Next man up? Six NFL assistants ready to make the jump to head coach
Pursuant to Tuesday’s post on those in the NFL who may be coaching for their jobs in 2013, it’s worth remembering that there are eight new head coaches in the league this season. Two interesting trends there: Of those new coaches, only one (Gus Bradley of the Jacksonville Jaguars) has a defensive background. In addition, none of the new coaches hired are minorities, which had some in specific support of the Rooney Rule wondering just what was going on.
Setting that somewhat political note aside for the time being, there’s one thing we know for sure — whether it’s the coaches we wrote about, or others on the bubble, you know there will be head coaches fired right after the 2013 regular season. It’s always a rough time for those men on the way out, but those openings are opportunities for others. Here are six current NFL assistants who have never been pro head coaches before, but seem more than deserving of the chance.
Mike Zimmer, Defensive Coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals.
When the subject of assistant coaches who should be head coaches comes up, Zimmer is generally the first name on the list, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Zimmer coached top defenses in Dallas from 2000 through ’06 with different schemes, managed to survive the Bobby Petrino mess in ’07 as Atlanta’s defensive coordinator and has been coaxing great defense out of a Bengals team with a lot of raw, young players since ’08. It says a lot that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, a pretty fair defensive coach himself, has total faith in Zimmer’s approach. Zimmer got interest from the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers when those teams were filling their most recent vacancies. His blunt, no-nonsense style may rub some teams the wrong way in that process, but he’s not just a butt-kicker — he won the ’09 Halas Award, given annually to the NFL individual who overcomes the most adversity to succeed, for the courageous way in which he dealt with the passing of his wife, Vicki. Eventually, a team in need of an attitude adjustment will realize what an asset Zimmer could be.
Ray Horton, Defensive Coordinator, Cleveland Browns.
Like Zimmer, Horton is blunt to a fault … and like Zimmer, he’s one of the best defensive coaches in the game. This Dick LeBeau disciple’s approach is unorthodox — he’ll run all kinds of blitzes and odd coverages in unconventional situations — but he consistently put quality defenses on the field for the Arizona Cardinals over the last few seasons, even when Arizona’s offense was abysmal and all the pressure was on Horton’s side of the ball. Horton moved to Cleveland after the head coaching change from Ken Whisenhunt to Bruce Arians left him the odd man out, and he made some noise about the fact that he should have been considered for the position. While he too rubs some people the wrong way (like Cards defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, who believes that Todd Bowles, Horton’s replacement, is better for his own skill set), former Cards and current Seattle Seahawks linebacker O’Brien Schofield recently told me that he owes his career to Horton’s schematic brilliance.
Adam Gase, Offensive Coordinator, Denver Broncos.
New San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy earned a lot of kudos for the way he set up Denver’s offense for Tim Tebow in 2011, but it was Gase who was working with Tebow every day and making sure everything lined up as the team’s quarterbacks coach. He now replaces McCoy as the guy in charge of Denver’s offense, and though any offensive coordinator who has Peyton Manning as his quarterback is going to be seen as a co-star at best, Gase has earned a lot of respect in the business.
Kyle Shanahan, Offensive Coordinator, Washington Redskins.
The coaching job Kyle Shanahan and his father Mike performed for the Redskins in 2012 should have the younger Shanahan talked about as a serious head-coaching candidate sooner than later. The Redskins completely and perfectly re-tooled their offense for Griffin’s specific attributes, creating a zone-option nightmare that was just as difficult to defend through the air as it was on the ground. In addition, the Redskins coaxed good performance from fourth-round rookie Kirk Cousins when Griffin was hurt, and … well, have you seen Rex Grossman throw this preseason? If your NFL team features option looks and you want to merge that with a more traditional offense, Shanahan could be your guy.
Perry Fewell, Defensive Coordinator, New York Giants.
Fewell has been on the list of possible head coaches for a number of years now, but for whatever reason, he hasn’t found the right fit. He had a number of interviews after the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI at the end of the 2011 season, but that noise died down pretty quickly. Even current Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, an estimable former defensive coordinator himself, found Fewell’s situation curious and sad once all available teams filled their vacancies.
“This guy went to the Super Bowl … and helped design a [heck of a] defense,” Rivera said in February. “Sometimes you do sit there and go, ‘Wow, some guys do get overlooked,’ and it’s happened to me, too. Hopefully Perry will have a great opportunity next year.”
Those unhappy about the lack of minority head-coaching hires cited Fewell as a key part of their disappointment, and it would indeed be nice to see him get a fair shot in ’14.
Greg Roman, Offensive Coordinator, San Francisco 49ers.
I made it a point to speak with Roman as much as possible during Super Bowl week, because he’s a fascinating offensive mind, and I believe he gets short shrift in the public eye because Jim Harbaugh is considered by some to be the architect of San Francisco’s offense from front to back. While Harbaugh is certainly the CEO of the system that got the 49ers to within four points of their sixth Lombardi Trophy, it’s Roman who does the day-to-day work, and his adaptation to Colin Kaepernick’s ascent was just as brilliant as what the Shanahans did for Robert Griffin III. Perhaps even more impressive, when you think about it, because Kaepernick became the starter mid-season, and the Redskins had all offseason to switch things up for RGIII. Not only did Roman install a number of shot plays downfield to take advantage of Kaepernick’s arm, but he also balanced the option and Pistol plays the team used late in the season with the most complex blocking scheme in the NFL when it comes to running quarterbacks. Any NFL team looking to balance the truly modern passing game with old-school smashmouth football should look very hard at Roman’s resume.