Looking at the AFC coaching and G.M. hot spots for 2023
Three jobs already are open. When the coaching (and G.M.) carousel starts to fully spin as soon as tonight, how many more will there be?
The league hopes it’s as few as possible, based on the effort last month to appeal to the greed of the owners by pointing out how much money they’ve spent in recent years paying out the balance of contracts for coaches and front-office executives. (The presentation apparently glossed over factors like offsets based on future earnings and potential revenue losses from standing pat with a struggling football operation, but that’s for the owners to figure out on their own, apparently.)
So how many jobs will become open in the current cycle, in addition to the head-coaching jobs with Panthers, Colts, and Broncos?
One source with extensive knowledge of the annual firing-and-hiring spree predicted recently that there won’t be many this year. There have been other years that felt that same way, however, and then one after another after another spots spring open, often with a surprise or two.
Here’s the places we’re watching in the AFC, either because a change arguably needs to be made -- or because ownership (the core problem for plenty of dysfunctional teams) may do something dysfunctional.
The Jets: The impressive start to the season made expectations for the team unreasonable. Did owner Woody Johnson get swept up in that mindset, and will he be looking for someone to blame for the way things fell apart? Are G.M. Joe Douglas and coach Robert Saleh on the same page, or will one blame the other if/when it becomes clear ownership is looking for a scapegoat? The smart move would be to stand pat. But some owners often don’t make smart moves. A few rarely do.
The Dolphins: A five-game losing streak surely has created some frayed nerves. The handling of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s concussions could prompt extra scrutiny from owner Stephen Ross. Ross also may be looking to blame someone for the tampering sanctions imposed on the organization for repeatedly trying to land quarterback Tom Brady and, more recently, coach Sean Payton. Could G.M. Chris Grier be on the hot seat? Could first-year coach Mike McDaniel fall under scrutiny for the Tua situation? Could Ross want to complete unfinished business with Brady and/or Payton? Not having a first-round pick due to the tampering situation and trading their other one to the Broncos (who are already flirting with Payton) would complicate any such effort. Regardless, Even with a Week 18, slip-under-the-wire playoff berth, Ross likely won’t be happy with how the season went. We’ve seen what he’s done in the past when he wasn’t happy.
The Patriots: There likely will be plenty of changes made on the coaching staff, possibly starting with the return of Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator -- unless O’Brien becomes a head-coaching candidate elsewhere. Although a divorce is unlikely between Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft (a showdown over the coaching staff could, in theory, spark one), the pressure will mount in 2023, absent making the playoffs and winning a postseason game for the first time in four years.
The Ravens: John Harbaugh is one of the best coaches in the NFL. The Ravens would have no reason to move on from him. After 15 years in the same job, could Harbaugh be thinking about a fresh start elsewhere? No coach has won a Super Bowl with two different teams. Every coach who has won a Super Bowl would like to be the first to do it, whether they’d admit it or not. And it generally makes sense, after Sean Payton’s departure from the Saints, to generally keep an eye on every coach who has been in the same place for so long.
The Steelers: Again, the raw duration of Mike Tomlin’s time with the team makes it an annual spot to watch, until he leaves. There’s no specific reason to think he would.
The Browns: At one point this year, it would have been not impossible to envision owner Jimmy Haslam making a change, with the goal of getting more from new quarterback Deshaun Watson. But Kevin Stefanski, the 2020 coach of the year, and Watson seem to be clicking. The Browns also have been competitive during the five-game pre-preseason for 2023. It would make little sense to make a change.
The Titans: Tennessee last won a game a week before Thanksgiving, on the same night offensive coordinator Todd Downing was arrested for DUI under a timeline that made it obvious he was drinking on the team plane from Green Bay and/or the team bus from the airport to the facility. When G.M. Jon Robinson was fired, it seemed at first that Mike Vrabel would emerge with more power -- and as the person in charge of the football operation, vindicated by personnel moves gone wrong. Now, as the losses pile up and the division title was lost one year after Tennessee won the No. 1 seed, who knows what owner Amy Adams Strunk will decide to do? Through it all, she should remember what Vrabel has managed to do with an ever-revolving roster door, and what happened with moves that he opposed. Including the decision to trade receiver A.J. Brown to the Eagles.
The Colts: Owner Jim Irsay repeatedly has said G.M. Chris Ballard will return for 2023. We should know by now to never take seriously anything Irsay says about his team.
The Texans: After a one-and-done with David Culley and given their involvement in the Brian Flores suit for failing to hire him a year ago, would they dump Lovie Smith after only one season? Much of that depends on how sweeping the changes will be elsewhere in the organization. Is owner Cal McNair, who fired Jack Easterby during the season, waiting to make a clean sweep after the season ends? Beyond the team being the worst in the NFL in recent years, the football operations cost McNair in the form of thirty-plus settlements for failing to spot and remedy Deshaun Watson’s massage-therapy habits. Don’t overlook that as a factor when it comes to the big decisions McNair needs to make.
The Broncos: Is G.M. George Paton truly safe? That could hinge on the coach that new ownership hires. If the Wal-Mart conglomerate settles on a CEO for the football operation who wants his own G.M., Paton could be gone. Or at a minimum re-assigned, and necessarily stripped of much authority.
The Chargers: Coach Brandon Staley seems to be safe, given that the team made the playoffs. But there are deeper issues regarding perpetual injury problems that compel a closer look at the overall football operations, top to bottom and inside-out.
The Raiders: Changes would be made if owner Mark Davis could afford to make them, I believe. He either can’t or he won’t pay coach Josh McDaniels and/or G.M. Dave Ziegler to leave, after writing checks to Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock a year ago.
The Chiefs: Andy Reid turns 65 on March 19. He’s been with the Chiefs for 10 years. He’s been an NFL head coach for 24 straight seasons. If they win another Super Bowl, would he decide to walk away? It would be very tempting to stick around indefinitely, given the presence of Patrick Mahomes on the team. But it makes sense to keep an eye on the possibility that Reid will decide it’s time -- especially if he can exit with Super Bowl win No. 2.
That’s it for the AFC. In a separate item, we’ll do the same thing in the NFC.