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Predicting the NFL Coaching Carousel

Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels from District of Columbia, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Monday following the final week of the NFL season has become synonymous with teams firing their coaches. It’s basically a ritual now. It’s so ingrained into NFL culture that, at this point, the day is colloquially known as “Black Monday.” So much for subtlety.

This happens like clockwork. Every year, we can basically predict that there will be around eight open NFL head coaching jobs - sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less. But one thing never changes: the NFL is not a patient league, and the future isn’t typically bright for those that can’t find near-instant success.

This year, Black Monday fell on January 9. On that day, we saw the Arizona Cardinals fire head coach Kliff Kingsbury and the Houston Texans fire head coach Lovie Smith. The Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans fired their defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively. The following Tuesday, the Washington Commanders fired their offensive coordinator.

And you can be sure that this isn’t the end of the coaching shake-up. Maybe it’s not fair to call this past Monday “Black Monday.” After all, Monday is just the start. Depending on how some teams perform in the playoffs, we might see a few more openings (and those are the really good jobs).

The NFL coaching cycle is a little like musical chairs. There are tons of qualified candidates out there and only so many jobs. At the end, someone is left standing. To make a little sense of all the craziness, I’ve broken down the five open head coaching positions around the NFL and predicted the top candidate for each one. There might be a surprise or two, so let’s dig in!

Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals got Black Monday started when they fired Kingsbury after four years on the job and just twelve months after handing him a multi-year extension in the offseason. It’s gotta be a bummer for Kingsbury, but hey, at least he can wipe those tears with the money from that contract extension. Getting paid to not work? Count that a win for Kliff.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, are seemingly going backwards after an exceptional 2021 season in which the team finished 11 - 6 and starting QB Kyler Murray looked to be ascending to an All-Pro level. Fast forward to today and the situation couldn’t be uglier. Kingsbury is gone and general manager Steve Keim is stepping down due to health reasons. Murray’s reputation has also taken a hit after a subpar 2022 season and an offseason filled with contract-related drama. Whoever takes the Cardinals job is going to need a plan to get the most out of Murray - and quickly.

Enter Sean Payton, former head coach of the New Orleans Saints and winner of Super Bowl XLIV. He’s still technically under contract with the Saints, so it will require draft and/or player compensation to acquire him, but the Cardinals will be happy to sell the farm if it means bringing in a guy who can maximize Murray’s talents. Plus, with Payton spending nearly a decade in New Orleans with Drew Brees, another shorter QB like Murray, he has plenty of experience helping the smaller guys succeed.

The Cardinals will have to move fast in order to secure Payton’s services, and you could argue that firing Kingsbury is a sign owner Michael Bidwell has had it with mediocrity. Payton is the most coveted coach on the market. He’s a proven winner at the highest level and he’s a bright offensive mind, two traits the Cardinals will be aching to pair with Murray. There’s a chance that Payton is willing to hold out for either the Los Angeles jobs or the Dallas job opening up, but right now nothing has materialized. Though Murray suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 14 - and may not be ready for the start of the season - his talent is undeniable. Payton chooses the job with the best QB.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos didn’t even wait until Black Monday to fire their head coach. Even though he’d not been on the job a full year, the Broncos canned Nathaniel Hackett after a season that can only be described as an utter catastrophe. The Broncos were a trendy pick to reach, and even win, the Super Bowl before the season began. It didn’t take long for those prognostications to look extremely foolish.

In an attempt to kick start their offense and turn their team into a juggernaut, the Broncos traded for Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson in the offseason. The move was widely praised, and the Seahawks looked like the silly ones. Today, that trade is still considered lopsided - just in favor of the Seahawks.

That’s because Russ was atrocious in 2022. Whether it was poor coaching, his declining skills, or a combination of the two, Wilson looked nothing like the player he was in Seattle. Denver’s offense cratered. The new Broncos ownership group (led by Wal-Mart heir Rob Walton) had two options: move on from Hackett or move on from Wilson. It’s much cheaper to move on from a rookie head coach than a QB you just guaranteed $165 million, so it was Option 1 in a landslide.

Still, even with Hackett out of the picture, the Broncos are in trouble. They need a coach who can speak to Wilson man-to-man. Someone who can explain, in no uncertain terms, that Wilson cannot be the only reason the Broncos win. He can be part of the reason, sure, but Wilson’s days of carrying an offense - if they ever even existed - are over.

Jim Harbaugh, current head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, would be an excellent fit. Beyond his success at the collegiate level at two different programs, Harbaugh was also able to help guide the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII, losing to his brother John and the Baltimore Ravens. Harbaugh has always been a coach that favors a strong running game and defense, and those are the same elements that helped make Russ so successful in Seattle. If Harbaugh can steer Wilson in the right direction, he might be able to avert this budding Broncos disaster.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers wasted no time in moving on from head coach Matt Rhule. After a 1 - 4 start to the 2022 season, the Panthers owner David Tepper - one of the NFL’s richest owners - canned the third-year head coach and installed Steve Wilks as the interim head coach. Since their pitiful start, the Panthers turned their season around (sort of) by going 6 - 6 through the remainder of their games. They were even in contention for the NFC South title - though given the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the division with an 8 - 9 record, that isn’t saying much.

