An Early Look at NFL's Next Head Coaching Candidates Entering 2021 Season
The NFL's head coaching carousel is constantly revolving, with several openings cropping up each offseason. In 2021, seven teams hired new head coaches, most of whom came from the ranks of pro coordinators and position coaches.
The lone exception was the Jacksonville Jaguars' hiring of Urban Meyer, who last coached Ohio State in 2018. That came one year after Matt Rhule was the lone college coach hired for an NFL head coaching job and two years after Kliff Kingsbury made the only jump from college to the pros.
While innovative college coaches do occasionally get opportunities in the NFL, teams mostly interview prolific pro coordinators and/or head coaching retreads. (Marvin Lewis, Todd Bowles and Jason Garrett were among former NFL head coaches to receive interviews this offseason.)
That pattern figures to continue in 2022.
While we don't know which teams will be searching for new head coaches next offseason, at least a few jobs will likely be open. It's never too early to examine who might be targeted for those openings, and we're going to do exactly that here.
Brian Daboll, Buffalo Bills Offensive Coordinator
NFL teams love to hire prolific coordinators. Look no further than Arthur Smith, whom the Atlanta Falcons hired as their head coach this offseason after he helped produce the league's 10th-ranked scoring offense as the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator in 2019 and its fourth-ranked scoring offense in 2020.
Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll could soon follow in his footsteps.
Daboll helped Buffalo reach the playoffs in both 2019 and 2020 and developed quarterback Josh Allen into a MVP-caliber signal-caller. The Bills offense ranked second in both points and yards this past season, and the Associated Press named Daboll its NFL Assistant Coach of the Year.
Daboll has worked in the NFL since 2000, when he was a defensive assistant with the New England Patriots. He's since gone on to stints with the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs prior to joining the Bills. In 2017, he was the offensive coordinator at Alabama.
Daboll's wide-ranging experience has given him exposure to multiple offensive schemes and a parade of different quarterbacks. That should make him an attractive option for teams seeking an offensive head coach regardless of personnel or preferred system.
Todd Bowles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator
Todd Bowles is both a successful coordinator and a former NFL head coach. He served as the interim coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2011 and spent four seasons at the helm of the New Jets. He's currently the defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is coming off perhaps the best defensive coaching performance in Super Bowl history.
Bowles and his entire defensive squad could have shared the Super Bowl MVP award this past February, and few would have blinked. His unit held the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs offense to only 350 total yards and nine points. Tampa's 31-9 victory was the most lopsided in a Super Bowl since the Seattle Seahawks smacked the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
"You can't give [Bowles] enough credit," Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians told reporters afterward.
One remarkable performance doesn't necessarily warrant head coaching consideration, but Bowles has much more to offer.
With a virtual offseason and no preseason with which to prepare, Bowled helped forge the league's sixth-ranked defense in 2020. His unit ranked 15th in 2019 despite having to overcome 30 interceptions from quarterback Jameis Winston.
Like Daboll, Bowles also has a lengthy NFL resume. His first pro job came with the Jets in 2000, and he's since worked for the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals along with his head coaching stints for the Dolphins and Jets.
Bowles had interviews with the Falcons, Eagles and Detroit Lions this offseason. Teams looking for a defensive-minded head coach should have him near the top of their wish lists in 2022.
Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator
Todd Bowles is not the only Buccaneers coordinator who should be a head coaching candidate next offseason. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich should also get some serious consideration after his third season in Tampa.
While Leftwich doesn't possess the pro coaching experience of Bowles and Brian Daboll—his first coaching job came in 2017—he's a former NFL starter who has quickly ascended the coaching ranks.
The Arizona Cardinals hired Leftwich as their quarterbacks coach in 2017. A year later, the Cardinals promoted him to interim offensive coordinator after they fired Mike McCoy. The Buccaneers hired him in 2019, and he helped them win a Super Bowl this past February.
Like Bowles, Leftwich had a truncated 2020 offseason with which to work. He also had several new players to integrate into his offense, including Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, Antonio Brown and Tristan Wirfs. Although it took some time to get things clicking, Leftwich still helped produce the league's third-ranked scoring offense in back-to-back seasons.
Surprisingly, Leftwich didn't even get a coaching interview this offseason—much to Arians' dismay.
"He does it all. He calls the plays. I'm really upset he didn't get a head coaching interview," Arians told the Rich Eisen Show (h/t JoeBucsFan.com). "... Byron didn't even get a call, and I think people give Tom Brady and Bruce Arians way too much credit and not enough credit for Byron Leftwich."
Expect NFL teams to come to their senses and give Leftwich the opportunity to interview in 2022.
Marvin Lewis, Former Bengals Head Coach, Arizona State Special Advisor
Sometimes, head coaching retreads don't feel deserving of repeated opportunities. Former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is not one of those people.
