NFL Analysis


9 min read

Ravens DC Mike Macdonald Is NFL's Best 2024 Head Coaching Candidate

Dec 31, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald on the sidelines during the third quarter against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

With Week 18 in the books, it's time to fire up the coaching carousel again. A handful of teams have already cleared their slate in search of their next coach, and another handful will follow in the next week. 

If the last five or so years of coaching searches have taught us anything, it's that offensive coaches are in vogue. The offense is the flashier side of the ball. And it's the side that features the quarterback, so it's become the accepted dogma to treat offensive coaches in higher regard than their defensive counterparts.

Offense vs. defense shouldn't be the leading criteria for a coaching search, though. It can be a tiebreaker, all other things equal, but it shouldn't be the lamp that lights the way. The best candidate is the best candidate. 

This year's top candidate is a testament to that idea. It's not Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson or some Kyle Shanahan disciple or whatever other offensive hotshot you have in mind. 

It's Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. 

Macdonald Is The Golden Goose

Like most of the preferred NFL coaching candidates since Sean McVay's nuclear debut with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, Macdonald is on the younger side. 

He won't turn 37 until late June. Youth used to be a scary proposition for head coaching candidates, but younger coaches are seen as a breath of fresh air and at the NFL’s forefront. 

The main concern with younger coaching candidates is often experience. Think about Brandon Staley. For as innovative and thoughtful as he was expected to be, Staley only spent a few years in the NFL (only calling plays for one season) before taking the Los Angeles Chargers job. 

He just didn't have much experience to draw from when facing the endless string of issues that pop up for an NFL coach. 

With Macdonald, that's not a problem. He has been in the Ravens’ organization since 2014, save for the 2021 season. The lone year he spent away was at the college level with Michigan, where he called plays as the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator. 

That 2021 season is where Macdonald’s career turned. 

Before 2021, Macdonald spent seven years with Baltimore. He started as a coaching intern before graduating to a defensive assistant. Macdonald went on to coach defensive backs for a year and then took over the linebacker group for three seasons. 

John Harbaugh saw something in Macdonald and sent him to go see little brother Jim in Ann Arbor. At Michigan, Macdonald was fantastic. 

Having two NFL pass rushers — Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo — at his disposal made life a little easier. Still, the Wolverines’ defense was arguably the best in the country that season under Macdonald’s guidance. 

Macdonald’s perfect blend of two high coverages and simulated pressures had every Big Ten quarterback's head spinning. Michigan’s defense was tough, aggressive and innovative.

One season was all the proof John Harbaugh needed to recall Macdonald from his "loan." Macdonald returned to Baltimore to become the defensive play-caller, replacing the legendary (and volatile) Wink Martindale.

Welcome to The NFL

Everything Macdonald has done since taking over is proof he is a smart and adaptable coach. 

You might remember the Macdonald era started with a complete and total meltdown. Facing the Miami Dolphins in Week 2 of the 2022 season, the Ravens’ defense collapsed at the end of the game. 

Safeties and corners were blowing coverages left and right. They were dazed from the entirely new and more expansive coverage system they were learning and exhausted from chasing Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Rookie first-round safety Kyle Hamilton looked particularly bad and out of place. 

That game did not turn out to be an omen. It was an immediate "welcome to the NFL" moment Macdonald took in stride. With a few tweaks — namely sticking Hamilton into the slot and the acquisition of LB Roquan Smith at the trade deadline — Macdonald’s defense took off after the season’s second half. 

Hamilton and Smith are the linchpins for Macdonald’s defense. Both players have an impact that cascades through the rest of the defense, and Macdonald has channeled it in a special way. 

The shortest explanation is Smith and Hamilton — two athletic, versatile players in the middle of the defense — unlock schematic flexibility. Smith's rare coverage ability allows the Ravens to run two-high coverage and frees up Patrick Queen to be used as more of a blitzer. 

Likewise, Hamilton's presence at nickel makes it so that any coverage is available because he can handle any assignment or body type. He’s also massive for a nickel corner, which helps him fit the run. That, in turn, frees up the Ravens to play more two-high coverages. 

Though Macdonald is already inclined to play two-high structures and attack quarterbacks with simulated pressures rather than real pressures, he has channeled Smith and Hamilton’s strengths to kick the defense into hyperdrive. 

From the moment Baltimore acquired Smith in 2022, the Ravens’ defense has crystalized. The unit was the eighth-best defense by success rate and the fourth-best defense by EPA per play from Week 9 and on last season, per TruMedia. 

