Conventional wisdom is running amok in the NFL.
Decision makers use the same criteria, covet the same profiles, worry about the same optics and produce coaching searches every winter that are very much carbon copies of what everyone else is doing. It's an exercise in keeping up with the Joneses or covering one's backside and fearing the unknown. Everyone is looking for QB whisperers/offensive play callers, so we have to have ours, too!
I'm over it.
There is a reason there is so much futility in this league. And this is part of it. Relying on consultants more times than not results in "inside jobs" where nepotism or cronyism seeps in, and the coach who's hired invariably worked previously for (or grew up best friends with the son of) the consultant leading the charge. The idea of headhunters is beyond ridiculous -- if an owner can't put together a decent list of candidates, someone in his organization better be able to have enough of a grasp on the league to do so. And these copycat candidate lists often lack much vision, creativity or foresight.
So this year, as I present the dozen guys I believe are best positioned to constitute the coaching class of 2017, please allow me to stump for Dave Toub. Yes, Dave Toub. And the fact you have no idea who the hell he is, in and of itself, is indicative of the kind of tail-wagging that has been going on with these searches for far too long.
Toub is the stud special teams coach for Andy Reid in Kansas City. He's the guy who has been helping win games for the Chiefs with big returns and fake punts and shifting field position and motivating men and outsmarting his opponents. And before that, he was the guy behind the perennially dominant special teams in Chicago (2004-12). Oh, and before that he led Reid's special teams units in Philly (2001-03), which were also generally top notch. He's the guy behind Devin Hester and Robbie Gould and, lately, Chiefs dervish Tyreek Hill.
Many of his players over the years have told me Toub should be leading an entire team, not merely one unit. He's a leader of men. He commands respect. He gets the best out of players. He is arguably the best coach on Reid's esteemed staff in Kansas City, and Reid has been nothing but a developer of NFL coaches. He grows them. And Toub is one of his best, yet the fact that he coaches special teams works against him. That still remains true in spite of Hall of Famers like George Allen and Marv Levy were coaches who came through the special teams pipeline, not to mention Bobby Ross or Baltimore's John Harbaugh, another one of Reid's disciples.
"He's a combination of Harbaugh and John Madden," one of Toub's former colleagues said. "He is the real deal. This guy can coach. Period. He's a big guy, physically, who can take over a room when he has to. He gets people to buy in. These guys love playing for him. He comes from a great [coaching] family tree. Look at Andy Reid's assistants over the years. This guy is ready. All he needs is a chance."
A personnel exec who used to work with Toub, 54, said: "If Dave Toub can't get a job in this league, then I give up. Talk to other coaches in the league. They know who is for real and who is horseshit or the flavor of the month. This guy can coach a football team. He'd be the first guy I'd talk to, and it isn't even really close."
Toub has been involved in head coaching searches before, interviewing with the Dolphins when they hired Joe Philbin (how did that work out for them?) and the Bears in 2013 (when they hired Marc Trestman -- yikes). He has been under consideration for many more, but general managers have been scared to pull the trigger. I spoke to two of them a year ago about Toub, a former all-WAC offensive lineman who was drafted in the ninth round by the Eagles but never made it on to an NFL roster. Both agreed he was a hell of a coach and an inspired thought to run a team and that he merited a chance, but then both essentially ruled it out in the end because they needed to develop a quarterback and were locked into going offense. Neither guy who was eventually hired, by the way, is what I would call especially safe even only one year in.
Another exec who knows him said: "Superb at what he does and by a million miles the best special teams coach in the league. He is an A-plus guy."
You can find a quarterback coach and offensive coordinator to work with the passers. It doesn't have to define the entire coaching search. I would actually assert that special teams coaches are ahead of the curve in that they already must address players from both sides of the ball, and in essence the entire team with regularity. They aren't dealing with merely those certain position groups. Besides the head coach, the special teams coach is the only guy on the staff entrusted with clock management and other in-game responsibilities. He also must adjust to losing more players than any other unit. A special teams coach comes in with no inherent bias to either side of the ball, and thus no sentimental ties or desires of offense over defense (or vice versa) in terms of roster composition with the GM.
I hope this hiring season that some of the GMs who invariably consider Toub actually give the Chiefs a call and ask to interview him. I hope they reflect on how Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin were two of the more outside-the-box hires of the past decade or so, and how well they have worked out. I hope they get beyond the norms and perceived constraints and branch out a little bit. If they do, I suspect they end up richly rewarded.
As for the other guys at the head of this year's class, I don't see anyone from the college ranks heading to the NFL, though Stanford's David Shaw is perennially at the top of that wish list (and the Rams and 49ers in particular might want to feel him out, just in case). Excluding guys like Shaw and Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh, who I simply don't see even thinking about leaving their current jobs, here are the dozen candidates who, along with Toub, should be getting heavy consideration next month as these searches begin in earnest:
Currently out of the league
Jon Gruden: A football savant, someone born to coach, and long coveted by pro and college programs. I truly believe he is ready to listen and listen intently, specifically, in Los Angeles. It's Hollywood or bust, I reckon. And the Rams and Chargers should both be fully exploring this option immediately. Outside of L.A., Gruden is staying in the broadcast booth, and those who do aim to woo him should come correct.
