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Mining for Gold: Searching for the Next NFL Head Coaches

Tracing the path of today’s successful NFL coaches can tell us who might be leading the league in the years to come.

While the Jets exhibited no lack of effort Monday night against the Dolphins, the 16-13 loss was surely one of the last games for Rex Ryan as New York’s head coach. Gang Green will be one of several teams in search of a new coach this offseason, as an off-the-cuff estimate suggests that somewhere between four and eight teams will be looking for coaches. The Dolphins could even find themselves looking for a new leader if they slip during this final month and fail to make the playoffs. So much is still up for grabs.

If the Jets (and/or Dolphins) are in the market for a coach, who should they hire? Nobody knows, but that doesn’t stop everyone from compiling the same short list of candidates every season. Take the offensive coordinator of a great quarterback (Denver’s Adam Gase, Indianapolis’s Pep Hamilton) and the defensive coordinator on a unit that seems to get the most out of spare parts (Arizona’s Todd Bowles). Mix in a former big-name coach who works in the media and who might be looking for a new gig if the price and the power are right (Jon Gruden). Add somebody who has the same last name as a successful head coach (San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano) and throw in a college coach who would only use the rumors as leverage to get a new deal (Oregon’s Mark Helfrich). You’ve got yourself a list of coaching prospects.

That’s boring, and it doesn’t give us any idea of whether those guys would be any good. Instead, let’s work backward. We have a pretty good idea of who the best coaches in the NFL are at the moment. Where were they five and 10 years ago? What did they look like as head-coaching prospects then? And who might be the present-day representation of that archetype? That may serve us well in trying to figure out whether any of these coaches are going to work out, both now and in the years to come. Let’s start with the coaching prospects of this upcoming season and move into the future.

The Coaches of 2015

Here we’ll be looking at successful NFL head coaches, identifying what they were like in the year or so immediately before they were hired, and comparing them to current candidates for head-coaching gigs who have similar backgrounds or stories. I’m not suggesting they’ll enjoy similar success or that these are the favorites for jobs.

Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
Archetype: Dominant college head coach who turned around multiple programs
Comparable: Art Briles, Baylor

Here’s a simple one. After Harbaugh retired from the NFL in 2002, he spent two seasons as Oakland’s quarterbacks coach before taking over as the head coach at the University of San Diego, where he went 29-6 in three seasons. That led him to Stanford, where Harbaugh made his mark by turning around a program that had gone 16-40 under predecessors Walt Harris and Buddy Teevens. Harbaugh took over a 1-11 team and upset mighty USC in his first season, eventually taking the Cardinal to 12-1 in his final year with the team. He finished 29-21, laid the groundwork for David Shaw and his 41-12 record with Stanford, and then immediately turned around the fortunes of the 49ers.

Briles has the most similar career track record to Harbaugh. Briles doesn’t have the famous NFL playing career, but he built his name upon a pair of successful college coaching jobs in one state — Texas. When the University of Houston hired Briles off Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech, it had gone a combined 32-79-1 during the past decade under its two previous coaches, including an 0-11 season in 2001, just two years before Briles arrived.

He took Houston to 7-6 immediately and went 34-29 in his five seasons with the school before taking over at Baylor, which hadn’t posted a bowl-eligible record in 12 years. It took Briles two 4-8 seasons to get going, but once Robert Griffin returned from a knee injury in 2010, Baylor never looked back. The once-moribund Bears have gone 54-33 under Briles’s stewardship, including a 21-3 record over the past two seasons. If you want a college coach with a history of turning rebuilding projects into prime-time programs, you’d go for Art Briles.

John Fox, Broncos
Archetype: Longtime defensive guru who wears out his welcome as a head coach, only to immediately get hired and find success elsewhere
Comparable: Rex Ryan, Jets

If anybody knows the feeling of how low Ryan must be right now, it’s Fox. After excelling as one of the league’s best defensive coordinators for the Giants, Fox took over as Panthers head coach in 2002 and enjoyed almost immediate success, as the 1-15 team he inherited was in the Super Bowl just two years later. Fox never quite reached those heights again, but he held on to his job until 2010, when a 2-14 season brought his reign in Carolina to a close.

While most expected Fox to take a year off and recharge his batteries before taking another job elsewhere, he was out of work for all of two weeks before taking over for the deposed Josh McDaniels1 in Denver. Fox has gone 43-17 since, winning three straight AFC West titles in the process. And for whatever you want to say about Peyton Manning helping Fox win those division titles, remember that he won the first with Tim Tebow as his quarterback. He’s doing something right.


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Who had been fired during the season, so technically for interim head coach Eric Studesville, but you get the idea.

