PFW news on the likeliest new head coaches, plus the latest NFL Whispers.
The Way We Hear It
They call it Black Monday — the day after the regular season ends, when fallen victims start dotting the head-coaching landscape.
With the coaching carousel already spinning, the time seems right to take a look at the top NFL assistant coaches likely to be considered for head-coach vacancies, especially considering the smashing success former assistant coaches Mike Smith (Atlanta), John Harbaugh (Baltimore) and Tony Sparano (Miami) have enjoyed in their maiden voyages as head coaches, each of them deserving legitimate consideration for NFL Coach of the Year honors.
What follows is a rundown of the five assistant coaches who we hear could be the hottest commodities in this year’s head-coach marketplace, complete with comments from league insiders:
1. Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo
The 49-year-old Spagnuolo burst onto the head-coaching radar screen big-time last season after his defense’s impressive performance on the road to a Super Bowl title. The showing by the defense was culminated by its eye-opening effort against New England’s record-breaking offense, which couldn’t have served as a better audition for a head-coaching job.
But after being interviewed by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for the job that was eventually given to former Seahawks assistant coach Jim Zorn, Spagnuolo was rewarded with a $2 million-a-year contract that makes him one of the league’s highest-paid assistants.
There is a school of thought that the Giants could try to convince Spagnuolo to become the team’s “head coach in waiting.” But with current head coach Tom Coughlin still having three years left on his contract, and Spagnuolo staring age 50 squarely in the face, we hear he’s more likely to graduate into the head-coaching ranks now.
“Spags is a players’ coach,” a league insider told PFW. “He comes from the proven (Eagles defensive coordinator) Jimmy Johnson, pressure-driven, intensive philosophy. He gets the most out of his players. He understands personnel and how to maximize it. He’s very professional, hardworking and diligent.
“He’s got an undeniable passion for the game. He found a way to beat the unbeatable Patriots. He’s with the reigning Super Bowl champs and has a legitimate chance to repeat. There’s little not to like, and he’s an even better person than he is a coach.”
2. Vikings assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier
Considered by most insiders to be the top minority head-coaching candidate, Frazier has earned strong reviews for the job he’s done this season in his second year as the Vikings’ defensive coordinator, overseeing a unit ranked first against the run and sixth overall. He was interviewed by Bill Parcells for the Dolphins’ opening last season and has an impressive winning pedigree.
Prior to joining the Vikings, Frazier served under Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, receiving a Super Bowl ring as a going-away gift. He also won a Super Bowl ring as a player (1985 Bears), and in his 10 seasons as an NFL coach, he has suffered a losing season only once — his first season with the Eagles in 1999.
“Leslie Frazier is very much like Tony Dungy in his demeanor and knowledge of the game,” said a veteran league executive. “(Frazier) has a very good understanding of the game and people.
“He knows what buttons to push to get people to play, but he also has a calming demeanor to get his point across without raising his voice. And he’s a great teacher.”
3. Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan
The son of former NFL head coach and assistant coach Buddy Ryan and brother of Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Baltimore’s defensive mastermind has coaching in his blood.
In Rex Ryan’s 10 years with the Ravens, the last four as the team’s D-coordinator, Baltimore’s defensive units have been frequently among the league’s highest-ranked. Considered a master at disguising coverages and making defensive adjustments, Ryan interviewed for openings in Atlanta, Baltimore and Miami last offseason.
“Rex Ryan gets great players to play great all the time,” a league executive said. “They don’t let up. To beat that ‘D,’ you have to beat them.”
4. Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz
Schwartz has earned his spurs, first entering the league as a scout with the Browns in 1993 under Bill Belichick. Completing his 10th season on head coach Jeff Fisher’s staff, he’s been Tennessee’s D-coordinator since 2001 and has consistently assembled units that are strong against the run and in third-down situations, although he has had a strong core group to work with, as is the case for Ryan in Baltimore.
Schwartz may be the most qualified assistant in terms of pure brainpower, but he has a tendency to come across as overly arrogant — a quality that should be very interesting to monitor in the coming days and weeks.
“I wish there was more consistency from Jim Schwartz,” said one veteran league source. “Would you have said he were a hot candidate last year? … He’s very, very smart, but he’s always the smartest guy in the room.
“You have to know what you’re getting and be able to manage him.”
It’s also worth noting that a few league observers believe Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger could get some feelers after the job he did this year with a rejuvenated Kerry Collins under center.
5. Panthers offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson
In Davidson’s first year as Carolina’s offensive coordinator last season, the Panthers’ offense hit the skids after QB Jake Delhomme was lost for season in Week Three.
With Delhomme healthy in Davidson’s second season as the coordinator, Carolina’s offense has become one of the most potent and balanced the league has to offer, with the one-two punch of DeAngelo Williams and first-round rookie Jonathan Stewart running rampant behind an underrated O-line that has allowed only 20 sacks, and Steve Smith providing an explosive aerial complement.
“In some ways he has been a bit handcuffed by the (head coach John) Fox philosophy,” a league expert said of Davidson. “He comes from the Belichick/Parcells coaching tree, and he could be this year’s Mike Smith flying under the radar and knock off an owner’s socks in the interview process.”
Added another source: “Davidson doesn’t come across like a great communicator. But the same could have been said about Smith last year.”
Just missing our top-five list is 32-year-old Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who has earned kudos for the job he did bringing QB Matt Cassel along this season in place of the injured Tom Brady. Finishing his eighth season with the Pats, McDaniel has been rumored to be part of a potential package deal with Cassel for a team looking for both a new head coach and a quarterback.
“Josh McDaniels has a good deck to work with,” a league exec said. “I thought, more than anything, it was Tom Brady calling the offense in the past. I was not a big fan. … But look at what Cassel has done this year, and it’s difficult to argue with the results.”
Yet the way we hear it, there are some league observers who believe McDaniels could become the latest in a long line of Belichick understudies (Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini) who have left a lot to be desired as head coaches — should he even want to pursue such an opportunity.
“I’m still not convinced he’s going anywhere, regardless of what happens to (Patriots VP of player personnel Scott) Pioli,” said one league source. “I think Josh knows he’s not ready.”
DOLPHINS: Andy Alleman has done a commendable job filling in for Dolphins OLG Justin Smiley, but he may not be in that role for long. There’s talk of Alleman eventually taking over for C Samson Satele in response to Satele’s sophomore slump, though no changes are in store for the playoffs.
GIANTS: Much of the talk around New York has been about the drop-off in play of MLB Antonio Pierce since his questioning by police in the Plaxico Burress case, especially in pass coverage, but we hear that the coaches considered Pierce’s play in the second half of the win over the Panthers in Week 16 to be a big key to the victory. He made several smart adjustments as the Panthers scored only seven points after halftime, including overtime.
COLTS: The Colts had believed that one of their rookie tight ends, Jacob Tamme or Tom Santi, or both, would be the answer to their lack of a capable bookend to Dallas Clark in their frequent twin-TE alignments. But it’s been the unheralded Gijon Robinson who’s announced his arrival as the best option Indy has for the role. Almost two years out of Missouri Western State, Robinson has filled a major role for the Colts in his first season playing in the NFL.
REDSKINS: PR Antwaan Randle El has not been the return threat the team had hoped or expected when it signed him three years ago, despite a season-best 36-yarder against the Eagles in Week 16, and the team almost certainly will go into the offseason looking to upgrade that spot. The Redskins think Randle El is best when he’s playing slot receiver and not returning punts full time.
For more NFL news and daily fantasy football advice, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.