Tom Coughlin: His résumé speaks for itself and I've been reporting for weeks on the mutual interest between him and the Jacksonville Jaguars. At age 70, he might not be best suited to a rebuilding team -- and the Jags are nothing if not perpetually rebuilding -- but that is his most likely destination at this point. He has a home there and deep ties from his first go-round leading the original expansion Jags. Their search will start with him and might end with him as well.
Ex-head coaches who are current coordinators
Josh McDaniels: He will absolutely kill it when he gets another shot ... and he is getting another shot in 2017 after a tough initial tenure as head coach of the Broncos. McDaniels is as good of a play caller and schemer as there is, and I've been touting his return for years. The time is now. Look at what he did in the four games that Tom Brady was suspended this season. He has matured from the humbling stint with Denver, and is a better person and a better coach for it. Coaching is in his blood, and if you are looking for a young Jon Gruden (not that Gruden is old, at 52), McDaniels is your guy. I can't imagine there is a team out there with an opening that does not request to speak to him.
Todd Haley: His first shot coaching the Chiefs ended ugly, but he, too, has grown from that experience. He can run an offense and he can develop tight ends and receivers, and he did go to the playoffs in Kansas City with Matt Cassel as his starting QB. His work in Pittsburgh has been excellent, and he managed to forge a strong bond with Ben Roethlisberger in the aftermath of the QB's displeasure with the dismissal of his former coordinator, Bruce Arians. Jacksonville, Buffalo and San Francisco could make sense for him.
Mike Smith: His winning percentage in Atlanta was exceptional. He can coach. It's hard to argue against that. And the way he has led the Buccaneers defense this season, getting them out of the shadows of the collapsed former regime of Lovie Smith and getting better each week, has been truly special. Some believe he could be part of a Jacksonville package if Coughlin came in as a football czar and not the head coach, and either way, he will get opportunities to interview.
Jim Schwartz: His Eagles defense has looked like the best unit in the NFL at times, and while it has waxed and waned and slumped occasionally, Schwartz is a smart football mind. Like McDaniels, he is a Bill Belichick disciple who understands how to put a smart program in place and he is the rare man to take the Detroit Lions to the postseason.
Current coordinators without head coaching experience
Kyle Shanahan: He gets the best out of his personnel, he is a gifted offensive mind and he obviously comes from great coaching stock. He can shapeshift the identity of his offense from week to week, like McDaniels. Like some others on this list, this has been his calling for a long, long time. He has become more open and engaging with players and the media and the evolution of his relationship with Falcons QB Matt Ryan is indicative of that. The 49ers will look long and hard at him if Chip Kelly is gone, among others.
Teryl Austin: He has been an "It" coordinator for several years now and he has benefited from going through the interview process in years past. His Lions defense has had precious few standout players, yet it has managed to exceed expectations and keep teams out of the end zone. He has had an exodus of talent in recent years but has remained a stalwart. He needs to team himself with a top offensive coordinator candidate. Buffalo will look long and hard at him once Rex Ryan is let go.
Vance Joseph: He's young and he's gifted. He has transformed Miami's defense on the fly this season and has gotten Ndamukong Suh, who has chewed up and spit out far more experienced coaches, to buy in. He has also benched other key veterans and then brought them back with good results. He has adjusted his scheme to fit personnel along the way -- playing more zone, not trying to get too cute -- and some of the very scouts who were down on him early in the season are pushing hardest for him now. He walked into a difficult situation and is thriving and people are noticing.
Sean McVay: He is a few years from being as hotly coveted as guys like McDaniels and Shanahan are now, but he is very much in that same mold. He's going to be the youngest coach in the NFL at some point, it's just a matter of when. He has done great things with Kirk Cousins and players swear by him. They trust him intrinsically. He has everything you would want in a complete package and teams will ask to interview him next month. He's still a little raw, perhaps, but I would rather grab him now than risk never being able to hire him.
Russ Grimm: He's the only position coach on this list, but the job he has done with the Titans offensive line is ridiculous. Few can mold boys into men like he can. He was groomed to be a head coach under my buddy Bill Cowher and he came damn close to being head coach in Pittsburgh, and in Chicago, at various times. He has been a coordinator and understands more than merely the run game, though his work with the Titans shows just how dominant his blocking schemes and ground approach can be. His hiatus from football after his firing in Arizona has him reinvigorated.
Others receiving votes
- Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott rallied his unit back to form in the second half of season and has been a top candidate for a few years now.
- Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia still has a wild and wooly look that isn't the CEO image most owners want. He's also the likely heir apparent to Belichick in New England if he sticks around there long enough.
- Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter could be held back by his name, believe it or not, in this crazy corporate league as I talk to more execs about him.
- Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel has been as good a position coach -- next to Grimm -- as there is and has the Belichick roots.
- Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak will eventually get college offers and he had a decent stint previously as head coach of Titans.