Forget the Head Coaches, the NFL Coordinator Carousel Is All the Rage Now

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 11, 2018

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) confers with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, left, in the second half of an NFL football NFC wild card playoff game against the Detroit Lions, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

It's rarely OK to root for someone to lose his job. But when the Carolina Panthers fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula on Tuesday, perhaps a bit of Monty Python-style rejoicing was acceptable. 

After all, it looked for a few hours like Cam Newton finally might get to lead a dynamic offense that suits his talents. Also, it isn't as though the well-connected Shula will have to sweep chimneys in Victorian London for a living.

Then Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported Norv Turner was a "top choice" to take over for Shula. According to ESPN.com's David Newton, he arrived in Carolina on Wednesday "to finalize details that would make him the [team's] next offensive coordinator."

So, perhaps that rejoicing was premature.

Meanwhile, in another change that felt long overdue, the Seahawks fired longtime offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell on Wednesday. All eyes are now on Seattle, which could either hire a fresh new voice who both maximizes Russell Wilson's strengths and provides him with some novel new features (like running backs and blockers), or it could hire a retread and trudge backward toward mediocrity.

The Seahawks rose to power by being creative enough to choose the former. But according to the rumor mill, they will be conventional and opt for the latter this time around.

As of Thursday morning, the Giants, Cardinals, Colts and Lions are still without head coaches. But who cares? The head coaching market lacks sizzle now that Jon Gruden is signed/sealed/delivered to the Raiders and the Bears gobbled up Matt Nagy, one of the few interesting new faces on the scene. The coordinator carousel is where all of the action is this year.

Part of the problem is that the head coaching market is flooded with Baby Belichicks (Pats assistants Matt Patricia, Josh McDaniels and second-generation copy Mike Vrabel, now of the Texans), stalwart defensive lieutenants (Patricia, Vrabel, Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks) and a glorified Turner riding a hot streak (Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur). Only McDaniels promises an offensive scheme to capture the imagination.

The remaining teams in need of head coaches are all also in need of massive rebuilds other than the Lions, who have been allergic to interesting coaching hires since Wayne Fontes' run-'n'-shoot was run out of town in 1996. Meanwhile, the coordinator upheaval involves teams on the fringe of Super Bowl contention and quarterbacks not long removed from the Super Bowl.

No wonder that's where all the action is.

And while there is plenty of intrigue on defense—the Packers' reported hiring of Mike Pettine (per ESPN's Adam Schefter), the Bears trying to retain Vic Fangio as Nagy's consigliere, brief bidding wars over Gus Bradley (who's staying with the Chargers) and Teryl Austin (whom the Bengals snatched)offensive coordinators are the coaches who can make our Sunday afternoons either entertaining or unbearable.

Mike Shula and Cam Newton in 2014.
Mike Shula and Cam Newton in 2014.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Shula's five seasons as Newton's coordinator were, charitably, a mixed bag. The Panthers' 2016 Super Bowl run had more to do with Newton's preternatural gifts (not to mention a great Panthers defense) than any Shula game-planning wizardry. When the Panthers offense was badwhich it often wasit appeared that Shula abandoned Newton to face the defense 11-on-1.

To his credit, Shula tried to adapt his system to both Newton's talents and the arrival of running back Christian McCaffrey this season. Shula usually rolled out options, reverses and misdirection wrinkles on one series per game like an offensive drum solo. Then the Panthers went straight back to the vanilla frozen yogurt. It was like a Fourth of July with one firework, but at least Shula (briefly) recognized Newton and McCaffrey shouldn't be yoked to 1970s offensive concepts.

That's what makes the Panthers' infatuation with Turner so frustrating. He was last seen turning over the Vikings offense to Shurmur in 2016 because he feared he was holding the team back, per Rapoport. If Turner's 1990s-style offense hamstrung Sam Bradfordpasses to fullbacks in the flat are still signature plays, as if Moose Johnston were still in the leaguewhat will it do to Newton?

