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The 13 Candidates to Replace Jay Gruden in Washington

Some are rumored, some are long shots, but all will be on Dan Snyder’s radar

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Sunday night, Washington head coach Jay Gruden was asked in his postgame press conference whether he was worried about his job.

“If the key works Monday, I’ll keep working,” Gruden said.

He did not test this. Instead Gruden arrived late Sunday night, packed his office, slept there, showered at the facility, and then walked into owner Dan Snyder’s office at 5 a.m., when he was let go, according to The Washington Post. It’s the sixth time in 20 years that Snyder has fired his head coach. Barring interim head coach Bill Callahan’s keeping the job, Snyder will be looking for his seventh head coach this offseason. There’s a push-pull for people considering the position. On one hand, NFL head coach is one of the hardest jobs to get in the U.S. There are fewer head-coaching jobs than seats in the Senate. Any of the 32 gigs is a life-changing opportunity.

On the other hand, it’s one of the least desirable of those 32. From the ousters of Jim Zorn to Scot McCloughan, Washington’s professional football franchise is nearly as oleaginous as the rest of the work in the nation’s capital. (Of all the surprising aspects of Gruden’s tenure, the most surprising may be that he lasted for nearly six years.) Gruden’s successor may struggle to last that long, but someone will volunteer for the opportunity to please Snyder. Let’s run through the 13 candidates who could fill the job.

The People Already in the Building

Bill Callahan, Interim Head Coach, Washington

Callahan was promoted from offensive line coach to interim head coach on Monday. Strangely, this is the second time Callahan has replaced a Gruden as interim head coach. When the Raiders traded head coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay in 2002, Callahan was promoted to head coach, and then the two met in the Super Bowl following that season.

Callahan isn’t dragging this team anywhere near the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl. The team plays the Dolphins on Sunday, which is their best chance at a win the rest of the season. Washington’s record may not matter as much as how Callahan brings quarterback Dwayne Haskins along the rest of the year (he’s already ruled Haskins out against Miami). If Cleveland’s running backs coach, Freddie Kitchens, could go from interim coordinator to full-time head coach for the Browns by turning Baker Mayfield into one of the league’s best QBs last year, anything is possible if Callahan excels with Haskins. But there’s little in Callahan’s track record that suggests he can work with a young passer.

Kevin O’Connell, Offensive Coordinator, Washington

Washington has the dubious distinction of letting three current NFL head coaches—Los Angeles’s Sean McVay, San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, and Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur—leave its offensive coaching staff in a four-year period from 2013 to 2016. If Washington is afraid that the 34-year-old O’Connell is the fourth member of that Mount Rushmore, it’d be wise to hand him the job, though there’s plenty of reason to doubt he is next in line—and not just because Washington’s offense does not resemble the Rams’. McVay and Shanahan were both raised in prodigious football families, with McVay’s grandfather being the architect of the Joe Montana–Bill Walsh–era 49ers and Shanahan’s father, Mike, being a two-time Super Bowl champion coach. O’Connell was not learning professional football out of the womb, and he has even less experience than Shanahan and McVay (the youngest head coach in NFL history) did when they took their jobs. If Washington wants an offensive head coach to groom Haskins, it would be better off looking outside the organization and keeping O’Connell if it thinks he’s promising.

The Three Who Have Been Floated

ESPN’s Ed Werder reported Monday that Dan Snyder would want to interview Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin (if he is fired), Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, and Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles.

Mike Tomlin, Head Coach, Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh has had three coaches in the past 50 years, so firing Tomlin is not a decision the organization will take lightly. But if the Steelers do move on from him after this season, he would fit Snyder’s penchant for splashy signings. Snyder hired Steve Spurrier away from Florida in 2002, brought Joe Gibbs out of retirement in 2004, and hired Mike Shanahan in 2010. Tomlin, an alum of William and Mary, also has an existing relationship with Washington president Bruce Allen, who was a punter at the rival University of Richmond. Tomlin and Allen keep in touch, reaching out every year when their schools play one another.

Eric Bieniemy, Offensive Coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

Bieniemy is the latest Chiefs coordinator hyped to be a prime coaching prospect. Bieniemy, 50, is a longtime running backs coach who worked with Adrian Peterson from 2007 to 2009 in Minnesota, joined Andy Reid when he came to Kansas City in 2013 and helped make Jamaal Charles an All-Pro, and then served as Chiefs offensive coordinator for the past two seasons. Some will knock Bieniemy because he neither calls plays (that’s Reid’s job) nor works directly with the QB (that’s quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka) in Kansas City. But neither did Doug Pederson nor Matt Nagy, two of the past three offensive coordinators who served under Reid, and Pederson has already won a Super Bowl with Philadelphia while Nagy won Coach of the Year in his first year in Chicago. Bieniemy has been at the foot of the league’s most nimble and adaptive offensive schemer for seven years.

