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Ranking the NFL head coach openings, a Super Bowl pick and more: Sando’s Pick Six


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Five NFL teams remain without head coaches more than two weeks after the 2022 regular season concluded.

Jim Harbaugh has come and gone as a candidate. Sean Payton remains prominently in the mix. Dan Quinn and Mike Kafka became available for hire after their teams lost in the playoffs this past weekend. Shane Steichen, Jonathan Gannon, DeMeco Ryans, Brian Callahan and Eric Bieniemy have also interviewed for head coaching jobs, but still have work to do after their teams advanced to the championship round.

So many other candidates are waiting for the first domino to fall.

With the hiring cycle poised to accelerate, this edition of the Pick Six column ranks the five openings by how much they should appeal to candidates. Ownership, quarterbacks and draft capital aren’t the only considerations in evaluating the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts.

Those five teams combined to finish 23-60-2 (.282) last season. Three do not have long-term quarterbacks. The other two might wish they enjoyed that kind of flexibility after entering into regrettable deals at the position. Which job stands above the rest?

The full Pick Six menu this week:

 Ranking NFL coaching vacancies
 Burrow, Mahomes and AFC elite
 My early pick for the Super Bowl
 Good Daniel Jones comp for Giants?
 What awaits Lamar Jackson after Roman
 Two-minute drill: Diggs vs. Allen

1. The Panthers and Texans emerged as most attractive openings in conversations with coaches and executives. Those teams are in better position than the others to land the quarterbacks they want.

The teams seeking head coaches are owned by the heirs to Bill Bidwill (Cardinals), Robert Irsay (Colts) and Bob McNair (Texans), an heir to the Walton retailing fortune (Broncos) and a hedge fund manager (Panthers).

Alas, for the 53rd time in the past 54 offseasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Rooney family is not seeking a head coach.

“You can have the most money in the league, but if you have the least amount of football experience, that might not work,” a longtime exec with experience on multiple teams said on the condition of anonymity for competitive reasons. “If you are the Rooneys, you can have almost the least amount of money in the league and the most amount of football experience, and it works really good. But if you are the Bears, you’ve got the least amount of money, the most amount of football experience and you struggle on the field, struggle to get the stadium built, those things.

“What the Steelers do is really simple, and few have the patience or the fortitude to copy it. They are going to hire people with good virtues, good traits, and not change them. Baltimore has come closer than most in trying to copy it.”

We’ll rank the five openings after sizing up what each has to offer through a few quick tables.

Not long ago, the teams with Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray under contract might be seen as the most desirable. Now those players contracts outweigh their expected production while limiting options.

TEAM OWNER GM QB
Tepper
Fitterer
TBD
McNair
Caserio
TBD
Irsay
Ballard
TBD
Walton
Paton
Wilson
Bidwill
Ossenfort
Murray

The next table shows the Texans with a clear advantage in draft capital and the most projected space under the salary cap. The bluer the shading, the more favorable the situation. The redder the shading, the worse.

Cap figures are approximate and very fluid, as teams can create room quickly.

Houston owns the second pick in the draft. Arizona (third) and Indianapolis (fourth) also pick in the top five. Carolina picks ninth. Denver holds no picks until the 29th slot, acquired from Miami for Bradley Chubb.

TEAM RD 1-3 PICKS PROJECTED CAP 3-YR WIN %
1,2,2,3
-$5M
.340
1,1,2,3,3
+40M
.230
1,2,3
+20M
.490
1,3,3
+12M
.340
1,2,3
+16M
.460

The third table shows personnel at some of the non-quarterback positions that teams value the most. Two of the top wide receivers -— Brandin Cooks in Houston, DeAndre Hopkinsin Arizona — could be candidates for trade.

TEAM LT WR RUSHER CB
Ekwonu
Moore
Burns
Horn
Tunsil
Cooks
Hughes
Stingley
Raimann
Pittman
Buckner
Gilmore
Bolles
Sutton
Gregory
Surtain
Humphries
Hopkins
Simmons
Murphy

The final table shows average ages for starters, not counting quarterbacks, last season. The Cardinals fielded the NFL’s oldest offensive starters by this measure. That makes Arizona less attractive. The Panthers fielded the second-youngest starters on offense and the seventh-youngest on defense. They have talented young pieces, including pass-rusher Brian Burns and cornerback Jaycee Horn on defense, but they badly need stability at quarterback. The Broncos fielded top-10 oldest units on both sides of the ball and appear strongest on defense.

