With the NFL’s regular season now complete, there are seven teams in search of a new head coach. The latest coaches to hit the market were New England’s Bill Belichick, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel, Washington’s Ron Rivera, and Atlanta’s Arthur Smith.
Those teams join the three that already fired head coaches during the season: the Panthers, Raiders, and Chargers. Let’s evaluate the open jobs—as well as a few others that could come open soon—and rank them from the least appealing situation to the most attractive. If you’re a coaching candidate, here’s what you’ll want to consider:
Tier 3: Horrible Bosses
Pro: David Tepper’s money
Cons: Everything else
Panthers owner David Tepper threw a drink at a fan in Jacksonville as his team got shut out in Week 17. That’s the guy who will be your boss! Everything you need to know about Tepper’s management style is captured by the reaction of the man who stood next to him as Tepper threw a fit. That man was Carolina’s general manager Scott Fitterer, and he does not move an inch, suggesting that Fitterer was not at all surprised to see Tepper act in such a way and also that Fitterer hoped that, like a T. rex, Tepper would not see him if he stood still. (It didn’t work—Fitterer got fired on Monday.)
Tepper’s tantrums are already legendary. He has said that when a waiter is rude to him, he fantasizes about buying the restaurant just to fire the waiter. He once bought a mansion in the Hamptons from his former boss’s ex-wife just to knock it down.
He also has notoriously little patience. He agreed to an $800 million deal to build a new headquarters for the Panthers in Rock Hill, South Carolina, but pulled out of the deal midway through construction. (He got sued, he settled, and the half-built facility was demolished, which feels a little too on the nose.) He’s impatient on the football side, too. Just one year ago, Tepper hired former Colts coach Frank Reich to take over for Matt Rhule, whom he fired midway through the 2022 season. Tepper then fired Reich after a 1-10 start to this season, the NFL’s quickest coach firing in almost half a century. Tepper is still on the hook for the balance of Reich’s contract, which runs through 2026 and comes with a reported $9 million annual salary. So the good news here is that whoever winds up taking this job might get a four-year contract and be paid for fewer than three months of games.
The bad news is that, in addition to the overbearing, meddling, temperamental owner, Carolina has the worst football situation in the NFL. It won just two games this season and cannot even enjoy the fruit of that futility, having given its 2024 first-rounder to the Bears in last year’s trade to move up to no. 1. The Panthers do have quarterback Bryce Young, who is young enough that the new coach will be expected to salvage his career. But this offense has little else. Carolina’s offensive line is bad. Beyond 2023 second-round receiver Jonathan Mingo, its skill group might be worse, full of aging vets and draft busts. The Panthers also have to plug the league’s worst run defense and find a way to re-sign defensive end Brian Burns, who has about as much leverage as a non-quarterback has had in a negotiation since Laremy Tunsil negotiated the best offensive tackle contract of the decade with the Texans in 2020.
Whoever takes this job inherits a long-term project but will report to a boss who can’t seem to think beyond the short term. The Panthers have had months to get started on this search, and late Monday they announced they’ve requested interviews with nine candidates, six of whom are current offensive coordinators. Ultimately, though, the best candidate here is probably whoever Tepper can find to actually take this job.
Tier 2: The Mid Jobs
New England Patriots
Pros: Top-three pick, successful organization
Con: You have to replace Bill Belichick
[Update: On Friday, Jan. 12, the Patriots promoted Jerod Mayo to replace Belichick as head coach.]
Imagine being the opening band for the Beatles, but you have to go on after them. How does anyone follow Bill Belichick? We are about to find out, after Belichick and the Patriots reportedly agreed on Thursday that he would not return for what would have been his 25th season. Aside from having to replace the greatest football coach since Paul Brown invented the job, the new Patriots coach will have a lot to fix. Their current quarterbacks, offensive line, and receiving corps are some of the worst in football. It will help that New England has the third pick in the draft. Considering that UNC’s Drake Maye and USC’s Caleb Williams are expected to be the first two picks off the board, New England seems locked into getting either the third-best QB (like LSU’s Jayden Daniels) or a potential franchise cornerstone like Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. or Penn State offensive tackle Olu Fashanu.
But the rebuild goes beyond the roster. A new coach (and general manager) doesn’t just have to replace Mac Jones at quarterback or Vederian Lowe at left tackle. They’ll have to replace the Patriot Way, which extends from the locker room to the front office to the scouting department. Most new coaches are granted the power to change things as they see fit—that’s what happens when you’re hired to take over a losing team. But it is going to be disproportionately challenging for any new coach to change Belichick’s existing infrastructure.
There is one seemingly obvious candidate the Kraft family might pursue to replace Belichick: Mike Vrabel, whom the Titans fired on Tuesday. Considering Vrabel’s success in Tennessee, where he led the Titans to the playoffs three times in six years (and made it to one AFC championship game) and his history as a star linebacker for Belichick’s defenses in the early 2000s, it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited for this job.
Pro: Will Levis as a year one QB/scapegoat
Cons: Massive holes on the offensive line and at wide receiver
[Added on Tuesday, January 9.]
Tennessee is in the strange position of being the only team in the AFC South without a young franchise quarterback on the roster. The Jaguars have Trevor Lawrence, the Texans have C.J. Stroud, and the Colts have Anthony Richardson. The Titans, meanwhile, have Will Levis, a second-round pick last year. He has shown just enough flash to get a shot at the starting job in 2024, but not enough that he must dictate their plans. And if Levis is a disaster next season, it’ll be easy for a new coach to move on.
Tennessee has the seventh pick in the 2024 draft, which is a good spot for a team that desperately needs to improve on offense, both on the line and at receiver. Running back Derrick Henry has likely played his final game for the Titans, and a new coach would have a chance to reshape the identity of this Titans offense while coaching a defense that has some good players, like lineman Jeffery Simmons. Baltimore’s Mike Macdonald is the premier young defensive coordinator in the league and at the forefront of the style of defense succeeding in the NFL right now. The Titans would be remiss not to interview him.
Las Vegas Raiders
Pros: Legendary NFL franchise, living in Las Vegas, Maxx Crosby
Con: Might not be truly open
The Raiders fired Josh McDaniels on Halloween, and the vibe shift under interim coach Antonio Pierce has been as dramatic as any in recent history. McDaniels seemed to thrive on stifling the concept of joy in his locker room. Pierce encourages players to believe in themselves, and to “smoke our shit, and talk our shit.”
Pierce is an old-school middle linebacker who spent nine years in the NFL and was one of the smartest defenders of his era. While the Raiders did not make the playoffs, Pierce’s coaching style worked. As team owner Mark Davis is now free to start interviewing candidates, Raiders players are openly campaigning (begging?) for Pierce to keep the job.
But it’s also fair to wonder whether Davis might be searching for a bigger name than Pierce, a coaching star who could make a splash in Las Vegas. In that case, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh would fit the bill. But outside of a superstar coach with a winning track record like Harbaugh, it would be silly for the Raiders not to tap into whatever Pierce has been able to create.
The Raiders have the 13th pick in the draft, putting them in range of a quarterback trade-up to replace the miscast Aidan O’Connell and McDaniels-era mistake Jimmy Garoppolo. But Vegas could also be an attractive option for any veteran quarterback that wants to sign—like Kirk Cousins or Jacoby Brissett—or perhaps an option to trade for Chicago’s Justin Fields.
Tier 1: The Great Jobs
Los Angeles Chargers
Pro: Justin Herbert
This is the only job opening that comes with a proven franchise quarterback (Justin Herbert). It is definitely the only opening with a proven quarterback and cornerstone left tackle (Rashawn Slater). While you could argue that the Chargers are not an ideal coaching spot because they have a tricky cap situation and a sneakily old roster, this is missing the forest for the trees: Great quarterbacks can win a Super Bowl, and Herbert is a great quarterback.
Having said that, there will be a lot of changes: Austin Ekeler is coming off his worst season and is set to become a free agent. Receiver Mike Williams is almost 30 and coming off a torn ACL. Receiver Keenan Allen and defensive end Joey Bosa likely will have their contracts restructured (each are due for untenable cap hits north of $30 million next year). There will be tough roster decisions here. But with the fifth pick in the draft, the Chargers have a chance to add some much-needed speed to perhaps the slowest offense in football, something that has been maddening to watch with a quarterback with an arm like Herbert.
Beyond the Chargers roster, this team needs a culture exorcism like what has happened in Detroit under Dan Campbell. While the Chargers have not had the decades of losing and perennial bottom-dwelling that Detroit did, the Chargers have suffered from a combination of brutal injury luck, playoff choking, and astronomically improbable late-games losses for nearly 20 years, their issues spanning five different head coaches. The Chargers are the Clippers. Keenan Allen tweeted this four years ago:
Someone has to end this. So while this is a good spot for an offensive mind like Detroit’s Ben Johnson or a trendy Kyle Shanahan disciple like Houston’s Bobby Slowik, this place as much as any needs a culture shift over merely a scheme adjustment. They need a priest.
