Which Assistant Coaches Are Next in Line for Head Coaching Roles?
Since the end of the 2010 season, 31 NFL head coaches have been fired for their inability to deliver a winning product to their respective franchises, leaving the door open for upcoming coordinators and former head coaches to get one of the most prestigious jobs in all of professional sports.
With an average of nearly five new head coaching jobs opening up per year, the competition is fierce for aspiring coordinators and positional coaches, so only the cream of the crop get considered in most situations.
As the 2014 season rapidly approaches, let’s take a look at the assistant coaches in the NFL who will be considered for head coaching positions after this year, if all goes well during the season.
To qualify for this list, the assistant must currently be in a coordinator position and have a significant claim as to why they deserve to be interviewed by an owner. Although the trend has been to hire first-time head coaches in the last five years, an average of one former head coach has been hired, so I included the top candidate from that pool as well.
In order from most to least likely, let’s take a look at the assistant coaches who are next in line for a head coaching role.
All statistics are courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.
Adam Gase, Offensive Coordinator, Denver Broncos
- Detroit Lions (2007; quarterbacks coach)
- San Francisco 49ers (2008; offensive assistant)
- Denver Broncos (2011-2012; quarterbacks coach)
- Denver Broncos (2013-present; offensive coordinator)
At just 36 years old, Adam Gase is considered to be the hottest coordinator in the NFL. The second-year offensive coordinator has been able to work under Nick Saban, Mike Martz and now alongside quarterback Peyton Manning.
Speaking of Peyton Manning, he might be the biggest fan of Gase after he gushed to Monday Morning Quarterback's Peter King: "I really like Gase. ... I like playing for guys that are smarter than me and work as hard as me. Gase is there before I get there in the morning.''
In his first season with the Broncos, his offense performed at a historic rate, setting NFL single-season records for points (606) and total touchdowns (76), with Manning breaking the league mark for both passing touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477).
If you believe that Manning is the only reason for that production, you might need to check to see how Gase worked with former Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow in 2011. Along with former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, Gase transformed the offense to fit Tebow, while the Jets and Patriots couldn’t find a suitable role for the former Heisman winner.
Working with Peyton Manning, Gase hasn’t had to scheme a game plan that overcomes average talent. It’s highly unlikely he will take over a team and inherit such a historically great quarterback, as he’s more likely to be developing a rookie of his choice. As much as Manning backs Gase, it’s difficult for some to realize that success isn’t a one-person operation in the NFL.
Being just 36, there are still some players in the league older than Gase, or close to being his age. Owners have a tendency to go with candidates who are a few years older than their mid-30s in order to give them more of an opportunity to learn and be fully prepared for the job.
Gase had an opportunity to interview with the Cleveland Browns last season but turned it down because he wanted to continue in his role with Denver. He may not feel he’s ready to get out from under the shadow of Manning right now, but after 2014, he will be the top coaching candidate from the assistant ranks if Denver can replicate their success in 2013.
Biographical information is courtesy of DenverBroncos.com
Greg Roman, Offensive Coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
- Carolina Panthers (1995–2001; OL assistant)
- Houston Texans (2002-2005; tight ends/quarterbacks coach)
- Baltimore Ravens (2006-2007; OL assistant)
- Stanford (2009-2010; offensive coordinator)
- San Francisco 49ers (2011-present; offensive coordinator)
The soon-to-be 42-year-old offensive coordinator of the 49ers has been part of one of the most successful NFL franchises in the last few seasons, so naturally he deserves consideration for a promotion.
After rescuing the career of Alex Smith and developing quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Roman has proven that he knows a little something about building a winning formula at the position. That formula has been conservative by many measurements, including a passing-play percentage of 45.23, per Sporting Charts.com, which is 31st in the league ahead of only the Seahawks.
Obviously, passing-play percentage might not be a bad indicator of success with numbers like that. By building a power offense behind a tremendous offensive line, star running back Frank Gore and the aforementioned signal-callers have a much easier time finding space for big plays downfield.
According to Roman, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle (h/t Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk), they want to open it up even more this season:
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said that it is Kaepernick’s second full year as a starter and the quarterback is “seeing things now that he didn’t see before.” Roman also pointed out the new receivers on the roster and, as a result of those developments, Roman hinted that there may be more balls in the air when the 49ers take the field this season.
