Ranking NFL head coach openings: Which jobs are most enticing in 2023?

For years, NFL leaders have bemoaned how team owners raced to hire new head coaches just days after firing their old ones, affording little opportunity for lesser-known and newer faces to get into the candidate pool. The league has even put some rules in place to try to slow the process, designed to give greater opportunity for assistant coaches whose teams are still playing in the postseason, who often felt passed over because owners did not want to wait for them to be available.

Maybe owners have finally listened. On Jan. 26, two and a half weeks after the 2022 regular season ended, the first job was finally filled, with the Carolina Panthers hiring Frank Reich. Of course, the Panthers actually had even longer for their search. They were one of the three teams to fire their head coach during the season, a relatively new phenomenon in the NFL. Owners used to think there was little point in switching coaches in the middle of what is a relatively short season. But the leash has grown ever shorter -- Reich was a victim of that thinking when he was fired mid-season in Indianapolis.

The Colts and Denver Broncos (who fired Nathaniel Hackett before the season ended) are still looking for head coaches, as are the Arizona Cardinals and the Houston Texans.

There are big questions looming over the searches. Will owners finally make progress on their dismaying record of hiring minority coaches? (Steve Wilks, who performed admirably as Carolina's interim head coach, was passed over for the full-time job.) The NFL has put in place rules designed to increase diversity on offensive staffs. And after years of runs on offensive coaches -- everybody wanted another Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan -- will owners finally turn to defensive coaches, including some with previous head-coaching experience? If they do, will that lead to more opportunities for diverse candidates, given their comparative prevalence in coordinator positions on that side of the ball?

Former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has interviewed for jobs, although he could also return to his television job and wait for the next cycle. Current Michigan coach and former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh resumed his annual dalliance with a return to the NFL before -- yes -- returning to Michigan. And 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is the hottest name among those looking to break into the head-coaching ranks for the first time.

Here are the teams seeking new leadership, with the things that make them most attractive -- and below that, you'll find a rundown of the jobs that have been filled this cycle:

VACANCIES

Rank
1
Denver Broncos
2022 record: 5-12

Existing in the same division as Patrick Mahomes is an obstacle. But there are promising players on the roster and, yes, a quarterback, even if Russell Wilson is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. Whoever gets this job has to reverse Wilson's shocking decline in 2022, which led to Hackett's early exit after less than one full season and intrateam friction on the sideline. Wilson's contract makes it prohibitive to move on from him for at least one season, so it seems nearly certain the Broncos will end up with a coach from the offensive side of the ball or one who would bring a very strong offensive coordinator. (Basically, one who tells the Broncos what they want to hear: that Wilson can play at a high level once again.) Beyond Wilson, there is enough young talent that, when the quarterback was acquired last March, the assumption was Denver would challenge Kansas City for AFC West supremacy. 


The Broncos got back some of the draft capital they sent to Seattle for Wilson when they traded Bradley Chubb to Miami, but they are still operating at a draft-pick deficit. First-year defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero has interviewed for the job after leading the NFL's seventh-ranked D, but if he doesn't get the head gig, it would be a coup for a new head coach to convince him to stay. And finally, this is the first hire to be made by the new ownership group. Co-owner/CEO Greg Penner is in charge, and he has already said a new coach will report directly to him, not general manager George Paton. Not incidentally, it is hard to imagine the Walmart fortune will be outbid.


COACH INTERVIEWS:

  • Jim Caldwell, former Lions and Colts head coach (completed)
  • Ejiro Evero, Broncos defensive coordinator (completed)
  • Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan head coach (staying at Michigan)
  • Raheem Morris, Rams defensive coordinator (completed)
  • Sean Payton, former Saints head coach (completed)
  • Dan Quinn, Cowboys defensive coordinator (staying with Cowboys)
  • DeMeco Ryans, 49ers defensive coordinator (completed)
  • David Shaw, former Stanford University head coach (completed)
Rank
2
Arizona Cardinals
2022 record: 4-13

There was a moment during a late-season game when the camera settled on Kliff Kingsbury's face between plays. Kingsbury was staring into space, not speaking to anyone, the look of a man who didn't particularly seem like he wanted to be where he was. Now that he is out of Arizona, the franchise is pushing the reset button. After taking an indefinite leave for health reasons in December, Steve Keim resigned from his GM post. We know who will replace Keim; former Titans executive Monti Ossenfort was hired for that role. But there are plenty of question marks to still consider. It is unclear when quarterback Kyler Murray might be able to return from his torn ACL. The offense was struggling even when he was playing. There isn't much other talent on the roster. And -- oh, yes -- the Cardinals are in the NFC West, which is headlined by the 49ers.


