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Everything You Need to Know About the NFL’s Head Coaching Candidates

The offseason carousel is in full swing, and we have the guide you need to keep track of Mike McCarthy, Lincoln Riley, Eric Bieniemy, and the other top coaching names

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America has 320 million people but only 32 NFL head coaching jobs. When one opens, it is a big deal. This year, the available jobs are unusually high-profile opportunities. The New York Giants have an opening in the country’s largest media market. Jerry Jones is looking for someone to coach the Dallas Cowboys, the most valuable sports franchise in the world. David Tepper, the NFL’s richest owner, is hiring for the Carolina Panthers. Washington has already hired former Panthers coach Ron Rivera to come to the nation’s capital. And, well, the Cleveland Browns are also looking for a new coach and a general manager, but that one may not be so fun.

With all of these coaching jobs comes a slew of reports that can be exhausting to keep track of, especially if it’s New Year’s Day and you are hungover (not that I’m judging you … tsk-tsk). To make life a smidgeon easier, here is everything you need to know about the most high-profile coaching candidates:

Mike McCarthy, Former Head Coach, Green Bay Packers

Linked to: the Browns, Panthers, and Giants


Those are the words on one of the signs on McCarthy’s desk at his home in Green Bay, where he’s been preparing for his next coaching job since the Packers fired him in December 2018 (NBC’s Peter King did not specify whether “volume” referred to quantity or sound). McCarthy went 125-77-2 in 13 seasons as the Packers head coach, giving him a winning percentage (.618) tied with Andy Reid and just above John Harbaugh, Bill Walsh, and Tom Landry. He won one Super Bowl with the Packers, but his time in Green Bay ended in part because of a frayed relationship with Aaron Rodgers. Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report reported in April that Rodgers’s grudge against McCarthy went all the way back to 2005, when McCarthy was San Francisco’s offensive coordinator and preferred Alex Smith to Rodgers in the NFL draft.

As their relationship declined, so did McCarthy’s offense. That’s where the MORE CREATIVITY comes in. McCarthy laid out his new decade, new me plan in King’s column earlier this month (who said the classifieds were dead?), including a 14-person “football technology department” that includes an analytics team with eight people. He told King he wants an offense in which the quarterback is under center roughly half the time to maximize play-action fakes, and that he also wants to call more run-pass options.

McCarthy has already interviewed in Carolina and is scheduled to do so with the Browns and Giants. As someone who coached Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, he’ll have quite the pitch on how he would develop quarterbacks, whether that is Baker Mayfield, Daniel Jones, Cam Newton, or whoever the Panthers’ next QB is.

Lincoln Riley, Head Coach, Oklahoma

Linked to: the Cowboys, maybe?

In three years, Riley has made the College Football Playoff three times and, in back-to-back seasons, produced a Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback who went no. 1 in the NFL draft. That’s just scratching the surface of why the 36-year-old is considered a coaching prodigy. Riley, who was molded under the Air Raid passing concepts that are bending the arc of modern passing and defining the pro game, became the youngest head coach in the Power Five conferences when he took the Oklahoma job in 2017.

There are a lot of clichés when it comes to hiring coaches like Riley. Teams need leaders, not schemers. Or, It’s about the players, not the plays. True. But there is nothing else in football like watching Oklahoma’s offense. Riley has an uncanny knack for making small changes to old concepts that make them look completely new to opposing defenses, and half of football is showing the opponent something they have never practiced against. Take this Jalen Hurts touchdown run against Texas this season.

This is not a complicated play. Hurts takes the ball and runs directly up the gut for a score. But he lines up with running backs to his left and right, and each back immediately runs toward different sidelines. The linebacker who would have met Hurts in the hole is instead running in the opposite direction as Hurts scores.

Riley does this kind of trickery all the time. Nobody in college football is better or more creative at deception. The question is whether he wants to leave. He’s set up well at Oklahoma and does not seem in a rush to leave for an NFL job.

