For those looking to become NFL head coaches (or GMs) for the first time, the saying goes that when you're offered a job, it's one of 32 and you can't say no.
It's a lot easier to turn down a job with a bad franchise in theory than it is to pass on an opportunity to reach the mountaintop after two/three/four decades of devoting your life to the game.
But after you get that first top job? It's not one of 32 to a coach like Buccaneers' defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
"I think the situation has to be right and you go from there. If the situation's not right … if it's not a match, I won't take it to take it," Bowles told me over the phone late in November. "First time around, probably, because you really want to be a head coach and do good and save the world. But after going through it with experience and you know situations have to be right for you to succeed anywhere, and obviously, you have to bring a lot to the table. But they have to bring something to the table, too. And if it's not a match then it's just not a match."
Bowles has overseen one of the league's best defenses the last two seasons after getting his pink slip from the Jets following the 2018 season. He went 24-40 as the HC of the NYJ after a promising 10-win start in 2015 but a lack of franchise quarterback and suitable talent around him doomed Bowles' tenure.
Bowles was blessed with personnel from Mike Tannebaum, John Idzik and Mike Maccagnan. Here are the first- and second-round draft picks by the Jets from 2012-2016: Quinton Coples, Stephen Hill, Dee Milliner, Sheldon Richardson, Geno Smith, Calvin Pryor, Jace Amaro, Leonard Williams, Devin Smith, Darron Lee and Christian Hackenberg.
"You learn as you go, especially as a first-time head coach, about the structure of how you want to do things and how you want to get things done. And get an opportunity again if everything's right I know I'll do some things differently," Bowles says.
"There's so much more to it than running a football team on and off the field. And you have some ideas and some things you would tweak that you probably wouldn't know otherwise, and you could only get that from experience. I can't really put a finger on everything. But there are things you learn as a coach that would flow a lot easier going into next time around."
To be sure, he struggled with his own aspects of being a head coach like time management and fourth-down situations. His lack of emotion on the sideline infuriated fans, and his press conferences were boring.
His press conferences as Tampa's defensive coordinator have struck a different tone, though. Asked earlier this season about the salt-and-pepper beard he's worn, Bowles joked: "during COVID, I watched a lot of Fresh Prince [of Bel Air], so I kind of got my Uncle Phil working for me. I saw an Idris Elba movie and I got a little five-o'clock shadow working, so I decided to keep it."
Has it been a conscious decision to show more personality lately?
"No it's not conscious. It's always there," Bowles says. "But the questions they [the New York media] were asking, they were asking me questions and it was a lot of negative-type team questions so I just answered the questions as is. It's not meant to be a comedy show. But the way that media is constructed and how they're going to take everything and run, you try not to give them any bulletin board material.
"And then as you grow older as a coach you really don't care. You try to be yourself and let the chips fall where they may. But it wasn't intentional. The questions weren't constructed that way."
If and when Bowles gets another crack at a head coaching job, it won't be based on his comedic timing. He took over a Buccaneers defense that in 2018 was dead-last in defensive DVOA. He got them to sixth in just one year, and this season they sit in third behind Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
The Bucs have the best rush defense in the league, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry. They've racked up 14 interceptions (tied for second-most) with eight more dropped picks. Bowles' unit blitzes on about 39% of plays (sixth-highest rate) and has generated the second-most pressures of all defenses.
Historically, it's hard for a coach to get a second shot. It's tougher for a Black coach to get a second shot. And the way things have gone lately in NFL hiring cycles, it's even harder as a defensive-minded coach as the league enjoys an offensive explosion like never before seen.
But Bowles, a genuinely positive person, isn't concerned about any of that.
"In the league it changes every five to seven years whether it's offensive coaches to defensive coaches, to young-gun run-and-shoot coaches to zone scheme defensive coaches. It's a fad and it'll pass and it'll change every couple of years," Bowles says. "You really look at who wins all the Super Bowl they're usually defensive coaches, most of them anyway. Look at Belichick and Tomlin and Dungy and Parcells and Cowher. There are a ton of defensive coaches who win Super Bowls. There's something to be said about that.
"It's an offensive fad and as a defensive coach you do the best you can to slow them down and stop them every week. The biggest thing is the younger quarterbacks the less they get to read defenses so the more you get to confuse them. It really kind of helps me a little bit."
The coaching list
Here's my list of top head coaching candidates for this upcoming cycle after weeks of conversations with sources around the league. I'll have my list for general manager next week. I'm not going to rank these guys, so I'll put them in alphabetical order. But I think I'll have a conniption if Eric Bieniemy doesn't get a job this cycle.
