This was a good week for many of the men apprenticing for head-coaching jobs. Some of the hot coordinators got hotter, while the proverbial hot seat is further engulfing many of the head coaches in jeopardy of losing their positions as we enter the final full month of the regular season.
As the NFL braces for what could be double-digit coaching changes, the list of top candidates is not nearly as long, especially if Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher stay in the booth. There aren't many (any?) other retired coaches who would leap to the top of any lists (Tony Dungy seems perfectly content) and the college ranks offer Chip Kelly, David Shaw, Bill O'Brien and not much more.
So where will all of the candidates come from? The ranks of former head coaches now coordinating, in my estimation, provides three options -- Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who is having an unbelievable year somehow under the radar; Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley; and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (Miami offensive coordinator Mike Sherman could get interviews again this year as well -- but beyond that I'm expecting we'll see a good number of first-time head coaches joining the ranks.
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Here are some coordinators I'm hearing a strong buzz about as hiring season approaches:
Mike McCoy, Broncos offensive coordinator: I don't know too many people who don't think he will be running a team in 2013, with Denver clinching the AFC West Sunday amid another offensive display.
Peyton Manning is rewriting the Broncos' record books. McCoy won a playoff game with Tim Tebow last season for goodness sake, willing to scrap his offense and build one to fit Tebow's limited skill set.
He was getting interviews last season (a return to Carolina is distinctly possible) and I expect him to be in a position of great leverage with so many teams looking for coaches and many of those organizing prizing either rehabilitating a young starter or helping develop a new quarterback.
Jay Gruden, Bengals offensive coordinator: He was getting opportunities a year ago as a first-time coordinator and he has the Bengals soaring again and primed for a shot at back-to-back playoff appearances, something decidedly un-Bengal-like.
They have won four in a row after Sunday's victory in San Diego, he helped Andy Dalton through a rough patch, they survived some tough offensive line injuries, and Gruden has head coaching experience in the past, including in the Arena League.
Gruden mentored under his brother for years; he has the pedigree; he understands the role; and he knew, a year ago, another year of seasoning as a coordinator, trying to see things through with Dalton a bit longer, was the smartest move. Now, a year later, he looks positioned to be in play for more jobs, and more high-profile openings, and you hear a lot of rumblings about places like Philadelphia, the Jets and Cleveland.
I have a hard time thinking he's back with Dalton in 2013.
Perry Fewell, Giants defensive coordinator: Fewell has been a finalist for several positions, has head-coaching experience on an interim basis with Buffalo (the Bills would have been smart to hire him full-time back then), he has done a great job in a tough market in the Big Apple, the Giants just might make another long playoff run, and Fewell is an expert at this point in the interviewing process. He knows the drill, and you can sell this hire to your fan base given his success with the Giants.
Everything is in place for him to land something this offseason.
Mike Nolan, Falcons defensive coordinator: What has changed in Atlanta from last year to this year? Most of the assets are invested in the offense, the much-maligned defense re-signed aging pass rusher John Abraham, the Falcons ended up cutting the other alleged pass-rushing option (Ray Edwards, who's still on the street), they lost their stud corner for the season almost before it began (Brent Grimes), and yet the Falcons are 11-1.
Nolan is flat-out out-scheming people. Period. His pre-snap movement and disguised blitzes and coverages baffled Peyton Manning, humbled him early in the year. He baffled Drew Brees last week and brought the man's record touchdown streak to a close. Yet no one is talking about him -- at least in the media -- but his work is not going unnoticed in NFL circles.
Remember, Nolan sewed the seeds of that dominant 49ers defense during his stint there, a time when many of their difference makers were drafted or acquired. Nolan did a hell of a job with the Dolphins last year. He may not be a sexy choice, but the man's work is speaking loudly this season and should the Falcons finally find a way to win in the postseason, his stock will only soar higher.
Todd Haley, Steelers offensive coordinator: I realize he had a tumultuous stint in Kansas City and was just fired from there in 2011 and he could be a bit of a hothead ... but he has been a changed man in Pittsburgh and he is doing tremendous work.
Ben Roethlisberger was having his best season ever prior to getting hurt, playing more consistent and restrained football, cutting down on the turnovers and sacks he took with that improvising. Haley has subjugated his ego to work with a quarterback who can be tricky to deal with at times, and he just orchestrated a season-saving road win with Charlie Batch at the helm.
