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Top NFL head-coach openings: A team owner dramatically changed rankings this week with one declaration

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·16 min read
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A few days around Christmas, with the New York Jets having surprisingly beaten the Los Angeles Rams and the Jacksonville Jaguars suddenly holding the top slot in the 2021 NFL draft, a candidate on the coaching circuit delivered a message about how head coach openings were shaping up across the league. He ran through details about opportunity and then halted on the Jaguars.

“I think that’s the best job,” he texted.

Asked if it was the combination of Jacksonville’s ample salary-cap space, along with the ability to draft Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence inside a boatload of 2021 draft picks (including two first- and two second-rounders), the coach replied with one emphatic word.

“Yes!”

For many and for a while, that was a consensus opinion. The long-middling coaching destination of Jacksonville was rising out of the swamp and turning into the place to be. And then team owner Shad Khan said something this week that has rung out like a five-alarm fire bell for coaches and general managers: He’s going to continue to hold the team’s roster control in the near future and he has been alerting candidates of that reality.

Khan previously bestowed that duty to former head of football operations Tom Coughlin, who ultimately ended up at odds with multiple players on the roster, including some Khan hoped to cement as foundational cornerstones. The fallout: Coughlin was fired and Khan took control of the roster.

Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan participates in the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit at Union West on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, pictured at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit in 2019, is holding a tight grip on roster decisions. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

And now it sounds like he intends on keeping it for at least a while, which makes him one of the league’s rare franchise owners who controls a 53-man roster. A situation similar to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has long been pilloried inside his fan base for his missteps with the team’s talent.

“Last season, especially after Tom’s departure — he had the roster control so I kept the roster control,” Khan told reporters over a Zoom call on Monday. “ … The general manager candidates, I’ve been talking to them, [and told them] for the immediate future I’m going to keep the roster control. I want the coach to know that also.”

That’s a red flag, one that is going to complicate a pursuit of the best and brightest, and most hotly pursued coaching and general manager candidates. If there is anything that prospective hires will say in a search, it’s that they are extremely wary of walking into a franchise where the team owner is going to be a constant part of the talent evaluation process. And if Khan is going to be in control of his team’s 53-man selection, that’s precisely what is happening in Jacksonville.

For a team that should be the No. 1 job in the NFL market, that is a bit of a stink bomb that has just gone off. It’s pungent enough that it’s going to knock Jacksonville out of the top slot for some candidates who might have their pick of more than one team in the next few weeks.

With that in mind, this is how the field is shaping up …

1. Los Angeles Chargers

Until this week, L.A. was always a close second or even a “1B” designation to Jacksonville in the top slot. For head coaches, it now rises above the Jaguars because candidates are coming in knowing two extremely important things: That there is a 22-year-old quarterback who has already proven he can operate in the NFL at an All-Pro level; and that the general manager, Tom Telesco, is fully in charge of the roster. That assurance in two areas of the holy trinity (GM/Coach/Quarterback) is vital.

Is the team’s ownership state-of-the-art in the NFL? No, but it’s also not at the bottom of the league, either. It will spend money when it has to and the roster is loaded with talent.

The cap situation is going to get hairy following the 2022 season when Herbert will likely be up for an astronomical extension, but the next coach will cross that bridge with Telesco when it comes. And there is some added downside of being in a division where it will always be a dogfight with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, but there’s no reason to believe at this moment that Herbert isn’t up for it.

The real key here for head coaching candidates runs into two big questions. What are the expectations out of the gate (and they will likely be high) and how can the team do a better job of keeping players healthy, which has been a monumental issue for a while. If those can be answered to satisfaction, there is no reason for a head coach to be afraid of this job — nor the prospect of the pressure of taking over an L.A. market, which seems conceivable with Herbert looking like a league centerpiece.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

This is not a “1B” slot. It’s a solid second place for reasons we discussed earlier — Khan posting up in the middle of roster decisions.

The first question any candidate should have is what Khan’s end goal is with his control. Is he going to be a de facto general manager? Is this a Jerry Jones situation? Did Coughlin’s mismanagement reconfigure how Khan’s head works when it comes to the team’s day-to-day operations?

Perhaps the most important question: Will Khan recognize that his previous structure with Coughlin wasn’t the problem? (Maybe the real issue was the man he put at the top of it.)