Todd Bowles, Defensive Coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay’s defense was the worst in the league last year according to Football Outsiders, but through four weeks this year, the Bucs were the sixth-best defense. Most of that turnaround belongs to Bowles, the former Jets coach whom Bruce Arians brought to Tampa Bay this year. (As a player, Bowles spent seven seasons patrolling the Washington secondary and won a Super Bowl with the team.) Washington has even more defensive talent for Bowles to coach up than the Bucs did. Bowles took much of the fall for a mismanaged roster under former Jets GM Mike Maccagnan, but he’s one of the best defensive coaches around.

How much weight that carries is an open question. Dan Snyder has not hired a coach from the defensive side of the ball since Marty Schottenheimer in 2001, and the league at large has moved away from hiring defensive-minded head coaches. Washington has to incubate Haskins, so it may prefer one of the offensive-minded guys.

Other Logical Candidates

Byron Leftwich, Offensive Coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The former quarterback was lured out of retirement to join the Cardinals coaching staff by head coach Bruce Arians in 2016, and, in four seasons, Leftwich went from intern to quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in Arizona to the same role in Tampa Bay under Arians. He is on the short list of the league’s best-regarded coaching candidates this cycle, which might be the biggest reason he is unlikely to coach in Washington. Leftwich will have options—or at least, he should—and coaches with options rarely choose D.C.

Brian Daboll, Offensive Coordinator, Buffalo Bills

Washington has been unable to establish its own team culture for a decade, so in the past few years it decided to import Nick Saban’s. Eight of the 53 players on Washington’s roster played at Alabama under Saban, including defensive leaders Jonathan Allen and Landon Collins.

“You know the culture is actually damn good,” team president Bruce Allen said at his press conference Monday. “These people care. We have a very young core of players that we have brought in here that are accustomed to winning.”

Short of hiring Saban himself, the best person they could bring in to keep that going is Bills offensive coordinator Daboll. He served as Alabama’s co–offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2017 before taking the OC job with Buffalo last year. Saban hired Daboll as a graduate assistant at Michigan State back in 1998, and Daboll has bounced around the Saban–Bill Belichick coaching tree ever since, including winning three Super Bowls on the Pats staff when he was on it from 2000 to 2006, working as an assistant for Eric Mangini for four years across two teams, serving as offensive coordinator for Romeo Crennel, heading back to the Patriots as tight ends coach for the best years of Rob Gronkowski’s career, and then heading to Bama. Buffalo’s offense is not exactly explosive, but the Bills are 4-1 with Josh Allen at QB, so he’s doing something right.

Kris Richard, Defensive Passing Game Coordinator, Dallas Cowboys

Richard is many things Gruden is not—young, loud, intense, and defensive-oriented, and he carries a Super Bowl pedigree. He was one of the key defensive coaches for Seattle’s Legion of Boom and now is a co–defensive coordinator in Dallas along with Rod Marinelli.

Pipe Dreams

Sean McVay, Head Coach, Los Angeles Rams

True love is when you let someone go and hope they come back. McVay is not coming back.

Kyle Shanahan, Head Coach, San Francisco 49ers


Josh McDaniels, Offensive Coordinator, New England Patriots

McDaniels is perhaps the brightest offensive coordinator in the NFL. Despite his ghosting the Colts after saying yes in a handshake deal, teams still want to hire him. But if he turned down the Colts after accepting the job, it’s hard to see him choosing such a turbulent situation in Washington over the Patriots.

Lincoln Riley, Head Coach, Oklahoma Sooners

With Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts, Riley may produce three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners. His innovations with the Sooners have had a bigger impact at the pro level than any other college coach’s today. He might be the most in-demand college coach at the pro level, and he would (rightfully) ask for a level of personnel control that Washington may be unwilling to grant him.

Jim Harbaugh, Head Coach, University of Michigan

Now we’re talking. Michigan fans have grown tired of Harbaugh’s shtick, as well as his refusal to run one of the up-tempo offenses that dominate the college level. Harbaugh’s days in Ann Arbor are likely numbered, and returning to the NFL would be far more interesting than anywhere he’d go next in college. His, uh, quirky college tenure has made it easy to forget just how stunning his time in San Francisco was. Harbaugh had more wins in four years (49) than Washington has in its past eight (48). He went 44-19-1 in the regular season after the 49ers had gone 26-38 in the four seasons prior, reached the NFC championship three times, and came within a first-and-goal at the 7-yard line of winning the Super Bowl against his brother John’s Ravens. John just got a contract extension from those Ravens last year, and Jim’s setting up shop across town would ignite the Washington-Baltimore football rivalry that has failed to take off since the Ravens came to the DMV area in 1996. It would also give Harbaugh time to develop Haskins, who torched Michigan for six touchdowns last year. If anyone has the confidence in themselves that they alone can fix the ills plaguing the nation’s capital, it’s Jim Harbaugh.