Greg Roman, Offensive Coordinator, Baltimore Ravens

Linked to: the Browns

This season Roman’s Ravens offense rushed for more yards than any team in NFL history and will likely make quarterback Lamar Jackson the youngest MVP winner since Jim Brown in 1958. It’s been a stunning follow-up to Roman’s time working for the other Harbaugh brother as the 49ers offensive coordinator from 2011 to 2014, when he built one of the league’s best offenses around quarterback Colin Kaepernick and came 5 yards away from winning Super Bowl XLVII. Roman is one of the more fascinating choices for an owner who wants a creative mind to build an out-of-the-box offense.

So far only the Browns have requested to interview Roman.

Josh McDaniels, Offensive Coordinator, New England Patriots

Linked to: the Panthers, Browns, and Giants

Two years ago, McDaniels infamously accepted the Indianapolis head coaching job long enough to put together a staff (and for the team website to begin hawking Colts visors), but changed his mind before his introductory press conference. McDaniels’s agent, Bob LaMonte, dropped McDaniels as a client and called McDaniels’s decision to renege on his handshake deal with the Colts “professional suicide.” Two years later, the Panthers, Browns, and Giants have all requested interviews with McDaniels.

This season was the first time in eight years under McDaniels that the Patriots fell outside the top four in points per game. McDaniels also held the same Pats offensive coordinator role from 2006 to 2008, which included the record-setting 2007 Patriots. McDaniels kept the Patriots in the top eight of points per game in 2008 with Matt Cassel at quarterback after Tom Brady tore his ACL in Week 1.

In addition to overseeing the best passing years of Brady’s career, he was the head coach for two up-and-down seasons in Denver.

Urban Meyer, Former Head Coach, Florida and Ohio State

Linked to: Anybody? Bueller?

When Meyer watches a Washington game with Dan Snyder in the owner’s box at FedEx Field, he knows what he’s doing. By putting himself in such a bright spotlight, many speculated he could be finagling to be Washington’s next head coach. That didn’t happen, but the buzz around Meyer remains. The Washington Post’s Mark Maske reported on Monday that “those who have spoken to Urban Meyer sense he wants to coach again.”

However, Meyer’s future does not have to be in the NFL. He has been connected to the Cowboys and Browns, but there have been no reports suggesting he is scheduled to interview for those teams. The connections are tenuous at best, always sounding something like Urban Meyer worked near Cleveland for a bit or Dallas needs a big name who has experience with shiny helmets. Everyone wants Meyer and an NFL team to go on a date, but the only thing they have in common is that they are both single. Meyer is a college football coaching legend, but he has left each of his last two jobs for health reasons, including severe headaches. The Cowboys’ and Browns’ head coaching jobs are two of the biggest headaches in sports.

Brian Daboll, Offensive Coordinator, Buffalo Bills

Linked to: the Browns

Daboll has spent most of his coaching career working for Bill Belichick or Nick Saban. He was an assistant coach for New England’s initial Super Bowl dynasty in the early 2000s. Daboll followed Eric Mangini from the Patriots to the Jets in 2007, and then followed Mangini to the Browns in 2009. After a stint with the Dolphins and Chiefs, Daboll returned to New England and won two more Super Bowls with the Patriots. Then he went back to college to run Saban’s offense at Alabama in 2017 when the Tide won the national championship. Not bad. The last two seasons he has been building an offense around Buffalo’s Josh Allen, and the result has been steady improvement. Allen threw 141 more passes than in 2018 but had three fewer interceptions, while doubling his passing touchdowns from 10 to 20.

Matt Rhule, Head Coach, Baylor

Linked to: the Giants, Panthers, and Browns

Rhule is football’s fixer-upper. He went 2-10 in his first season at Temple in 2013 but 10-4 two years later, setting the school record for wins. After another 10-3 season, he replaced the disgraced head coach Art Briles at Baylor. The team that Rhule inherited was a ghost ship. The team had 45 scholarship players on the roster, 40 spots shy of the maximum, and the 2017 recruiting class had just one verbal commitment. The team went 1-11 in his first year in 2017, but this season Baylor is 11-2 and became the third FBS program in college football history to start 7-0 within two years of starting 0-7. Rhule’s results speak for themselves, and he’s garnered head coaching hype.

