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Matching NFL Head Coaches with Teams: The 2024 Cycle

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It’s not a stretch to say this is the most seismic coaching cycle in the NFL in years. There was the usual round of Black Monday firings with the Commanders and Falcons letting their head coaches go, neither of which was much of a surprise. But in the three days after that, the Titans fired HC Mike Vrabel, the Seahawks forced out HC Pete Carroll, and the Patriots parted ways with the greatest NFL head coach of all time, Bill Belichick. All three have been fixtures on the list of top NFL coaches for years, but the league moves fast. The Patriots named LB coach Jerod Mayo the successor to Belichick the day after and for better or worse they’re moving into the future. Seven remaining teams with coaching vacancies will also spend the next few weeks looking ahead, and more teams could join them with unsettled situations in Dallas and Philadelphia worth monitoring. Here’s a look at the current open coaching vacancies and the best match to fill each one. You can find the candidates who have been linked to teams or requested for interviews at our 2024 NFL HC & GM Tracker:

Atlanta Falcons: Former Patriots HC Bill Belichick

When Falcons owner Arthur Blank decided to fire HC Arthur Smith after three straight 7-10 seasons, he was making a specific statement. Smith and GM Terry Fontenot were hired at the same time in 2021 and had a mess of a situation to dig out of. Atlanta’s salary cap situation was legitimately the worst in the league and it took two years to fix. They also had to chart a path forward at quarterback with veteran Matt Ryan at what proved to be the end of his career. Blank says everyone, including himself, Fontenot and Smith, was on board with the decision to gamble on QB Desmond Ridder in 2023. Smith is the only one who lost his job. Thanks to the power of deductive reasoning, it’s fair to say Blank thought Smith underachieved with the roster he assembled alongside Fontenot — and a new coach could get more out of the team and possibly give the 81-year-old Blank a chance at a Super Bowl ring. Replacing Smith with a first-time head coach would be a gamble, but fortunately for Blank it happens to be a strong year for proven coaching candidates with established resumes. (Had it not been, perhaps Smith is still in Atlanta preparing for Year 4). There are a plethora of big names available to hire and Blank will have options, whether it’s Vrabel, Belichick, or Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh.

Only one of those men has won a Super Bowl, however. Any team who hires Belichick understands the 72-year-old coach is not a long-term solution. He’s probably only there for as long as it takes him to catch Don Shula for the wins record, which is 15 total or 26 for just the regular season. But for Blank, prioritizing the short-term over the future should be just fine. It’s worth noting at this point the Falcons are the only team to meet with Belichick, though that doesn’t mean they won’t have competition to land him. Belichick has proven to still be a strong defensive coach and should be able to elevate that side of the ball in Atlanta to a level they haven’t seen in a long, long time. On offense, there’s a lot of talent to work with and that could offset Belichick’s poor track record when it comes to personnel decisions over the past several years. He does still need to figure out the quarterback position, and like so many coaches who have come from his tree, there are questions about how the New England philosophy translates outside of New England. But hiring the greatest coach of all time is a roll of the dice worth making.

Carolina Panthers: Buccaneers OC Dave Canales

It’s fair to say the Panthers are at the bottom of the NFL totem pole right now. Not only do they have the NFL’s worst record and the No. 1 pick — which they’ll send to the Bears as a result of their trade last year to No. 1 to pick QB Bryce Young — but things have somehow seemed to just keep getting worse under owner Dave Tepper. He took over in 2018 and since then the Panthers have had six straight losing seasons. During that time, Tepper earned a reputation as an impatient, meddling and hot-tempered owner. I hesitate to say things hit rock bottom when he was caught on video throwing a drink on a fan during a loss to the Jaguars in Week 17 — because there’s certainly room for things to still get worse — but there’s no question that moment was emblematic of Tepper’s struggles in his first several years as an owner. The harsh reality is the Panthers will face a stacked deck against them when it comes to luring the top coaching candidates. Anyone who has options will likely have options perceived as better than the Panthers. It’s not all bad, however. History says the NFL and all of us in the peanut gallery are horrendous at projecting which hires will be successful and which will flop. The Lions were perceived as having an awful job that no one wanted when they hired HC Dan Campbell. Since then, Campbell has turned the team around and just snapped a three-decade playoff victory drought. So missing out on the hot candidates can be a blessing in disguise.

At this time a year ago, the conversation around the Houston Texans sounded remarkably similar to how the Panthers are being viewed. The Texans had just fired coaches in back-to-back seasons, had an owner who was the punchline of jokes around the NFL and a front office plagued by leaks and in-fighting. Now after appearing to hit on a coach and a quarterback, they’re in the playoffs and the vibes are back to being good. Winning is like deodorant — it covers up a lot. If the Panthers make the right hire this year, things can turn around fast. It’s fair to doubt Tepper’s ability to make a positive hire but even the worst owners can get lucky sometimes. Right now the Panthers’ head coaching search has a heavy lean toward candidates from the offensive side of the ball, which makes sense considering modern trends in the NFL and the presence of Young, whose career is already in need of revitalizing just months after he arrived as the hopeful franchise savior. They’re aiming high with Johnson, but landing him feels a little too ambitious considering the current state of things. I think Tepper will still want to hire a young offensive mind, so these are the alternatives currently on their interview list, along with their age: Brian Callahan (39) Buccaneers OC Dave Canales (42) Dolphins OC Frank Smith (42) Eagles OC Brian Johnson (36) Ravens OC Todd Monken (57) Texans OC Bobby Slowik (36). Admittedly I don’t have much of a read beyond that on which candidate the Panthers will eventually settle on. Smith’s background on the offensive line and down-to-earth demeanor are positives for him, while Callahan has a long track record in Cincinnati and Slowik is one of the young rising stars. But I think Canales would be a fascinating hire. He’s been a common thread in two breakout quarterback seasons now after working as the QB coach for Geno Smith in Seattle and the play-caller for Baker Mayfield in Tampa this past season. The Bucs’ offense took a big leap forward despite similar or arguably worse personnel, and there have been positive reports on Canales’ ability to relate to players. It would also have the added benefit of making a division rival worse, although Canales would qualify the Buccaneers for two third-round picks as a minority hire. Ultimately there are a lot of interesting ways the Panthers can go with this hire, and for the sake of their fanbase, I hope they get it right.

Las Vegas Raiders: Interim HC Antonio Pierce

It’s not unique that the Raiders are in a position where they have to decide between elevating an interim head coach who far and away exceeded expectations or a more recognizable outsider. Heck, Las Vegas faced this same dilemma two years ago and passed…

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