Bisaccia finish the season strong and convince Davis to keep them, but I think a new coach is likely to mean a new GM. — Graziano
There’s already interest in trying to lure Jim Harbaugh back to the NFL
Michigan’s run to the College Football Playoff has restored some of the luster around Harbaugh. And while there’s no reason to think he’s looking to leave his alma mater, there are whispers of NFL teams showing interest. Remember that he had a sterling 49-22-1 record (counting postseason) as an NFL head coach with the 49ers from 2011 to ’14. There aren’t many (if any) candidates who can match that track record of success at the pro level.
If Harbaugh does decide to give the NFL a try again, keep an eye on the Raiders, whose permanent job is open, and whose owner, Mark Davis, is highly annoyed about the circumstances under which he was forced to let go of Jon Gruden. If anyone’s going to make an outside-the-box hire that isn’t on the NFL’s list of recommended candidates, it’s this guy. The Davis and Harbaugh families have a friendship that dates back a ways.
You can never rule out Michigan man and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross when the topic of Harbaugh comes up, but Brian Flores — whose team has won five straight games — might end up safe there. There have been rumblings about Miami possibly looking to make a change at coach or general manager, though not both. As 6-7 Miami continues to win and pull itself back into playoff contention, though, Flores and GM Chris Grier could be buying themselves more time.
Just saying, watch Vegas for Harbaugh. — Graziano
Denver’s dilemma with Vic Fangio
What we know about the situation with Fangio: The feeling out of last year’s interviews with general manager candidates — resulting in the hiring of George Paton — was that Fangio was on a one-year audition. Paton likes working with Fangio, and there isn’t an internal push to rush a move right now.
But this could be a playoff-or-bust situation for a coach who, despite his defensive prowess, doesn’t have a winning record (18-26 overall) with any of his four primary quarterbacks since 2019. If this talented roster hits a ceiling on offense, that’s a problem an offensive-minded coach could fix.
The locker room respects Fangio but might be sensing the same ceiling, too. The Broncos rank in the bottom half of the league in offensive statistical categories, including 23rd in points (19.8 per game). Landing a top-shelf quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers solves many of the offensive problems, so perhaps Fangio stays on as a defensive-minded counterpart.
If let go, Fangio would undoubtedly have defensive coordinator prospects lined up. And many former head coaches are flourishing in coordinator roles elsewhere, from Dallas’ Dan Quinn to Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles, both of whom will get head-coaching looks during this cycle. — Fowler
Is Matt Rhule’s job safe in Carolina?
There have been rumblings about Rhule being in trouble, but the most recent information I have tells me owner David Tepper is planning to give him another year to make it work. (Again, five weeks to go still, so things can change.)
The split between Rhule and recently fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady was not a major surprise to people around the league. Carolina’s offense hasn’t done anything of note the past two seasons, and word is Rhule and Brady didn’t have the best relationship. It’s a bit of a sudden fall for Brady, who was getting head-coaching interview attention after his work with the Joe Burrow LSU national championship team in 2019.
Assuming Rhule is back, he and San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan could be the two names on a lot of people’s “hot seat” lists when next season opens. Shanahan is not in any trouble this offseason, but he is working to avoid his fourth losing season in five years as a head coach. — Graziano
Two teams that likely will keep their coaches
While the Giants seem destined to identify a new general manager to replace Dave Gettleman, coach Joe Judge could get a third year to make this work. That has been the feeling, and save a major end-of-year breakdown, the Giants aren’t overly eager to fire their third consecutive coach after two seasons on the job. They like Judge and want to see this work, though the team needs an offensive blueprint for next year. — Fowler
Houston is likely to give coach David Culley a second year. This season was always expected to be a mess for the Texans, and next year could be as well. It wouldn’t be the most appealing job anyway if it were to open up now, and Culley seems likely to get a chance to accelerate the rebuild and convince the Texans he’s the man for the long term. — Graziano
Could the Steelers’ longtime GM move on?
As we talk about potential general manager openings, keep an eye on Pittsburgh, where Kevin Colbert is a person of interest. There are plenty of people around the league who think Colbert could decide to move on from Pittsburgh after this season, though he hasn’t tipped his hand inside the building. He has been with the Steelers since 2000 and has been the GM since 2010.
Continuity rules in Pittsburgh, so if you were betting on this you’d probably have to bet on him staying put. But I’m just saying it’s worth watching. — Graziano
Is this the year for Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy?
Of course, Bieniemy remains a name people bring up a lot in these conversations. It feels as if he has been interviewing for head-coaching jobs for a long time, and he has become something of a symbol of the league’s persistent refusal to expand the pool of head coaches to more minority candidates. An Andy Reid disciple, Bienemy is likely to get his shot at some point, and that point could be this offseason. — Graziano
Could former head coaches get another shot in 2022?
Former Eagles coach Doug Pederson is just kind of hanging out in Florida, looking to get back into these conversations and possibly land a job a year after Philadelphia let him go. The Super Bowl LII title on his résumé sets him apart from a lot of the other candidates, and it doesn’t hurt that he has been out of work and able to put together a staff in the event that someone wants to hire him.
The only other one of last year’s firings whose name you hear these days is former Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who has done a fine job of rebuilding the Cowboys’ defense and could get some looks.
A few other former head coaches generating interest include Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. — Graziano
College coaches to keep an eye on
What, no college coaches? Well, we did mention Harbaugh, but that’s obviously a major wild card. If you’re looking for a college name, keep an eye on Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, who drew strong interest from the Lions last year and has for a while now been a candidate on whom NFL teams have their eye. Iowa State isn’t coming off its best season (7-5), but he still possesses the qualities teams are looking for in a head coach.
Ohio State’s Ryan Day was another name you heard kicked around a bit last year. Stanford’s David Shaw, Penn State’s James Franklin and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker are on the list of minority coach candidates the league sent to teams last month, though there’s no indication that any of them has a wandering eye. — Graziano
Potential head-coaching candidates to watch for the future, if not 2022
These are in no particular order:
- Jerod Mayo, presumed defensive coordinator, Patriots
- Byron Leftwich, offensive coordinator, Bucs
- DeMeco Ryans, defensive coordinator, 49ers
- Nathaniel Hackett, offensive coordinator, Packers
- Ken Dorsey, quarterbacks coach, Bills
- Kellen Moore, offensive coordinator, Cowboys
- Aaron Glenn, defensive coordinator, Lions
- Todd Downing, offensive coordinator, Titans
- Ryan Nielsen, assistant head coach/defensive line coach, Saints
- Mike Kafka, quarterbacks coach, Chiefs
- Kevin O’Connell, offensive coordinator, Rams
- Shane Bowen, defensive coordinator, Titans
- Bubba Ventrone, special teams coordinator, Colts
- Mike McDaniel, offensive coordinator, 49ers
- Patrick Graham, defensive coordinator, Giants
A partial list of potential general manager candidates
These are also in no particular order:
- Eliot Wolf, front-office consultant, Patriots
- Dave Ziegler, director of player personnel, Patriots
- Morocco Brown, director of college scouting, Colts
- Joe Schoen, assistant GM, Bills
- Mike Borgonzi, assistant GM, Chiefs
- Ryan Poles, executive director of player personnel, Chiefs
- Omar Khan, business and football administration coordinator, Steelers
- John Spytek, vice president of player personnel, Buccaneers
- Trent Kirchner, vice president of player personnel, Seahawks
- Champ Kelly, assistant director of player personnel, Bears
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