Any NFL executive or college athletic director doing their job correctly always keeps a short list of coaches in mind should they suddenly need to hire one. This is especially important at the college level, where coaches often bolt with very little warning.
As the Chicago Bears enter their fourth head coaching search in nine years, I’ve compiled my own short list. If I’m the Bears, I’m keeping three factors at the top of my criteria for the next head coach:
1. A clear, established identity/brand of football with a history of winning.
2. Track record of success with quarterbacks and an ability to adapt to put Justin Fields in the best position to succeed.
3. Compatibility with the Bears’ current defense with a plan for keeping the current core/scheme together.
You’ll notice that the names near the top of the list appear unrealistic. In my opinion, any short list should start with unrealistic and move from there. Why not check in with the best, just to see if they are open to a change of scenery? If the answer is a quick “no,” then just keep moving down the list.
With that in mind, here is my short list to replace Matt Nagy:
Sean Payton, 58
If the Bears are going to be serious about turning their fortunes around with Justin Fields, then they need to shoot for the moon — even if that moon appears unrealistic at first. Sean Payton may be perfectly happy in New Orleans, but it would be worth checking in just to see if he has any interest in a new opportunity with Fields as his project. If the door is cracked open even a millimeter, the Bears would be wise to look into what compensation it would take to pull Payton away from New Orleans.
The former Naperville Central quarterback just completed his 16th season with the Saints, but he’s done some of his better work this year, guiding his team to a 9-8 record after losing future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees to retirement. The Saints were 5-2 with Jameis Winston earlier in the season, which showed impressive development with a flawed quarterback, but also served as evidence that Payton’s scheme works beyond having a Hall-of-Famer under center. Still only 58, Payton and Fields would be a dream scenario for the Bears.
Mike Tomlin, 49
Sticking with the very top options, a phone call should also be placed to Pittsburgh. The heat from fans and local media in Pittsburgh has increased on Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger is headed to retirement. Longtime GM Kevin Colbert is also reported to be retiring after the NFL Draft.
Tomlin has never had a losing season in 15 years and, like Payton, has a Super Bowl ring to show off his credibility. Unlike the Nagy years, Tomlin would bring a very clear identity to Halas Hall, playing tough, physical football with good defenses and a strong running game.
Jim Harbaugh, 58
At this point, Harbaugh’s reported interest in returning to the NFL appears to be more than smoke and the Bears would be foolish to not entertain the idea. Regardless of how you feel about the former Bears quarterback, there’s no denying his success at both the college and pro level. Before Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco in 2011, the 49ers had not made the playoffs in eight years. Harbaugh immediately led them to three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl appearance. That’s the type of turnaround the Bears would love to see happen.
When Harbaugh lost a power struggle with former 49ers GM Trent Baalke in 2014, the 49ers immediately started losing again. There’s little doubt he was a huge reason for the success in San Francisco. Bringing Harbaugh to Chicago might mean giving him more power than other coaching candidates, but if the Bears are finally open to organizational restructuring, now might be the time. Harbaugh’s offense would be a good fit for Fields, and considering Vic Fangio was his defensive coordinator in San Francisco, it could be defensive stability on that side of the ball, either by retaining Sean Desai or hiring Fangio, who was fired by the Broncos Sunday.
Ryan Day, 42
There have been some rumblings about Ryan Day having interest in a return to the NFL, where he served as Chip Kelly’s quarterbacks coach in both 2015 (Eagles) and 2016 (49ers). The work he’s done at Ohio State has been remarkable, both as the offensive coordinator and head coach (34-4). Of course, the connection and success with Justin Fields is the real draw here. While it’s no guarantee Day would have the same success at the NFL level, you’d at least know he would put Fields in the best position to develop properly, which wasn’t always the case in the quarterback’s rookie season.