The 62-year-old Lewis hasn't coached in the NFL since 2018, but he has remained around football. He was the co-defensive coordinator at Arizona State last season, was a special advisor in 2019 and is again a special advisor currently. Lewis' coaching experience dates back to 1981, when he was the linebackers coach at Boise State.
As a defensive coach, Lewis had NFL stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Washington Football Team. However, his tenure at the helm of the Bengals is what should appeal to NFL executives.
Before Lewis arrived in Cincinnati in 2003, the Bengals had gone 12 years without a playoff berth. He helped Cincinnati reach the postseason in his third year and took the team to the playoffs seven times in 16 seasons.
Between 2011 and 2015, the Bengals made the playoffs five straight times.
Lewis is a seasoned coaching veteran who knows what it takes to turn around a downtrodden franchise. That should appeal to rebuilding teams and those who have been mired in mediocrity for an extended period.
This offseason, Lewis received interviews from the Lions, Jets and Texans. Expect him to receive continued interest next offseason as well.
Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Coordinator
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy didn't receive a head coaching offer this offseason, but he isn't upset about returning to the Chiefs' prolific offense.
"I'm excited about the opportunity that has been presented to me. The other stuff, I can't control that. That is out of my control," Bieniemy told reporters in February.
Still, it's fair to wonder why Bieniemy wasn't offered a job. He has an impressive resume, dating back to his time as an NFL running back in the early 1990s.
Bieniemy has been a coach since 2001 and has been with the Chiefs since 2013. He's spent nearly a decade learning under future Hall of Fame coach Andy Reid and has spent the last three years in charge of the league's most unstoppable offense.
The Chiefs ranked first, sixth and first in total offense in 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Reid believes that Bieniemy's experience makes him a perfect head coaching candidate.
"Being the leader of men that he is, you're not going to find people better than that in that category," Reid told reporters in January. "And he's a sharp offensive mind on top of that. So I'm a big fan. Don't want to lose him, but reality is, there's a good chance that happens."
Kansas City didn't lose Bieniemy, even though he received interviews from the Jaguars, Chargers, Falcons, Lions, Texans, Jets and Eagles—all seven teams that had vacancies.
Teams are unquestionably interested in what Bieniemy has to offer, but no one pulled the trigger in 2021. Unless Kansas City's offense takes an unexpected step back this season, that should change in 2022.
Patrick Graham, New York Giants Defensvie Coordinator
If the Giants have another strong season defensively, the interest should pick up substantially.
Graham worked wonders during his first season in New York. After ranking 30th in scoring defense in 2019, the Giants ranked ninth this past season. Graham also helped unlock the potential of pass-rushing defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who finished the 2020 season with a career-high 11.5 sacks and 42 quarterback pressures.
Graham's ability to help players improve shouldn't be overlooked, and he's been doing it for a long time. His first coaching job came in 2002, and his NFL coaching career began with the Patriots in 2009. He also coached for the Green Bay Packers, the Giants and the Dolphins before returning to New York last season.
Head coach Joe Judge said on WFAN that he was thrilled to retain Graham this offseason (h/t Paul Schwartz of the New York Post):
"Keeping Pat here was definitely a priority for us. We know Pat’s gonna have a lot of opportunities going forward. He’s a very, very smart coach, he’s very good communicator, he has a lot of really good ideas and he’s very good getting the players to buy in and understand the concept he’s trying to do."
Don't be shocked if Graham gets several opportunities to advance in the coaching ranks next offseason.
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma Head Coach
There were a few reasons why Kliff Kingsbury was an attractive coaching candidate for the Cardinals two years ago. He was young (he's now 41), had a potentially long career ahead of him, was an offensive innovator and helped develop quarterback Patrick Mahomes as Texas Tech.
While Kingsbury has yet to lead the Cardinals to the playoffs, he has developed Kyler Murray into a dangerous signal-caller and helped produced the league's sixth-ranked offense in 2020. Should the Cardinals earn a postseason berth this year, NFL teams will likely look for similar candidates in the college ranks.
That will likely lead a lot of teams to Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley.
The 37-year-old is an offensive guru who has helped develop NFL starters in Baker Mayfield, Jalen Hurts and Murray. Teams employing or looking to draft young quarterbacks should find Riley's quarterback track record enticing.
The caveat here is that Riley doesn't view his college career as a stop on the way to the pros.
"They see it as a stepping-stone deal. And that is true for players; for coaches, it's not," Riley said in 2019 on the Dan Patrick Show (h/t Bleacher Report's Tyler Conway).
Even if Riley isn't seeking out an NFL job next offseason, that won't stop NFL teams from seeking him. Riley is exactly the sort of forward-thinking coach who can thrive in the modern NFL.
"He's able to push the boundaries and he's not afraid to push the boundaries," ESPN and Sports Illustrated analyst Jim Mora Jr. told per Ryan Chapman of All Sooners.
Expect teams to come calling Riley about a job next offseason. If the price, the opportunity and the challenge are all right, he might at least give one of those calls some consideration.