This a significant amount of sideshow for any coach to deal with, let alone the team’s fiscal questions that are hanging loose, including the “Lot J” development and whether this is a franchise that will continue to dabble in London on an annual basis.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence warms up before the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game against Ohio State Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
It would be stunning if Clemson's Trevor Lawrence isn't the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

One coaching candidate who was tapped for this piece even asked how often other team owners lean on Khan about potential relocation, which is a frightening question with an unknowable answer.

All of that is too bad because this is a stacked situation otherwise. Having the No. 1 pick and the ability to draft Lawrence is seen as an immense ace in the team’s deck. Some general managers look at Lawrence as a high-end, 15-year solution at quarterback, which along with Lawrence’s rookie salary will position this team to do almost anything it wants from a cap and building standpoint. Beyond that, the roster has nice pieces of talent, the cap space is going to blow virtually everyone out of the water in free agency and the draft class has a chance to lay a serious portion of whatever pivot needs to be made starting in 2021. And none of this is more important than a key piece of synergy that is within the franchise’s grasp. Not only does the team have the ability to select a generational quarterback, it gets to pair him with an incoming general manager and head coach, effectively guaranteeing (if the franchise can do this right) that the three most important pieces are all on the same page from Day 1.

It’s all blue skies, apart from the potential falling anvil of a team owner who is an acting GM at the moment.

3. Detroit Lions

This job is getting far more traction than I expected. And it’s because Detroit has two important things going for it. First, Lions owners are historically bad at making hires — but they are a hands-off bunch and they will spend money.

The biggest reason Detroit has bad owners is because it can’t make the right hires. It’s as simple as that. It’s similar to the Cleveland Browns, who finally got it right last offseason, but an actually more manageable path to success than Cleveland because the Browns still have to deal with Jimmy Haslam meddling from time to time. Lions ownership isn’t that. It’s just bad at hiring the next level of management. If Detroit can get the right people in the top jobs, there is the immense plus that the authority to get things in gear on the roster and culture is delegated to the people who should have it. That’s a big deal to candidates.

Another big plus: With the coach and general manager coming in and making a decision on quarterback Matthew Stafford, there is an ability here for the “full” reset at the important cornerstones. The coach, GM and quarterback can all come in together at once, removing any awkwardness about forced pairings. While that might not sound palatable to those who still love Stafford for gutting it out for so long, the opportunity to start fresh can go all the way to the quarterback spot and that can be a blessing in the long run if it’s done right. It’s a big “if,” given the history of this team.

On the more concerning side, there is talent on this roster but it could also very easily become a purge situation like the San Francisco 49ers became when Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch landed there. It could go either way, with 2021 being a serious blood-letting of bad contracts and removing older players from the team. Tear-downs are painful and everything is a hard sell to this fan base at this point, which means the next coach has to be a “win-the-press-conference” type of guy. He has to be someone fans can fall in love with, and that doesn’t play into every candidate. There is definitely going to be a right match, something everyone learned from the first year of Matt Patricia.

There is also the question of how many cooks are in the kitchen within the franchise, with Rod Wood and Chris Spielman now both in the mix. The reporting structure and ability for fiefdoms to form is there, and that ain’t great. The cap situation also isn’t great, but it should be exponentially better coming out of 2021 with a few moves. The draft pick situation also isn’t stellar, but the seventh overall slot is right in the wheelhouse of a quarterback, or at least in close distance of moving up to get the second or third one available. The bottom line, if the full holy trinity reset is the plan, this entire offseason has to be about replacing Stafford.

4. Houston Texans

This should be the third best job, but it’s getting this fourth slot because it continues to be a monumentally screwed up organization internally. At some point, you have to look at ownership and ask why important people always seem to be at odds inside the building. First it was former GM Rick Smith and former head coach Bill O’Brien. Then it was O’Brien and former GM Brian Gaine. Then it was O’Brien and All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins. And then in the weirdest development of last season, it was O’Brien versus vice president of football operations Jack Easterby. Even the firing of the former head of communications, Amy Palcic, drew a significant number of headlines. That’s insane for a team in a modestly aggressive media market.

And while O’Brien was the common thread in a lot of those donnybrooks, it didn’t end when he went out the door. Now it’s the new general manager hire of Nick Caserio, which has raised the specter of a problem with Deshaun Watson. And that is really not the problem an incoming head coach wants to think about.

This also plays into bumping this franchise down to No. 4 on this list. Having Watson pissed off is really, really bad and it puts immense pressure on the next coach.

