NFL Head Coach Carousel: Potential Black Monday openings, top head coach candidates and more

Glendale, Arizona, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh signals for a two-point conversion after a touchdown against the TCU Horned Frogs in the second half of the 2022 Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

• Where the Rams' Sean McVay stands: There is a strong belief from multiple league sources that Rams head coach Sean McVay will step away this offseason.

• Dallas' McCarthy not safe?: Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy may still not be safe despite back-to-back 12-win seasons. A wild-card matchup at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may represent a must-win game. 

• Unexpected job openings: Potential surprise openings include the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins

Houston Texans head coach Lovie Smith became the fourth official firing of the 2023 head coach cycle during the Sunday Night Football broadcast, mere hours after the Texans pulled off an astonishing comeback to win their way out of the No. 1 overall pick. Smith was one of 10 new head coaches hired before this season, and while there almost certainly won’t be as many openings this year, there is still the potential for a lot of surprises over the next few weeks. 

To kick things off, here’s where the landscape stands.

Head coach openings:

Jobs that may still become available:

Speculation continues to swirl about the Arizona Cardinals and head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who had a disastrous season coming off a 2021 playoff bid and ultimately ended up with the No. 3 overall pick. Quarterback Kyler Murray may not play until late in the 2023 season following a torn ACL, which could actually help Kingsbury keep his job because it makes the potential opening extremely unattractive to other candidates. 

Jobs unlikely to become available, but still possible with a bad playoff showing:

Top Coaching Candidates

Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey

  • Third in expected points added per play (.060), second in dropback EPA per play (0.187), 13th in rush EPA per play (-.024)
  • Third in success rate (48.2%), second in dropback success rate (52.7%), fifth in rush success rate (45.6%)

Dorsey has served as the Bills' offensive coordinator for just one season after Brian Daboll became the head coach of the New York Giants, but Buffalo's offense didn’t miss a beat. It certainly helps to have Josh Allen at quarterback, and perhaps that keeps Dorsey in Buffalo a year or two longer, but the former University of Miami quarterback legend will become a head coach soon enough. 

Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn

  • Third in expected points allowed per play (-.129), third in dropback EPA allowed per play (-0.129), ninth in rush EPA allowed per play (-.129)
  • Sixth in success rate allowed (41.5%), ninth in dropback success rate allowed (43.4%), 10th in rush success rate allowed (39%)

Quinn led the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2016 before the tides turned and he was ultimately shown the door, but his Cowboys defense has been among the league’s best all season long. Anyone who has worked with Quinn at any of his stops will have only good things to say about him, and he’s also known as an attractive defensive-minded head coach for offensive coordinators to work with — most notably Kyle Shanahan. The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers are teams to monitor. 

Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson

  • Fourth in EPA per play (.051), fourth in dropback EPA per play (0.129), 17th in rush EPA per play (-.051)
  • Sixth in success rate (46.1%), seventh in dropback success rate (48.7%), 15th in rush success rate (42.3%)

Johnson closed out the 2022 season in incredible fashion, cementing a road victory to keep the NFC North rival Green Bay Packers out of the playoffs by running a lateral play from wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown to running back D’Andre Swift to pick up 14 yards on a second-and-17 right before the two-minute warning. Detroit was able to pick up the first down with another great play on fourth down, earning the Lions their first winning season since 2017.

Finishing top five in EPA per play with Jared Goff at quarterback and a mediocre receiving corps outside of St. Brown is an impressive feat for Johnson to hang his hat on. 

Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon

  • Ninth in expected points allowed per play (-.087), first in dropback EPA allowed per play (-0.143), 27th in rush EPA allowed per play (.003)
  • 10th in success rate allowed (42.6%), fifth in dropback success rate allowed (42.7%), 23rd in rush success rate allowed (42.6%)

The Houston Texans are the team to monitor here, with Gannon one of the finalists during the 2022 cycle. Gannon is a natural leader who is lauded by his peers for two things you look for in a head coach: he brings energy to the building every day, and he’s apparently an incredible teacher who makes his concepts as digestible as possible for his players. The arrival of several key additions on defense in 2022 leading to dramatically improved efficiency and a very poor run defense are legitimate causes for concern, though.

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans

  • First in expected points allowed per play (-.147), fifth in dropback EPA allowed per play (-0.113), second in rush EPA allowed per play (-.210)
  • Second in success rate allowed (39.8%), seventh in dropback success rate allowed (42.7%), third in rush success rate allowed (34.3%)

The above visual illustrates that the 49ers were charted as “perfectly covering” — not allowing any opposing receiver to be deemed open — at the third-highest rate on opposing dropbacks, and San Francisco dealt with injuries to its secondary throughout the season. San Francisco also was without defensive linemen Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw for much of the 2022 campaign but continued to cycle defensive linemen and dominate opposing offenses. Ryans played for the Houston Texans from 2006-11 and is believed to be a leading candidate, as well.

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh is coming off back-to-back trips to the College Football Playoff at Michigan, and some of the teams he played for — the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts — may look to replicate that success back at the NFL level. Harbaugh’s desire to get back to the NFL is one of the worst-kept secrets in football, and he belongs on the sidelines on Sundays. Harbaugh is a program builder who will have both sides of his team playing smash-mouth football. He presents a high-floor option for some franchises desperate for consistency. 

Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich

Reich was unceremoniously fired by the Indianapolis Colts in the middle of the 2022 season after a series of frustrating losses. He was historically always capable of getting the most out of his quarterbacks but fell short with Matt Ryan that go around. Nevertheless, Reich was able to elevate too many offenses with limited quarterbacks to stay out of the league for too long. 

Former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton

The most intriguing storyline of this offseason from a head coaching perspective will be where former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton ultimately ends up. The Denver Broncos have already requested to meet with Payton, and they surely won’t be the last team to inquire.

What could it cost for a team to acquire Sean Payton via trade?

NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Saints are seeking a first-round pick and more for Payton, and at least one team — the Broncos — is aware of this desire and yet remains interested. While fans may balk at the idea of giving up a first-round pick and more for a head coach, this would actually be right in line with recent NFL head coach trades. And a coach of Payton’s caliber may be well worth it. A few recent examples were far more expensive than just a first-round pick:

The then-Oakland Raiders received two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for head coach Jon Gruden.

While not technically a trade, the New York Jets went to court over Bill Belichick quickly resigning from his post as head coach after he felt he didn’t get the complete team control he was promised, ultimately signing with the New England Patriots. The Jets received a first-round pick, a fourth-round pick and a seventh-round pick, while sending back a fifth- and a seventh-round pick. 

The Patriots received third- and fourth-round picks in 1997, a second-round pick in 1998 and a first-round pick in 1999 for head coach Bill Parcells. 

With one team already in the Payton sweepstakes, more are likely to enter the fold. Payton is one of the great offensive minds in football, and 2022 illustrated just how valuable coaching can be in this league. The speculation surrounding Payton landing with either the Dallas Cowboys or Los Angeles Chargers will reach a fever pitch if both or either team loses in the wild-card round, each heading on the road to Florida as No. 5 seeds. 


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