It would seem, then, that Wilks has a fairly good chance of shedding that interim label. He clearly was able to bring out a lot more in this Panthers team than Rhule was. But is that going to be enough to convince Tepper, who has never been known for his patience, to keep Wilks around for the long-haul? My guess - Tepper tries to shoot for the moon.

When you look at this Panthers roster, it’s not completely devoid of talent. Sure, the QB situation is murky, but the run game was strong, and the defense has some young stars to build around. With the ninth pick in the upcoming NFL draft, the Panthers are in an interesting position: they could stay at nine and look to select the best position player on the board, or they could try to trade up and grab one of the three premier QB prospects.

If the Panthers choose the latter route - and I expect them to be heavily in the mix - they have to be prepared to develop a young, inexperienced player at football’s most important position. Unfortunately for Wilks, his previous coaching tenure included a truly miserable career start for 10th overall pick Josh Rosen. Tepper can’t afford a repeat of that disaster.

That’s why Tepper chooses to hire Shane Steichen, offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. In Philly, Steichen, along with head coach Nick Sirianni, created a unique offensive system that brought the most out of QB Jalen Hurts and turned him from a replacement-level player to an MVP candidate. He also helped develop Philly’s run game into one of the league’s best - something that has to be intriguing for a Panthers team that really leaned into the run down the stretch. Steichen could help turn around incumbent QB Sam Darnold’s career or he could be tasked with developing a rookie into the same threat Hurts turned into. Either way, the Panthers are in good hands.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are in a weird spot. Like the Broncos, they were a team with high pre-season expectations. Many thought they were the cream of the crop in the AFC South. Some even thought they were a sneaky Super Bowl contender. Instead, they were being coached by media personality and former center Jeff Saturday by Week 10. Yes, you read that correctly.

Saturday’s interim tenure was…odd. The Colts surprisingly won in his first game against the Las Vegas Raiders - another one of 2022’s most disappointing teams. From there, the Colts went 0 for the rest of season. Their seven-game losing streak to end the year included a one-point loss to the NFC’s top seeded Philadelphia Eagles, a 35-point loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and a blown 33-point lead to the Minnesota Vikings (the largest comeback in NFL history. Not pretty.

It may come as a surprise then - after reading that entire previous paragraph - Saturday is in the mix to take the full-time job, at least according to Colts owner Jim Irsay. That would be a mistake. Saturday seems like a nice guy, but he was clearly in over his head. The Colts have an opportunity for a fresh start in 2023 and clinging to a former player in the hopes that he’ll turn into Tony Dungy is insanity.

There are a plethora of ways the Colts could go in this spot, but for my money, their best option is prioritizing culture over scheme at this point. The Colts need major surgery, not a band-aid. That’s why the Colts will end up hiring Ben Johnson, offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions.

Under Lions head coach Dan Campbell, Johnson witnessed first-hand the rigors of a full-scale rebuild. Johnson worked with Jared Goff, discarded by the Rams in the Matt Stafford trade, to bring out the 28-year-old QB’s best season since he helped lead the Rams to the Super Bowl in 2018. On top of that, Johnson’s offense was consistently inventive and exciting, a perfect blend to breathe some life into the listless Colts. He won’t have to win right away - and the Colts are in no position to do so - but given enough time, Johnson may be able to bring some of his Motor City Magic to Indy.

Houston Texans

For the second year in a row, the Texans have fired a head coach after one season. Last year it was David Culley after the Texans went 4 - 12. This year it was Lovie Smith after the team went 3 - 11 - 1. Needless to say, the Texans aren't exactly the most tempting situation if you’re an aspiring young head coach, even if there are only 32 jobs out there. Houston is the bottom of the barrel, from an NFL coach standpoint.

Still, there are only 32 of these jobs. Someone is going to be desperate enough to take it. And given the fact that it always felt like Smith was going to be a patsy by the end of the year, it’s going to have to be someone pretty damn desperate.

That’s why the Houston Texans are going to give Jon Gruden his last NFL coaching opportunity (and for the record, I have absolutely nothing to back this up other than the fact I find this possibility hilarious). After being fired midseason by the Las Vegas Raiders following the leak of several extremely offensive emails Gruden had composed from 2011-2018, Gruden has been pleading with anyone who will listen that he’s a “good person” and deserves another chance. 31 other teams would run for the hills, but the Texans might be miserable enough to hear his pitch.

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