And likewise, it’s not impossible to imagine the Jets finishing 2-14 and another team seeing Ryan as a very attractive head-coaching candidate in 2015. Ryan’s team is still playing hard for him even though he’s almost surely a lame duck coaching a team with nothing to play for. He’s developed a number of young defensive players into budding superstars and exhibited a steady ability to attract veterans to his organization. Just as Fox looked a lot better when he wasn’t coaching a team with Jimmy Clausen at quarterback, Ryan may look like an asset again when he’s not fielding Geno Smith under center.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers
Archetype: Talented young defensive coordinator who needs only one season to establish head coach bona fides
Comparable: Teryl Austin, Lions

Tomlin had been an NFL coach for only six years before taking over as the head coach of the Steelers, and most of that time had come as a defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay, where he won a Super Bowl in 2002. Tomlin became an NFL defensive coordinator for the first time in 2006, when he led a Vikings unit that improved from 23rd to sixth in defensive DVOA. The Steelers hired him after that lone season as coordinator.

Austin could make a similar leap. Like Tomlin, he spent the vast majority of his NFL career (nine seasons) as a defensive backs coach, winning his Super Bowl with the Ravens during the 2012 season. When Jim Caldwell left Baltimore to become Detroit’s head coach, he installed Austin as his defensive coordinator, and the Lions have been grateful for the move. Detroit has posted the league’s best defensive DVOA after ranking 14th a year ago, allowing an NFL-low 17.2 points per game under Austin. It would not be a surprise to see him become a head coach this offseason, either in the NFL or in one of the higher-profile college gigs.

Mike McCarthy, Packers
Archetype: Promising offensive mind signed as a post-hype coach
Comparable: Kyle Shanahan, Browns

The guy in charge of what might be football’s best team might have developed Aaron Rodgers into football’s most terrifying quarterback, but he was hired away from one of the worst offenses in recent league history. McCarthy spent time as the quarterbacks coach in Kansas City and Green Bay before getting his first notable gig as the offensive coordinator in New Orleans during the Aaron Brooks days.

The Saints let McCarthy’s contract expire after the 2004 season, and after flirting with several open coordinator gigs, McCarthy caught on with the 49ers, who would then draft Alex Smith with the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, passing on Rodgers in the process. In his lone year with the 49ers, McCarthy’s offense was terrible. They finished 30th in points scored and posted a league-worst minus-40.4 percent offensive DVOA. For context, the 31st-ranked Jets posted a DVOA of minus-19.8 percent and were closer to 14th place than they were to the 49ers in last. Ted Thompson saw past that, hired McCarthy, and the rest is history.

Shanahan doesn’t have quite as long of a track record as McCarthy did, but he helped bring along a competent offense in Houston before leaving to coach underneath his dad in Washington, where he struggled before building a hybrid of the Baylor offense and Shanahan’s traditional zone-run attack for Griffin during the quarterback’s stunning rookie season. Things went south last year, but Shanahan has quietly done an impressive job this year in Cleveland, given that he has spent the season with Brian Hoyer at quarterback and been without Josh Gordon for most of the campaign. He’s going to be a head coach someday.

Bill Belichick, Patriots
Archetype: Failed head coach who returned to again become the right-hand man to a Hall of Famer
Comparable: Josh McDaniels, Patriots2


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McDaniels was also the closest comp for Sean Payton, as the offensive whiz in service of a defensive Hall of Fame coach, just as Payton was for Bill Parcells in Dallas.

It’s so wrong! And then, somehow, it’s so right! I recapped the events that led to Belichick’s arrival in New England last month, and it’s easy to forget just how skeptical people were of his abilities as a head coach. While Belichick was regarded as a defensive genius during his time under Bill Parcells with the Giants, he washed out of Cleveland on bad terms and was regarded as socially inept and a fan-base killer. He quietly rebuilt his reputation under Parcells in New England and then with the Jets, eventually making his way to the Patriots via trade in 2000, where he’s … well, you know. He’s good.

McDaniels isn’t that far off. He was the offensive coordinator at the helm of one of the greatest attacks in NFL history, the 2007 Patriots, before managing to make Matt Cassel look good when Tom Brady went down with a season-ending injury in 2008. That earned the then-33-year-old McDaniels a head-coaching gig with the Broncos, where he started 6-0 before losing 17 of his next 22 games. McDaniels alienated Jay Cutler enough that the Broncos were stuck trading their franchise quarterback to the Bears, and when he couldn’t mold Kyle Orton or first-round pick Tim Tebow into an above-average starter, he was fired before the end of his second season.

After a disappointing season as St. Louis’s offensive coordinator, McDaniels returned to New England and picked up where he left off. The Patriots have ranked among the top three in points in each of McDaniels’s three seasons in his second stint with the team, even while Brady has aged and the team lost the likes of Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. Along with Belichick, McDaniels successfully maneuvered the offense through the team’s early-season offensive crisis this year, a problem that seems like ancient history by now.

