The hottest NFL coaching candidates: Don't rule out Josh McDaniels

ByDan Graziano via ESPN logo
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Five weeks from now, a half-dozen or so NFL teams are going to be looking for new head coaches, and most of them are going to want their candidates to be guys who know how to score points.

There's a guy with the New England Patriots who knows how to do it. And before you laugh off the notion that any NFL team would trust Josh McDaniels enough to bring him in for an interview after what he did in Indianapolis 10 months ago, you need to understand the landscape.

Baggage and all, McDaniels' talents as a coach and playcaller make him a very interesting candidate for teams that will find themselves in the head-coaching market in January. It's rough out there if you're looking for the next offensive coaching wunderkind. The list of guys with McDaniels' credentials is pretty short, and demand for those kinds of guys isn't fading away.

All seven of the head-coaching hires in 2016 were from offensive backgrounds, as were four of the six in 2017. Out of those two groups, one (Doug Pederson) has won the Super Bowl, a few (Sean McVay, Anthony Lynn, Kyle Shanahan) are still trying, a couple (Dirk Koetter, Adam Gase) are barely hanging on, and a few more (Ben McAdoo, Hue Jackson, Chip Kelly) didn't make it.

But offense is still the name of the modern NFL game, and teams are looking for the guys who are the best at coaching it. Problem is, after a couple of years of accelerating smart, young, relatively inexperienced offensive coordinators into head-coaching positions, the pipeline starts to look a little bit dry. The sense around the league right now is that, while you can expect the usual six or eight head-coaching openings the NFL creates every year, the list of candidates to fill those openings is a little lighter than it has been in recent years.

Which is why it's not at all crazy to think that some coach-needy team, or teams, will turn their lonely eyes once again to Bill Belichick's brilliant but mercurial offensive coordinator. McDaniels was the hottest name on the circuit last year, and assuming he wants another shot at those interviews, there's a good chance he will be again. Multiple sources close to the situation say McDaniels would be interested in a head-coaching opportunity if it were the right one, which is something we've heard of McDaniels before. If you want to roll your eyes, it's hard to blame you.

Any team interested in bringing in McDaniels for an interview is going to want to put him through a series of pointed questions specific to his situation and his history. Whereas he spent the past couple of interview cycles answering questions about what went wrong during his first head-coaching stint with the Denver Broncos -- he went 11-17 and was fired during his second season -- McDaniels now will face those again as well as fresh questions about what in the absolute heck happened with the Indianapolis Colts.

In case you don't remember, McDaniels agreed in early January to become the Colts' next coach but couldn't officially take over until after the Patriots were eliminated from the playoffs, which didn't happen until they lost in the Super Bowl. Two days later, the Colts announced McDaniels' hiring and his introductory news conference, only to find out later that day that he'd changed his mind and would be staying in New England. An irate Colts general manager Chris Ballard unloaded on McDaniels in his own news conference, then hired Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich instead.

The fallout will be that teams will want to know why they should trust McDaniels. Say you agree to hire him, then the Patriots make it all the way to the Super Bowl again. How can you be sure he won't bail out on you too? How will he be able to put together a staff? There are coaches who took jobs on McDaniels' Colts staff last January and found themselves out of work when he didn't show up. Hard to believe any of those guys would go with him this time around, right? McDaniels surely will have answers to all of these questions, but it won't be a clean process.

Still, it's a process that's likely to take place. Think about some of the openings that are or are likely to be available. If you're a team looking for a young, creative quarterback-whisperer type to help Baker Mayfield's career bloom, or a team looking for a sharp playcaller to energize the latter portion of Aaron Rodgers' career, or a team looking for an established winner to keep a winning tradition alive in a place like Baltimore, McDaniels is going to be of interest. He's only 42, he's really good, and teams all over the league are looking for more of what he's good at. If you thought you were through with the Josh McDaniels saga last offseason, sorry. You're not.

Based on conversations with sources around the league, here's a list of some other names you're going to hear on this year's head-coaching interview circuit, sorted into handy categories:

Next men up

The coaches in this category represent the next wave of NFL coordinators and assistants likely to get interviews for head-coaching positions this January. Of our categories, its inhabitants are probably the most likely to land the big jobs -- though in an environment like this year's, it's hard to handicap.

John DeFilippo, offensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings. There's a lack of consensus on DeFilippo's prospects -- some are high on him, others more skeptical. But he drew interest last year when he was Philadelphia's QBs coach, and the Vikings rank seventh this year in passing yards per game.

Brian Flores, defensive coordinator, New England Patriots. He was a serious candidate last year in Arizona. Just 37 years old, the Patriots' "other" coordinator is well-regarded as a leader by players and colleagues.

Kris Richard, defensive backs coach, Dallas Cowboys. He wouldn't be the first former Pete Carroll Seahawks defensive coordinator to land a head-coaching gig in this league.

Dave Toub, special teams coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs. Well-regarded, but it's tough for special teams coordinators because they have to hire coordinators for both sides of the ball, instead of just one.