TEAM OFF DEF
31st
26th
18th
13th
28th
9th
9th
7th
1st
20th

Now, for the rankings, with quick thoughts from an NFL exec who saw the order similarly, followed by additional thoughts. The ability to land a quarterback and ownership’s willingness to spend are prioritized. The first two could be interchangeable.

 1. Houston Texans: “They are first due to the assets they got from the Deshaun Watsontrade. The next coach should enjoy stability after back-to-back one-and-done situations. The AFC South remains a winnable division. They have some nice young pieces from this past draft in (safety) Jalen Pitre, (running back) Dameon Pierce and (cornerback) Derek Stingley.”

General manager Nick Caserio’s interest in a game-management role downgrades the Texans for some, as much for what it symbolizes as for the actual involvement itself. Beyond that, how many coaches without Caserio’s shared ties to New England will be lining up to join him after what David Culley and Lovie Smith endured? Do the Texans need someone with the Patriots in their DNA? That said, the next coach might enjoy a decent runway after the last two were barely cleared for takeoff.

The owner, Cal McNair, adds little beyond a general willingness to spend, but he doesn’t seem to be a meddler in football operations, which means if the right people are in the coach/GM roles, the team should be able to succeed. Houston owns five of the top 73 picks in the draft, including the second and 12th choices.

 2. Carolina Panthers: “The Panthers have the best young roster of the group. Put them right behind Houston since Houston has a clearer path towards landing a franchise quarterback with all that draft capital. That division is winnable. (David) Tepper should give you everything you need to succeed if he doesn’t meddle.”

That last part about meddling is a concern for some, but Tepper hasn’t come close to entering the Irsay Zone. Tepper also appears desperate to win, which cannot be taken for granted among owners in a business that produces fat profit margins regardless. Tepper’s willingness to spend — and overspend, as the case seemed to be with former coach Matt Rhule — is seen as a plus. But it’s not the most important thing for long-term success, as the Rooneys have demonstrated.

The Panthers’ GM, Scott Fitterer, seems like an agreeable partner for an incoming coach. He worked with Rhule and was in Seattle with another power coach in Pete Carroll. It’s the young talent and decent draft capital (additional second-round pick) that make Carolina intriguing. The Panthers, unlike the others seeking head coaches, actually played good football for a significant stretch last season as well. That should not be overlooked.

 3. Indianapolis Colts: “Put Indy third with a winnable division and a solid roster that could bounce back if they hit on the head coach and quarterback. The owner needs to step back and let the football people operate.”

Irsay’s all-over-the-place behavior during a frustrating 2022 season raises questions about whether the organization can achieve the alignment needed to move forward coherently. The Colts do possess a top-five draft choice. They have had winning records until last season. They finally appear willing (and possibly able) to pursue a young quarterback. But it’s easy to make a case for dropping the Colts lower on this list after watching Irsay undercut former coach Frank Reich and current GM Chris Ballard. At least there is no long-term commitment to an underperforming quarterback.

 4. Denver Broncos: “Denver has the best tradition, and the new owners seem aggressive and willing to spend, but I think Wilson is washed, and the lack of draft capital is holding them back. The defense is very good, but Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert aren’t going anywhere in that division.”

Move up the Broncos if you think the next coach can salvage Wilson at age 34. The Walmart money is a draw, and leadership did say the next coach could report directly to ownership. But there is no getting around the massive long-term extension with Wilson and the diminished draft capital.

Wilson’s production decline dates to the 2020 season, spanning multiple coaches and systems. His athleticism has diminished. The drama that followed Wilson through his final days in Seattle and through his first season in Denver further downgrades the appeal for candidates.

Wilson does seem to be a diligent worker, at least. That could separate him from Arizona’s Murray, whose contract was notorious for the “homework clause” included in the initial version.

 5. Arizona Cardinals: “Arizona has an older roster and the Kyler Murray contract/injury situation to deal with. I don’t know how much better Kyler can be. He might have hit his ceiling, and will always be limited by his size and unwillingness to stand in there and get hit.”

Though owner Michael Bidwill has in some ways raised the bar from where it once was for the franchise, some still see the organization as set in its ways, putting pressure on the head coach to will whatever changes need to be made.

Bidwill paired Steve Wilks with Josh Rosen and dumped both after one season. He tolerated former GM Steve Keim’s conviction for extreme DUI (defined as a blood alcohol content of .15 or more). He paired a losing college coach (Kliff Kingsbury) with the smallest quarterback in the league, extended their contracts and Keim’s contract, then fired all three less than a year later.

