Ranking the NFL's head coach openings: Which vacancy is the best?January 13, 2022
The 2022 firing cycle is underway. Now we're entering the hiring phase.
If we're ranking the NFL's head coach openings, it's a robust array to sort through. Nearly one quarter of the league has vacancies (or in the Las Vegas Raiders' case, lacks clarity) at head coach, plus a few more also seeking general managers. Yet there might not be that one truly tremendous opening that screams "Super Bowl" in short order.
All come with some roadblocks. There are, however, a few openings with some serious caveat emptor at play.
So let's rank the seven openings, worst to first, to see how they stack up.
For now, we're including the Raiders even though they're in the playoffs and could consider sticking with interim head coach Rich Bisaccia.
This list does not include the Houston Texans, who to this point have dragged their feet and remained silent about the status of head coach David Culley.
7. New York Giants
Not long ago, Joe Judge was reportedly safe. Then he wasn't.
Right move or wrong — Giants fans overwhelmingly side with "right" — Judge had a chance to convince ownership he was the man for the job, and he could not achieve that. We're assuming the tenor of his talk with John Mara was not similar to Judge's bizarre postgame rant two weeks ago, but we can't rule it out.
Whatever the case, the Giants are seeking their fourth full-time head coach since letting Tom Coughlin walk. That's now three straight two-year tenures for disastrous hires: Ben McAdoo, Pat Shurmur and Judge. You know Mara and Giants executive vice president Steve Tisch wanted to avoid firing another coach in such a short timeframe but could not find reason for sticking with the status quo.
Perhaps that's the silver lining: The next coach, barring a fourth disaster, could be granted a bit more time to develop a roster and revive the culture. There also are two high draft picks (Nos. 5 and 7 overall) with which to build, plus an open general manager position that could bring a fresh set of eyes to get things back on track. There also are some young players worth building around.
But Daniel Jones remains unproven. The salary-cap situation, especially for such a bad team, requires some major massage therapy. The scouting department is ripe for a housecleaning if the owners allow the new GM to do so. Some players clearly quit down the stretch.
And, wild as it is to say for a once-touchstone franchise with an ownership group that's overseen two Super Bowl titles, there's just a losing air around the team that must be fumigated. Since 2017, no team has a worse record than the Giants' 22-58 mark (the crosstown Jets have matched their ineptitude).
GM Dave Gettleman also "retired," although it certainly didn't feel completely voluntary. But he was given a pregame ceremony in Week 18, handed his gold watch and sent on his way.
Where any semblance of blame for his roster mistakes been this week? Judge is by no means beyond reproach, but Gettleman mostly being allowed to skate off into the sunset while the former head coach is skewered feels like an ownership-driven overreach.
Even the promise of free-flowing medium Pepsis at MetLife Stadium couldn't prevent the team's final few home games from looking like ghost towns on game day.
The glass-half-full candidate can look at the possibilities of this nowhere-but-up situation, but lordy, there is a lot fo clean up.
6. Chicago Bears
We had a conversation with a veteran administrator with multiple interviews for GM openings in recent years and posed the question: What are the most important factors for determining the attractiveness of job openings, for both head coaches and quarterbacks?
"The biggest factor, the one you guys overlook too much, is ownership," the administrator said. "Ownership and the front-office (structure). If those are bad situations, then the job is bad. Even if there's talent, draft picks, cap space, a quarterback — all that stuff. A bad owner or bad management, that can poison the whole well."
With the Bears, it's not so much current ownership. Virginia McCaskey is, in some ways, the First Lady of Football. She's highly respected and is a direct line to football royalty with George Halas. The franchise's heritage and tradition stack up with nearly any other in the league. But McCaskey also is 99 years old, and the succession plan is unclear.
Son George McCaskey, the de facto next in line, recently embarrassed himself with an awkward media conference following the exits of head coach Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace.
