Of the three current head-coaching openings for 2023, the vacancy in Denver has become the most intriguing.
The Broncos have brand-new ownership with unlimited financial resources. They have a loyal and dedicated fan base that is starving to end a record seven-year stretch of no playoff appearances since the most recent Super Bowl win.
It’s common for teams who have fired a coach to look for a replacement who is, in one or more ways, the exact opposite. For the Broncos, it becomes critical to avoid hiring a coordinator who has never before been a head coach, given the dramatic differences between the two jobs — and the simple reality that it’s impossible to know whether a competent coordinator can be an effective head coach until landing in that job.
The Broncos surely won’t want to roll the dice on another coordinator who has never been a head coach. They’ll likely look for candidates who have coached successfully, at the NFL level.
Obviously, Sean Payton is the current A-list white whale. But he’ll come with a requirement to compensate the Saints. Setting aside Payton and other current head coaches with other teams (such as Mike Tomlin), here’s a list of potential head-coaching candidates who have shown that they can coach at the pro level, and who are currently available for no compensation other than their paychecks.
The list is alphabetical.
Jim Caldwell: Caldwell led the Colts to Super Bowl XLIV, and he had the chronically dysfunctional Lions moving in the right direction before being replaced by Matt Patricia.
Bill Cowher: He last coached in 2006, a year after winning Super Bowl XL. After lingering on the fringes of returning for several years after that, he settled into his TV role with CBS. It’s believed at this point he’s never coming back.
Tony Dungy: The Hall of Famer retired after the 2008 season, two years after winning Super Bowl XLI. Could the Wal-Mart moguls make him an offer he wouldn’t refuse?
Jason Garrett: He coached America’s Team for nine-plus seasons. He co-existed with an owner so meddlesome he made himself the G.M. His teams competed, making it to the playoffs three times.
Brian Flores: He’d be an intriguing option. However, he has a pending lawsuit against several teams, including the Broncos. And the Broncos reacted strongly to his allegation that he received a sham interview from team representatives who were “disheveled” and who appeared to have been “drinking heavily” the night before. While that was a different Denver regime, it could be hard for new ownership to overlook it.
Jim Harbaugh: He won immediately and consistently in San Francisco, and he still wants another crack at the unfinished business of winning a Super Bowl. Plus, he competed against quarterback Russell Wilson during the first three years of his career. That could help Harbaugh understand how best to deploy Wilson now.
Gary Kubiak: He’s retired, but he was retired when he became the Denver coach in 2015 — winning a Super Bowl in his first year on the job.
Marvin Lewis: Lewis took the Bengals to the playoffs seven times, despite the challenges inherent to leading a team that has a well-earned reputation for not wanting to spend excessive amounts of hard-earned cash. He has 16 years of NFL head-coaching experience.
Dan Quinn: Quinn had the Falcons on the brink of a victory in Super Bowl LI. His Atlanta teams were consistently competitive.
Steve Wilks: Wilks has limited head-coaching experience, but he’s the kind of tough, hard-nosed, old-school coach the Broncos could use. If the Panthers make the playoffs, Wilks quite possibly will get a chance to stay in Carolina as the non-interim successor to Matt Rhule.
Mike Zimmer: He would definitely be the opposite of Nathaniel Hackett. He’d bring an old-school, Parcells-style approach to the Broncos, and he wouldn’t coddle their franchise quarterback. Frankly, Russell Wilson at this point in his career may need a coach who refuses to tiptoe around the highest-paid player (by far) on the team.