Best Available NFL Head Coaching Candidates

Chris Trapasso@ChrisTrapassoAnalyst IDecember 30, 2013

Best Available NFL Head Coaching Candidates

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    Black Monday in the NFL is perpetually merciless, and it's already claimed a handful of head coaches. 

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings joined the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans in the search for a new head coach Monday.

    A few others may avoid being canned the day after the conclusion of the 2013 regular season, but could be shown the door later this week. 

    As we head into the 2014 offseason with a half dozen (and counting) head-coaching job openings, here's a look at the best replacement candidates. 

Lovie Smith, Unemployed

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    Smith compiled an 81-63 regular-season record over nine seasons in Chicago with the Bears before being fired following the 2012 campaign in which he went 10-6 but missed the playoffs. 

    The defensive-minded leader has a calm sideline demeanor and a schematic background deeply rooted in the 4-3 "Tampa 2" defense.

    When Smith took over in 2004, the Bears went 5-11. After that, they won at least seven games each season and finished at or under .500 just three times. 

    In 2006, Chicago went 13-3 and advanced to the Super Bowl, a game in which they lost to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. 

    Only twice in Smith's nine-year stint with the Bears did his team finish outside the top 10 in points allowed per drive according to Football Outsiders

    Best fit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted the following about Smith returning to the Buccaneers—he coached the linebackers in Tampa Bay from 1996 to 2000:

    Bucs will give consideration to reaching back to past, bringing back a Rich McKay-Lovie Smith tag team.

    With Gerald McCoy an elite pass-rushing defensive tackle and Lavonte David a premier 4-3 outside linebacker, the personnel stars fit Smith's scheme. 

Ray Horton, Cleveland Browns Defensive Coordinator

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    Ray Horton has experienced a rapid rise up the NFL coaching ranks, and his ascension has been due to the aggressive 3-4 defense he implements. 

    The soon-to-be 54-year-old was the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary coach from 2004 to 2010 before spending two seasons as the Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator.

    In 2011, the Cardinals finished 11th in points allowed per drive according to Football Outsiders and finished with 42 sacks, the seventh-most in the league.  

    The year before Horton arrived, Arizona surrendered the 27th-most points per drive and had only 33 sacks. 

    During the 2012 campaign, the Cardinals allowed the fourth-fewest yards per drive and had 38 quarterback takedowns. 

    When the Cardinals axed head coach Ken Whisenhunt, Horton needed a job, and was hired by the Cleveland Browns to be the defensive coordinator. 

    In 2013, Horton's defense in Cleveland finished 21st in points per drive but allowed the 10th-fewest yards per drive and ended the year with a respectable 40 sacks. 

    For a team looking to run a blitz-happy 3-4 alignment, Horton would be a fine candidate.

    Best Fit: Cleveland Browns

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller hinted that the Cleveland Browns have to consider Horton for the job considering the support he has from the players in Cleveland. 

Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Coordinator

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    Another fiery defensive mind, Mike Zimmer has been a hot head-coaching candidate for a few years now. 

    He's been the leader of the Cincinnati Bengals defense since 2008, a unit that's slowly transformed into one of the best in the league under his tutelage. 

    In each of the last three seasons, Zimmer's defense has finished in the top 10 in points allowed per drive according to Football Outsiders.

    During that span, the Bengals have averaged 46.3 sacks per year.

    Zimmer runs a 4-3 defense, but he hasn't been known to pigeonhole players into a specific alignment on every snap every game. 

    Best Fit: Cleveland Browns

    Though Zimmer hasn't been necessarily linked to one specific opening, it's logical to think that he'd been a fine replacement for a team with a strong defense, and he did interview with the Browns last year

Darrell Bevell, Seattle Seahawks Offensive Coordinator

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    After a five-year stint in Minnesota as the Vikings offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell has blossomed into one of football's brightest young offensive minds in Seattle with the Seahawks over the past three years.

    The quarterbacking acumen of Russell Wilson has undoubtedly helped Bevell's emergence, but the soon-to-be 44-year-old has allowed the second-year signal-caller to quickly acclimate to the NFL game. 

    Per Football Outsiders, only eight teams scored more points per drive than the Seahawks in 2013, and Seattle finished with a yards-per-carry average of at least 4.0 in each of Bevell's three years as offensive coordinator. 

    When it comes to a team looking for a head coach who can develop young quarterbacks, Bevell very well be the top candidate. 

    Best Fits: Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins

    Bevell could reunite with his former team—CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora reported that the Minnesota Vikings have asked to interview the Seahawks offensive coordinator—and draft his quarterback in the first round in 2014. Also, after his work with Wilson, a move to Washington D.C. to aid Robert Griffin III's development makes sense.   

