Theme Week’s here, and with it a very contemporary question that will involve virtually every franchise around the NFL.
Which assistant coach on every NFL team is the most likely to get a head coaching gig in the future?
With New York Giants former Head Coach Ben McAdoo opening the floodgates with the first firing of the season, ESPN’s Brian Burke posted his projected firings across the NFL this morning (insider subscription required). Those projections list three coaches above a 50% chance of getting fired: Indianapolis Colts HC Chuck Pagano (74%), Cleveland Browns HC Hue Jackson (69%) and Chicago Bears HC John Fox (62%). Another four coaches own probabilities of being fired between 33% and 40%.
Just based off of those numbers alone, that would leave five teams looking to hire new staffs come January. As the Los Angeles Rams just showed themselves 11 months ago, the process is a lengthy one. Assembling a coaching staff is much more than just hiring a head coach. The Rams now count 24 members on their coaching staff, 21 of whom are in their first year with the club. So for five NFL franchises to build out new staffs, that’s 100 jobs opening up that will reshuffle the coaching landscape across the NFL and college.
Let’s look at who from the Rams’ staff could be in line to take over one of those staffs either in 2018 or beyond.
Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur
Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips
Special Teams Coordinator John Fassel
Obviously, if you’re looking at potential head coaching hires the two primary pools you look to are former head coaches with experience overseeing staffs at this level or promoting coordinators to take on the highest level of responsibility. Neither approach is certain to work. The Rams tried promoting coordinators from both sides in former Rams head coaches Scott Linehan and Steve Spagnuolo before going for the experience angle in Jeff Fisher. All three were unable to right the ship. Having hired Sean McVay and certified their first winning record since 2003, clearly there will be pressure on NFL teams to find the next young budding football mind to put into the seat that can also handle the media and off-field rigors the position requires.
Of the Rams’ three coordinators, obviously Phillips has a leg up. He has three head coaching stints under his belt with the Denver Broncos (1993-94), Buffalo Bills (1998-2000) and Dallas Cowboys (2007-10). This is his 26th season as a defensive coordinator. He knows the job. It’s hard to really gauge his interest in a head coaching spot though. At 70 years of age and having taken on his third successive defensive coordinator role since his last head coaching gig, it might not even be something he would sincerely entertain.
LaFleur’s an interesting candidate. He has shot up the coaching ladder. In 2003, Wade Phillips was the defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. Matt LaFleur was a backup quarterback for the Omaha Beef. The Omaha Beef... He jumped through the college ranks into the NFL in 2008 as a offensive quality control coach with the Houston Texans before three QB coach runs that preceded his promotion to offensive coordinator with the Rams. I think the interesting angle here is how functionally tied to McVay he is. Bear in mind that Washington Playcallers Head Coach Jay Gruden called the offensive plays in his first season as HC in Washington with McVay as his OC. In year two, McVay took over playcalling duties:
Gruden ditched playcalling because he had other areas to focus on throughout the week, which is why he had McVay call plays. Handling multiple roles proved taxing for Gruden.
I wonder if there’s a similar path in front of McVay and LaFleur in LA. If so then much like McVay, LaFleur would likely wait for these responsibilities before seeking a promotion elsewhere.
As for Fassel, his run as interim head coach in 2016 after Fisher’s firing brought him newfound fame. That McVay elected to keep him on staff tells you how respected he is by the roster and his peers in the coaching ranks. That the Rams continue to have arguably the best special teams unit in all facets tells you just how damn good he is as a special teams coordinator. The question is if a promotion is forthcoming in some fashion. We’re in an era where special teams coordinators just aren’t being given the reins. Only Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh has made the jump from teams in the last 25 years. It wasn’t always so. Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy was a teams coach and even coached the Rams’ special teams in 1970. Dick Vermeil came up as a special teams coach with the Rams the following year before taking over as head coach at UCLA Bruins. Almost 30 years later, he helmed the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV to the only Super Bowl win in franchise history. Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick came up through the special teams ranks. But since Belichick’s hiring in 1991, Harbaugh has been the lone wolf as a ST coach to get a promotion to the top of a staff. It’s probably instructive then to note that Harbaugh requested, and received, approval to take on a position coaching duty with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007. After nine seasons as a ST coach, he was also assigned to coach defensive backs in his 10th season specifically to improve his resume as a potential head coach. I wonder if we’ll see something similar for Fassel in the seasons ahead. Without a similar designation (and perhaps he won’t even ask for one if he’s complacent to remain a ST coach), I’d be surprised if he gets a head coach offer though we’ve seen ST coaches land some interviews like Kansas City Chiefs ST Coach Dave Toub who was interviewed twice this year.
The Position Coaches
QB Coach Greg Olson
RB Coach Skip Peete
WR Coach Eric Yarber
TE Coach Shane Waldron
OL Coach Aaron Kromer
DL Coach Bill Johnson
LB Coach Joe Barry
CB Coach Aubrey Pleasant
S Coach Ejiro Evero
You’ve got two camps from the position coaches: those who have coordinator experience and those who don’t.
The latter would be unlikely to land a head coach job directly from a position coaching role. This crew would in all probability land an offensive or defensive coordinator position if sought. So for Peete, Yarber, Waldron, Johnson, Pleasant and Evero, there’s too big of a gulf to jump to an NFL head coaching position. Of that group, Peete’s likely the closest to a coordinator opportunity, though Johnson might be in line as a DC elsewhere soon.
The other group has coordinator experience previously. Barry, currently the assistant head coach as well as the linebackers coach, was previously the defensive coordinator with the Detroit Lions and Washington. Olson has had five runs as OC including with the St. Louis Rams in 2006 and 2007. And Kromer took over as interim head coach with the New Orleans Saints for the first six games in 2012 during the Bountygate scandal before a two-year gig as offensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears. So while it’s perhaps an outside shot for any of those three to land a head coaching gig, I wouldn’t be surprised at any of them at least talking to some teams in the offseason/s ahead.
Nothing lasts forever. With other firings to come and jobs opening up, coaches will be sure to explore new opportunities and discuss the changing landscape of the NFL.
For the Rams as it’s year one for this staff as assembled, I’d be surprised at much if any turnover in 2018. Given how successful the Rams have been out of the gate in 2017 under McVay’s leadership, I’d think the opportunity to exploit this window and see just how successful this era of the Rams could be is as enticing as any other opportunity might be, promotion or not.
That being said, I’ve got to try to answer the question. Which coach is the most likely to get a head coaching gig?
The obvious field is six names long among the coordinators and three position coaches with former experience. While Phillips is an obvious candidate, there are numerous factors to think he might not even want to take on another run as head coach. LaFleur’s too green and Fassel’s in the wrong environment/era of the NFL. Kromer owns a very attractive resume, and Barry is certainly close enough to warrant a hedge bet here.
But I’m going to go with Greg Olson. QB Jared Goff looks the part of an NFL quarterback, something that exactly 0 people could say in 2016. He held offensive coordinator duties for 13 years. A willingness to come to LA and take a step down just to develop Goff suggests a professional humility, something that McVay has ridden at every media opportunity himself deflecting praise and accepting blame at every turn.
The bottom line is that this staff won’t remain intact forever. The Rams’ success will invite both copycats and calls from other NFL franchises.
That’s as legitimate of a compliment to the job they’re doing than anything else.