Pete Carmichael, offensive coordinator, New Orleans Saints. It's Sean Payton's offense, but Carmichael is a valued assistant and deserves some of the credit for the Saints' high-level success.

Dan Campbell, tight ends coach, New Orleans Saints. Campbell had a brief and memorable interim head-coaching stint with the Dolphins in 2015. He'd like another shot, and people will want a piece of what's going on in New Orleans.

Vic Fangio, defensive coordinator, Chicago Bears. In an offense-heavy season, the Bears' defense is a huge reason they're atop the NFC North. Crazy to think he can be a first-time head coach at 60?

Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Indianapolis Colts.A first-time coordinator on one of the surprise teams in the league, Eberflus is a rising star who could get looks.

Matt LaFleur, offensive coordinator, Tennessee Titans.The former Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay assistant went out on his own to call plays this year for the first time. Sharp offensive mind who'll generate some interest.

George Edwards, defensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings. Always draws interest, could break through one of these years.


These are current head coaches who could lose their jobs but find new ones elsewhere quickly.

John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens. There's a strong consensus that a team (Denver?) would jump to hire Harbaugh if the Ravens miss the playoffs for the fourth year in a row and decide to move on.

Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers. A little more skepticism around McCarthy as an immediate, Andy Reid-style bounce-back, but it's possible, and he has a lot of friends in that Cleveland front office.

Former NFL coaches looking to get back in

These are the guys who had head-coaching jobs and could get looks again.

Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, PhiladelphiaEagles.The former Lions head coach has been murmured about in the past couple of cycles.

Jack Del Rio, former coach, Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders. Would he still be in Oakland if Jon Gruden hadn't wanted that job? Del Rio's head-coaching record is 94-97, including a 1-3 mark in the playoffs.

Gus Bradley, defensive coordinator, Los Angeles Chargers. He was a flop in Jacksonville but is still well-liked around the league and could get another look.

Chuck Pagano, former coach, Indianapolis Colts. Might have to do the coordinator thing again first, but Pagano has friends around the league and would like another shot.

College coaches

It has been a while (Chip Kelly?) since NFL teams dipped into the college ranks for head-coaching candidates, but as the coordinator pool thins, teams have to look somewhere. There are some interesting names running some interesting college offenses, and college concepts are seeping into the NFL all the time.

Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma. People have connected Mayfield's former college coach to the Browns for obvious reasons. Don't be surprised if he's high on Jerry Jones' list if the Cowboys make a change.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State. He has been connected with the Cleveland job and is a 39-year-old coaching prospect on NFL teams' radars.

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan. His NFL head-coaching record was 45-22-1, including 5-3 in the playoffs. He'd be nuts to not want to try it again.

Kliff Kingsbury, former Texas Tech coach.Kingsbury's name is already circulating in league rumor mills, and he has enough offensive chops that a team could at least bring him on as a consultant, if not a coach.

Matt Rhule, Baylor. Got an interview last year. Did a year in the NFL on Tom Coughlin's Giants staff in 2012.

Bob Stoops, former Oklahoma coach. Riley's predecessor is believed to want to give the NFL a shot.

David Shaw, Stanford; Brian Kelly, Notre Dame; Urban Meyer, Ohio State. Lumped 'em together because we could write the same blurb about any of them: NFL teams will be interested if they are, but it's hard to know whether they are.

Long-range guys to keep an eye on

These are coaches who might not get interviews this time around (though you never know!) but whose names you could start hearing next year if things continue to go well for them.

Shane Waldron, passing game coordinator, Los Angeles Rams. The 39-year-old McVay assistant is a guy whose brain teams might want to pick.

Zac Taylor, quarterbacks coach, Los Angeles Rams. Again ... people want a piece of what McVay is doing in L.A. Taylor actually called plays for nine games as Miami's offensive coordinator in 2015.

Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs.He succeeded the very successful Matt Nagy as Andy Reid's top offensive assistant this year.

Mike Kafka, quarterbacks coach, Kansas City Chiefs. People love Reid guys, and for good reason. Kafka is 31 and a real long-range prospect.

Sean Ryan, quarterbacks coach, Houston Texans. Ryan probably will have to go somewhere to be a playcalling coordinator before he can jump up to the top job, but he interviewed for a coordinator job in Cleveland last year and should get looks this year as well.

Byron Leftwich, offensive coordinator, Arizona Cardinals. A well-regarded coaching prospect whose future in the business is likely tied to Josh Rosen's success.

Darren Perry, former safeties coach, Green Bay Packers. Perry is a once-hot coaching prospect who's likely to end up on someone's staff this offseason.

Press Taylor, quarterbacks coach, Philadelphia Eagles. Zac's 30-year-old brother is another long-range name to watch.

Bret Bielema, former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach. Currently a consultant on Bill Belichick's staff in New England, Bielema might prefer testing the NFL waters to going back into the college ranks.

ESPN's Field Yates, Mike Sando and Kevin Seifert contributed to this story.

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