The new GM, Monti Ossenfort, would seem to be an agreeable partner, but there are easier situations for first-time GMs to walk into. The Murray predicament in particular could take time and skill to navigate.

2. Joe Burrow might be right about the Bengals’ championship window, but will there be enough championships to go around in the AFC?

Burrow put it beautifully two weeks ago when asked about the Bengals’ championship window.

“The window is my whole career,” Burrow said.

Burrow’s Bengals will face Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs in the AFC title game after Cincinnati defeated Josh Allen’s Bills in Buffalo. These three teams and their top-tier quarterbacks are in prime position to battle for AFC supremacy over the next five to 10 seasons. The looming AFC Championship matchup assures that either Kansas City or Cincinnati will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl for a fourth successive season.

The situation recalls the AFC in the years following its formation in 1970.

The Steelers, Raiders and Dolphins represented the AFC in nine of 10 Super Bowls from the 1971 through 1980 seasons. The Steelers came out on top with four Super Bowl victories. The Dolphins and Raiders each won two Super Bowls. The Dolphins also lost one Super Bowl during that window.

1971-80 AFC Dominance
FRANCHISE AFC TITLE GAMES SB WINS WIN%
6
2
.725
6
4
.710
3
2
.703

Though keeping teams together was much easier in the 1970s, before free agency, top quarterbacks play larger roles in driving team success in the current era, when passing is so much more prominent.

How the current Chiefs, Bengals and Bills jockey for superiority has been interesting to watch. All three teams have taken big swings for pass-rushers in free agency, with mixed results. Frank Clark helped get Kansas City over the top after the Chiefs acquired him from Seattle. Trey Hendrickson helped get the Bengals to the Super Bowl last season, his first with the Bengals. The Bills went even bigger from a financial standpoint in landing Von Miller last offseason, only for Miller to suffer a season-ending knee injury. They’re the odd team out.

3. I’ll take the Bengals and Eagles for the Super Bowl based on what we know right now.

While the Bengals have recently looked like the most complete team in the AFC anyway, the ankle injury Patrick Mahomes suffered against Jacksonville is what clears away remaining hesitation from picking Cincinnati to represent the AFC for a second consecutive season.

The Chiefs were one-point home favorites late Sunday, an indication Cincinnati is seen at the better team on a neutral field. Cincinnati went 3-0 against the Chiefs in the 2022 calendar year, including in the AFC title game at Arrowhead Stadium last season. The winning margin was three points each time.

Mahomes’ ability to maneuver within the pocket and take off running is part of what makes him so dynamic. If he cannot do that nearly as well as usual, how can the Chiefs keep pace?

The Eagles were 2 1/2-point favorites over the 49ers and a little tougher to pick with Jalen Hurts playing through injury against a hard-hitting 49ers defense that could compromise his health additionally. I’ll trust Hurts more than I’ll trust his 49ers rookie counterpart, Brock Purdy, despite those familiar in-game TV graphics suggesting San Francisco is better offensively because of Purdy, as opposed to San Francisco being better offensively withPurdy.

Purdy has so far done a great job executing an offense that enjoyed similarly productive stretches with Jimmy Garoppolo (not because of him). Purdy’s ability to so far avoid the killer mistake separates him from so many quarterbacks, including the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott on Sunday. Coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers’ dominant defense allow the 49ers to spare Purdy from the most difficult drop-back passing situations.

The fact that Philly relies more on its quarterback than the 49ers rely on theirs works in San Francisco’s favor, unless the Eagles can score enough to put more pressure on Purdy. I think the Eagles will be able to do that better than the Cowboys or Seahawks could in the playoffs to this point.

The table below shows how the 49ers’ offense and defense/special teams have contributed to scoring since Purdy took over for the injured Garoppolo early in the Week 13 game against the Dolphins. San Francisco’s offense carried the team against the Raiders and Seahawks, who are statistically poor on defense. The 49ers’ defense/special teams disproportionately propelled San Francisco in the other games.

WK-OPP OFF EPA DEF/ST EPA SCORE
13-MIA
-1.5
+17.5
W, 33-17
14-TB
+8.3
+19.7
W, 35-7
15-SEA
+2.2
+5.8
W, 21-13
16-WAS
+2.3
+14.8
W, 37-20
17-LV
+16.0
-13.0
W, 37-34
18-AZ
+3.3
+21.7
W, 38-13
WC-SEA
+22.4
-4.3
W, 41-23
DIV-DAL
+1.6
+5.0
W, 19-12

The 49ers since Purdy took over in Week 13 have started 22 drives in opponent territory, according to TruMedia. Jacksonville is next with 13, followed by Philadelphia with 12.

