Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Desirability of the NFL Coaching Vacancies

UPDATE, 1/2/15: Since I wrote this blog post, Doug Marrone opted out of his contract with the Buffalo Bills. I have now added Buffalo to this list.


Six NFL teams will be looking for head coaches this offseason, and there will be plenty of people interviewed for those jobs. But how desirable are the available openings?

When you look at certain NFL teams, you find those franchises that have had plenty of success and those that have had struggled to put together winning seasons on a regular basis. The ones in the latter category tend to be those franchises which aren't run well, and much of that falls on ownership. The best owners are those that will allow their coaches and general managers to run operations as they see fit, and then evaluate them regularly. The least desirable owners are those who meddle too much in the day-to-day operations and get too worried about a coach who isn't afraid to express his opinion.

Additionally, what makes a coaching job desirable can also depend on the players already on the roster, how many of those players are expected to stay on the roster, and what the general manager situation is like. These factors can have an impact on how well the coach is able to do his job.
With that in mind, I've ranked the five head coaching vacancies in order of desirability:

Atlanta: Arthur Blank is not without his faults, but he has generally been an owner who will allow those he hires to run the team, be allowed to do so without intervening in the day-to-day operations. In his press conference, it was pretty clear he liked Mike Smith, the man who was removed as head coach, but felt there was no choice in the matter but to let Smith go.

Additionally, there are some good players on the roster, such as Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Desmond Trufant, so it's not a complete rebuilding project. It's not exactly a "reloading" situation, though, as the defense does need much overhauling and there are some positions on the offense to address.

The general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, has had a fairly good track record with his drafts, but his ventures into free agency have been hit or miss. And, while Blank isn't considered the impatient type, there might be some concern as to how much longer Blank will give Dimitroff to turn things around in terms of personnel decisions.

Still, the Falcons have the most desirable head coaching position. It's the one position I would accept if I were Rex Ryan, as he would be in a more stable situation than he was with his previous employer.

Buffalo: The Bills are now under the ownership of Terry Pegula, and while it remains to be seen how he will fare as the owner, it does appear that he will follow a similar path to Ralph Wilson, in that he will allow those who run the day-to-day operations to do so. A new coach will know he will get to start fresh with a new owner in building a good franchise.

And in Buffalo, there isn't that much building that needs to be done. The defense was very good and the majority of the players will return. There are some quality receivers and offensive linemen as well. The Bills do need a quarterback, and will have to determine what to do at running back, though, and this must be accomplished without a first-round pick in the 2015 draft.

That brings us to the general manager, Doug Whaley, who took over late last year. While it isn't clear how much influence he had on all of the Bills' recent draft picks, it does appear fair to credit him with the decisions made in the 2014 draft. Considering that he gave up a lot to move up in the draft to select Sammy Watkins, it's not quite a good reflection on his draft acumen. A new coach might wonder if Whaley might not be with the franchise for much longer, particularly if Watkins doesn't pay greater dividends next season.

That aside, there is plenty to like about the Bills' situation, so while it's not as desirable as the Falcons, it's still a good landing spot. As the Bills have a good defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz, it's an ideal place for a offensive-minded coach who can help the offense improve, particularly at the QB position.

Chicago: The Bears ownership is not without its weaknesses, but again, this is a team in which the owners aren't constantly meddling in the day-to-day operations. So whoever is hired as a coach should feel comfortable that he will be allowed to do his job as he sees fit.

Additionally, whoever is the new coach will get to start with a new general manager, so there won't be any immediate concerns about a general manager who may be on a short leash. The new coach could work with the new GM to construct a roster that would fit a common vision.

There are some pieces in place on the offense, but the one issue is whether or not the Bears wish to keep Jay Cutler, given how undesirable his contract is, relative to his on-field performance. Would the new coach be willing to give Cutler a chance to redeem himself, or would he prefer to move on, and if the latter, could he do so without raising a huge fuss about it? Additionally, the defense must be rebuilt almost entirely, all while trying to deal with a few underachieving players who weren't signed to team-friendly contracts.

I don't believe Chicago is as desirable a landing spot as Atlanta, but it's not a bad situation overall. It just requires a coach who, along with the new GM, can clearly communicate with the fanbase about their vision and can delicately handle the quarterback situation.

Oakland: It's hard to figure out exactly what direction Mark Davis wants the Raiders to go, but at the very least, he's nowhere near as hands-on with team affairs as his father was. There are questions, though, as to whether or not he truly allows the men in charge to do their jobs. One only needs to look back at the Rodger Saffold situation and wonder what role Davis played in that.

Speaking of which, that brings us to Reggie McKenzie, who has been hit or miss with his personnel decisions. He's been solid from a drafting standpoint, but not as good in free agency. While he did get the cap situation back under control, his signings last season seemed more about showing he was willing to spend money, rather than improve the team overall. And there is the question about how long McKenize may last in his position.

With that said, some of the players he has drafted could pay dividends down the road. Khalil Mack looks like a very good find, Derek Carr improved throughout the season, and D.J. Hayden showed some promise when he was able to take the field.

The Raiders do have a few good selling points, but the questions surrounding ownership and the GM make this one not as desirable. It will certainly require a coach who is willing to show a lot of patience and can do a good job selling his vision.

New York Jets: We now come to one of the two teams with an owner who tends to meddle too much into team affairs. Woody Johnson is most frequently cited as the person who wanted Tim Tebow when the Broncos put him on the trading block several years ago, and reportedly had a hand in bringing Brett Favre on board. One has to wonder if he is going to be content to back away and let those who run the day-to-day operations, to do their jobs as they see fit.

Still, there are some desirable points to the job. The Jets will be looking for a new general manager, so as with Chicago, the coach and GM can be linked together for a common vision. The Jets do have a few quality players on both sides of the ball, although they do have plenty of positions that remain a question mark. 

Finally, there is the media presence to consider. The Jets come under far more scrutiny than the Giants do, in large part because the franchise has been so inconsistent over the years. It adds up to a position in which a coach might be able to find some success, but will need to clearly communicate that the team is rebuilding and that there is no quick fix. That's something he'll have to especially communicate to Johnson, who strikes me as an owner who wants to win now.

San Francisco: One would think the 49ers job would be a desirable one -- after all, look at all the talent they have, and they aren't that far removed from three playoff trips! Except a closer look reveals that the Niners are projected to be above the salary cap next season, they will likely cut loose several veterans, some of the younger players now carry question marks, and they could lose a few key free agents. In other words, the Niners might be closer to a team in need of rebuilding than one that needs to reload.

And then there's general manager Trent Baalke, who seems to have the trust of Jed York, but who knows how long that will last. Baalke's draft record has been spotty, and given the team's cap situation, the draft is where the team really needs to get it right. How can a new coach trust that Baalke will get it right, and that he will stick around for more than a season if things don't go so well in 2015?

Finally, there is Jed York, who has given me the impression of an owner who is more interested in having a coach who never expresses an opinion, regardless of what results he gets on the field. Jim Harbaugh can be a pain to deal with, but he gets results more often than not. Owners who aren't interested in meddling in the day-to-day operations of a team would happily keep Harbaugh around -- they might not always agree with what he says, but it wouldn't matter to them if their teams kept making playoff appearances and were a Super Bowl favorite.

York's response to those questioning what happened with Harbaugh is the reason I don't find the Niners' job to be very desirable. I suspect any coach who goes there will have a hard time finding success, particularly a coach who isn't afraid to express his opinion on the direction he thinks the team should take. The fact ownership in San Francisco seems more interested in having a "yes man" for a coach makes this a job I would not have interest in.

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