Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank came out and voiced his support for Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Falcons head coach Mike Smith after the team's 41-28 loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Even before Blank's comments, I maintained that I expected both Smith and Dimitroff would to be back in 2014, and I still take Blank at his word now.
Nevertheless, we still have the luxury of being able to speculate for the purpose of generating discussion in this business.
In that spirit, I decided to put together a list of a few candidates whose names I think could come up in connection with a Falcons coaching vacancy should Blank change his mind about replacing Smith after this season.
I've broken up the candidates into three groups: former NFL head coaches who are presently out of coaching, current NFL assistant coaches and college football head coaches.
In this piece, I'll briefly discuss each candidate's pros and cons, as they relate to Atlanta's head job, before opening the floor for discussion.
Former NFL Head Coaches:
Career Record: 95-81 with Raiders and Buccaneers
Gruden probably has the most box-office appeal of any candidate on this list, given the exposure he gets weekly on ESPN's Monday Night Football.
If Blank does decide to fire Mike Smith after one losing season, bringing in a popular name-brand personality like Gruden would go long away towards reinvigorating a weary Atlanta fanbase that craves national media attention.
Beyond that, it's not often that you have the opportunity to hire a coach who won a Super Bowl, coached in your division and knows some of the division's key players well.
While it's true that he knows the NFC South from his time with the Bucs, it should be noted that Gruden last coached during the 2008 season. Tampa Bay is under its second coach since Gruden left, the Panthers aren't led by John Fox and Jake Delhomme anymore and Jimmy Graham was playing basketball at Miami the last time Gruden coached an NFL game.
Also, as Mark Bradley of The Atlanta-Journal Constitution noted, Gruden apparently didn't have the best relationship with Falcons president Rich McKay when they were together in Tampa.
Career Record: 149-90-1 with Steelers
Like Gruden, Cowher would bring a Super Bowl ring and instant box-office credibility to the Falcons locker room and the team's fanbase. His fiery attitude could foster the kind of physical, smash-mouth identity that this team may need to get back to if it wants to start beating teams like New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle and Carolina again.
Cowher hasn't coached in the league since 2006, when Jim Mora, Jr. was coaching the Falcons. When Cowher spoke with Ed Bouchette of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a month ago about the possibility of coaching again, he didn't sound like he's in a big hurry to get back on the sideline.
Career Record: 81-63 with Bears
You could be fairly certain that Smith would get Atlanta's defense playing at a high level, given the caliber of defenses that he established in Chicago as a head coach and previously in St. Louis as defensive coordinator with the Rams. After all, this is a coach who took a Rex Grossman-led team to the Super Bowl.
Moreover, Smith employs a 4-3 defensive scheme that the Falcons already are suited for with their personnel, although they'd need to find out if Paul Worrilow is the answer at middle linebacker and add better pass-rushers up front.
Unlike Gruden and Cowher, Smith sounds like he's eager to get another head coaching opportunity in the NFL.
Atlanta's offense is in need of an identity and Smith was never able to establish one for his offense in Chicago. Is his defensive prowess enough to merit firing a coach with Smith's career record?
NFL Assistant Coaches:
Ray Horton, Defensive Coordinator, Browns
Horton has been the architect of two of the league's most underappreciated defenses over the last two seasons—with Cleveland this year and with Arizona in 2012. His Cleveland defense ranks fourth in the league against the pass and eighth against the run.
Horton is a Dick LeBeau disciple who runs a 3-4 defense. The Falcons actually have some decent "5" technique defensive end candidates (Malliciah Goodman, Jonathan Babineaux/Corey Peters if they're re-signed), but they'd need a stud at nose tackle and a knockout hybrid pass-rusher at outside linebacker to play opposite Kroy Biermann if he's able to return to form. Would Sean Weatherspoon be best here or playing inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme?
Also, what kind of offensive staff would Horton be able to assemble? As good as his defense may be, you've got to score points if you're going to compete against the Saints twice a year.
Mike Zimmer, Defensive Coordinator, Bengals
Zimmer is probably past due for a head coaching job after the work he has done in Cincinnati. His defenses have ranked in the top 15 in total yards allowed every season since he became the Bengals defensive coordinator in 2008, and he won the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year award from CBS Sports and from Pro Football Weekly in 2009.
He's also done a great job of helping to develop players like Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and Vontaze Burfict, who weren't first- or second-round draft picks.