Is team president Ted Phillips strictly on board with the team's pursuit of a new stadium deal? Or, as he sits in on head-coach and GM interviews, is he still doing more behind the scenes? The lack of a clear power structure could entice a potential GM to seize some real estate — or it could freak them out without a clear ownership succession plan.
The roster is not a wasteland, with the promise of quarterback Justin Fields and some defensive stalwarts onboard, but there are shortages of depth and draft picks (no first- or fourth-rounders this year). The next two teams on this list are not too far ahead of the Bears, but the organizational dreck is a tie-breaking anchor.
5. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins just fired a coach who had winning records the past two seasons and a career mark of 4-2 vs. division rival and former boss, Bill Belichick. The reason given for Brian Flores' defenestration: a lack of communication with people in the organization.
Flores was not without flaws, as his handling of the offensive coordinator position and QB Tua Tagovailoa is fair game for criticism. The specter of Deshaun Watson hanging over the franchise didn't help, whether that was Flores' doing or not.
But who is really to blame here? Owner Stephen Ross purchased the team before the 2009 season, and it has been stuck in seemingly perpetual mediocrity since. They've never dipped below 5-11 in that span but have only three winning seasons — two with Flores in charge.
Ross also stuck with GM Chris Grier and shot down rumors he was going to bring in Jim Harbaugh, saying he had no specific hand-picked replacement for Flores in mind.
Grier's recent drafts have been a mixed bag, and the one-time treasure trove of draft assets the team sat on is dwindling a bit. There's still the 2023 first-rounder Miami is owed from the 49ers, but Grier's recent drafts — with Tua over Justin Herbert, a decision some Dolphins scouts disagreed with at the time — haven't replenished the talent base significantly.
Is Grier, after winning a power struggle with Flores, on solid footing? Or could a high-profile coach's arrival change that? it's unclear.
Florida's tax-friendly status and the glitz of Miami make it a star-friendly destination, but that also requires the team spending wisely and adding the right pieces. That hasn't always gone according to plan under the current front office.
This is no dumpster fire, but it's hardly the oceanside resort some want to make it out to be.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Please refer back to our earlier quote, the one about ownership and organizational structure. Then throw in culture. Those elements are impossible to overlook with this opening. For all the talk of this being a blank canvas, there are equal (or greater) parts of serious concern to any discerning eye.
Outside of the 2017 "almost" season, the Jaguars have been cloaked in a losing culture. Even with the one division title to his name, owner Shad Khan has overseen the NFL's worst record — by nine games! — since the start of the 2012. They've averaged 3.6 victories in the other nine seasons, not counting 2017.
The drafting of Trevor Lawrence brought promise, and the hiring of Urban Meyer, while drawing a fair number of skeptics at the time, also appeared to indicate a sign of hope and a willingness to do whatever it takes to reverse the team's downward spiral.
Meyer flamed out in spectacular fashion, and Lawrence overall was a major disappointment in Year 1. Fans came to TIAA Bank Field adorned in mustachioed clown masks and paid for a "Klowntown" flyover before the last home game, mocking their owner.
Khan has been credited for not meddling in most football matters, but at some point his inaction has become sufferance. Sticking with GM Trent Baalke after the season has rankled fans seeking a new scapegoat, and it could keep some head-coaching candidates from seeking the position.
The untapped promise of Lawrence still registers in the "pro" column for the job, and the Jaguars will pick atop the draft again this year, but neither fully negates the long list of "cons" here. There's really nowhere to go but up, but there's also a long road back to respectability.
3. Minnesota Vikings
Owner Zygi Wilf can fairly be called a patient man. After all, recently fired head coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman had been in their posts for eight and 10 years, respectively, with Spielman having been with the franchise six years before his promotion. The sense with both moves, certainly with Zimmer, was that it was just time.
Structurally speaking, that's pretty darned even-keeled by NFL standards. Many other franchises have cycled through multiple coaches and GMs in that span.