“We kind of went through everything we’ve done and really kind of stripped it back down to its most element basic parts and [started] over at square one. I would say, I think it’s fair to make the statement that it’s a different offense, 2014,” Roman said, via the San Francisco Chronicle. “Because we’ve got some new guys in, Brandon Lloyd has been out there everyday. He’s done a great job of taking advantage of his opportunities. Stevie Johnson’s another guy. So, we’ll see how it all goes.”
By passing more, this offense could be as elite as the defense, which could mean Roman will be the next star assistant to turn into a head coach elsewhere. We know that he’s interested, as he interviewed last season with Penn State and the Vikings, so the aspiration to control a franchise is there. It’s likely a matter of time for the 49ers coordinator.
As Dylan DeSimone of Bleacher Report addressed last fall, Roman’s play-calling is an area of concern:
Situational football has been one of Roman's most consistent inconsistencies. This happened the week before against Carolina as well, where on 3rd-and-longs, the Niners had quick passes that went no further than the line of scrimmage. The plays are either aggressive and not smart or too careful and non-aggressive.
Often times, offensive coordinators get heat for play-calling from fans, but in reality, the call was fine, though the execution was off by the players on the field.
However, there are many analysts familiar with the 49ers structure who see Roman and Harbaugh as major issues:
Why are 49ers are struggling to beat the play-clock? Probably factors building on themselves--QB unsure, OC + HC frantically adjusting...—Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) November 19, 2013
Without a doubt, entering his fourth season with the 49ers, Roman has to improve during in-game situations. His clock management, red zone play-calling and inability to utilize players such as LaMichael James are major concerns:
49ers' worst play call of the game: First down, 2:06 left, tie game. Run the ball. Clock is going to stop at 2-min warning. Instead, sack.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) November 18, 2013
It’s hard to be sure who to blame in San Francisco for the 49ers' issues. Roman isn’t the guy in charge of the offense, as Harbaugh has final say on all things. With the team being primed for another deep run in the playoffs, it is very likely Roman will be under the microscope again in 2014. If he can correct some of the issues that have plagued the team in the past few years, he will be a hot commodity.
All biographical information is courtesy of 49ers.com.
Jack Del Rio, Defensive Coordinator, Denver Broncos
- New Orleans Saints (1997–1998; strength and conditioning coach)
- Baltimore Ravens (1999–2001; linebackers coach)
- Carolina Panthers (2002; defensive coordinator)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (2003–2011; head coach)
- Denver Broncos (2012–present; defensive coordinator)
The only assistant with prior head coach experience on this list, Del Rio went 69-72 in nine seasons in Jacksonville. The 11-year career Del Rio had as a player certainly gave him the necessary skills to become a strong schemer and motivator, as he was also successful at building a respectable defense when he was the head coach of the Jaguars.
In his second season as the Broncos defensive coordinator, Del Rio led his unit to the No. 2 overall defensive ranking in the NFL, despite having an average group on paper. Under his watch, young players such as linebackers Danny Trevathan (129 tackles) and Wesley Woodyard, cornerback Chris Harris and safety Rahim Moore have become solid players. Not to mention, veterans Shaun Phillips, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Terrance Knighton have all resurrected their careers in Denver.
Expect 2014 to be even better, as the team added safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby.
With a much-needed injection of youth and talent in the defense, Del Rio should expect to see an even better performance out of his defense this season.
Del Rio was unable to produce an adequate offense while with the Jaguars, and with the importance of developing a franchise quarterback as high as ever, giving him another chance over a more proven quarterback guru could be a waste of multiple years.
Wes Stueve of Bleacher Report noted, “Like many failed head coaches, Del Rio is much better off as an assistant. He lasted nine years as Jacksonville's head coach, but he was never particularly successful there.”
Whether that opinion is true or not, Del Rio has a lot of history that will weigh him down in the interview process. Everyone knows he can coach defense, but that’s not what is most important to victories in an era where passing statistics are at an all-time high.
Every open head coaching position is fluid and unique, so we cannot just write Del Rio’s chances off. After all, who expected Jim Caldwell to ever get another head coaching job?
For a conservative owner who believes he can put together a solid offensive staff and draft a budding star at quarterback, there are much worse options than Jack. As the Broncos continue to win, more interviews will come for Del Rio.
