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Fast-Rising NFL Head Coaching Candidates from Coordinator Ranks

If you’re not one of 14 teams in the playoffs, this is the time of year you might be looking for your next head coach. As a matter of fact, five franchises are, with familiar names mentioned as candidates.

Sean Payton. Dan Quinn. Frank Reich.

All have been NFL head coaches, with varying degrees of success. So you know them. But what about those candidates who haven’t run NFL teams – young assistants whom you’re starting to hear about but whose names you don’t recognize?

I personally know several I’d consider hiring, and I want to introduce them to you. But before I do, let me tell you what qualities I’m looking for in my next head coach:

  • Leadership. I think it speaks for itself. You either have it or you don’t.
  • The ability to hire and manage quality assistants. People underestimate how important it is to oversee your staff, both philosophically and as a manager of individuals.
  • A strong conviction in a clear philosophy. I don’t think you can lead people unless you can tell them where you’re trying to take them. So I’m not picking the philosophy. It could be someone who wants to run the ball or pass the ball, I don’t care. What I want is for that person to have a strong conviction, because it’s hard to be a leader if you don’t. 
  • Attention to detail. A lot of coaches who are successful are obsessed with every detail. Before we interviewed Andy Reid in Philadelphia, for instance, people told us, “He’s so focused on every little detail, he drives everyone crazy.” Some looked at that as a criticism. I didn’t. I thought it was perfect. Attention to detail means you are organized, prepared, and you know how to relay to players what’s expected of them.

Who checks those boxes? Here are six assistants who should get calls … and will:

Shane Steichen, OC, Philadelphia

He was the quality-control coach in Cleveland the year I was there (2013), which was the beginning of his NFL education. So I got to know him. What I saw was a young man who was smart, a hard worker and easy to work with. Did I see a head-coach-in-the-making? I can’t say yes or no. But I did see the potential of one. 

Now, after watching what he's done with the Eagles and talking to people within the organization, I’ve become more optimistic that the young man I first saw in Cleveland has evolved in terms of leadership skills and confidence. I have a high opinion of him, as I did before, but that feeling has only expanded as I’ve seen him do more and more in Philadelphia. 

You may not know much about him, but I firmly believe he’s right to get the interviews and calls he’s been receiving. Furthermore, I also believe he should go into those interviews with people having high expectations of the candidate they’re about to meet. If he can persuade someone to hire him, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

About Shane Steichen

  • Years as OC: 3
  • Record as OC: 30-20
  • Eagles’ average offensive rank (yards) under Steichen: 14th
  • 2022 Offense DVOA ranking: 3rd

Jonathan Gannon, DC, Philadelphia

I know Gannon from my relationships at the Colts, where he was once considered as a coordinator, to his work with the Eagles now. For me, what’s been most impressive about him is that, in a league where so few people change as they get more experience, he’s something of an anomaly. Watching what he’s done with the defense from last year to this season – and where he learned from his mistakes – is all the proof I need. 

He’s become more aggressive, mixing in attacking schemes. Now, understand: That can mean he lines up six guys on the line of scrimmage and only rushes four. But at least he’s making the quarterback worry about what he’s doing, and the results speak for themselves: The Eagles led the league with 70 sacks this season, two short of the NFL record. He’s also shifting from zone to man-to-man more, making it hard to predict what happens next. So I see real growth. 

He didn’t come to Philadelphia as someone totally consumed by analytics, but he’s had an open mind about it and it’s had an impact on how he thinks. When you have someone who is smart, a great leader and open-minded, you’ve checked really important boxes.

About Jonathan Gannon

  • Years as DC: 2
  • Record as DC: 23-11
  • Eagles’ average defensive rank (yards) under Gannon: 6th
  • 2022 Defense DVOA ranking: 6th

Aaron Glenn, DC, Detroit

Full disclosure: As defensive coordinator of the Lions, he’s not one of those guys whom you look at and say, “Wow! Look how much the defense did the minute he took over.” That hasn’t happened. Detroit this season ranked last in total defense and allowed more points (427) than Chicago and Arizona. 

But if you go down the list of what you’re looking for in a head coach – leadership, building relationships, hiring the right people, managing them well and motivating players – he’s strong in all those areas. He has all the qualities the best coaches in this league have, which means he’s someone owners and GMs absolutely should be talking to. 

