It’s not just playoff teams that move on after the NFL concludes its regular season. It’s a handful of coaches, too. Except they’re not coaching more games.
Oftentimes, they’re not coaching, period.
Welcome to Black Monday, an annual event that follows the last regular-season game sure to feature a number of coaches in the headlines – not because of what they achieved, but because of what they didn’t.
So they’re fired from their jobs, with most moves anticipated for weeks. I say most because it’s not unusual for there to be an outlier. That's what happened last year when Miami jettisoned Brian Flores, Sean Payton left the Saints and Bruce Arians quit the Buccaneers. When the revolving door stopped, 10 coaches were gone.
I don’t expect a double-digit recurrence this year. In fact, I think we’re going to have one of the smallest turnovers in years.
Three teams fired coaches midseason, so we know they’ll be looking. Two others are almost sure to make moves on Monday. But then there are those outliers, and history tells us we’ll have at least one. I don’t know if it will happen. I just know that it can.
Here are the teams that will be shopping for head coaches, the ones that might be, and the most surprising of surprises that could still occur.
Most Likely to Make Change
Houston Texans: Lovie Smith
UPDATE: The Texans fired Lovie Smith on Sunday night.
No surprise here. It’s based on the record and a leadership group that needs to make dramatic improvements. Frankly, if I were running this team, I’d make a change with the head coach and the general manager – mostly because I don’t think in his two years with Houston that GM Nick Caserio has demonstrated he can fix problems and make the Texans a contender.
Nevertheless, I don’t see that happening. I believe the Texans keep Caserio for at least another season and have him join the owner in a search for Houston’s next head coach.
That’s because the current one, Lovie Smith, is almost certain to be fired next week. Lovie is someone who is liked and respected. But he’s had two stints in the NFL as a head coach and one in college (the University of Illinois), with a record 19-52-1 in his last six seasons – including 17-39 at Illinois. He’s kept the Texans playing hard, but that’s not good enough. They don’t view him as the coach to take them to next level.
So look for a change, with one of the younger candidates out there his most likely successor. The Texans want to have a youth movement, and I believe they’ll be aggressive and fearless in a search for their next head coach.
Arizona Cardinals: Kliff Kingsbury
UPDATE: The Cardinals fired Kliff Kingsbury on Monday Morning.
When Kliff Kingsbury was asked this week about his future, he said, “I’m the head coach today.” Key word there: Today.
Kingsbury knows the score: There may be no tomorrow. But that can happen when you have one winning season in four years, you've lost your only playoff game, you've failed three times to finish higher than third in your division, and you've dropped 17 of your past 22 games.
Look, I didn’t like this move when the Cards made it in 2019. He’d been 35-40 as the head coach at Texas Tech, including 16-21 in his last three seasons there. But as the Cards began to make progress (they won eight of their first nine last season and finished 11-6), I started to wonder if I was unfair.
I think we’ve seen that Kingsbury can get Arizona to a certain level — but not beyond. That's why he’s in trouble.
The decision falls to owner Michael Bidwill, though a recent report suggested Kingsbury is so “miserable” he could resign. Bottom line: His time seems to be running out. If and when he leaves, the Cards can’t fall into the trap of choosing a head coach for Kyler Murray instead of finding someone who’s an exceptional leader for the team. This is going to be a tough hire. The future of GM Steve Keim (who is on a leave of absence, reportedly because of health reasons) is uncertain, and the cap situation isn’t great.
My guess: Arizona will be challenged if the Cards want the same coach as another franchise with an opening.
Denver Broncos: Interim Jerry Rosburg
They were in this position a year ago before hiring Nathaniel Hackett. He lasted 15 games. So now they’ll try again, and you know something? That’s not all that bad. They interviewed a cast of candidates last year, so they know who they like and who they don’t. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone who was a runner-up or top-three choice a year ago could be their guy and they already know that.
Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was someone who interested them before last year’s interviews, so I’d keep my eye on him. While I believe they’re committed to taking a fresh look at things, I don’t think they forget how people interviewed a year ago.
Now, the obvious question: How does Russell Wilson affect their choice of candidates? I agree with those who say he’s a descending player but not with critics who think he went from good to horrible in one year. He can play much better and at a level where he can be a quarterback on a winning team. But two things need to happen:
1. The Broncos must build and coach up a great offensive line.
2. They must put together a scheme that’s more quarterback-friendly.
It’s obvious the coaching here was really bad and that the team was divided. But I would view Wilson as an asset if I were looking at this job, other than how much of the cap he was using.
Carolina Panthers: Interim Steve Wilks
We’re already hearing rumors that if Jim Harbaugh found the right situation, he’d leave the University of Michigan for the NFL … and I think those rumors are true. “Although no one knows the future,” Harbaugh said after a reported meeting with Carolina owner David Tepper, “I think I will be coaching Michigan next year.”
Think? That should tell you what you already know: He’s leaving the door open.
Anyway, Tepper is a hands-on owner who wants to be engaged in a coaching hire, and Harbaugh would be an interesting fit. He’s had success wherever he’s gone – the University of San Diego, Stanford, the 49ers, Michigan – but he’s somewhat of a challenging person to work with; somebody who wants to take charge and do things his way. He’s the kind of guy who says, “Trust me, give me three years and we’ll be winning.”