Dan Quinn, Seattle Seahawks Defensive Coordinator

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    Dan Quinn took over as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator when Gus Bradley left to become the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2013, and he hasn't disappointed. 

    Quinn inherited a supremely talented collection of players, but the Seahawks didn't regress defensively this season.

    They allowed only 14.4 points per game, the lowest average in the NFL and forced 39 turnovers, the most in football.

    Quinn runs Bradley's established, 4-3 system and has professional coaching experience.

    He's been a defensive line coach with the San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets in the last decade.  

    Best Fits: Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings 

    According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Browns have already contacted the Seahawks to ask permission to interview Quinn. 

    And Jason LaCanfora tweeted on Monday evening that the Vikings have asked to interview Quinn as well. 

Greg Roman, San Francisco 49ers Offensive Coordinator

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    Greg Roman might be the most sought-after offensive mind in the NFL today. 

    While his offense in San Francisco is rooted in a traditional, power-running style, he's demonstrated a willingness to incorporate "new-age" NFL alignments, formations and plays with the versatile Colin Kaepernick under center. 

    In 2013, the 49ers offense was hurt by Michael Crabtree's injury absence and the free-agency departure of multi-faceted tight end Delanie Walker. 

    However, it still finished 12th in points per drive according to Football Outsiders and averaged an admirable 4.4 yards per carry. 

    Roman spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford as the team's offensive coordinator before following Harbaugh to take the same position in San Francisco with the 49ers. 

    He's a progressive offensive specialist who prides himself on old-school football but isn't afraid to sprinkle in some exotic looks. 

    Best Fits: Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins

    NFL Media's Twitter account tweeted the following regarding a possible Roman landing spot: 

    From Mike Silver: If Lions do make change, they're going to want offense. 49ers OC Greg Roman "would be very, very interested in this job."

    Based on the amount of read-option plays and pistol formations he's utilized in San Francisco, taking over the Robert Griffin III-led Redskins could be another interesting option for Roman. 

Pete Carmichael, New Orleans Saints Offensive Coordinator

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    Pete Carmichael's been Sean Payton's right-hand man in New Orleans since the start of the 2009 season. 

    He took over as the Saints offensive coordinator that year after two years as the team's quarterbacks and passing game coach. 

    The Saints prolific offensive output is well-documented, and if anyone knows New Orleans' aerial-based attack as well as Payton and Drew Brees, it's Carmichael. 

    It's safe to assume the 42-year-old, after five years as the Saints offensive coordinator, is ready to take over a team as the head coach. 

    Best Fits: Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings

    Carmichael hasn't been linked to any head-coach openings yet, but teams looking for a jolt of offensive firepower would likely be interested in him. 

    The Cleveland Browns are a quarterback away from being a legitimate contender, and the Detroit Lions already have the premier skill-position weapons on offense that would allow Carmichael to make a smooth transition. 

David Cutcliffe, Duke Head Coach

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    David Cutcliffe's one of the more interesting NFL head-coaching candidates as we enter the 2014 offseason. 

    He's been Duke's head coach since 2008, though he's most famous for being Peyton Manning's quarterback coach at Tennessee and Eli Manning's head coach at Ole Miss. 

    Then again, the job Cutcliffe's done at Duke, a perennially bottom-feeding program in the ACC, has been remarkable.

    After toiling in mediocrity from 2008 to 2011, the Blue Devils went 6-7 in 2012 and an incredible 10-3 this season with wins over Virginia Tech, North Carolina State and Miami en route to an appearance in the ACC title game.


    Best Fits: Washington Redskins, Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    With NFL teams understanding how vital quarterback development is, Cutcliffe may be on the radar for many organizations.  

    The Redskins need to find the perfect coach to aid Robert Griffin III's maturation, and the other four teams listed above will either have to draft their future franchise quarterback or have a young signal-caller currently at the helm. 

Art Briles, Baylor Head Coach

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    Art Briles has fielded high-powered, ridiculously high-scoring teams during his stint at Baylor.

    He coached Robert Griffin III to the school's first Heisman Trophy, but the offense didn't experience much of a drop-off when the gifted quarterback made the jump to the NFL in 2012. 

    Last season, Nick Florence threw for 33 touchdowns and an NCAA-best 4,309 yards. The Bears went just 8-5, but beat UCLA in the Holiday Bowl. 

    In 2013, Bryce Petty emerged as one of the nation's top quarterbacks in Briles' wide-open attack. The team has gone 11-1 and find themselves in a BCS bowl game vs. UCF. The Bears have averaged an almost unfathomable 53.2 points per game. 