The 49ers’ average starting field position (own 36.7-yard line) during that eight-game stretch is 3.2 yards better than the next-best team, 7.7 yards better than the league average and more than 10 yards better than the worst teams. San Francisco’s average drive start ranks 11th out of 734 teams’ average drive starts from Week 13 through the divisional round of every season since 2000.

That is hugely advantageous for any offense, and if it continues against the Eagles, San Francisco very well could be representing the NFC in Arizona next month.

4. The Giants did a great job playing the hand they were dealt this season. That doesn’t necessarily mean this is the hand they want to play in the future. Is Daniel Jones their Tyrod Taylor?

Losing 38-7 to Philadelphia in the divisional round provided the Giants with a reality check following a magical first season under first-year coach Brian Daboll. The team now must extricate itself from the season to honestly assess what must be done for the Giants to set themselves down a championship path. The goal is not to remain a scrappy 9-7-1 team.

Paying sizable contracts to quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkleyseems more palatable now than it did before the season. That may or may not mean the team will be best off in the future after making long-term commitments to those players at much higher salaries.

The evaluations Daboll and first-year Giants general manager Joe Schoen must make could seem familiar to them in some ways. Both joined the Buffalo Bills in 2017, when quarterback Tyrod Taylor was coming off a career-best season. The 2016 Bills had ranked ninth in offensive EPA per game, but with a shaky defense, they went 2-6 in one-score games and missed the playoffs at 7-9.

The numbers for Taylor in 2016 line up closely with the numbers for Jones in 2022. Both quarterbacks were managed as opposed to turned loose. Taylor’s Bills were much better statistically on offense than the modestly equipped Giants were this season. Both players’ running ability was foundational for their success (they are teammates on the Giants now).

QB TYROD TAYLOR DANIEL JONES
Season
2016
2022
Team
BUF
NYG
W-L
7-8
9-6-1
Cmp%
62%
67%
Pass Yds
3,023
3,205
Yds/Att
6.9
6.8
TD-INT
17-6
15-5
Rating
89.7
92.5
Sacked
42
44
Turnovers
8
8
Rushes
36
51
Rush Yds
580
708
Rush TD
6
7
Total QBR
62.4
61.3

The Bills stuck with Taylor as their starter in 2017 after reaching the kind of compromise contract that could make sense for Jones if both sides think the quarterback is best off remaining with the Giants. Taylor took $15.5 million fully guaranteed from the Bills instead of risking that the team would release him to avoid incurring $31 million in compensation that was about to come due. The Giants could use the franchise tag to keep Jones this offseason, but if they decided to let the quarterback test the market instead, Jones may or may not find another team willing to pay him that much. And his career prospects might dim apart from Daboll and Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka.

“I think Daniel Jones is a better passer (than Taylor), and he showed that in stretches this year,” a longtime offensive coach said. “He impressed me with what he did in the passing game, and he just has to keep growing. Then you have to decide if he is the guy who is going to get you over the hump. But until you get that guy, you’d better have him, because there aren’t that many.”

5. Greg Roman’s offenses produced the No. 1 single-game yardage records for all three teams he served as coordinator. In the end, all three teams wanted more from their run-oriented quarterbacks. Was it him or them?

Quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor both peaked under Roman, posting their career single-season bests for Total QBR in his offenses.

Will the same be true for the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson after Roman and Baltimore had a mutual parting last week?

The identity of the offensive coordinator will not be the only variable shaping the answer. Kaepernick might have eventually recovered had his career not ended the way it did, although his prospects were already in steep decline, to the point that 50 coaches and executives voted him into Tier 4 with other borderline starters in my 2016 Quarterback Tiers survey, which predated Kaepernick’s emergence as an activist.

If Roman is the perfect person to design offenses for the running quarterback, do his schemes ultimately limit what the quarterback becomes as a passer? Alternatively, does Roman’s offense get the most from running quarterbacks, masking their limitations as passers until, finally, those limitations help to stall the offense as the supporting personnel declines?

Roman_Kap_Lamar_updated-1024x584.jpg

Most would agree that other coordinators possess greater volume of drop-back pass inventory without matching the variety Roman offers in the running game. Roman’s background in coaching tight ends and offensive lines play into this perception. That does not mean the run-oriented quarterbacks would have flourished as consistent passers in different schemes. Is Roman responsible for Jackson’s inconsistent footwork and accuracy? It will be fascinating to see what Jackson’s trajectory becomes as the scheme changes.