But that hasn’t been how the owner has done things so far. So this will be interesting to follow.
There are two issues here:
1. Quarterback Sam Darnold
2. Interim coach Steve Wilks
Darnold, if the team is set on re-signing him (he's an unrestricted free agent after this season), will be a factor in how the next head coach thinks about this job. The applicant will have an opinion on him, and it will affect his view on the job in a major way.
Wilks, on the other hand, has done a credible job since taking over for Matt Rhule. But the Panthers are more likely to move in a different direction because they have a bias (as many teams do) toward an offensive head coach. That said, I would definitely sit down with Wilks and give him a fair chance to convince me I was wrong. The job he’s done there is impressive and surprising.
He’s earned the right to be considered.
Indianapolis Colts: Interim Jeff Saturday
Of all the potential openings, this is the most attractive … with one exception: quarterback. The Colts don’t have one. The rest of the roster, however, is more developed and advanced than most people think. Plus, they’re in good cap shape and have a general manager (Chris Ballard) who’s smart and will develop a strong relationship with the next head coach. So there won’t be a power struggle.
Put all that together, and I’d be surprised if they don’t come out of this with a really good candidate.
The Colts are coming off a season of frustration, but they’re getting over their wounds. They're on to being really passionate about finding the right guy – and I think they find him. In their last search, Mike Vrabel was the runner-up to Frank Reich, and having Vrabel's name high on their list was a good call. Frank was a good call, too.
The Colts know what they’re looking for more than most of the other teams out there I’m familiar with. The key is if Ballard and owner Jim Irsay can collaborate on this decision. If so, I believe because of the division they’re in and the strength of their roster, Indianapolis has a chance next year to make a playoff run and compete in an absurdly difficult AFC playoff bracket.
But let’s face it: They’re not going anywhere until they solve the quarterback position, and that could happen with this year’s draft.
If the season were to end today, the Colts would have the fifth overall pick – high enough to find their next quarterback. And if they pass? There’s always free agency. They’re one of the teams that could solve its problem with Derek Carr – provided, of course, that he’s finished in Las Vegas, which I believe he is.
Carr is not a guy who makes a team great by himself, like Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes. But if the rest of the roster is right, he’s good enough to make you compete with the best teams in the league.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Todd Bowles
Ownership is not likely to make a change after one year, but it’s been a disappointing season relative to expectations. The Bucs were supposed to be a Super Bowl contender. Instead, they’re 8-8 with Tom Brady and won a division where nobody has a winning record.
Much of the criticism has been focused on the coaching staff, particularly head coach Todd Bowles, and I understand. Though I actually would’ve been comfortable hiring him, he hasn’t done as well in Year 1 as I would’ve thought. Still, it’s rare that anyone makes a coaching change after reaching the playoffs.
Cleveland Browns: Kevin Stefanski
I put them here mostly because of ownership. The Haslams have a history of making changes. They’ve run through seven head coaches (including interim Gregg Williams) in 11 seasons. They’re obviously disappointed with how the season went. They thought their team was legitimately in the conversation for getting to the AFC Championship Game, if not the Super Bowl, and they fell well short.
I believe Kevin Stefanski has done a really good job with the offense and deserves more time to prove himself. But this is his third season, and no head coach under Haslam has lasted longer. We will see a change at defensive coordinator, no matter what, but I think a change with Stefanski is unlikely. Nevertheless, because ownership isn’t patient and because Cleveland had a disappointing season, I’m keeping the Browns on my list.
New Orleans Saints: Dennis Allen
This is the one team where I actually would make a change. I didn’t think Dennis Allen did a good job when he was the head coach in Oakland (he was 8-28), and I thought the Saints underperformed this year.
Granted, they’ve played well the past couple of weeks, and he deserves credit for that. An indicator of a good head coach is improvement by his team as the season goes on.
Still, the Saints were underwhelming. When they traded all those first-round draft picks, they never thought they were going to be below .500. They thought they had a chance to be elite, and they’re not close.
If they can find a quarterback – and I believe this is the most likely fit for Carr – the Saints could, maybe should, make the playoffs next season. I’m just not sure Allen is the guy to take them there.
Los Angeles Rams: Sean McVay
Do you want the longest shot? Here it is. And there’s only one reason: Sean McVay.
I believe we’re seeing visible signs of coach burnout. It would be a shame if he walked away because he’s a really good coach and a really good guy. But there are times when you can see how, when things aren’t going well, just how pained he is.
Now let’s get something straight: If this were to happen, it wouldn’t be a firing by any stretch of the imagination. The Rams would be devastated. And I don’t think it happens. But if there is to be a surprise, don't rule it out.
The intensity and the grind of being a head coach are things most people can’t survive for long. You can’t do these jobs well unless you’re so beyond all in, and that’s virtually impossible to fathom if you’ve never been close to it. But it’s the reality. He just looks pained. His angst is on his face. All I know is that you can see it.
He may decide that he’s going to fight through this and keep going, and that’s more likely than not. But we’ve seen a few head coaches like Sean Payton make what I’d call “mental-health" or “happiness" decisions. I look at McVay and think he could be next.
Joe Banner is a former front office executive for the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns, and also served as a consultant with the Atlanta Falcons. Banner was a part of an Eagles franchise that made a Super Bowl and played in four NFC Championship Games. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeBanner13