An Early Look at NFL's Next Wave of Head Coaching Candidates Entering 2020
In the NFL, "Black Monday" comes the final week of the regular season. Some teams fire coaching staffs that underachieved and open searches for new regimes in hope of better results.
This offseason, five clubs hired head coaches. The Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants chose coaches set to lead an NFL locker room for the first time—including one from the collegiate ranks in Matt Rhule. (The Giants fired Pat Shurmur on Black Monday, one day after the Browns gave the news to Freddie Kitchens.)
If the Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars finish with a third consecutive losing campaign, we could see those clubs make changes to their coaching ranks next year.
Where would these teams, among others, look for potential replacements?
Focusing on NFL assistants, we'll highlight the newest crop of head-coaching candidates who should gain traction in the next hiring cycle.
Baltimore Ravens OC Greg Roman
Greg Roman should top the list of any team's head-coaching search.
Roman has fielded a top-eight ground attack in all seven of his years as an offensive coordinator with three different teams. In 2019, he called plays for the No. 1 scoring offense in the league, which featured the Baltimore Ravens' rising star quarterback, Lamar Jackson.
Based on Roman's track record, he doesn't just put together strong ground attacks. He pressures opponents on the scoreboard as well. In six out of seven terms, his units have ranked 12th or higher in scoring. Last season, the Ravens recorded a franchise-record 531 points.
Most importantly, Roman has developed and optimized the skill sets of mobile quarterbacks, including Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Tyrod Taylor and Jackson. That's a key aspect as the position evolves with more athletic signal-callers under center.
With Roman calling the shots, Smith helped lead the 49ers to a 13-3 record, Kaepernick went to a Super Bowl, Taylor earned his first Pro Bowl nod, and Jackson became a Pro Bowler, All-Pro and league MVP.
Roman would be a good fit for a team that plans to rebuild with a rookie signal-caller who can beat defenses with his arm and legs. He could pair with Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields elsewhere in 2021.
Baltimore Ravens DC Don Martindale
Going into the 2020 term, the Baltimore Ravens have two hot-ticket play-callers. In February, the club signed Don Martindale to a three-year extension, which made him the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the league.
Still, a lucrative extension won't quell outside interest. Martindale may jump ship if another club with quality talent offers a decent proposal.
Martindale had a rough start to his career as a coordinator. In 2010, his Denver Broncos unit gave up the most points and yards. After a year away from the league, he joined John Harbaugh's staff as a linebackers instructor and coached the position for six campaigns.
Over the last two terms under Martindale, Baltimore's defense has ranked top-four in yards and points allowed. He's accomplished those feats without a pass-rusher who has hit double-digit sacks. The Ravens play-caller has dialed up blitzes to generate pocket pressure, which keeps opposing quarterbacks on edge and helps the secondary.
To put Martindale's aggressive approach into perspective, the Ravens blitzed more than any other team in each of the last two seasons. Of course, he can afford to do so with three All-Pros on the back end (Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Earl Thomas III).
Martindale could appeal to a club with a solid group of defensive backs and an inconsistent pass rush. His coaching scheme may push a borderline playoff club over the hump.
Kansas City Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy
Eric Bieniemy played nine NFL seasons as a running back and has coached the position on the collegiate (Colorado and UCLA) and pro (Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs) levels.
Bieniemy served as an offensive coordinator for two terms at Colorado before he coached the running backs with the Chiefs.
Although it's assumed head coach Andy Reid makes the offensive play calls from the sideline, NFL analyst Will Blackmon tweeted a short video of Bieniemy with the headset as he read off the play sheet during the second quarter of the Chiefs' AFC divisional matchup against the Houston Texans. Kansas City scored a touchdown on that drive, leaving 50 seconds on the game clock before the half.
Bieniemy didn't go into detail about his week-to-week play-calling responsibilities when speaking to the media after that game, but he added context to the chain of command.
"We have an operation in how we do things and we have a communications system," he said. "I mean, coaches communicate with me, I'm communicating to the quarterback. To be honest with you, I think people are making something out of nothing."
On one hand, Bieniemy works with one of the most accomplished coaches in the league. Yet Reid's offensive background clouds his coordinator's role within the Chiefs' electric offense that has ranked top-five in scoring over the last two years and features star quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
As Bieniemy pointed out, he's involved in a joint effort with Reid and the coaching staff. General managers should take that into account when they assess the Chiefs' offensive success.
According to Mike Klis of 9News Denver, Bieniemy turned down a head-coaching opportunity at Colorado (his alma mater) in February, though he interviewed for the vacancies with Cleveland, Carolina and the New York Giants. His name will probably be linked to openings next offseason.
San Francisco 49ers DC Robert Saleh
Robert Saleh served as a quality control assistant on the Seattle Seahawks coaching staff during the 2011-13 seasons. He had a front-row seat for the Legion of Boom's heyday. Last season, in a defensive coordinator role, he led the San Francisco 49ers' stingy group. The 41-year-old play-caller knows the inner workings of a dominant defense.
Last offseason, 49ers general manager John Lynch acquired edge-rusher Dee Ford from the Kansas City Chiefs and selected Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick. Along with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, Saleh assembled a physical front that ground offensive lines to dust and pressured quarterbacks.
With more talent on the front line, Saleh turned the league's 28th-ranked scoring defense into a juggernaut. The 49ers gave up the second-fewest yards and ranked eighth in points allowed in 2019. San Francisco also logged the sixth-most quarterback pressures (172).
According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer, Saleh nearly landed the Cleveland Browns' head-coaching job, but the team chose Kevin Stefanski.
Despite the demand for offensive assistants, Saleh has generated interest because of his impressive work during the last term. If the 49ers defense remains stout in the upcoming campaign, he'll receive more interview requests next offseason.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich
Byron Leftwich joined the Arizona Cardinals as an intern in 2016 and became the interim offensive coordinator by 2018 in relief of Mike McCoy during his last term with the club. He served as the quarterbacks coach in 2017.
After one campaign, the Cardinals fired Steve Wilks' coaching staff, which meant the end of Leftwich's tenure in Arizona. Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians added the former first-round QB to his group and trusted him with play-calling responsibilities.
Under the 40-year-old, the Buccaneers fielded the No. 1 passing offense with Jameis Winston under center. The club ranked third in scoring and total yards.
Arians spoke highly of Leftwich at the end of the 2019 season, voicing his confidence in the young play-caller as a future head coach.
"To me, for a young coach, it's who you hire," Arians told reporters. "Who are going to hire? Are you going to run the offense? I think with the right people and the right GM and ownership, he's more than ready."
Leftwich didn't interview for any of the five head-coaching vacancies during the last hiring cycle. He could be a hot candidate if the Buccaneers field another high-performance offense with Tom Brady, who turns 43 in August, at the helm.
Tennessee Titans OC Arthur Smith
Last season, Arthur Smith fielded the No. 10 scoring offense. The Tennessee Titans hadn't cracked the top 10 in points since 2003. More impressively, the first-time play-caller elevated the unit with change at the quarterback position.
In Week 7, the Titans benched Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill. The latter threw for 2,742 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions with a 70.3 percent completion rate and league-best 117.5 quarterback rating.
Although Tannehill started just 10 games, he earned the Comeback Player of the Year Award as a key component in the Titans' run to the AFC Championship Game.
Smith deserves some credit for adjustments on the fly that changed the Titans' season. He also had a hand in Tannehill's career turnaround after a mediocre seven-year stretch with the Miami Dolphins.
Through the 2018 campaign, Smith held defensive and offensive quality control positions and instructed tight ends along with offensive linemen. Now, he's the maestro for an ascending offense that features a first-time Pro Bowl quarterback, 2019 rushing champion Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown, who led all rookie wideouts in receiving yards (1,051) last term.
If the Titans offense can build upon its 2019 surge, Smith will garner interest from teams in need of a head coach. He's a potential under-the-radar candidate because of his limited time as an offensive coordinator.