7 Former NFL Players Who Could Get Head-coaching Consideration in 2023
It's never too early to start examining next year's crop of NFL coaching candidates, especially in 2022. With just under half of the regular season remaining, we've already seen two head coaches—Frank Reich and Matt Rhule—fired.
Reich's interim replacement for the Indianapolis Colts, Jeff Saturday, threw a curve ball into the coaching carousel, as he was hired as a former Colts player with zero college or NFL coaching experience.
"It's a disgrace to the coaching profession," Hall of Fame coach and CBS Sports analyst Bill Cowher said of the hire.
The decision of Indianapolis franchise owner Jeff Irsay to hire Saturday out of the television booth may not sit well with men and women who have dedicated their lives to coaching. However, Saturday, like Cowher, is a former NFL player who knows how to connect with the players on his roster.
That was evident in Week 10, when the Colts put together an inspired performance against the Las Vegas Raiders, notching a 25-20 victory and making Saturday 1-0 in his new role.
There's something to be said for a coach having playing experience, something Doug Pederson, Mike Vrabel and Dan Campbell also possess. If Saturday's tenure is successful—and perhaps beyond this season—it could spark a trend of teams seeking out former NFL veterans specifically.
With this in mind, let's examine seven former players who could be legitimate coaching candidates in 2023. The majority of them, unlike Saturday, do have coaching experience, but we'll dive into the qualifications for each here.
Candidates are listed in alphabetical order.
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has been a popular candidate over the past couple of hiring cycles, but he hasn't landed a head-coaching opportunity yet.
Bieniemy's draw is fairly obvious. Over the past five seasons, he has helped oversee Chiefs offenses that have ranked first, fifth, sixth, second and first in scoring. Granted, he's worked under an offensive coach in Andy Reid and with star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but it's an impressive resume nonetheless.
This could be the year in which Biemiemy finally gets his opportunity. If Saturday succeeds as a former player, that could play a role.
Biemiemy began his NFL career as a running back and a second-round draft pick of the Los Angeles (then San Diego) Chargers in 1991. He also spent time with the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles, playing for nine seasons in total. He knows the daily grind of being a player in the National Football League just as well as Saturday does.
According to Reid, Bieniemy is a beloved figure on the Kansas City sideline.
"You see the love that the players have for him. He's got all these guys standing up for him and saying positive things" Reid said, per ProFootballTalk's Michael Davis Smith. “He's a heck of a football coach and I’m disappointed that he hasn't had a chance and optimistic that he's going to have one in the future."
At the very least, we should see Bieniemy get another round of interviews during the 2023 cycle.
Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey is in his first year on the job, following Brian Daboll's departure to be the New York Giants' head coach. Dorsey spent eight seasons in the NFL, primarily as a backup quarterback.
As a coach, the 41-year-old has been employed since 2013. He served as a quarterbacks coach with the Carolina Panthers and Bills before becoming Buffalo's passing game coordinator last season.
Now, the transition from Daboll to Dorsey hasn't been flawless. The Bills have lost two straight, while quarterback Josh Allen has tossed 10 interceptions. However, Buffalo still ranks first in offensive yards and second in points scored this season.
Just as importantly, Dorsey had a hand in developing Allen into one of the league's most dangerous dual-threat signal-callers. He became the QB coach a year after Allen was drafted and a year before the quarterback notched his first Pro Bowl in 2020.
The former quarterback's passion for the game isn't lost on his players either.
"He gets fiery, man," Allen said of Dorsey, per Heather Prusak of News 4 Buffalo.
That fact won't be lost on franchise owners looking to develop their own young franchise quarterbacks. Daboll's work with Allen was a big draw for the Giants, and Dorsey's work with the Wyoming product will likely earn him a look or two after the season.
Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka is an intriguing potential candidate for a couple of reasons.
Like Dorsey, he's a former NFL quarterback, though he only appeared in four games and spent much of his career as a practice-squader. Also like Dorsey, Kafka has experience under Daboll.
Kafka also has experience under Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. He began his NFL coaching career as an offensive quality control coach in Kansas City in 2017 and quickly rose through the ranks. He was the Chiefs' quarterbacks coach by 2018 and served as a passing game coordinator in 2020 and 2021.
This past offseason, Daboll gave Kafka his first opportunity to be a coordinator, and the decision is paying off for New York.
While the Giants aren't an offensive juggernaut, they are 7-2, and quarterback Daniel Jones (92.7 passer rating) has become a solid game manager. Kafka has also helped unleash a healthy Saquon Barkley on the NFL while overcoming a lack of reliable and healthy wide receivers.
Kafka's fast rise as a coach will grab the attention of NFL decision-makers, as will his work in New York and with Mahomes/Reid in Kansas City. The 35-year-old should be one of the youngest candidates to earn consideration next offseason.
