In the era of supposedly exploding offense, the sideline stars of Week 5’s Sunday and Monday night prime-time games were defensive coordinators. Matt Eberflus’ Colts defense — playing without its All-Pro linebacker and star safety, by the way — held Patrick Mahomes and the electrifying Chiefs to 13 points in the upset of the week. One night later, the Monday Night Football cameras kept coming back to Robert Saleh, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator whose crew was swarming Baker Mayfield and the Browns.
That these two games were sandwiched around the first head-coach firing of the season — Jay Gruden’s early-Monday-morning dismissal by Washington — got me thinking that it’s not too early to be trying to spot the up-and-coming coordinators who could be in line for head-coach interviews come January.
The problem — and you’re surely thinking it, if you’ve paid attention to the past couple of coach-hiring cycles — is that defensive coordinators haven’t exactly been hot items. Vic Fangio and Brian Flores aside, the majority of teams that hired new coaches last offseason took big chances on inexperienced offensive assistants rather than bring in defensive coordinators who might have been ahead of them in the pipeline. Teams are obsessed with scoring right now, and they’re looking for leaders with ideas for how to do more of it.
“You just kind of take it with a grain of salt and do the best that you can do,” said Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards, who interviewed for the Buccaneers’ job this past offseason and the Bears job the year before. “But it is what it is, and that’s just kind of the way these last couple of hiring cycles have been, because offensively, so much has kind of changed in the league. But to win in the playoffs, you have to be able to play good defense, and that’s not going to change. So I think that’s a big part of it, and as it keeps going, the cycle will change.”
Edwards’ boss, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, went through the same thing. Zimmer logged 14 years as a highly respected defensive coordinator with the Cowboys, Falcons and Bengals before Minnesota finally gave him his shot at the big job in 2014.
“Everybody wants the hot young offensive coordinator,” Zimmer said. “But when I see a guy like Vic Fangio get a job, I appreciate that, because Vic had some pelts on the wall. Here’s a guy who put in the time, did a good job, was always a good coach and gets the opportunity.”
Zimmer is 51-36-1 (including postseason) with two division titles as a head coach, and he is a data point in favor of those who want to convince teams it can work with a defensive guy in charge. But even his tenure in Minnesota has been defined a bit by the inability to keep the offense consistent. Current offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is the fourth different person to hold that job during Zimmer’s six seasons, and only one of the previous three (Pat Shurmur) left for a head-coaching position elsewhere. If a defensive coach is going to get a head-coach job, he has to convince a team he has the right person to run the offense. Then he has to spend the first year or two showing everybody why he deserved the job.
“When you first get somewhere, you’ve got to get them to buy in. That’s the first thing,” Zimmer said. “That’s why, when I came here, I did everything. I called the defense, I installed everything, I ran the meetings, all that stuff, because I wanted them to think that I was an expert at something. I’d never been an expert at being a head coach, so I wanted them to know that, ‘Hey, this guy’s a good football coach. He knows what he’s talking about.’ And hopefully the defensive guys would tell the offensive guys.”
All of that said, let’s take a look at some (not all, please don’t get upset) of the current coordinators and assistants whose names might be on the radar of teams looking for new head coaches in January. We’ll start with the two guys I mentioned at the top:
Hired by Josh McDaniels when he thought he was going to be the Colts’ next coach, Eberflus was already under contract when McDaniels backed out and the team hired Frank Reich for the big job. Indy’s defense, led by All-Pro rookie Darius Leonard, was one of the surprises of the 2018 season, and it’s off to a solid start in 2019 despite major injury problems.
Sunday night’s victory is the most prominent feather in Eberflus’ cap so far, but he interviewed after last season for the Browns’ head-coaching job that ended up going to Freddie Kitchens. It’s unlikely that interview will be his last.
Saleh is 40 years old (which used to be young for a head coach) and has coached under Gary Kubiak and Pete Carroll in previous stops. He was the coordinator in 2018 when a disappointing San Francisco defense had just two interceptions all season, but this turnaround so far is impressive.
If the Niners’ defense finishes the season the way it has begun it, Saleh could find himself scheduling interviews around playoff preparations.
Another former Carroll assistant, Richard was a candidate in Miami this past offseason and has been accruing more responsibility with the Dallas defense since arriving there in 2018. He has been a regular on the interview circuit for a while, and a big year in Dallas would only intensify interest in him.
The 4-1 Bills are one of the big surprises of the early season, but their defensive performance shouldn’t be shocking. Buffalo has the league’s fifth-best defense by yards per game allowed (317.9) and third-best defense by yards per play allowed (5.0) since Frazier became defensive coordinator in 2017. Since the start of the 2018 season, Buffalo ranks first (289.6 YPG) and second (4.8 YPP) in those categories.
Frazier was head coach of the Vikings from 2011-13 and interviewed for the Colts’ job in 2018 after McDaniels bailed and before it went to Reich. Sure, coach Sean McDermott has a defensive background and obviously a major role in Buffalo’s defense, but if all those Sean McVay offensive assistants can get jobs, why not McDermott’s top defensive lieutenant?
The former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach is in his second season on Bill Belichick’s staff, adding NFL coaching experience to his extensive college résumé. New England’s defensive performance this season (and the latter part of 2018) is the kind of performance teams want to try to get a piece of, and the construction of the staff doesn’t offer a lot of candidates.
Belichick oversees the operation, and teams obviously can’t get him. Inside-linebackers coach Jerod Mayo is in his first year of coaching. Secondary coach Steve Belichick is … probably sticking around, you would think. Bielema is the most hirable of the bunch, and since he has 20-plus years of college coaching experience (including 12 as a head coach) before he was in New England, he doesn’t necessarily carry the stigma of past Belichick assistants who couldn’t hack it elsewhere.
As discussed earlier. The Vikings’ defense has been very good for a very long time now, and Edwards has had some head-coach interviews. Perhaps he gets his shot sometime soon.
Allen has been on Sean Payton’s staff since 2015, the year after he was fired as Raiders head coach. The past three years have seen something of a defensive resurgence in New Orleans, and Allen has piqued teams’ interest.
If part of the Saints’ 2019 story ends up being that the defense stepped up and won games for them in Drew Brees‘ absence (which is kind of happening), Allen could get some calls.
All right, on to the offensive guys. Bienemy might have been hurt last cycle by the length of time the Chiefs spent in the playoffs, or by the perception that Andy Reid runs the show there on offense.
But teams do like to hire Reid’s guys, and Bienemy has been waiting for his chance. A Reid/Patrick Mahomes kingmaking combo certainly isn’t out of the question.
Dan Campbell, assistant head coach/TEs, New Orleans Saints
Campbell’s memorable stint as the Dolphins’ interim coach was four years ago, but he wants another crack at it and teams have their eye on him. Zac Taylor, who was offensive coordinator for that team while Campbell was its coach, is now the head coach of the Bengals.
Roman been a candidate before, and if Lamar Jackson‘s hot start turns into a big season, Roman is going to get a ton of points for the coaching creativity that went into Jackson’s development and the offense the team designed around him.
He was a finalist for the Browns’ job along with Kitchens, and he has coached just about every position on the offensive side of the ball. His candidacy could depend on whether the Vikings get their early-season offensive issues figured out, how well Kirk Cousins plays and whether the Vikings have a successful season.
Stefanski is well-regarded as a potential future head coach.
Bruce Arians loves Leftwich as a coaching prospect and has given him more responsibility this season in Tampa. He might be a year or two away from serious consideration, but we could have said that a year ago about a few guys who are now NFL head coaches.
Shane Waldron, passing-game coordinator, Los Angeles Rams
He works for Sean McVay.