No, McDaniels probably isn’t going to turn into Belichick at his next stop. But he’s still only 38 years old, and it’s impossible to imagine that he hasn’t learned from what went wrong during that brief time in Denver. He’ll be a head coach again, and if he gets a better quarterback this time around, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see McDaniels exceed expectations.

The Coaches of 2020

All right. Here’s where it gets a little confusing. Think about it this way: We’re looking for coaches who would be suitable candidates for head-coaching jobs five years from now. With that in mind, we’re going to look at some current head coaches and see what their career was like roughly five years before they were hired. Let’s run through the first example and it will make some more sense.

John Harbaugh, Ravens
Archetype: Special teams coach with a famous last name and a higher ceiling than most
Comparable: John Fassel, Rams

When the Ravens were looking for a candidate to replace Brian Billick in 2008, Harbaugh was hardly on the radar. He had spent the bulk of his previous nine seasons as the special teams coordinator under Ray Rhodes and then Andy Reid in Philadelphia, a role that virtually never transitions directly into an NFL head-coaching gig. The move has obviously paid off; Harbaugh has gone 69-39 during his time with the Ravens, winning a Super Bowl in 2012.

Harbaugh’s final season with the Eagles was 2007. Five years before that, in 2002, he was entering his fifth season as the team’s special teams coordinator, where he had helped mold David Akers into a Pro Bowler.

Thinking about somebody who fits that role right now — relatively young, several years of experience as a special teams coordinator, clear success developing talent during his time — brings Fassel to mind. St. Louis enjoys two of the best specialists in football with kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker, and the unit’s work on a series of famous fake punts speaks to Fassel’s ability to coach what can be a transient unit of players. The 40-year-old Fassel, who enters his sixth season as a special teams coordinator (having spent three years with the Raiders before moving to the Rams), stands out as the obvious pick for a special teams coordinator who could become a head coach without ever serving as an offensive or defensive coordinator.

Bruce Arians, Cardinals
Archetype: Much-maligned-yet-successful offensive coordinator who is driven out of town, only to succeed elsewhere
Comparable: Greg Roman, 49ers

Few coaches have had a more topsy-turvy ride over the past few seasons than Arians, who is a viable candidate to win his second coach of the year award. It wasn’t this way a few years ago. Even after Arians helped deliver a Super Bowl to Pittsburgh as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2008, he eventually attracted scorn from Steelers fans (and owners) who wanted the team to return to its roots as a run-first offense. Arians was forced out by the Steelers, announcing his “retirement” before taking over as Chuck Pagano’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis. When Pagano was sidelined by leukemia, Arians took over and led the Colts to the playoffs before becoming head coach of the Cardinals, with whom he’s 19-9.

Roman is one of the few coaches who can relate to Arians’s professional highs and lows. Jim Harbaugh brought Roman with him from Stanford, and the 49ers immediately turned things around while building a dominant, old-school rushing attack behind their bruising offensive line. Despite making three consecutive NFC Championship Games, Roman has received heavy criticism this year, notably related to the stagnation of starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Roman might follow Harbaugh out the door this season, and the 49ers offense might benefit from a fresh mind, but there’s no guarantee that Roman is a spare part who won’t make the team look foolish if he gets tossed aside. His stock is low, but so was Arians’s.

Pete Carroll, Seahawks
Archetype: Twice-failed NFL coach who turns around a West Coast college program and finds his third job to be the charm
Comparable: Jim L. Mora, UCLA

This is … weird. Carroll took over in Seattle after Mora, so it has a real sense of circling around on itself. But hear me out. Carroll, a legendary defensive backs coach, spent four years as defensive coordinator of the Jets in the early ’90s before taking over for Bruce Coslet as the team’s head coach. In 1994, Carroll’s Jets were 6-5 and had an 18-point lead on the Dolphins in the second half, only for the Dolphins to win with three late touchdowns, culminating with Dan Marino’s infamous fake spike on Miami’s final drive. The Jets lost their last five games and went 6-10, and Carroll was fired after just one season.

After spending two years as the defensive coordinator for the perennially contending 49ers, Carroll was hired as Patriots head coach, this time lasting three seasons before being fired. His tenure looks much better in hindsight; Carroll went 27-21 in New England, and he was the sandwiched option between a pair of Hall of Fame coaches in Parcells and Belichick. Carroll went to college, where USC hired him as its fourth or fifth option. The Trojans, 19-18 under previous coach Paul Hackett, went 97-19 under Carroll. You know what happened next: Carroll went to Seattle, built a legendary secondary, found his quarterback, and won a Super Bowl.

