The NFL coaching carousel always brings surprises, and the first couple of weeks of the 2023 cycle have been no different in that regard. For the moment, some of the big surprises have been based on what hasn't happened, as opposed to what has.
Sean McVay's long-speculated-upon exit from the Rams sideline never materialized, with McVay indicating to the team he's returning to Los Angeles despite having allowed his assistants to job hunt. Elsewhere in the City of Angels, Brandon Staley's seat was perceived to be red-hot after the Chargers' meltdown in Jacksonville on Saturday, but it now appears that multiple Staley assistants and not the head coach himself will be sacrificed after the loss. Also in the surprise category was Jim Harbaugh's announcement -- for the second straight year -- that he'd forego NFL opportunities to return to Michigan.
But mystery remains, to be sure, with Sean Payton having established himself as the undisputed hot candidate being pursued by nearly every team with a job opening. But not all five teams with vacancies can hire the former Saints Super Bowl winner, so other names continue to abound. ESPN Insiders Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler bring you up to date on all the latest carousel chatter as the NFL calendar heads into the divisional round of the playoffs.
Sean Payton has now received permission to interview with the Broncos, Cardinals, Panthers and Texans -- how would you rank the fits? Would the Chargers job have been a better situation for Payton than the other open jobs?
Graziano: The whole "fits" thing gives me fits. The best fit for every job is the best coach. Payton has a wealth of head-coaching experience to go with his incomparable playcalling experience, and would be an asset to any team. Now, from Payton's perspective, yeah, I would think coaching Justin Herbert would be his top choice if that job were to come open. If it doesn't, I think Denver is most likely for him, as the Broncos can offer money on a different level than anyone else can. My questions for Payton here would be how much personnel control he'll have if GM George Paton remains in place, as well as just how wedded the new head coach will be to quarterback Russell Wilson if Wilson doesn't show improvement over 2022.
Fowler: Dan, we will keep "fits" to fashion statements and roll with "options" instead. As far as personnel, yes, the Chargers would be Payton's best chance to win. But the Chargers value draft picks and collaboration, which seem like deterrents for any Payton deal. Plus, they are sticking with Brandon Staley.I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm going with Houston for the best option. Houston has 11 picks in this year's draft, including the second and 12th overall selections, along with nearly $40 million in cap space and some intriguing players. It's a rebuild, but one Payton would have time to make into a champion. This is a job on Payton's radar. And, I'm guessing Houston is desperate enough for a winner that he could have major influence on personnel. After that, I'd take Carolina and Denver in a tie, followed by Arizona.
How surprised are you that Sean McVay is returning to the Rams? What is that organization's path for a return to relevance under McVay?
Fowler: Mildly surprised. As of early last week, some people in the building believed he might be done. But I go back to what a team source told me about a month ago: He's too competitive to go out like this (5-12). That feeling seemed to prevail here. McVay wants to fix this. The television booth will always be there. In the short term, McVay will address his coaching staff. Sources said multiple changes on the offensive staff are likely. Once again, the Rams have no money -- around minus-$14 million in cap space, according to Overthecap.com -- and they'll need to restructure some contracts and still consider spending a little in free agency. The offensive line needs upgrades. And they could use at least one more pass-rusher up front.
Graziano: It did start to sound last week as if he might leave, Jeremy, and your report about him letting assistants look for other jobs was a strong clue about that. So I guess it's a surprise that he ultimately decided to stay. But there was no obvious big TV job waiting for him, and I do think there was some element of not wanting to go out on a down year. That said, this is a major rebuilding project, and while the short-term fixes do involve improvements on the lines, they are going to need to start thinking very soon about the long-term plan at quarterback, post-Matthew Stafford. The return to relevance is likely going to be a longer-term reset than a quick fix.
Which coordinator improved his head-coaching market the most on wild-card weekend?
Graziano: Mike Kafka, Giants offensive coordinator. I think DeMeco Ryans' stock was already super high, so give me Kafka, the Giants playcaller who masterminded Daniel Jones' brilliant performance in the victory over the Vikings. Kafka is an Andy Reid disciple who has been thought for a long time to have a bright future as an NFL coach, and the Texans, Colts and Panthers have already put him on their interview request lists. He might not land something in this cycle, but he's a name to watch in the future for sure.
Fowler: Yeah, Kafka's a great call. Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore had a great audition on a national stage Monday night. The Cowboys' offense was in complete control against a good (but aging and slower) Bucs defense. He deserves credit for helping Dak Prescott calm down after a rough stretch of turnovers. Moore was a finalist in Miami last year and is expected to interview with Carolina. Though he might be a long shot for that job, he's head-coach material at this point. His time will come. Could add Buffalo offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey to this list, too.
What is the current likelihood of either 2022 long-term interim coach -- Jeff Saturday (Colts) or Steve Wilks (Panthers) -- receiving the permanent job? What's the biggest hurdle for each?
