The 2023 NFL head coaching cycle is already well underway, with both Arizona and Houston making changes atop their respective staffs immediately following the 2022 regular season.
The Texans are hunting for a new head coach for the third straight offseason. Sunday's dismissal of Lovie Smith, who went one-and-done just like his predecessor, David Culley, doesn't just confirm Houston remains in rebuild mode. It reiterates serious questions about what constitutes the organization's long-term vision. Since new general manager Nick Caserio's arrival in 2021, the team has poured money into low-tier free-agent leftovers, traded its embattled quarterback without a clear replacement plan, and, most recently, surrendered ownership of the top pick in the upcoming 2023 draft.
Arizona, meanwhile, has pulled the plug on Kliff Kingsbury after four uninspiring, injury-riddled seasons that amounted to a 28-37-1 record, with just a single playoff appearance. Kingsbury and his original No. 1 draft pick, Kyler Murray, were visibly frustrated with each other throughout a lowly 2022 campaign, and the two never paired well enough to register reliable offense. Now, the team is tasked with rebuilding an aging, battered lineup and finding a leader capable of overseeing not only physical but mental maturation from the highly paid star QB, who may or may not be ready to open the 2023 season.
Suffice to say, the Cardinals' and Texans' vacancies, while two of just 32 NFL head coaching jobs in the world, aren't necessarily the most attractive on the market. But eventually both teams will hire somebody, and ideally, in the Texans' case, it won't be an obvious placeholder like Culley or Smith, both of whom landed the job abruptly and unexpectedly. With that in mind, here's our early estimation of the likeliest candidates to become the next head coach of each team:
Most likely Cardinals candidates
3. Ben Johnson
Position: Lions offensive coordinator | Age: 36
Reviving Murray is probably priority No. 1 inside the Cardinals organization considering how much the team has invested in the young QB. And if that's the case, Johnson feels like a natural fit after the seamless poise he brought to Detroit's offense in 2022, tailoring the Lions' attack to Jared Goff's strengths. From a cultural standpoint, Arizona is also desperate for some stability, and it can't hurt that Johnson hails from a Detroit organization that's grown in effort and energy under Dan Campbell.
2. Jim Harbaugh
Position: Michigan head coach | Age: 59
If he's finally gonna leave the Wolverines for another shot at a Lombardi, how fitting would it be if it's Arizona that presents the opportunity, granting him at least two annual shots at his old team in San Francisco? Steve Keim's exit as the front office's head man certainly opens the door for him to have more say in personnel decisions. And then there's Murray, whose dual-threat skill set may well remind Harbaugh of his days guiding a Colin Kaepernick-led offense to the Super Bowl.
1. Sean Payton
Position: Former Saints head coach | Age: 59
As with Harbaugh, the presence of Murray makes this an ideal landing spot for the longtime New Orleans leader, who's reportedly had his eye on the team for months. If anyone can reform the young QB to stardom, it might be him, and setting up shop in sunny Arizona probably doesn't sound too shabby coming off a hiatus year, either. Landing Payton, who remains under contract with the Saints, would of course require compensation, but the dual departure of Kliff Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim clears the way for them to just hand the keys to the entire operation over to Payton as part of a blockbuster swap.
Most likely Texans candidates
3. Jerod Mayo
Position: Patriots inside linebackers coach | Age: 36
If they can't entice DeMeco Ryans to make the leap (more on that below), Mayo profiles as a potential consolation prize, if only because he's following a similar track, going from Pro Bowl linebacker to well-regarded position coach. Mayo, of course, has zero coordinator experience, but he's now had 12 years of combined experience playing or working under Bill Belichick.
2. Kliff Kingsbury
Position: Former Cardinals head coach | Age: 43
Now that Kingsbury is out in Arizona, where he and QB Kyler Murray bickered and limped to a 28-37-1 mark in four years, he could land softly in his natural stomping grounds. Born and raised a few hours from Houston, Kingsbury played QB at Texas Tech, coached at the University of Houston, and then of course rose up on the sidelines at Texas A&M and his alma mater. His handle on Murray and the Cards' offense has been uninspiring to say the least, but that's not to say the Texans couldn't convince themselves they are better equipped to build him a roster from the ground up.
1. Jonathan Gannon
Position: Eagles defensive coordinator | Age: 40
The hands-down early favorite, Gannon is prone to playing it safe against proven QBs, but given an upgraded lineup in 2022, he guided a top-five finish in pass "D" and takeaways while overseeing a new team record for combined sacks. More than that, he's well-liked in NFL circles as a teacher, coming up under Mike Zimmer in Minnesota, and at 40 could offer a truly longer-term vision. Speaking of Zimmer, Gannon's also got plenty of connections for his own prospective staff, including Eagles QBs coach Brian Johnson, a Houston-area native on the fast track to a play-calling promotion. As a bonus, he was already a finalist for the Texans' top job last offseason.
- 49ers DC DeMeco Ryans: Houston will no doubt pursue the former Texans Pro Bowler, who's led one of the NFL's best defenses in San Francisco, but Ryans reportedly has little interest in the opening, in part because of an unceremonious split from the franchise during his playing career. He'll have other opportunities.
- Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy: While his resume is sterling under Andy Reid, Bieniemy has frequently been passed over in the hiring cycle, and more than that, he has a curious history interviewing with Houston, initially failing to land a sales pitch in 2021 before getting a last-minute meeting in the wake of reported frustrations from then-QB Deshaun Watson.