Zimmer wouldn't be the sexy hire that many Falcons fans would want to see come in if the Falcons fire Smith. Zimmer never seemed to get serious consideration for the Falcons coaching vacancy after he served as defensive coordinator under ex-Falcons coach Bobby Petrino. in 2007.
Rob Ryan, Defensive Coordinator, Saints
Ryan has completely turned around a Saints defense that finished last in the league in 2012. He's known for scheming defenses that get pressure and create turnovers, and those are two things the Falcons haven't done very well this year.
In addition, Ryan's personality and coaching pedigree may help add some flavor to a Falcons team that seems to have lost what little swagger it had.
Is Ryan too rough around the edges for Blank? Like Horton, Ryan would need to put together a strong offensive staff to help get Atlanta's offense back on track.
Pep Hamilton, Offensive Coordinator, Colts
Hamilton gained notoriety helping to develop Andrew Luck's game at Stanford, but he was an NFL assistant with the Bears (quarterbacks coach), 49ers (offensive assistant/quarterbacks) and Jets (offensive assistant/quarterbacks) before that.
At 39, Hamilton is an up and coming candidate in the NFL coaching ranks who already has the Colts offense among the top 10 in the league in points scored.
Hamilton is only in his first season as offensive coordinator in the NFL, so he may need another season of calling plays at the NFL level before he's ready to be a head coach. If the Falcons bring in a new coach to replace Smith, he'll be expected to win immediately.
Jay Gruden, Offensive Coordinator, Bengals
Gruden has taken the Bengals offense to new heights since he joined the team as offensive coordinator in 2011. He has helped quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green become one of the league's top quarterback-receiver tandems, and he's done a nice job of mixing in different personnel groups this year to create mismatches and keep defenses from taking Green out of games.
Gruden was a popular candidate on the interview circuit last offseason.
Gruden has done a nice job with Cincy's offense, but he's been dealing mostly with young players who have grown up in his system. Would he have as much success with an experienced Falcons skill-position group?
Nick Saban, Alabama
Atlanta has always been the de facto capital of SEC football country, and Saban is President Obama of the SEC. Arthur Blank wouldn't have to worry about selling tickets with Saban because, if nothing else, Saban would put butts in the seats.
On the field, Saban knows his defense well and will be in a better position to succeed in his second stint as an NFL head coach because Atlanta's quarterback situation is a lot better than the one he had when he went 15-17 during his time with the Dolphins from 2005-06.
Saban left the NFL for the college job that he has now, and there's little to suggest that he wouldn't do the same thing again if things in Atlanta went sour—although I doubt Saban would leave before the season ended like ex-Falcons' coach Bobby Petrino did. It's highly unlikely that Blank would want to risk having something like that happen again, regardless of whatever breach of contract language McKay would probably put in Saban's contract.
Saban would probably also seek significant control over personnel matters as a perk for leaving what's arguably the best college football job in the country.
David Shaw, Stanford
Stanford hasn't missed a beat since Shaw took over as head coach after Harbaugh left following the 2010 season, and his run-based offensive scheme seems to mesh well with the Falcons' DNA (see the '98, '02, '04, '08 and '10 Falcons squads).
Shaw appears to have the demeanor and pedigree—his father was an NFL assistant coach—that would translate well from the college game to the pro game.
Like Saban, Shaw has a comfortable gig now and it would probably take a significant package to entice him to leave Stanford for the NFL. Moreover, Shaw has strong ties to the West Coast, so if he did leave Palo Alto, he may prefer taking an NFL job that wouldn't require him to move cross-country.
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Sumlin's offenses have been lights out at Houston and Texas A&M. If Johnny Manziel comes out for the draft in April, he'll follow Texans quarterback Case Keenum (undrafted in 2013) as the second Sumlin pupil to enter the NFL in as many years.
Back in September, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com reported that Sumlin's name came up twice when he asked five NFL executives which college coaches would make the best NFL head coaches.
Though he may possess a lot of the intangibles that successful NFL coaches have, Sumlin has never coached in the league. He's just two seasons into the best college gig he's had, and he could be in position for another top-flight college job. Would he really want to risk all of that to take a shot at being an NFL coach right now?
That's a sample of the landscape that Blank could be looking at if he decided to move on from the Smith regime this offseason. Do you still want Smith gone? What candidates would you add to this list and who would be your pick? The phone lines are yours.
All stats and rankings courtesy of ESPN.com. All historical references courtesy of Pro-football-reference.com.
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