Haley has learned from his mistakes, he has overcome a slew of offensive line and running back injuries, an awful year from Mike Wallace and losing Big Ben, handled everything with class, been cool and calm on the sidelines and certainly seems to have learned from his time with the Chiefs. Some might say that next head-coaching gig is another year or more away, and Haley is totally content where he is, but I get the feeling he will have suitors this offseason.
Other potential names
I would not be surprised at all to see Josh McDaniels get interviews, and Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was thought of as a coach-in-waiting of sorts prior to Jacksonville's ugly 2011 campaign. Should he have Matt Ryan thriving in the playoffs, it would only boost his stock.
Chicago special-teams coach Dave Toub has interviewed for jobs in the past and many believe he could replicate John Harbaugh's success jumping from a non-traditional background to a head coach. San Francisco defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who served as the 49ers' interim head coach in the past, is another lower-profile possibility.
The work Tom Cable, former Raiders head coach, has done with Seattle could get him interviews, and Mike Sullivan's first year working with Josh Freeman in Tampa Bay could not be going much better than it is, and his time on the Giants staff was impressive as well.
Fourth-down foolishnessI'm a proponent of being aggressive on fourth down, in general, at the right point in the game. Generally, I'm in lockstep with the movement in recent years by guys like Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin to take those chances more often, and they also certainly have offenses built to convert.
But sometimes you also have to be who you are. Lovie Smith is not an aggressive coach by nature, and early Sunday, with his team up 7-0, at home, given his offensive line's limitations and with points likely to be at a premium and with his own running game struggling and the Seahawks pretty stout against the run in general, he gave up the chip-shot field goal and got stuffed on fourth-and-1 with roughly 13 minutes left in the second quarter.
Momentum shifted, Seattle exploded for a big play off the change of possession and the Seahawks dictated a good portion of the game from there. Sure enough, the low-scoring affair ended up heading to overtime, where the Bears lost.
Those three points could have been huge, and with that Bears defense, at home, I'm putting that 10-0 lead in my pocket and being happy about it. The decision was one of the biggest in a big game with NFC tiebreaker potential.
It was perhaps even more shocking that, given Arizona's atrocious quarterbacking situation, playing on the road, against a Jets offense that was looking just as bad, on a day in which a 0-0 tie looked like a legitimate outcome for a good chunk of time, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt passed up an early chip shot to try a fourth-down play, only to fail (which was not a shocking outcome).
The Cards ended up losing 7-6 on a Greg McElroy comeback, and any points were huge on this day. Now the Cardinals bring an eight-game losing streak into a tough meeting at Seattle this week, and that 4-0 starts seems even more of a distant memory.
Again, in general, applaud a more modern approach to some of these situations, but you need to have the personnel, it needs to be at the right time in the game and if it's not in your general nature, might not be the best idea to force it.
Time for Sanchez to sit
Rex Ryan has to stick with McElroy next week. What more can he possibly hope to see from Mark Sanchez, who was taking scribbling on a clipboard to an art form Sunday after getting yanked? That offense perked up with McElroy at the helm, seemingly craving new blood, and the Jets played very hard for the novice quarterback as he engineered the game-winning drive.
I don't care about Tim Tebow's ribs or popularity and forget Sanchez's future for now. I've been saying for quite some time I think McElroy may be the best quarterback on the roster, at least for a short burst with nothing to lose, and I'd try to ride a hot hand as long as I've got one, because it's been since about sometime in 2010 that Ryan had a hot QB hand to consider.
• If I'm the Patriots, Packers or 49ers, I'm a little worried about my kicking situation come the postseason. All three teams have veterans who are slumping, missing kicks they'd normally make in the past. It cropped up again for all three teams Sunday and seems like more than just a passing phase.
• The Rams are not getting nearly enough credit for their turnaround. You have to look at Les Snead, the rookie general manager, for some executive of the year votes, as this team could win more games this year than in like the past three years combined. They are a bad break or two away from having swept the vaunted 49ers and being right at .500 and in the thick of a wild-card hunt.
As it stands, the Rams have a strong conference (5-3-1) and divisional record, and will surely address the offensive line and receiver spots this offseason (they are loaded with picks, again). They will finish this season strong.
• That was a lot of abuse absorbed by Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. The injuries to the New England and Green Bay offensive lines are telling, and Rodgers seemed to have to make all of his throws after he'd picked up his plant foot. Brady got drilled cleanly several times.