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Welcome to the Wildest NFL Coaching Cycle Ever

Aging icons, proven winners, and up-and-coming coordinators are competing for the same head-coaching jobs. Whom NFL owners pick to fill the seven remaining vacancies will teach us plenty about what those franchises want to become.

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What really gets me is the press release: “The Atlanta Falcons have completed an interview with Bill Belichick for the organization’s head coach position, the club announced Monday. Belichick spent the past 24 seasons as head coach of the New England Patriots where he led the Patriots to 17 division titles and six Super Bowl Championships.”

Yes, that’s right! I seem to remember something about a ratty sweatshirt and a couple of parades on Boylston Street.

The Atlanta Falcons have completed an interview with Bill Belichick for the organization’s head coach position. The Atlanta Falcons have completed an interview with Bill Belichick for the organization’s head coach position! Maybe it takes the mundanity of a Wikipedia-esque paragraph blasted out via social media and listserv during halftime of the final wild-card round playoff game to set in sharp relief just how stunning the twists and turns of the 2024 NFL coaching cycle have become. The Atlanta Falcons have completed an interview with Bill Belichick for the organization’s head coach position!!! I’m not even going to bother with a 28-3 joke, because you’ve heard them all already.

Meanwhile, Jim Harbaugh is playing footsie with the Chargers and Falcons, with whom he interviewed on Tuesday, probably just as a waiting game until Michigan finds a way to extend Nixon v. Fitzgerald to protect the head coach of the Wolverines, but still, he’s out there. This comes about a week after Belichick, Nick Saban, and Pete Carroll, winners of a combined seven NFL championships and nine NCAA championships this century, left or were asked to leave their respective posts in New England, Alabama, and Seattle within 24 hours of one another. Mike Vrabel, a consistent overachiever in Tennessee whose firing there came as a shock, is now basically an afterthought, material for the C blocks of sports talk shows. And now, after epic face-plants in the wild-card round, Mike McCarthy and Nick Sirianni are awaiting their fates with the Cowboys and Eagles, respectively. Sirianni might survive his team’s collapse, but in Dallas, Jerry Jones is so distraught that he canceled his normal weekly radio interviews. It won’t be long now, and the specter of Belichick hangs over every one of these moves.

I keep imagining Belichick sitting for a regular, run-of-the-mill job interview. What would you even ask? “So, I see here you also have an interest in special teams?”

Of course there are good and necessary questions to ask Belichick. Who does he plan to hire to run the offense? How much roster control does he expect to have? Is he planning to coach two more years, or 10 more years? Matt Patricia … why? But the “Why should we hire you as our head coach?” line of questioning is a little funny. It’s Bill Belichick. You know his whole deal.

This absurdist dynamic is the most pronounced with Belichick, but it goes for Harbaugh and Carroll as well. If you follow football, you know these guys! You’ve probably known them for years. Sports documentaries have dedicated dozens and dozens of hours to their careers, achievements, controversies, and failures. They’ve been some of the main characters of this country’s favorite sport for a quarter century. You not only know the bullet points of their careers, but you know about their weird tics, how they like their khaki pants (pleated), how they chew their gum, and their made-up names for social media platforms. Your opinion of them as coaches is also probably pretty well formed and calcified.

Why would NFL owners be any different? They know what they think of Belichick and Harbaugh and Carroll, and even someone like Vrabel. Jerry Jones has been plotting to hire Belichick since they ran into each other in Aspen in the ’90s! An interview might be a good opportunity to do some initial negotiating of the organizational chart, but it doesn’t seem likely to change a basic opinion on one of those candidates.

What’s interesting is how different that dynamic is from the one that seemed likely to play out in this coaching cycle just a few months ago. Before it became clear that teams could go big-game hunting for these aging icons, this 2024 cycle was supposed to be defined by up-and-comers like Detroit offensive coordinator Ben Johnson or his Houston counterpart, Bobby Slowik. These are candidates with great résumés that only improved in the first round of the playoffs, but they are all projections. I don’t really know how you compare someone like Slowik, who is 36 years old and has called plays for one season, to someone like Belichick, who, despite his less-than-enthusiastic approach to media appearances at times, is one of the most public figures in sports. I know the name of his dog and his boat. Does Slowik have a dog or a boat? I do not know, and, honestly, I do not care.

Yet now they’re in the same cycle, interviewing for (some of) the same jobs, getting the same perfunctory press release treatment. And while it must be somewhat intimidating for Slowik or Johnson to be stuck in this particular round of musical headsets, it’s not a given that the aging titans will get every job over the up-and-comers. The 19-headed entity leading the Commanders’ coaching search, for instance, was never in on Belichick but has requested interviews with Johnson, Slowik, and Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, among others. It’s not particularly useful, without knowing things like how serious Harbaugh is about an NFL job or whether someone like Carroll will get in the mix for any of the open positions, to make sweeping judgments about what this cycle means in terms of the future vs. the past, though a lot of individual NFL teams will make clear statements about who they want to be based on whom they try to hire out of this particular pool. Does a team like the Chargers, with a star quarterback but a franchise history of underperforming in big moments, need the discipline of an established program builder, or the best offensive mind available? Which type of candidate is most likely to be wooed by the size of David Tepper’s checkbook? And is the presence of a Belichick or a Harbaugh on the market enough to move Jones or another owner to take drastic action? We’re about to find out what NFL owners really think of some of the most iconic names in the business.

In the case of Belichick and the Falcons, though, I think we already have. There are a lot of questions that owner Arthur Blank could have asked Belichick in that interview, but the most important one was likely: “Please?”