Biographical information is courtesy of DenverBroncos.com.
Todd Bowles, Defensive Coordinator, Arizona Cardinals
- New York Jets (2000); defensive backs coach)
- Cleveland Browns (2001–2003; defensive nickel package coach)
- Cleveland Browns (2004; secondary coach)
- Dallas Cowboys (2005–2007; secondary coach)
- Miami Dolphins (2008–2011; assistant head coach/secondary coach)
- Miami Dolphins (2011; interim head coach/secondary coach)
- Philadelphia Eagles (2012; defensive backs coach)
- Philadelphia Eagles (2012; defensive Coordinator)
The 50-year-old defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals is known for his tremendously creative defensive scheme, but Greg Cosell from NFL Films (h/t to Doug Farrar of SI.com) noted that there’s more to Bowles:
What Bowles does up front is as multiple and aggressive as you’ll see from any NFL team — but somehow, the Cardinals are also able to keep things solid at the linebacker and secondary levels. As Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN’s NFL Matchup told me this week, it’s because Bowles has perfectly married scheme and personnel.
Being able to match personnel and scheme is critical to success in the NFL, not just on defense. The team must be in harmony to achieve success on Sunday. Besides a brief stint in Philadelphia, which was unsuccessful due to a terrible secondary that couldn’t cover the most pedestrian receivers, Bowles has been effective in every role he’s been in since 2008, sans 2012.
In his first season with the Cardinals, he oversaw the top rushing defense in the league and sixth-best defense overall. His defense produced the sixth-most sacks in the league (47) and sixth-most forced turnovers (30).
Those are championship-caliber accomplishments.
It could be difficult to ignore the series of events that happened in Philadelphia as Andy Reid’s tenure came to an end, but Bowles shouldn’t be to blame for Juan Castillo’s inability to coach the defense. Nevertheless, if the Cardinals regress in 2014, people will wonder if 2013 was an aberration.
Being a defensive coach, he might already be at a disadvantage for a position, as owners are trending toward hiring the younger, offensive-minded coaches. Also, Bowles has little experience coaching other positions than the secondary and defense. He’ll need strong connections to offensive coaches to sell himself as a quality head coaching candidate.
Vikings told Todd Bowles if they didn't hire Zimmer, he was their guy.— Josh Weinfuss (@joshweinfuss) January 15, 2014
Earlier this offseason, Bowles was nearly hired by the Minnesota Vikings for their head coaching position and was a candidate for the Cleveland Browns as well.
With his defensed poised to be dominant once again, expect Bowles to earn another opportunity to be in the final group of candidates for a head coaching job next season.
Biographical information is courtesy of azcardinals.com.
Bill Lazor, Offensive Coordinator, Miami Dolphins
- Atlanta Falcons (2003 ; assistant)
- Washington Redskins (2004-2007; quarterbacks coach)
- Seattle Seahawks (2008-2009; quarterbacks coach)
- Virginia (2010-2012; offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach)
- Philadelphia Eagles (2013; quarterbacks coach)
- Miami Dolphins (2014-present; offensive coordinator)
After working with Eagles offensive guru Chip Kelly in 2013, Bill Lazor joins the Miami Dolphins as offensive coordinator, and third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill already can tell he’s different than coaches he’s had before, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:
Tannehill, on new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor: “He’s very precise. He wants everything exactly like he talked about. That gives me comfort. ... That accountability is raised.”
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles had a breakout season in 2013 under the tutelage of Lazor, as his decision-making greatly improved and he began to read and understand defenses much more efficiently than he did in 2012. The ability to develop quarterbacks should be a top priority for owners, and with Foles playing very well under Lazor, he has the chance to be known for his development of young QBs.
He’s also borrowing concepts from the Eagles coach, who is known for the speed and tempo that he incorporates into his offense, per Jackson.
"It's reminiscent of Chip Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia, with the tempo and style," according to one unnamed Dolphins player, via the Herald. "There are some West Coast offense concepts. Some shotgun, some under center. They've discussed having both no huddle and huddle. It's fast tempo."
Tannehill isn’t the only one excited about the new-look offense, though. Lazor has been using star wide receivers all over the field, including out of the backfield to create mismatches.
