It’s a less-than-ideal week to be a middling coach with a subpar record and a great one to be a hot-ticket candidate pegged for the next big gig.
The NFL’s coaching shuffle hit full speed this week after the conclusion of the regular season. Vance Joseph, Todd Bowles, Dirk Koetter, Marvin Lewis, Adam Gase and Steve Wilks were all dismissed from their head-coaching positions, and Hue Jackson and Mike McCarthy were fired earlier this season. There’s no guaranteeing that those let go will ever get back to the top, but plenty of veterans have proved it’s possible to get another shot.
Most teams, though, have tended to opt for a position coach or coordinator ready to make the jump and guide his own team. Since 2009, 68 percent of head-coach hires — 48 of 71, not including interims — were getting their first opportunity as an NFL head coach, and there have been 10 such hires the past two seasons. With the recent successes of Sean McVay, Matt Nagy, Anthony Lynn and others, franchises are even hungrier to find the next big thing, rather than reverting back to the pot of recycled NFL sideline bosses.
But it’s not always obvious who that next great hire will be. We looked at every first-time NFL head-coach hiring over the past 10 years and established the typical resume of those signing a contract, evaluating their previous experience, how they learned their trade and their areas of expertise. Then we found a few potential candidates who fit nicely with our model resume.
Let’s take a look at the standard first-time hire.
What type of coaching experience had new hires put together before making the ascent to head coach? And how long did it take?
Well, there seems to be an obvious window. The average age of new hires over the past 10 years is 46.5 years old, directly correlating to experience. Most will spend the majority of their professional life grinding through various coaching levels at an average of six organizations, ranging in level from high school to the NFL, over an average of 19.5 years before becoming an NFL head coach. Here’s a few of the bigger trends in terms of experience:
The Los Angeles Rams made history when they hired McVay as the league’s youngest head coach two weeks before his 31st birthday. Bruce Arians, on the other hand, was 61 when he earned his first lead job with the Arizona Cardinals in 2013. Mike Zimmer was 58 when he signed with the Minnesota Vikings. But the coaching lifer could be fading in favor of young, innovative coaches. The past two years, seven of 10 new hires were 45 or younger.
Coordinators are obviously highly sought after. Thirty-seven of the 48 first-time hires were scooped up out of coordinator jobs, 20 of which were on the offensive side of the ball.
Somewhat surprisingly, only four of the 48 were signed directly out of a collegiate head-coaching job, and of those, only Bill O’Brien of the Houston Texans remains as a head coach in the NFL.
A key finding was the importance of the quarterback coach and the weight it carries in the football food chain. Twenty-seven of the most recent new hires boasted an offensive-minded background, and 17 of them had experience as a QB coach. It’s the accelerated track for many in today’s point-heavy, high-octane NFL.
Yes, there’s still a path for defensive coaches, who accounted for 21 of the past 48 new hires. Wilks was coveted after leading the Panthers’ defense before the Cardinals gave him a shot heading into the 2018 season. Overall, however, offensive minds tend to get a longer leash; despite being the most notable defensive-aligned hire of the 2018 offseason, Wilks was let go the morning after the final game of his only season as head coach.
Every resume has an education section, and this one is no different. But ours comes with quotation marks because we aren’t interested in these coaches’ alma maters or how they did in calculus. Instead, we consider where they learned the game. Did they play in the NFL? How about the coaching trees to which they belonged? It all matters when looking for the right coach.
In the world of coaching, there’s an emphasis on whom you know and, more importantly, what you learned from them. Four new hires in the past 10 years worked on Bill Parcells’ 2005 Dallas Cowboys staff: Zimmer, Todd Haley, Bowles and Lynn. (Sean Payton and Tony Sparano were also part of that staff, though they were hired as head coaches more than 10 years ago.)
Andy Reid has long developed a reputation as one of the league’s heaviest influencers, first in Philadelphia and now in Kansas City. Current NFL coaches Nagy, Doug Pederson, Ron Rivera, Sean McDermott and Pat Shurmur all worked under Reid at various points and were new hires in the past 10 years.
It’s common for new coaching candidates to have more than one influence. Arians worked under seven coaching staffs, including Marty Schottenheimer’s, before he served as the Cardinals’ head coach. Frank Reich coached under Jim Caldwell, Tony Dungy, Mike McCoy, Pederson and Ken Whisenhunt before taking over the Indianapolis Colts‘ top job this season and leading them back from a 1-5 start to clinch a playoff spot in Week 17.
Interested in a coach’s playing career? Does it really matter? Only 13 of 48 new hires since 2009 played in the NFL. Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel was hired in 2018 after just three years of coaching in college under Nick Saban and four more in the NFL under Houston’s O’Brien. But his playing resume was heftier: 14 seasons, 206 regular-season games and three Super Bowl championships as a linebacker for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
Reich, Pederson and Jason Garrett all played quarterback before trading helmets for headsets. Reich played for coach Marv Levy in Buffalo and behind quarterback Jim Kelly on the depth chart — both Hall of Famers.
OK, now we have the mold … so who fits it? Some of the eight vacant jobs will go to guys who have done it before, but there will certainly be more than a few new hires in the mix. You know the obvious names in the coaching market: Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Chicago Bears defensive guru Vic Fangio pop out as the big ones. But what about others who fit our handy profile of a new hire a year or two from now?
Dave Toub, Kansas City Chiefs
Assistant head coach and special-teams coordinator
Experience: 22 years
There’s hope for the special-teams gurus pining for head-coaching posts. John Harbaugh was the last new hire not to come from an offensive- or defensive-heavy background, instead touting 18 years as a special-teams coordinator before the Baltimore Ravens hired him in 2008. Like Harbaugh, Toub learned under Andy Reid. A ST coordinator since 2004, the 56-year-old reunited with Reid on the Chiefs and was also named assistant head coach.
Kris Richard, Dallas Cowboys
Passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach
Experience: 9 years
What’s intriguing about Richard is the way he has mixed his duties in his first season with the Cowboys as both a defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator, two of the most common qualities among new hires. Of the past 21 defensive-minded new coaches, 15 have experience as a defensive backs or secondary coach. Prior to joining the Cowboys, Richard was the Seattle Seahawks‘ defensive coordinator for three years and coached defensive backs for eight. His coaching experience is bolstered by the six years he played in the NFL. If a team does indeed hire Richard, he would join a list of nine African-American first-year head-coaching hires — and 10 minority hires — since 2009, or 18.8 percent of the group of 48.
Todd Monken, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Experience: 29 years
Monken made his debut as an NFL playcaller, had those duties stripped away, then received them back in his third season as the Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator (coach Dirk Koetter called them during the two years prior). Yet the path he has traveled is a familiar one. The 52-year-old transitioned to the NFL after a winding, 26-year journey through the college coaching ranks that ended in 2015 after three years as the Southern Miss head coach.
Mike Kafka, Kansas City Chiefs
Experience: 3 years
What better way to conclude than pivoting back to the Chiefs and the Reid tree? It’s unlikely that Kafka will land a job this season, but he’s on the right track. He’s only 31 and was on an NFL roster as recently as 2014. The quarterback sought the coaching route and has jumped from an assistant at Northwestern in 2016 to the Chiefs’ QB coach. By the time Kafka is considered for a head-coaching job, his work with rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes will be a highlight of his resume.