I’m close to some of the people in Detroit, and I’ve met Aaron. There is a presence about him. When he walks into the room, you feel it. I had that same sensation about Reid when he came to Philadelphia. That doesn’t mean I’m comparing Aaron to Andy, because I’m not. But Aaron is somebody who seems bigger than he actually is just by his mere presence, and I feel that when I’m around him. 

If you’re compiling a list of candidates who match up with the league’s most successful coaches, Aaron Glenn deserves to be on it.

About Aaron Glenn

  • Years as DC: 2
  • Record as DC: 12-21-1
  • Lions’ average defense rank (yards) under Glenn: 31st
  • 2022 Defense DVOA ranking: 28th

DeMeco Ryans, DC, San Francisco

He once played for the Eagles (2012-15), so I got to know him there. And what I know is this: I would be excited at the chance of sitting down to interview him. A smart and good person, he’s a leader with a dynamic presence that’s off the charts. 

The 49ers have the league’s top-rated defense. Granted, their talent level is good, but Ryans is making them better. If he were a head coach and didn’t do well, I’d be shocked. The only question I’d have about him is if he would hire the right coordinators. Everything else is the very best you could have in a candidate. 

Ryans is one of those guys who doesn’t do what he learned from the first person who taught him. Instead, he’s evolved into a coach whose philosophy and schemes are combinations of different things he’s learned along the way – and that’s something you don’t see often enough. In essence, he’s adaptable. Most coaches do what they originally learned and stick with it. But there’s a small number who evolve, with more complex schemes than they first learned, and DeMeco is one of them. 

One other thing: He was coached by Reid and worked under Kyle Shanahan. So he’s been to places that have prepared him to be a head coach. Of all the people on this list, Ryans is the one I’m most confident would succeed.

About DeMeco Ryans

  • Years as DC: 2
  • Record as DC: 23-11
  • 49ers’ average defense rank (yards) under Ryans: 2nd
  • 2022 Defense DVOA ranking: 1st

Mike Kafka, OC, N.Y. Giants

I know Mike from when he was a quarterback for three years in Philadelphia (2010-12). In fact, I know him well enough that I have strong opinions about him. People who don’t might wonder if he’s one or two years too soon to be going through interviews, but he’s not. 

Most head coaches aren’t successful in Year 1. They’re more often successful in Year 2. So if I found a guy I thought was promising but would take a year or two to make it, it wouldn’t scare me. Mike is smart, and he’s a leader. 

Plus, when he was with Andy in Kansas City (as Chiefs QB coach for Patrick Mahomes from 2018-2021), he learned not only what that scheme is and what makes it work, but he was in a system that breeds successful head coaches. He’s seen how Andy does things and how that translated into success for some of those assistants with him in Philadelphia – guys like Doug Pederson, Jon Gruden, John Harbaugh and Sean McDermott. 

So with Mike, you get Andy’s coaching and team-building philosophies, plus Mike’s experience with the Giants where he’s really in charge of that offense. No question, Brian Daboll deserves all the credit for what’s going on there, but Mike is the offensive coordinator – and what they’ve achieved with the talent there is incredible.

About Mike Kafka

  • Years as OC: 1
  • Record as OC: 9-7-1
  • Giants’ average offense rank (yards) under Kafka: 18th
  • 2022 Offense DVOA ranking: 10th

Kellen Moore, OC, Dallas

The offensive philosophy in Dallas is run-based, and it drives the Cowboys’ team-building, as well as the owner and head coach’s conviction about play-calling. But I believe that conviction holds Kellen back a bit. 

He’s innovative, open-minded and creative, but there’s only so much you can do within the parameters of that philosophy. I think he’s a good leader who must prove he can be a great leader. But he’s also someone who works well with the front office to create a collaborative and constructive team, and that’s a positive. 

I know Kellen well, and if you’re putting together a list of people who have the intangibles you most desire in your next head coach, he should be on it. He’s positive. He’s transparent. And he truly cares about his players. He has all those qualities in a compelling way, which means you can rely on his team to play hard.

About Kellen Moore

  • Years as OC: 4
  • Record as OC: 38-28
  • Cowboys’ average offense rank (yards) under Moore: 7th
  • 2022 Offense DVOA ranking: 15th

Joe Banner is a former front office executive for the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns. He 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.

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