    While many NFL teams would likely love to have Briles calling the shots on their sideline—especially the Washington Redskins—he was signed to a 10-year extension this season, a deal that reportedly includes a buyout around $5 million, per Chip Brown of

    Best Fit: Washington Redskins

    ESPN's John Clayton (via Rotoworld) believes Briles is atop a list of "main candidates" for the Redskins job opening due to the obvious RG3 connection. 

David Shaw, Stanford Head Coach

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    David Shaw and Briles are similar in many ways. 

    Both have rightfully become hot names at the NFL level due to the annually consistent play of their college teams. 

    And both have agreed to "long-term" extensions over the past two years. 

    Shaw was re-upped by Stanford in December of 2012, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The terms of the extension were not disclosed.

    Since taking over for Jim Harbaugh as the Cardinal head coach in 2011, Shaw has accumulated 34 wins and only six losses. He's also led his team to BCS bowls in each of his three seasons. The Cardinal will face the Michigan State Spartans in this year's Rose Bowl.

    With an offensive background, Shaw's teams have proven to be blue-collar, and his smash-mouth style has been extremely successful in the Pac-12 conference. 

    Best Fits: Houston Texans, Detroit Lions

    Because of the balanced offenses and strong defenses he's fielded at Stanford, Shaw would, in theory, be a fine fit anywhere.

    Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports reported that the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins wanted the Stanford head coach. 

    However, according to the Los Angeles Times, Shaw reiterated that he doesn't want to move on to the NFL, saying, "I have no desires to pursue another job."

Bill O'Brien, Penn State Head Coach

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    After calling the offensive plays in New England with the Patriots from 2009 to 2011 with tremendous success, Bill O'Brien was one of the hottest head-coaching candidates in football. 

    He took the Penn State gig in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and has done a fine job over the past two seasons.

    In 2012, the Nittany Lions went 8-4 and averaged 29 points per game despite dealing with NCAA sanctions that limited their total scholarships. This season under similar circumstances, O'Brien's team averaged just shy of 29 points per outing but went 7-5.

    Because of the years he spent learning from Bill Belichick and the steadying influence he's had at Penn State, O'Brien will be looked at by many NFL franchises. 

    However, he does have a $6.5 million buyout built into his contract. 

    Best Fit: Houston Texans

    Despite his buyout, it sounds like he'll become the next head coach of the Texans. 

    This, from John McClain of the Houston Chronicle on December 30:

    Teams who fired coaches might be checking on Bill O'Brien and find out he's closing in on a new job in Houston.


Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M Head Coach

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    Kevin Sumlin, another collegiate head coach who's had vast success, especially on offense, will get plenty of interest from NFL teams this offseason. 

    As the head coach of the Houston Cougars, Sumlin's teams were annually electric through the air and rarely, if ever, struggled to put points on the board. 

    He was hired by Texas A&M in 2012, the program's first year in the SEC.

    With redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel under center, the Aggies went 11-2 which included a win over No. 1 ranked Alabama and a destruction of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Under Sumlin's leadership, Manziel skyrocketed from a relative unknown to a Heisman Trophy winner.

    This year, Texas A&M went 8-4 prior to their bowl game and averaged 43.6 points per game.

    Sumlin's resume speaks for itself, but he signed a six-year contract extension this season, a deal that expires after the 2019 campaign. 

    Best Fits: Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins

    There haven't been any reports of Sumlin being contacted by NFL teams thus far, but with the added emphasis on the passing game today, he would be a great fit with talented quarterbacks Matthew Stafford in Detroit or Robert Griffin III in Washington. 

Ken Whisenhunt, San Diego Chargers Offensive Coordinator

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    Ken Whisenhunt was fired in 2012 after a disappointing end to a once extremely successful tenure in Arizona with the Cardinals, but he's had a tremendous 2013 campaign as the San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator. 

    Quarterback Philip Rivers has had a career resurgence this season—he led the league with a completion percentage of 69.5 and his 32:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio was his best since 2008. 

    Before the signal-caller situation took a turn for the worse in Arizona, Whisenhunt worked wonders with Kurt Warner in the twilight of his career and was the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator at the start of Ben Roethlisberger's career. 

    Best Fit: Detroit Lions

    Tim Twentyman of made mention of Whisenhunt being a perfect offensive-minded head coach for the Lions to hire after the team parted ways with the defensive-minded Jim Schwartz. He responded to a question on Twitter about Detroit's job opening: "The first guy I would call is Ken Whisenhunt."