The table above shows the Roman-coordinated Ravens offense over 57 games with Jackson following a similar statistical trajectory as the Roman-coordinated 49ers offense with Kaepernick in the lineup. The chart shows game-by-game cumulative running average for those teams’ offensive EPA per play. In both cases, the offenses were above average cumulatively all the way through, but production did decline for a range of potential reasons.

This season, the Ravens ranked fourth in offensive points per game and eighth in offensive EPA per game through Week 9. Jackson, receiver Devin Duvernay and receiver Rashod Bateman were lost to injuries during the season’s second half. The team ranked among the bottom five in offensive points per game and offensive EPA per game from Week 10 forward, as the offense was scaled back for backup Tyler Huntley.

With Jackson at his MVP best, Baltimore set a franchise yardage record with 643 against the Miami Dolphins in the 2019 opener, the ninth-highest total in league history, counting playoffs.

Roman was the offensive coordinator.

With Alex Smith behind center for San Francisco, the 49ers set a franchise record with 621 yards against Buffalo in 2012 Week 5, the 22nd-highest total in league history, counting playoffs.

Roman was the offensive coordinator.

The Bills set a franchise record with 589 yards against Miami in 2016 Week 16, the 63rd-highest total in league history, counting playoffs.

Roman had been fired as the Bills’ coordinator earlier in the season, but it was his scheme Buffalo was running that day.

6. Two-minute drill:Josh Allen shakes off Stefon Diggs’ sideline outburst impressively

Showing up the Tier 1 quarterback on the sideline generally isn’t the way to go. Bills receiver Stefon Diggs did it anyway, which would be a bigger problem if Josh Allen hadn’t handled the situation so well during and after the game.

“Allen is out there getting his ass kicked, blood soaked through the long underwear he is wearing,” an exec from another team said. “That is Josh Allen. No one is ever going to say he is not trying to do it the right way. He is trying so hard, he tries to do a little too much and has questionable ball security. But in Diggs’ mind, you can have ball insecurity as long as it goes toward him.”

Diggs’ contract runs through 2027, his age-34 season. Moving on from him in the next year or two would save the team under the salary cap even though large sums of dead money would linger for one or two seasons, depending how the accounting was handled. It might not come to that, of course, but this incident does recall Diggs’ messy exit from the Minnesota Vikings. …

The Eagles’ dominant performance against the Giants figures to enhance the head coaching candidacies of coordinators Jonathan Gannon and Shane Steichen. What stood out offensively was Philly’s emphasis on its rushing attack. The Eagles executed pass plays a season-low 37 percent of the time on early downs in the first 28 minutes of regulation, which is typically before time remaining and score differential exert more influence on tendencies. The breakdown: 11 passes, 19 runs. …

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones walking onto the field during warmups to speak with struggling kicker Brett Maher after a couple pregame misses is within his rights as owner of the team. It is also consistent with his constant presence in areas where owners undermine coaches, whether it’s intentional or not.

Remember when Jones said earlier in the season that he thought the Cowboys were Super Bowl contenders? We pointed out then that this probably was not helpful messaging for younger players. These are constant annoyances.

Buffalo two years ago and Cincinnati last season became the 25th and 26th teams, respectively, to reach the conference championship round since Dallas last appeared following the 1995 season. Dallas figures to make it back one of these years, unless Jones guarantees it publicly. …

The Bills looked like the NFL’s best team in the league early in the season, but as a veteran evaluator pointed out Sunday night, age in some key spots and general attrition caught up to them.

“At the end of the year, that is an old Rodger Saffold at guard, an old center with Mitch Morse, Von Miller is not there because he got hurt, Jordan Phillips and DaQuan Joneswere hurt and did not play, and on it goes,” the evaluator said. “It is third-and-8 and even though it’s a 10-yard flare-out to (Bengals tight end Hayden) Hurst, he jumps over Taron Johnson, who is the fourth (free) safety of the season for Buffalo. He is playing because Micah Hyde is older and on IR, Damar Hamlin had the freak injury and Dean Marlowe is older and got hurt. The older guys aren’t the same in January as they are in September and October, if they are even there.” …

While Mahomes credited Kansas City teammates following his impressive performance through injury against Jacksonville, my mind flashed back to Aaron Rodgers pontificating about his ability to win MVP honors again “in the right situation.”

The gap in orientation toward team seemed so striking.

Winning the MVP? How about beating Detroit?

 

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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