Pros: A plethora of young talent
Con: Is Pete Carroll still there?
[Added on Wednesday, January 10.]
In a surprising move on Wednesday, Carroll is out after 14 years as head coach of the Seahawks. Carroll has been elevated into an “advisory” position, and when asked in a news conference what that means, Carroll could only say that “we’re going to figure that out. We don’t really know right now.” That admission suggests it may be a polite, ceremonial promotion to prevent the ugliness of firing the best coach in team history, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he were to take a coaching job elsewhere.
Whatever the case, the Seahawks job is open. Carroll has told his staff to start looking for new jobs, and Seattle will be replacing an icon. Carroll was the NFL’s oldest head coach, but he had the energy level of one of the youngest.
This job is attractive for several reasons. Aside from the Seahawks’ winning culture, Seattle’s new coach will inherit a ton of young talent. Charles Cross and Abe Lucas look like legit offensive tackles and are 23 and 25 years old, respectively. Wide receiver DK Metcalf turned just 26 last month, and 2023 first-round pick receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba had a down season but is still promising. Meanwhile, Seattle’s secondary is led by its other 2023 first-round pick, Devon Witherspoon. Quarterback Geno Smith is not necessarily a long-term solution but he is one of the stronger bridge QB options in the league. As Carroll demonstrated, you can win with this roster; Seattle made the playoffs last season, and was the first team out of the NFC field in 2023.
Replacing Carroll will be difficult, though. The Seahawks are one of the four most successful NFL teams of the past 15 years, along with the Patriots, Chiefs, and Packers. Carroll was the third-longest-tenured coach in the NFL after Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh (assuming Bill Belichick is out in New England). While this job isn’t as intimidating as the opening in New England, these are big shoes to fill.
Pro: Just a quarterback away
Con: Just a quarterback away
The Falcons have an embarrassment of riches on offense. Running back Bijan Robinson, receiver Drake London, and tight end Kyle Pitts each were top-10 picks and are still on their rookie contracts. The Falcons’ beefy offensive line ranked third in pass blocking grade by Pro Football Focus this season. The only thing truly missing from Atlanta’s roster is a game-changing quarterback. Atlanta holds the no. 8 pick in the draft, a prime spot to grab a second-tier passer. Or it could look at the veteran quarterback—the talent elsewhere on offense is good enough that it might not need an elite quarterback to succeed. Whoever Atlanta’s QB is in 2024 cannot be worse than Desmond Ridder, who had six turnovers in the red zone this season, at least twice as many as any other quarterback, and tied for the third most of any QB in the 21st century.
This could be the ideal spot for Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who is widely considered the best offensive head-coaching candidate in this hiring cycle. In Atlanta, Johnson would get a skill group almost as strong as what he has in Detroit, a group that helps make Jared Goff look good. He would inherit a defense that made huge strides under coordinator Ryan Nielsen. An offensive-minded head coach would be smart to keep Nielsen on board.
Not only is Atlanta ideal for the talent and coaching in place, but it also could be the best place to win quickly. The NFC South is wide open, and if Arthur Blank gets this hire right, it’s easy to imagine the Falcons winning the division next season.
Pros: The no. 2 pick, no Dan Snyder, and the chance to revive a team that was once America’s most valuable pro sports franchise
Con: High expectations
Washington is the best open job in the league. With Dan Snyder gone, new owner Josh Harris mostly spent the first season figuring out things like “What should we call our team?” and “Where are we going to play football?” in between meetings with God knows how many lawyers racking up billable hours helping Harris undo Snyder’s reign. Now the team can focus on winning games, and it starts with hiring a new general manager and head coach (Washington has already brought in former Golden State Warriors GM and dynasty architect Bob Myers to consult in its search).
Washington’s biggest decision after coach and GM is also the easiest: It will draft whichever QB falls to it at no. 2, whether that is USC’s Caleb Williams, a D.C. native, or Drake Maye, who replaced Sam Howell at UNC and now could replace his friend in the NFL, too.
With the potential renewed interest in the Commanders (if that’s indeed what they’ll continue to be called) in the post-Snyder era, plus the excitement of a new QB, there is a genuine mushy-gushy opportunity to build something in the nation’s capital that taps into the franchise’s rich history but also feels distinctly new.
Washington would be wise to look across the DMV to Baltimore for coaching candidates (defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald should be on Harris’s short list). But the Ravens are also a model organization for the ridiculous consistency they’ve had for nearly 30 years. Stability starts at the top, and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has had just two head coaches and two general managers since he bought the team in 2000. Harris must find the coach to help him rebuild the entire franchise, not just the football team.