Why is Mike Wallace excited about Miami's new offense? He told me he caught a TD out of backfield last week. Plays wide, in slot, backfield.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) June 9, 2014
If the Dolphins prove to be explosive on offense this season and Tannehill takes the next step to becoming a top-10 quarterback, Lazor will be getting plenty of looks from owners that want a high-scoring offense.
Only two seasons removed from being the offensive coordinator at the University of Virginia, Lazor doesn’t have the pedigree of other coaches on this list. It is also unknown how much knowledge of the spread he has, as he mostly used pro-style offenses at UVA.
At times, the unknown creates intrigue, so when the lights are on this fall, the Dolphins offense better be ready to roll if Lazor wants to continue climbing the coaching ladder.
With only two seasons in the NFL in the last five of his career, Lazor is a bit unknown at this point, but he’s in a position to help the Dolphins make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and establish the ability to develop quarterbacks. With a successful year in 2014, don’t be surprised to see Lazor on shortlists for teams desperate to find an effective offensive identity.
Biographical information is courtesy of MiamiDolphins.com.
Ray Horton, Defensive Coordinator, Tennessee Titans
- Washington Redskins (1994–1996; assistant defensive backs coach)
- Cincinnati Bengals (1997–2001; defensive backs coach)
- Detroit Lions (2002–2003; secondary coach)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (2004–2010; secondary coach)
- Arizona Cardinals (2011–2012; defensive Coordinator)
- Cleveland Browns (2013; defensive coordinator)
- Tennessee Titans (2014–present; defensive coordinator)
Horton’s aggressive defenses have been absolutely effective in his brief stints in Arizona and Cleveland, and now he’s looking to replicate that success in Tennessee.
Horton is able to utilize existing personnel and create championship-caliber defenses quickly. That’s a formula that has worked with Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and Jets coach Rex Ryan. A strong, potentially dominant defense can win games with good enough quarterback play. With Horton, you know the defense will be ready.
Stressing the importance of detail and focus, Horton will continue to work toward a head coaching position. According to Craig Peters of TitansOnline.com, here is what Horton had to say about his approach to coaching:
Effort and attention to detail, I think, have been outstanding. Execution is close but not where I want it to be as we’re walking out. Yesterday was not a good day, but today they responded and were much sharper. It was kind of a microcosm of a week or game where maybe you come off a tough loss, you’ve got to be able to forget it, come back and focus in, and they did that today. The ebbs and flows of the offseason, it’s not high intensity because it’s not a game and we can’t simulate that, but the attention to detail is good and we’re probably right where we should be.
You can feel the emotion and passion in his statements about the current state of the Titans defense, and that should get Titans fans excited. Horton likely feels slighted after producing solid defenses the past few seasons, but he was the victim of his head coach being unable to produce an equally effective offense.
Horton has interviewed with multiple teams before for head coaching jobs, including the Cardinals, Browns and Vikings, but it seems as if his personality could be a deterrent to owners that talk to him. We heard a similar thing about Mike Zimmer, the new head coach of the Vikings and former defensive coordinator of the Bengals.
Zimmer was considered a better candidate, and it still took him years to land a head coaching job. If an owner doesn’t feel he can relate to his coach on a personal and professional level, it seems unlikely that’s a relationship that can breed success.
There’s also been a trend of Horton’s defenses becoming predictable, as he rarely makes adjustments. Quite frankly, the people who are successful in the NFL are those who can adjust and outscheme other coaches, then have the players to carry out the game plan at a high level.
Horton talks a big game and has plenty of passion. His defenses continue to rank highly every year because he’s a pretty good defensive coach. Until he scales back his personality a little and reacts more to the ebb and flow of the game, he won’t be ready for success as a head coach.
2014 could be the season where he becomes a solid candidate and legitimate option for an NFL franchise.
All biographical information is courtesy of TitansOnline.com.
Dirk Koetter, Offensive Coordinator, Atlanta Falcons
- Oregon (1996–1997; offensive coordinator)
- Boise State (1998-2000; head coach)
- Arizona State (2001-2006; head coach)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (2007-2011; offensive coordinator)
- Atlanta Falcons (2012-present; offensive coordinator)
As offensive coordinator for the Falcons, the 55-year old Koetter has managed his talented offensive weapons very well, culminating in the eighth-best offensive attack in 2012. By helping quarterback Matt Ryan reach new heights in 2012, Koetter has shown the ability to thrive despite a lethargic rushing attack.