The best available coordinator for Newton actually might be Bevell, who in 2013 built the perfect mousetrap for the Seahawks. It was full of option goodies that made the best use of Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and a stable of speedy receivers.

Like all coordinators who won games with designed quarterback runs, however, Bevell retreated from his success as if he was afraid he flew too close to the sun. He replaced the Lynch power game and early-adopter run-pass option concepts with...literally nothing. If an investigative report reveals Bevell yelled "just wing it, Russ" into his headset for the last two seasons, it would explain so much.

Early speculation around the campfire suggests that Carroll doesn't plan to promote some forward-thinking guru or trendy college coach. Tom Cable, architect of an offensive line full of strip-mall security guards on permanent coffee break, appeared to be the favorite, according to ESPN.com's Mike Sando, before he himself was fired.

Carroll is rumored, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, to covet former USC colleague Steve Sarkisian, who, inconveniently, is still coaching in the playoffs, despite an ability to render the Falcons' Julio Jones invisible that puts most defensive coordinators to shame.

Once part of Pete Carroll's coaching staff at USC, Steve Sarkisian has been mentioned as a candidate to take over the Seahawks offense next season.
Once part of Pete Carroll's coaching staff at USC, Steve Sarkisian has been mentioned as a candidate to take over the Seahawks offense next season.KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Turner-Sarkisian cronyism adds another level of drama to the coordinator carousel. The old-boy network still holds sway among head coaches, but there's a level of ownership involvement, media attention and fan expectation which forces teams to work harder in selecting head coaches. For every Raiders franchise busting its budget for a new sovereign, there are many more teams like the Giants performing exhaustive, well-publicized due diligence, or the Bears eager to tout Nagy as the anti-John Fox.

At the coordinator level, coaches often swiftly fire one buddy and hire another. And because NFL head coaches are the type of men who have been dining at Italian restaurants for decades but never order anything but chicken Parmesan, the new buddy is often more of a security blanket than the last buddy.

Which is how we get Bills-Jaguars playoff games, folks.

There is a push-pull dynamic to excitement on the offensive coordinator news cycle. Meritocracy briefly triumphs when an ineffective play-caller gets canned. The window of innovation cracks open for a few tantalizing seconds, and an exciting new name like freshly promoted Chiefs coordinator Eric Bieniemy occasionally bursts through. But more often than not, someone from the shallow gene pool of established coordinators gets recycled, and we gear up for another year of more of the same.

That tempered enthusiasm was even a built-in feature of Gruden's return. He was the hottest young offensive wunderkind on the market in the late 1990s and a Super Bowl winner in the 2002 season, but by 2008, he was just another coach whose West Coast offense was turning brown at the bottom of the crisper.

Gruden spent a decade as a broadcaster raving about new ideas like the no-huddle offense and meeting coaches from all over the NFL and other levels. Gruden's brother, Jay, even fostered Sean McVay's meteoric rise. Did Gruden have a secret weapon in the wings, some 30-year-old version of himself or the Rams head coach whom he traded cellphone numbers with during Monday Night Football prep interviews?

Greg Olson with one of his top QB projects: Josh Freeman.
Greg Olson with one of his top QB projects: Josh Freeman.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Nope. Gruden settled on Greg Olson, his offensive successor in Tampa who has coordinated just one offense to finish in the top half of the NFL by yardage (the 2006 Rams, who still had several Greatest Show on Turf holdovers) across five organizations in 10 seasons.

So the boldest coaching move of the offseason is simply just another old-coach reclamation project. It's one more reason to not feel sorry for the unemployed Shula, Bevell or Cable: They'll be back before we know it, like it or not. 

There's still hope that a new coordinator will take Newton, Wilson or the next MVP-caliber quarterback in a radical new direction instead of trying to shoehorn them into the same old mediocre mold.

If they do, there will be much rejoicing. Yay.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.


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