Even at their lowest points, such as the 2010-2011 nadir, or even the past two seasons, the Vikings rarely have hit rock bottom. Yes, the franchise might appear star-crossed in some ways, but you wouldn't fairly list them among the biggest train wrecks imaginable.
The Vikings have a newly minted gem of a downtown stadium that is among the league's best, plus a rabid fanbase that's starving for a Super Bowl title. The roster also appears promising in some ways, with stars at receiver (Justin Jefferson) and running back (Dalvin Cook), though Cook is facing troubling allegations of assault, battery and false imprisonment.
They also have an above-average quarterback in Kirk Cousins who rarely misses games, but Cousins isn't viewed universally as an asset. He's due $35 million in his age-34 season and will count against the team's salary cap for $45 million in 2022, which is especially unwieldy for a team currently in the red by almost $10 million. Cuts or trades appear to be needed; will Cousins be the one dealt or cut, or will it be others?
This is by no means a bad job, and there's enough talent in win in 2022, especially if this is Aaron Rodgers' last ride in Green Bay. We don't believe it is, but at the very least, the remainder of the division remains in reclamation mode, and the Vikings went 8-9 this season with eight of the nine losses by one score.
2. Las Vegas Raiders
This team is the ultimate Rorschach test in some ways.
On the surface, there's a lot to like about the current state of the franchise. They're in the playoffs, after all, having shown a lot of resilience in the aftermath of Jon Gruden's inglorious exit and the releases of recent first-round picks Henry Ruggs and Damon Arnette for disturbing off-field incidents.
QB Derek Carr must be viewed as a positive, perhaps the best quarterback of all the openings. And for all the potential trappings of Las Vegas, we're talking about a destination city — and there's no state income tax in Nevada, which cannot go overlooked. The Raiders play in a great stadium and appear to have eager fans ready to back a winner.
But there also are pitfalls. Owner Mark Davis is considered cash-poor (by NFL owner standards) and a bit of a suspicious franchise figurehead. The future of GM Mike Mayock remains unclear, and his recent draft hauls haven't borne the fruit you'd expect of a team currently in the postseason.
Carr also is entering the final year of his five-year, $125 million deal and certainly will command a pretty penny to extend further. His future might be entering a flashpoint here.
Then again, there's ample cap space this offseason to spend, and the roster has enough surface appeal — with Carr, Darren Waller, Maxx Crosby, Kolton Miller and some intriguing 2021 draft picks — to attract some respected coaching talent.
Like a metaphor for Vegas itself, taking this job is a high-stakes dice roll, but it's one with a respectable shot to pay off at some point.
1. Denver Broncos
With no clear, obvious choice for the top spot, the Broncos end up here almost by default.
What tormented ex-coach Vic Fangio (and his predecessor, Vance Joseph) remains the biggest current bugaboo here: no star quarterback. That and having to face Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert twice a season, perhaps for the next decade, are two major worries that cannot go overlooked.
GM George Paton is a respected evaluator, but his pursuit of a franchise QB and handpicking Fangio's successor could be trials by fire. Finding the right guy at both spots are daunting challenges for a second-year general manager.
But outside of QB, the roster looks to be in excellent shape, there's salary-cap flexibility in 2022 and beyond, and Denver is armed with additional draft ammo to make a run at an established star passer. There's a path to winning here, even in what should be a humdinger of a division to navigate annually.
If there's a wild-card aspect that's concerning, it's the ownership situation.
We won't bore you with the legal details, but a recent court order has paved the way for the team's eventual sale. And though pipe dreams of a Peyton Manning-led purchase might make for great talk radio fodder, there's no guarantee that some well-heeled whale (who may or may not have the slightest clue about owning a franchise) can't come over the top with any offer.
We've seen what toxic ownership groups can do to an organization. Even one as beloved by its fans as the Broncos are.
Still, at the end of the day, this is a football-steeped city with a strong measure of pride and a heck of a recent tradition. A number of head-coaching candidates would love to land this job. Win here and you become royalty. But lose, and you might meet the same fates as Joseph and Fangio.
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