Eric Bieniemy, Chiefs offensive coordinator: The 51-year-old former Colorado and NFL running back has two decades of coaching experience. He's been Patrick Mahomes' OC for his NFL MVP winning season, then the Super Bowl-winning season, and he's about to oversee a second NFL MVP award for Mahomes. He should be the top candidate for a handful of openings.
Todd Bowles, Buccaneers defensive coordinator: See above.
Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach: Campbell won at Toledo before winning at Iowa State, and he earned Coach of the Year honors in both the MAC and Big 12. NFL teams have been sniffing around Campbell the last two years, and Matt Rhule's success in Carolina will only aid this program builder if he decides to jump to the league.
Brian Daboll, Bills offensive coordinator: He's been integral in morphing Josh Allen into an MVP candidate in 2020. Daboll has been an OC in three other NFL stops and he knows what a winning organization looks like, earning five Super Bowls in various stops with the Patriots and a national title with Alabama in 2017.
Matt Eberflus, Colts defensive coordinator: A coaching grinder, Eberflus took over their 30th-ranked scoring defense from 2017 and had them at 10th the following season. The Colts are once again 10th in scoring defense this season and fifth in total defense.
Jon Embree, 49ers AHC/tight ends coach: Embree is a tight ends savant who has coached Tony Gonzalez and now coaches George Kittle. Colorado pulled the plug on him after just two years as head coach in 2012 and he hasn't gotten a second opportunity despite his pedigree, resume and reputation around the league as one of the best position coaches in the league.
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern head coach: He's a Northwestern lifer who has taken the program to unimaginable heights in his 15-year tenure. The consensus belief is that he'd only be interested in the Bears job if any NFL job at all.
Leslie Frazier, Bills AHC/defensive coordinator: The former Vikings head coach is considered one of the best men in the NFL coaching community. Players love him. Coaches love working with him. Sean McDermott wisely hired him as his DC when he became a first-time head coach, and Frazier captained the No. 2 and No. scoring defenses in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Aaron Glenn, Saints defensive backs coach: The former three-time All Pro cornerback has helped turn around a historically bad Saints defense since joining the staff in 2016. Retiring following the 2008 season, Glenn spent time in scouting under the guidance of mentor Bill Parcells. He's only been a coach since 2014 and has never been a coordinator, but people who know him say he has the necessary ingredients to be a head coach.
Patrick Graham, Giants defensive coordinator: The Yale grad got his start in the NFL with the Patriots and took his first DC role with the 2019 Dolphins and friend Brian Flores. He took over a Giants defense that was 30th in scoring last year and has them sitting in ninth in the NFL today. He's seemingly unlocked great play from both Jabrill Peppers and Leonard Williams in 2020.
Pep Hamilton, Chargers quarterbacks coach: He was a hot name about five years ago after his time coaching Andrew Luck at both Stanford and Indianapolis. He's bounced around a bit since then, but he landed in L.A. where he's coached Justin Herbert — a polarizing draft prospect to some — into an Offensive Rookie of the Year season.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan head coach: He's failed spectacularly at one of the best jobs in college football and things ended poorly with management the last time he was in the NFL. But team owners love Harbaugh, and his success is undeniable. In four years with San Francisco, he went 44-19-1 with three straight trips to the conference title game and one Super Bowl appearance.
Josh McDaniels, Patriots offensive coordinator: His time in Denver ended terribly after two seasons and he left the Colts at the altar in 2018. Decision-makers should have a bad taste in their mouths. But he's a fantastic offensive mind with six rings who's done more with less these last two years than expected.
Greg Roman, Ravens offensive coordinator: He put together the most unstoppable offense of the 2019 season with unanimous MVP Lamar Jackson. He did something similar with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco as the OC there, too. Mobile quarterbacks have been and will continue to be the future of the NFL, and Roman has shown he's elite at coaching and scheming for them.
Robert Saleh, 49ers defensive coordinator: Saleh took over the league's worst total defense from 2016 and has gone from 32nd to 24th, to 13th, to second last year and sixth this season. He and Bieniemy were the two odd men out of last year's cycle but he should have options in the coming weeks.
Arthur Smith, Titans offensive coordinator: The Tar Heel has worked his way up the Titans coaching staff since joining in 2011 as a quality control assistant. He replaced Matt LaFleur as OC and then tailored a run-heavy, play-action based offense that resurrected Ryan Tannehill's career and changed the fate of the small-market Titans franchise.