Whoever gets this job has to like Murray, because the Cardinals are wedded to him for a while. They will also presumably have to mesh well with Ossenfort. Still, this is the rare opening that offers the presence of a franchise quarterback. That could attract quality candidates to an otherwise-difficult situation.


COACH INTERVIEWS:

  • Ejiro Evero, Broncos defensive coordinator (completed
  • Brian Flores, Steelers senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach (completed)
  • Aaron Glenn, Lions defensive coordinator (completed)
  • Vance Joseph, Cardinals defensive coordinator (completed)
  • Sean Payton, former Saints head coach (scheduled)
  • Dan Quinn, Cowboys defensive coordinator (staying with Cowboys)
  • Frank Reich, former Colts head coach (hired by Panthers)
  • DeMeco Ryans, 49ers defensive coordinator (scheduled)
Rank
3
Indianapolis Colts
2022 record: 4-12-1

A season of chaos and upheaval -- multiple coaches fired, multiple quarterbacks benched -- has blotted out the Colts' long history as one of the most stable franchises in the game. Owner Jim Irsay clearly ran out of patience, but the biggest issue has been the same for years: Indianapolis still hasn't recovered from Andrew Luck's sudden retirement in 2019. The Colts have the No. 4 overall pick, and they will have to find their next quarterback of the future this offseason after successive one-year marriages with Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan all fell short. The new coach, whoever it is, will also have to address a spate of injuries and subpar seasons from some of the team's best players -- Jonathan Taylor, Shaquille Leonard and Quenton Nelson among them.


Irsay's impatience this season may turn off some candidates, although until now, he had been a patient -- maybe too patient -- owner. Still, if the Colts make the right hire and land the right quarterback, they play in a division without a dominant team. That means a quick turnaround is possible, but Irsay and general manager Chris Ballard have to nail the big decisions.


COACH INTERVIEWS:

Rank
4
Houston Texans
2022 record: 3-13-1

Would you take a job where the previous two head coaches were fired after one season each? Someone will, in part because the Texans have a boatload of draft picks to boost their rebuild. Lovie Smith's final act -- beating the Indianapolis Colts -- cost Houston the first overall pick in 2023, but some of that draft capital could go into a trade to acquire that top spot and a shot at a quarterback. There are some exciting young players on the roster (cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and running back Dameon Pierce are two), but the Texans have many needs, particularly to revamp a terrible offense.


Houston's biggest hurdle in the hiring process, though, might be convincing quality candidates that Cal McNair has the patience to see a rebuild through. Since he took over the team following the death of his father, former owner Bob McNair, in 2018, he has fired one general manager (Brian Gaine) and two head coaches (Smith and David Culley) after one season each. He gave Bill O'Brien too much personnel power, and then when O'Brien made the kinds of mistakes one might have predicted for someone inexperienced at that part of the job, McNair fired him. He gave power to Jack Easterby, the Patriots' former team chaplain, who has since left. In light of the recent rate of turnover, top candidates will likely have to be sold by GM Nick Caserio on the potential to build something from scratch -- and probably must be offered a long contract.


COACH INTERVIEWS:

THE HIRINGS

Carolina Panthers
2022 record: 7-10

HIRED: Frank Reich


Reich, the very first quarterback in Panthers franchise history, seems like a perfect fit for what the Panthers need right now. He is an experienced and respected offensive mind, with a reputation as quarterback-friendly, who compiled a 40-33-1 and went to the playoffs in two of his first three seasons as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts despite never enjoying the stability of having a franchise quarterback. 


That, of course, is the same problem the Panthers have. Reich's most pressing task, in tandem with general manager Scott Fitterer, will be to find Carolina's long-term quarterback and, assuming he is a rookie, develop him. The Panthers have the ninth overall draft pick, and the next few months will be spent scrutinizing their interest in the top quarterbacks in this class. If the Panthers opt to pursue a veteran free agent, Reich's presence likely enhances Carolina's attractiveness. The good news: the NFC South, which was won this season by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their 8-9 record, is wide open, with no dominant team or quarterback (assuming Tom Brady is finished in Tampa), so the Panthers, who finished 7-10, could be positioned for a very quick turnaround.


While Reich is widely liked around the league, his hiring over interim head coach Steve Wilks -- who went 6-6 with a roster and staff that were not his, and who won even after the Panthers traded away Christian McCaffrey -- is an early blow to the NFL's efforts to further diversify its coaching ranks. Wilks enjoyed strong support from many players in the locker room. 

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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