Fowler: In Carolina, Wilks will likely be a finalist, but there's a feeling among some in the league that owner David Tepper will go offense. Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson returning to Detroit was an interesting move because the Panthers were excited to speak to him. He appeared to have some traction there. But there's plenty of time for a candidate to sway Panthers brass, too. Wilks has a strong offensive plan in place should he get the job.In Indy, mystery surrounds Saturday's campaign. Indy has interviewed seven candidates and has three more on the list. It sure seems like GM Chris Ballard has his stamp on the search. Will Saturday close the deal late? Perhaps owner Jim Irsay wouldn't mind that.
Graziano: Saturday's interview with the Colts is expected to be sometime this week. He headed home to Atlanta late last week to take care of some family obligations, and as you mention, the Colts in the meantime have been interviewing a bunch of internal and external candidates. Saturday is serious about wanting the job and has been doing some research on potential candidates for his staff in case he gets it. And Irsay, I do believe, would love to be able to hire Saturday full time. But GM Chris Ballard and vice chair Carlie Irsay-Gordon are heavily involved in the search process as well, so it's looks as if it's going to be a more collaborative decision.As for Wilks, I'm hearing the same stuff you are -- that the Panthers are leaning toward one of the younger offensive guys.
Other head-coach/GM/coordinator rumblings
Carolina is interviewing defensive-coordinator candidates concurrently with its interviews for head coach, with former Broncos coach Vic Fangio a leading candidate to run the defense if the Panthers were to hire an inexperienced offensive-minded head coach. ... The Tennessee Titans continue to look at offensive-coordinator candidates to replace Todd Downing, but it's possible they end up promoting passing-game coordinator Tim Kelly to the job. Kelly and Mike Vrabel coached together in Houston for four years before Vrabel got the job as Titans head coach, and Vrabel promoted from within the past two times this job came open. Arthur Smith ascended to the job when Matt LaFleur left for Green Bay, and Downing was promoted to the OC job when Smith left to coach the Falcons.
You've seen it reported that teams are asking permission to interview Saints co-defensive coordinators Ryan Nielsen and Kris Richard for defensive coordinator jobs. Normally, teams can block their coordinators from interviewing for other coordinator jobs. But because Nielsen and Richard are co-defensive coordinators and neither is the playcaller, a defensive coordinator job somewhere else would be deemed a promotion, which means the Saints can't block them from interviewing for them.
Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores was a strong candidate for the Browns' defensive coordinator job that ended up going to Jim Schwartz. Flores remains a candidate for defensive coordinator in Atlanta and has interest in the job, according to sources. There could be more defensive coordinator openings this cycle, including in Miami (though Flores obviously wouldn't be a candidate there), and of course teams that hire new head coaches will be looking for coordinators as well.
Denver's search got more interesting with Jim Harbaugh returning to Michigan. The Broncos had a chance to throw their fastball at Sean Payton in Tuesday's interview, selling the merits of the job. He's still viewed as a prime candidate. And Dan Quinn is still a factor here. He has fans in the building. ... Houston is more organized this time around after back-to-back hires that didn't work out. The Texans are getting a quick jump on interviews. Talking to Payton on Monday night, ahead of his other interviews, was noteworthy. The aggressive move would be setting potential trade parameters with Saints GM Mickey Loomis ahead of time, and chances are they've done so already. Meanwhile, Jonathan Gannon is still believed to be a favorite of GM Nick Caserio. ... The Cardinals could go defense this time around, and Vance Joseph, Brian Flores and DeMeco Ryans are part of the focus. All three will get their shot to win it. After asking around, I do think the buzz around Flores and this job is real. There's some traction, but it's still early. And Joseph is well-respected in the building, which helps his case.
Six teams have offensive coordinator jobs open after the Chargers fired Joe Lombardi, and more could be on the way. Offensive staff changes are potentially looming in Tampa Bay and New Orleans, which could involve the playcaller. The feeling is Todd Bowles needs to reinvent his offense in Year 2. The Saints averaged 13.5 points per game over the final six games. And some people inside the league are watching Baltimore OC Greg Roman's future closely. Questions persist about whether his four-year stint as playcaller has run its course. ... Minnesota defensive coordinator Ed Donatell is a name to watch after the Vikings ranked 31st in total defense. There's no firm decision on his future yet, but change is possible there.
Tennessee's general manager search came into focus quickly with 49ers director of player personnel Ran Carthon, a longtime personnel man who has worked for the Falcons and Rams and helped develop San Francisco's powerful roster. Though in-house candidate Ryan Cowden was considered a finalist, clearly Tennessee -- which is at a critical junction coming off seven consecutive losses -- is looking for new blood, new ideas. ... A name to watch in next year's circuit will be Bears assistant general manager Ian Cunningham, who had major traction for the Arizona GM job and was a finalist in Tennessee. Cunningham had extensive talks with the Cardinals about the job before the franchise eventually named Monti Ossenfort the general manager.