Steve Spagnuolo, Chiefs defensive coordinator: He's won two Super Bowls as a DC including last year with the Chiefs. He failed as the Rams head coach years ago, winning just 10 games in three years, but that was a decade ago. He's a great communicator with both his players and media.
Brandon Staley, Rams defensive coordinator: The 37-year-old may need a little more seasoning with just five years in the NFL and one as a coordinator. But Staley has shown Sean McVay didn't make the mistake we all thought when he replaced Wade Phillips with the unproven Staley, whose 2020 defense is top-five in scoring and yards.
Eric Washington, Bills defensive line coach: Regimented from his three years of active duty service as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Washington always gets sack production from his defensive lines. He couldn't recreate the success that his predecessors (Sean McDermott and Steve Wilks) had as Carolina's DC in his stint, but there were a number of changes (and chefs in the kitchen) that I can point to.
The NFL informed teams Monday that no team can hold in-person interviews with GM or coaching candidates until the end of the regular season. If the candidate is on a team that's in the playoffs, that candidate cannot interview in person until their playoff run is complete.
This is obviously aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. A coach or personnel staffer who meets with someone outside their team's "bubble" could unknowingly carry the virus back into the team facilities. So this hiring cycle will be mostly conducted on video conferencing platforms.
If you believe interviewing in person increases your chances of landing a job, candidates whose teams go deep into the playoffs will be at a disadvantage. The Athletic's Lindsay Jones asked a great question to Troy Vincent, the NFL's EVP of football operations, about how this change may impact candidates of color.
"I think some of the things we learned on the player front and also as we looked at how we engage on the development opportunity sides during this Covid environment, it actually increased the reach," Vincent said. "I think the virtual environment allows each of us, in particular clubs in this hiring cycle, to actually engage with more people."
The league saw more involvement from teams and decision-makers this summer during its annual quarterback coaching summit that focuses on betting the minority coaching pipeline. Vincent and many others at the league office have spent years trying to make up for other people's mistakes as it relates to the diversity crisis at the highest levels of NFL teams, and so I can understand him taking the optimistic viewpoint that their efforts will bear fruit in the coming weeks.
What concerns me, though, is the impersonal nature of Zoom meetings. Yes, we all have gotten more acquainted with the process, but no matter it can't replace the vibes you can give walking into a room or getting to know your future bosses over dinner and drinks.
There has not been a problem with the pipeline for either coaches or GMs. There are several names you'll read below that have been ready to be head coaches for years. White NFL team owners have shown a historical reluctance to hire people outside their ethnicity (and circle of people) for top positions. They do and have done what is familiar to them.
Creating a structure that removes the ability to become more familiar with a candidate would, in my mind, ultimately hurt minority candidates. An even more pessimistic view would be that it'd allow team owners the ability to check the Rooney Rule box with greater ease.
Of course, these protocols were put in place to protect people's health and safety and to ensure the playoffs wouldn't be thrown off. But I'm readying for the unintended consequences of this move.
I followed up an 11-5 week with an 11-4 week in Week 13. We're cooking with bacon, y'all. But still, let's keep our heads down and stay humble. I'm now 126-64-1 on the year and always looking to get better. I took the Rams on Thursday Night Football, by the way. To the picks!
Broncos at Panthers
1 p.m., Sunday, CBS
You can't trust Drew Lock to not turn the ball over. Carolina's defense has a takeaway in every game since Week 2 and the Panthers are coming off a bye. Christian McCaffrey or not, I think Matt Rhule's Panthers win this battle of 4-8 clubs.
The pick: Panthers
Cowboys at Bengals
1 p.m., Sunday, FOX
Andy Dalton returns to Cincinnati with a bunch of stats he accumulates in the second half of lost games. I don't think the Cowboys are any good at all, and their rush defense is historically bad, but I have less faith in Zac Taylor and Brandon Allen.
The pick: Cowboys
Cardinals at Giants
1 p.m., Sunday, FOX
The Giants are coming off a huge upset and should play Daniel Jones against a Cardinals team that I have been saying is a pretender. Still, I don't like this matchup for New York and think Kyler Murray gets the job done on the ground.
The pick: Cardinals
Titans over Jaguars
Chiefs over Dolphins
Bucs over Vikings
Texans over Bears
Colts over Raiders
Seahawks over Jets
Packers over Lions
Falcons over Chargers
Saints over Eagles
Football Team over 49ers
Bills over Steelers
Ravens over Browns