Rhule turned down the New York Jets last year when they offered him their head coaching job with the caveat that he would not get to pick his coaching staff. The Jets were left to hire Adam Gase (those kinds of blunders happen when owners go absentee). One year later, Rhule is an even hotter coaching candidate than he was in 2018, but he seems content to stay at Baylor. He’s reportedly already turned down the Cleveland Browns’ request for an interview, and on Tuesday he said he was expecting to stay at Baylor even though the Giants and Panthers reportedly favor him for their open jobs.

Robert Saleh, Defensive Coordinator, San Francisco 49ers

Linked to: the Browns

Saleh, the San Francisco defensive coordinator who is better known as the guy who is always freaking out on the 49ers sideline, is interviewing with the Cleveland Browns this week for their head coaching job. Of all the candidates being interviewed, Saleh may be the closest to fool’s gold. Last year his defense intercepted the fewest passes on record in NFL history, which dates back to World War II. This season, once 49ers general manager John Lynch drafted defensive end Nick Bosa and traded for defensive end Dee Ford (giving the 49ers five first-round picks along the defensive line), Saleh’s unit became one of the league’s best. Their trench talent allows San Francisco to get pressure with four pass rushers, which is the height of football luxury. This year the 49ers pressured quarterbacks at the second-highest rate despite blitzing at the fourth-lowest rate. If Saleh took over Cleveland, he might not be working with any first-rounders on the defensive line, depending on the status of the indefinitely suspended Myles Garrett, and he certainly won’t have five. Saleh has produced one of the league’s best defenses this year, but he’s also been given perhaps the most talented group of players to lead. It would not be surprising if that did not translate to the Cleveland Browns.

Eric Bieniemy, Offensive Coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

Linked to: the Panthers, Browns, and Giants

In a sea of young candidates, Bieniemy stands out for his 21 years of coaching experience. Bieniemy has been Kansas City’s offensive coordinator for the past two years, and the Chiefs offense, led by Patrick Mahomes, has destroyed the rest of the league in that span. Andy Reid calls plays in Kansas City, not Bieniemy, but that was also the case with former Chiefs offensive coordinators Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy. Each are now head coaches (in Philadelphia and Chicago, respectively). Considering Reid’s coaching tree also includes Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and Buffalo’s Sean McDermott, Reid disciples have a pretty good NFL track record.

“I’ve been dreaming about this opportunity [to be a head coach] all my life,” Bieniemy told Peter King on his podcast this week. “I feel that I am ready. You want to make sure … that people can see how you command a room, how you approach the day-to-day business, how you command everything that’s taking place within that building, how you deal with people, how you handle each situation that comes up.”

Bieniemy is one of two black offensive coordinators in the NFL, along with Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich, in a league where roughly three in four players are black. Last year five black head coaches—Hue Jackson, Marvin Lewis, Vance Joseph, Todd Bowles, and Steve Wilks—were fired during or after the season.

“We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NFL, yet we have only [four] head coaches of color,” Rod Graves, the executive director of a football diversity organization called the Fritz Pollard Alliance, told The New York Times this week. “For all the hoopla that football has become in this country, that kind of progress, or lack of, is shameful.”

The league’s Rooney Rule requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any head coaching job. The league office circulates the names of minority candidates at the NFL and college levels to the 32 teams. But many black assistant coaches brought in for head coaching job interviews are unsure whether they are being given a legitimate chance or just being interviewed so the team can say it considered a minority candidate. This week, Clemson co–offensive coordinator Tony Elliott declined an interview with the Carolina Panthers in part because he felt he was being used to satisfy the Rooney Rule, according to NFL Network’s Jim Trotter.