The NFL hiring cycle is heating up. January 22 marked the first date that teams could hold in-person interviews with candidates who are currently on playoff teams, and while nobody has been poached yet, it feels like a matter of time.
A total of eight head coaching jobs were available in the 2023 cycle, with the majority coming open on or shortly after “Black Monday.” The Panthers, Chargers and Raiders fired their head coaches mid-season after disappointing starts, and they were joined shortly following the regular season by the Falcons, Titans, Commanders, Patriots — and shockingly the Seahawks, all of whom are looking for a new direction.
It will take years for the dust to settle on these hires and separate the good from the bad, so consider these grades as knee-jerk reactions based on what we know right now. That said, in the past SB Nation has shown a knack for this, giving the hiring of DeMeco Ryans an A+ to the Texans last year, Mike McDaniel an “A” the year before to the Dolphins, while Josh McDaniels was one of our least-favorite hires of 2022.
A good coaching hire is not just about skill. Everyone being considered for NFL head coaching jobs has the chops to be good. The issue is whether they are a good fit for the organizations they’re joining, and whether their systems mesh with the vision of the organization.
Raheem Morris, Atlanta Falcons
After flirting with some big names the Atlanta Falcons made an incredible choice. It’s incredible to think it’s been 15 years since Raheem Morris was hired as head coach of the Buccaneers back in 2009 as a hot up-and-coming coach — and he’s learned so much since then.
Now an older, wiser, more accomplished Morris returns to Atlanta, where he served in a variety of roles from 2015-2020, before joining the Rams as defensive coordinator and helping lead Sean McVay’s team to a Super Bowl win.
In isolation Morris is a good hire. Given the state of the Falcons and who they were looking at he’s an incredible hire. The organization was flirting with the idea of hiring Bill Belichick, which was like mashing a square peg into a round hole. They also looked at Mike Vrabel, whose old-school football sensibilities didn’t entirely mesh with the roster the Falcons had, as well as Bobby Slowik who might be great, but is incredible inexperienced.
Morris is the perfect blend of experience and youthful thinking. His connections around the league will allow him to assemble a good staff, and this is one of the best fits in the league for both sides.
Jim Harbaugh, Los Angeles Chargers
It’s been a long time since the Chargers made a serious splash and head coach, but a move like this was desperately needed. Los Angeles become the team to watch now after landing the biggest name of the 2024 cycle.
Regardless of what you think about Harbaugh personally, the man can coach. He’s an expert at getting players to buy in — taking middling teams and getting them over the hump. Harbaugh did this at Stanford, when in two years he took a mediocre team into a perennial bowl team. Then in San Francisco, adopting a 6-10 Niners team and lifting them to 13 wins in year one, then the Super Bowl the next. Most recently he did it again with Michigan, taking them from 5-7 in 2014 to 86-25 over the next nine years.
Harbaugh is adopting the best team seeking a coach this season. The roster is essentially set, and he’s getting a Top 10 starting quarterback in Justin Herbert (and I’d listen to arguments for him being Top 5). There’s very little this team needs other than a better man at the helm, and this could end up being a brilliant move.
Dave Canales, Carolina Panthers
After a bad half-year experiment with Frank Reich the Panthers elected to go with a young and dynamic offense coach. While Canales didn’t garner the same hype as Ben Johnson in Detroit or Bobby Slowik with the Texans, he has a wealth of high-level experience and worked wonders with Baker Mayfield in Tampa Bay this year.
The plan here is extremely clear: Work those same wonders with Bryce Young.
That’s easier said than done. The Panthers need to re-work their offensive line, and get Young more weapons — but if Canales is given the time to cook, this could end up being a really solid hire.
It might not be the most exciting name of the bunch, but the 42-year-old is one of the best young offensive coordinators in the NFL and knows how to get production out of players. At the very least he brings a new approach to the offense the Panthers didn’t have before, so now we wait to see what staff he can assemble.
Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots
This was a surprise to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention for the last three years. It was very clear that the Patriots had Mayo in mind to be part of their future, and this was most apparent in the 2023 hiring cycle when New England blocked interviews for Mayo as a defensive coordinator, then gave him a huge new contract to stay as a linebackers coach. When that happens it tells you someone is a part of a larger plan.
We now see that vision, but this hiring is middling to me. I like Mayo as a coach a lot, and I don’t doubt he has a tremendous rapport with the players — but I’m not in love with New England going with a new head coach with such an insular background.
The 37-year-old’s entire coaching career has been under Belichick. His entire playing career was under Belichick. That makes it very difficult to escape the shadow. A lack of connections throughout the NFL makes me fearful that Mayo will need to rely on a largely-internal staff, and the Pats were in need of a fresh approach to the organization to turn the page from Belichick’s legacy.
This could all work out, and defensively I like this a lot for New England — but the caliber of staff he’s able to assemble worries me.
Antonio Pierce, Las Vegas Raiders
This is such a distinctly un-Raiders move that I almost want to give it an A on that merit alone. An organization known for chasing the new, flashy thing was instead pressured internally to make the smart choice and promote Pierce to head coach after his 5-4 record as interim made it clear he could handle the job.
Pierce has some head coaching chops on his resume, both as the Raiders’ interim last year and with Arizona State in 2020 and 2021. The man clearly understands a top-down approach to the organization, and the players absolutely love him.
This has a slight air of Dan Campbell to it. Campbell had more experience before becoming head coach of the Lions, but it’s a similar player-forward approach that could really pay dividends. With the right offensive coordinator this is a team that could make noise sooner, rather than later in the AFC West.
Never underestimate the power of a team that believes in their coach.
Brian Callahan, Tennessee Titans
This one is a bit of a head scratcher. Nothing against Brian Callahan, I just have major doubts that he was the right man for this job, at this juncture.
Little is known about what Callahan’s role inside the Bengals truly was. His title read “offensive coordinator,” but it’s widely accepted that Zac Taylor both called the offense and designed the bulk of the playbook. This lends itself to the idea that Callahan’s primary role was executing on the vision, organizing the protection and personnel to fit the scheme.
What I don’t like about this hire is precisely that: Executing someone else’s vision.
The primary reason the Titans moved on from Mike Vrabel was a desire to modernize their football operation and take a major step forward. I don’t know if Callahan, who served as the old-school foil to Taylor’s new-school concepts is the right guy for that.
Callahan seems better in the role of the CEO coach, delegating to others — rather than being a hands-on organization changer. That’s not wholly a bad thing, and with the right staff this could certainly work — I just question how quickly the Titans locked this down and whether it was the right move.