Byron Leftwich spent nine seasons as an NFL quarterback and started 50 games, the majority coming with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 42-year-old was actually considered the front-runner for the Jaguars job this past offseason, though he eventually pulled his name from consideration.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator will likely receive consideration once again, even though Tampa's offense has taken a step back in 2022.
As former Bucs coach Bruce Arians noted, execution—specifically that of quarterback Tom Brady—has been as big of an issue as anything Leftwich has had to deal with in his fourth year on the job.
"Nobody is going to say that Brady was playing bad, but he was playing bad," Arians said, per Ira Kaufman of JoeBucsFan.com. "We also had growing pains on a young offensive front and we weren’t running well. There comes a time as a play-caller when you’re losing yards running the ball and you say, ‘Forget this, I’m putting the ball in Tom’s hands.’"
Leftwich has been coaching since 2016, he's been an offensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals and the Bucs, and he helped Tampa win a Super Bowl just two years ago. A few early offensive struggles shouldn't mar Leftwich's resume.
And if Tampa has an offensive resurgence over the final eight weeks, Leftwich's ability to weather the proverbial storm may actually make him a more attractive candidate in the offseason.
Kellen Moore is another up-and-coming coach who quickly made the leap from the playing ranks. He was a backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys in 2017. A year later, he was the team's quarterbacks coach.
Moore was Dallas' offensive coordinator by 2019, and he's started to build buzz as a head-coaching candidate since then. He interviewed with the Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos and the Jaguars this past offseason but did not receive an offer. After yet another season of solid offense—Dallas ranks 11th in scoring, despite missing starting QB Dak Prescott for five games, Moore could be even more coveted.
His work with backup quarterback Cooper Rush (4-1 as a starter) shouldn't be understated. Dallas has a strong defense (fifth in points allowed) and offensive weapons like CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz and Tony Pollard. However, Moore deserves a ton of credit for steering the ship offensively.
Players like Prescott have lauded Moore's knowledge and creativity.
"Genius phenom," Prescott said, per Scott Spruill of Yakima Herald-Republic. "He's special. He knows a lot about the game, just the way he sees the game, the way he's ahead of the game. He can bring a lot to us, a lot of creativity."
Is Moore ready to be in charge after only five years of coaching? That remains to be seen. However, he's far more experienced than Saturday at the coaching level, and he should see strong consideration from teams seeking an offensive mind during the upcoming cycle.
Longtime journeyman quarterback (nine teams) Josh McCown was nearly in Saturday's position before Saturday was. The Rusk High School quarterbacks coach has twice been interviewed for head-coaching vacancies with the Houston Texans, and he interviewed with the Jaguars this past offseason
According to Dan Pompei of The Athletic, McCown is "sensitive to the perception that he’s trying to cut in front of others who have paid their dues in a traditional manner."
Now that Saturday has opened the door for former players to bypass the traditional coaching route, perhaps McCown will be more open to the idea. Teams, meanwhile, may be more comfortable hiring him, as the backlash may be dampened by Saturday's hiring.
McCown spent 16 seasons in the NFL, and according to former NFL coach Bill Parcells, McCown has the necessary skill set to make the leap.
"With Josh’s persistence as a player and the way he approached his job, I could tell he was very passionate about football—he loved football," Parcells said, per Pompei. "Then you consider he’s a bright guy, and he’s been with a lot of different coaches. All of that could serve him well in coaching."
McCown has already experienced the interview process, and he'll likely experience more in 2023. Now that the Colts are taking the heat for hiring a non-coach to coach, a franchise may be willing to give the 43-year-old a job this time around.
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is in his second year on the job, and he may already be under consideration for a head-coaching job.
A former Pro Bowl linebacker who played with the Texans and Philadelphia Eagles, Ryans began his coaching career as a defensive quality control coach in San Francisco in 2017. He was the team's inside linebackers coach by 2018 and made the jump to coordinator last season—after former coordinator Robert Saleh was hired as the New York Jets' head coach.
Saleh's success this season with the Jets—and to an extent, Mike McDaniel's success with the Dolphins—will help cast Ryans in a positive light. If New York and Miami both make the postseason, other franchises will likely look to tap into Kyle Shanahan's coaching tree.
It doesn't hurt that San Francisco's defense has allowed the fewest yards per game in the NFL this season or that Ryans is getting credit for the unit's performance.
"DeMeco sees it differently," one NFL personnel executive said, per CBS Sports' Jonathan Jones. "The structure of the scheme was already in place, but he took some of the nuance out of it so guys could just line up and play."
San Francisco's defense was very good under Saleh (fourth overall in 2020), and Ryan's ability to maintain continuity and even improve the defense shouldn't go overlooked. For franchises seeking a defense-minded coach in 2023, Ryans may be near the very top of the wish list.