Before anyone blames Koetter for that, the 2013 offensive line and injuries to running back Steven Jackson really hampered the Falcons' ability to stay balanced and keep defenses guessing.
2013 also featured injuries to star receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, leaving the team to rely on Harry Douglas in a deep NFC South. In reality, there was little chance this offense would produce like 2012.
Koetter also has some head coaching experience at the collegiate level, which shouldn’t be discounted. Appealing to young players is incredibly important, and having that on a resume will never hurt someone.
Entering 2014, the Falcons have bolstered the offense by selecting offensive tackle Jake Matthews from Texas A&M in the first round of the draft and tailback Devonta Freeman from Florida State. By adding depth and top-tier talent, expect the Falcons offense to soar high again if everyone is healthy.
Koetter hasn’t been able to produce much outside of 2012, as the Jaguars offense from 2007-2011 was mediocre at best, and 2013, although due to injuries, was one of the biggest disappointments in recent memories. That leaves 2014 as a make-or-break season for the entire Falcons coaching staff. If another poor season occurs, Koetter could easily find himself off any type of shortlist for head coaching gigs in the future.
Also, after signing a contract extension with the Falcons, he may not be interested in moving up in the near future. Some guys know they just don’t have what it takes to be the top man in an organization.
There appeared to be considerable interest from the Cleveland Browns this past offseason in Koetter, so it seems as if he’s getting a deserved pass for the abysmal 2013 Falcons offense. Some things are out of the control of a coach, and that was a situation where Koetter couldn’t overcome the loss of Pro Bowl talent all over.
2014 should be a rebound season for the Falcons, and if they get close to reaching the Super Bowl again, Koetter will be at the forefront of coaching searches.
Biographical information is courtesy of AtlantaFalcons.com.
Tom Clements, Offensive Coordinator, Green Bay Packers
- New Orleans Saints (1997–1999; quarterbacks coach)
- Kansas City Chiefs (2000; quarterbacks coach)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (2001-2004; quarterbacks coach)
- Buffalo Bills (2004-2005; offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach)
- Green Bay Packers (2006-2012; quarterbacks coach)
- Green Bay Packers (2012-present; offensive coordinator)
The man responsible for grooming star quarterback Aaron Rodgers deserves all of the credit he gets, and eventually, that could lead to a head coaching position. After Joe Philbin left the Green Bay Packers to coach the Miami Dolphins in 2012, Clements was promoted to offensive coordinator, where he’s responsible for offensive game-planning and in-game coaching.
Without a doubt, by working with Brett Favre, Matt Flynn and Rodgers, Clements knows how to develop a system that quarterbacks can digest and thrive in. There’s not a more valuable skill right now in football than developing an explosive offense. Even after losing Rodgers, receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley for stretches of 2013, the Packers continued to dominate defenses.
Clements also has a great set of connections in the NFL after spending more than 15 years in the league. Having a strong staff is vital to success, and there’s little doubt he has the resources needed to balance his staff with both young and veteran coaches.
At 61 years of age, Clements is no spring chicken, and his heart might be set at his current position. He has also been described by David Jones of PennLive.com as a "quiet man of integrity who values his privacy, has little use for political maneuvering and yet is fully capable of presenting himself in an impressive and articulate manner when the situation calls.”
The rah-rah type of coaches have been getting more attention in recent years than the quieter type, so that could work against him.
Clements has never worked with a positional group outside of quarterbacks, so although his connections are presumably strong, he will be heavily reliant upon those staff members to build a good enough team to contend. Since he isn’t a proven leader of men (see above), his staff will need to have strong knowledge and personality to demand respect.
Finally, we don’t know if he can design an offense. Since the Packers run Mike McCarthy’s offense, he might be unable to be a guru himself, and regurgitation only works so long, especially if you’re running another head coach’s playbook.
Clements received interest from the Chicago Bears last offseason as a head coach, but as a career assistant and coordinator, he might not be viewed as a realistic candidate. His offenses have been tremendously effective on the field, but he could just be the installer and unable to design enough to be on his own.
Either way, the 2014 season will be filled with big plays and touchdowns for the Packers, and Clements is deserving of at least consideration for head coaching jobs that become available.
All biographical information is courtesy of Packers.com.