The bottom line: This team has a hellacious amount of static around it and if it wasn’t for the existence of an irritated Watson, it would be the bottom dweller on this list. He’s so good that it keeps this franchise in considerable play, even with the dramatics. The draft picks are bleak. No first- or second-rounders. So, yeah, that’s bad. And the cap situation is also messy in 2021, although it could be remedied with two (unpopular) cuts of J.J. Watt and Brandin Cooks. If Caserio isn’t going in that direction, he’s going to have a lot more work to do — and his load is already considerable as it is.

Everything is hinging on one big turning point: the head coach coming in has to be in love with Watson and vice versa. They are going to be the ones who can elevate this team in the immediate future, or at least keep it afloat while Caserio takes a hatchet to the roster and the warring culture.

5. New York Jets

If it wasn’t for general manager Joe Douglas — who I believe is going to drag this thing kicking and screaming into a better future — the Jets would be a dead fish. Not just last on this list, but also radioactive.

Douglas has the ability to be great if and when the purse strings and continued draft foundation will let him do it. While ownership has played a part in the penny pinching, Douglas has been smarter with the money than people realize. He was never going to fall for the Jadeveon Clowney mess. And he avoided the asteroid contracts of Jamal Adams and Leonard Williams, both of whom are going to ask for the moon in their next deals. In the future, the Jets will pay those kinds of deals, but only when they know they are in position to maximize winning and make this all worth it. And that wasn’t happening with the now-fired coaching staff.

The upside for a coaching candidate now is that the Jets are moving into a better financial space to spend in free agency or extend talent, and there are a ton of top draft picks in the next two years. All of which means there is going to be considerable opportunity to build the base organically to what Douglas nailed down in the 2020 draft, and then accentuate it with some smarter free-agent choices.

The downside here for a coach is the quarterback uncertainty. Having the top pick and Trevor Lawrence would have taken a gargantuan amount of evaluation off the table. Now it’s front and center as the team has to grapple with Sam Darnold vs. available veterans vs. a draft pick. That’s a lot of work ahead and it’s already underway.

Beyond that, ownership structure remains iffy. Woody Johnson is coming back from his ambassadorship and he’s going to be a factor. But a huge plus inside the organization is that the team president, Hymie Elhai, is working extremely well with Douglas. Having those two on the same page with an incoming head coach can be massively influential when it comes to managing upward toward ownership. With the right coach, this could easily be a Cleveland Browns situation where you have a tight knit block of the president, coach and GM creating momentum while managing ownership collectively. It can be done. And that’s the saving grace with this job. That and figuring out the quarterback situation will set the compass.

6. Atlanta Falcons

It’s weird to put Atlanta in this last spot, considering that the team still has a talented quarterback in Matt Ryan and All-Pro wideout Julio Jones — not to mention a relatively new stadium, valuable fourth overall draft pick and some draft ammunition. But there are cracks here and candidates can see them. The cap situation is not good. Ryan is going into the winter of his career. Jones is making more money than I think some in the organization were comfortable with before everyone in power got blown out.

The biggest issue here is Arthur Blank. He’s an involved team owner and I think that screwed up parts of how this club operated at times. Rich McKay was removed as GM but remained in the building and heavily involved in a lot of things and I think that created serious tension and suspicion in the front office before Thomas Dimitroff was fired. Blank gave the 53-man control to Dan Quinn when he was hired as head coach, which again seemed to muddle the structure and relationships. Before Scott Pioli departed, he wasn’t always a welcome fit inside the team when you spoke to some people in personnel.

After the Super Bowl loss, the Falcons seemed to get a lot more dysfunctional. It was very much a crabs in a barrel feel, especially as the losing set in and everyone was staring at their feet and doing a slow burn about how the organization was set up and who was empowered to do what. Blank’s involvement in a lot of things wore on people over the years. I’ve heard that going all the way back to the Mike Smith head coaching era and it has never really gone away. As one source in the organization said, Blank was a team owner who needed to be tended to on a weekly basis — and most coaching candidates aren’t big fans of owners who need to be watered a lot.

So you have an aging, highly paid quarterback; a wideout making a ton of money who weighs on the cap; a franchise owner who is very involved; a bad cap situation and a former general manager who remains in the building and still has Blank’s ear. That’s a lot of tangled thread to navigate for a head coach. Maybe the one promising thing in all of this is that a general manager and head coach can come in together, while also having the blessing of Blank to do whatever they deem necessary with the roster. However you slide it, it’s heading into a rebuild with a team owner who looks like he’s always going to be a part of the equation … and who might not always see the flaws he’s building into his own structure.

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