Macdonald and his players have only built on that success. Baltimore finished seventh in success rate and third in EPA per play in 2023. 

Only the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets finished better in the latter. By DVOA, which accounts for both situation and opponent, the Ravens finished first in overall defense, first in pass defense and seventh in run defense. 

They are a suffocating defense no matter how you slice it. 

Macdonald Is Adaptable

It's not just Baltimore’s overall numbers or general philosophy that wow you. Part of being a great head coach or a play-caller is adapting to the opponent at hand. 

You can't roll out the same scheme every week and just pray for the best results. I mean, you can, but you’ll be Gus Bradley. 

Macdonald has shown his adaptability all season. 

In the last month alone, his defense dismantled the San Francisco 49ers and the Dolphins, two offenses from the same family with a few distinct differences. 

In some ways, Macdonald handled them similarly, playing a lot of Cover 6 and generally daring the quarterbacks to throw outside the numbers.

But he also approached those teams with the unique respect they deserve. Macdonald threw more blitzes at the 49ers and Brock Purdy to get his head spinning. With Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins, who get the ball out quickly no matter what, Macdonald opted to keep bodies in coverage and flood the throwing lanes. 

Those two games aren't the only examples of Macdonald’s adaptability. 

Think back to how he handled the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3. We know Macdonald is a mild, creative blitzer who prefers two-high shells and lighter boxes. He threw that out the window against the Colts. 

Macdonald blitzed on more than half of Indianapolis' dropbacks, and he ran more Cover 1 and Cover 0 in that game than he did for the rest of the regular season, per TruMedia. 

How about the game against the Seattle Seahawks early in the year? That was the Ravens' second-highest blitz frequency game, but it only clocked in around 27 percent. 

Rather than the all-out-blitz and man coverage approach he used against the Colts, Macdonald opted for more zone pressures and constantly tried to manipulate the Seahawks' offensive rules, which he did to great success. It was a version of the defense he typically runs week to week — but cranked up to 10. 

Macdonald checks about every box a young coaching candidate can. He has 10 years of professional experience in some capacity, and he's been a play-caller at the FBS and NFL level. At both levels, McDonald has proven to be innovative, flexible and fully capable of shaping a defense in the image of his star players. 

He's not only put together a sound overarching defensive philosophy, he’s put together one that still ebbs and flows week to week to meet the moment. 

Macdonald's Best Fits

So who gives McDonald his big break? 

At publication, five teams have head coach openings: the Carolina Panthers, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, Washington Commanders and Atlanta Falcons

The Commanders have already put in a request to interview Macdonald, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. It probably won't be long until the others follow suit, along with whatever other teams end up opening their head coaching position. 

Among those teams with official openings, the Chargers and Falcons make the most sense. 

The Chargers fit is an easy one: Any first-time head coach would love to be paired with Justin Herbert. Despite Los Angeles’ many failures in the past few seasons, Herbert is an obvious star at the most important position in the sport. 

If McDonald can do his part on his side of the ball, it's hard to imagine why the Chargers wouldn't become a consistently competitive team. 

The immediate backlash will be: "Wasn't that the plan with Brandon Staley? And how did that go?" Sure, that was the thinking with Staley, but it's pretty shortsighted and irrational to think Staley's failure has anything to do with Macdonald’s potential to right the ship. 

That’s the same string of logic that leads people to believe you should never draft Ohio State quarterbacks — before a C.J. Stroud comes along. 

Atlanta makes sense for almost the opposite reason. While the Falcons don't have a quarterback, they have everything else. 

Bijan Robinson, Drake London and Kyle Pitts are a killer offensive core. The defensive roster, while imperfect, has some real impact players such as Jessie Bates, A.J. Terrell and, when healthy, Grady Jarrett. 

And on top of that, the Falcons will get a clean slate at quarterback and won't tie Macdonald to a question mark at the position the way, say, the Panthers job would. 

Macdonald, one or two more defensive studs and the right solution at quarterback could drag this Falcons team out of mediocrity in a hurry. 

Don't Fall Victim To Convention

Any team would be lucky to have Macdonald, though. 

Hiring offensive coaches has become the accepted dogma, but it shouldn't be an absolute when there are candidates like Macdonald on the table. 

The offensive coaching ranks have been picked clean the past five years or so, and the league is shifting back toward defense being a core part of team success. Macdonald is as qualified and exciting a coaching prospect as there is anywhere else on the market.