Mora hasn’t been as successful as Carroll at any of his stops, especially in the college ranks, but the stories share some similarities. Mora spent five years as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, helping to rebuild the team under Steve Mariucci during the lean years, before getting hired to coach the Falcons in 2004. He spent three years in Atlanta, and while the perception at the time was that he didn’t get enough out of Michael Vick, Mora did go 26-22, losing his job to a far worse hire in Bobby Petrino.

Mora then spent two years as a secondary coach in Seattle before being elevated to the head job, where he took a 4-12 team, went 5-11, and got fired by incoming general manager John Schneider after one season and was replaced by Carroll. Mora went back to college, taking over for Rick Neuheisel at a UCLA program that had won nine games or more just once in the previous 13 seasons. Mora has won nine games or more in each of his first three seasons at UCLA, and he’s now 28-11. It’s not exactly the UCLA basketball dynasty, and I have my doubts about Mora, but he’s probably a better candidate than we’re giving him credit for, just as Carroll was in 2009.

Chuck Pagano, Colts
Archetype: Defensive motivator from perennial contender
Comparable: Cory Undlin, Broncos

Another defensive backs coach! Like Tomlin, Pagano spent virtually all of his professional career as a secondary coach before being promoted to defensive coordinator in Baltimore after Greg Mattison left for Michigan. Pagano spent one season as defensive coordinator before the Colts picked him up, and after successfully beating leukemia during the 2012 season, he has been another in a long line of successful Ravens products turned head coaches.

Five years before being hired by the Colts, though, Pagano was the secondary coach in Baltimore. When looking around the league for a successful defensive backs coach with a high ceiling, Undlin stands out. Having started his NFL career with the Patriots, Undlin has gone on the sort of itinerant path that young coaches go through. Romeo Crennel brought him along to Cleveland, where he eventually became defensive backs coach. When Crennel was fired, Undlin found a home in Jacksonville, where he again became defensive backs coach. And when Jack Del Rio was fired, Undlin followed Del Rio to Denver, where he took over as secondary coach in 2013.

If Del Rio leaves to take another head-coaching gig, Undlin could very well follow him again and become defensive coordinator, or stick around in Denver and assume a bigger role in Del Rio’s absence. He could also be a secondary coach for 10 more years. Projecting coaching career paths is tough, but Undlin — or somebody like him — is capable of making the same sort of aggressive leap that Pagano made during his time in Baltimore.

The Coaches of 2025 … and Beyond

OK, here’s where the projecting gets a little extreme. It’s useful, though, to see just how far one particular coach has come in 10 years.

Chip Kelly, Eagles
Archetype: The small-school genius
Comparable: Brandon Streeter, Richmond

Ten years before the Eagles hired Kelly, he wasn’t even somebody who would get a callback for a head-coaching job at most colleges, let alone at the professional level. He was the offensive coordinator at the University of New Hampshire, and while he would use UNH as a lab for his ideas, it wasn’t as if Kelly consistently dominated the competition. His offense was scoring points, but UNH went 12-22 from 2001 to 2003. My mighty Northeastern Huskies, who no longer even have a football team, held Kelly’s offense to a combined 28 points in a pair of blowout defeats. He was a small-school offensive coordinator with some cool ideas.

And then things broke in 2004. UNH went 10-3, beginning a stretch of nine straight playoff appearances. Kelly’s offense, which had averaged just 18.1 points per game in 2002, made it all the way up to 34.7 points per regular-season game and never fell back to earth. He stayed with New Hampshire through 2006 before taking over as Oregon’s offensive coordinator, eventually becoming the head coach in 2009 before joining the Eagles in 2013. In 10 years, Kelly went from relatively anonymous college offensive coordinator to arguably one of the best — or at the very least, the most interesting — coaches in football.

So, why not try to pick another coordinator from UNH’s conference as the Chip Kelly of the future? In three years at Richmond, Streeter’s offense has ranked among the best in the Colonial Athletic Association, finishing third in points scored in both 2012 and 2014, while setting school records in just about every passing category. OK, so maybe I’m reading from Streeter’s biography on the Richmond website. I don’t know a ton about Streeter beyond the fact that he was once the starting quarterback at Clemson in the late ’90s.

But that’s the exciting thing — there’s another Kelly out there somewhere, tinkering with ideas, trying to get the most out of the limited resources available to him. Maybe it’s Streeter. Maybe it’s not. Chances are that there’s one coach who is going to revolutionize the NFL and push it forward into a new era, even if he won’t be showing up for 15 years or so. And we don’t even know his name. Nobody in 1996 could have imagined a league where the guy who got tossed aside by the Browns and the running backs coach at UNH would be the most interesting coaches in the NFL.

In looking through these coaching archetypes, one thing became very clear: Change happens way quicker than we realize.