Dave Toub, 59
Surprised Toub is this high on the list? I’m just surprised he still hasn’t received a head coaching opportunity yet. Toub is universally praised by current and former players, not only for his special teams acumen, but for his leadership qualities and overall knowledge of the game. I’m not sure Toub is the perfect candidate for all 32 NFL teams, but he is a good one for the Bears. He not only knows what it takes to win in Chicago — having reached a Super Bowl on Lovie Smith’s staff — but he also knows when the Bears need to go in a different direction. When Toub interviewed for the head coaching job in 2012, he suggested the Bears needed to move on from Jay Cutler. That brutal honesty essentially eliminated him from contention as former Bears GM Phil Emery was a big believer in Cutler. But in hindsight, was Toub wrong?
If the Bears want a winning coach who will be a strong program builder and delegate offensive/defensive responsibilities, Toub would be a great option. Perhaps he could even bring Chiefs quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka with him as his offensive coordinator, which would limit the amount of offensive transition Justin Fields would have to go through during the offseason.
Jerod Mayo, 35
The former Patriots linebacker is a fast-riser in the coaching world, already earning a strong reputation in three seasons as the Patriots’ inside linebacker coach. While he doesn’t have any coordinator experience, that isn’t necessary to be a head coach. One highly respected coach compared Mayo to Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, who is also a former Patriots linebacker and has built a very strong program in Tennessee without a superstar quarterback. It’s only a matter of time before Mayo is an NFL head coach, so why not be the team that hires him first?
Byron Leftwich, 41
Leftwich might be a hot candidate because of his success with Tom Brady, but the former NFL quarterback was already a fast-riser as a coach before he got to Tampa. He went from an intern to offensive coordinator in just three seasons in Arizona from 2016-18. Bruce Arians is a huge believer in Leftwich, whose time with Brady only enhances the resume. Leftwich would be a great fit with Fields and he would be smart to retain Desai to keep continuity on the defensive side of the ball.
Brian Daboll, 46
While the Bills’ offense hasn’t been as consistent this season, it’s the overall body of work with Josh Allen that should attract the Bears to Daboll. After struggling as a rookie, Allen took off in his second season and is now one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. That’s what the Bears hope to see from Fields. Daboll’s experience under both Bill Belichick and Nick Saban is also a strong-point on his resume. The offense would almost certainly take a jump with Daboll in charge, but the lack of head coaching experience means taking a leap of faith.
Brian Flores, 40
Flores was stunningly fired by the Dolphins Monday after compiling a 24-25 record in three seasons in Miami. 2021 was a rocky season for the Dolphins as they entered Week 1 with playoff expectations and beat the Patriots, but then lost seven straight games. Amazingly, they then won seven straight games to turn their season around. Apparently the roller coaster ride led to some friction, as Flores reportedly lost a power struggle with management.
The Dolphins visited Halas Hall in August and practiced against the Bears, so it will be interesting to see if that trip leads to any interest in either direction. Flores showed enough potential in Miami to warrant an interview, but the fallout with the front office is certainly something that needs to be vetted before offering him another job.
Nathaniel Hackett, 41
Hackett has spent most of his 18-year coaching career in the NFL, latching on to former NFL head coach Doug Marrone during a stint at Syracuse and following him to Buffalo and Jacksonville. While he was eventually fired as the Jaguars’ offensive coordinator, he landed in Green Bay under Matt LaFleur in 2019 and earned the constant praise and respect of Aaron Rodgers. Hackett has a reputation for being highly energetic and commanding the attention of his players in meetings. His knowledge of what’s working in Green Bay would be valuable to the Bears and, in that regard, it would be foolish for the Bears not to at least interview him.
Sean Desai, 38
Desai’s rise from a quality control coach on the Bears’ staff has been impressive and he’s done very little to warrant criticism as a first-time defensive coordinator this season. Is he ready to be a head coach? The Bears would know better than anyone else. I could see Desai getting an interview and it would be justified. Ultimately, keeping him as the defensive coordinator, as Nagy did with Fangio in 2018, would be the big victory.