NFL assistant coaches wait in wings as some head coaches struggle


The “Fire Andy!” chants are in the air in Philadelphia, where Eagles Coach Andy Reid is watching a once-promising NFL season crumble.

In San Diego, where the Chargers have lost six in a row, Coach Norv Turner’s job looks more tenuous by the week.

Jim Caldwell is unlikely to survive the free fall of the Indianapolis Colts, and Jacksonville could soon be missing its Jack, as Del Rio is running out of answers.


It’s likely there will be changes at the top next season in Miami, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City and San Diego. The coaches’ seats are getting hot in Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, New York (Giants), Dallas, Minnesota and Washington. If Houston’s Gary Kubiak doesn’t just get to the playoffs but win a game, he’s in trouble.

The league average turnover of head coaches since 1989 is 6.5 per year.

So who are the up-and-coming assistant coaches who could be in line for top jobs, now that hiring retreads has become more the exception than the rule?

Jay Gruden, for one. Cincinnati’s first-year offensive coordinator, and the younger brother of coach-turned-ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, is rapidly on the rise as a head-coaching candidate. The Bengals are in the thick of the AFC playoff race at 7-4, and the rookie tandem of quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green is assembling quite a highlight package of big plays. Three times this season, the Bengals have overcome a double-digit halftime deficit to win, most recently Sunday against Cleveland. It was Gruden who pushed hardest for the Bengals to draft Dalton.

In a phone interview Monday, Gruden said he’s “flattered” by the rumblings that he will be considered for future openings but, predictably, said he’s focused on the task at hand.

“I’ve never really tried to look ahead and look for other jobs,” he said. “I feel like I have a great job right now. I can’t lose my focus. That might sound like B.S., but it’s really not.”

Before taking the Bengals job, Gruden’s only previous NFL gig was as an offensive assistant to Jon in Tampa Bay from 2002 to 2008. The younger brother has accumulated plenty of football experience, however. Jay threw for more than 7,000 yards as Louisville’s quarterback from 1985 to 1988, and later was a highly decorated player, then a player/coach, in the Arena Football League. For the last two years, he was a head coach in the fledgling United Football League.

“I wouldn’t have interviewed for the job if I didn’t think so. I don’t like to go into a job where I feel like I’m overwhelmed or don’t think I could handle it,” he said. “I had no problem with it mentally. I knew I could do it. It was just a matter of getting an opportunity.”

The Jets’ Brian Schottenheimer is likely to be considered a top candidate for multiple jobs, and played a major role in getting New York to consecutive AFC championship games, even with the up-and-down play of quarterback Mark Sanchez. Just before the season, Schottenheimer signed a two-year deal that made him among the highest-paid offensive coordinators in football.

Among the other NFL assistants who could be considered for head-coaching opportunities are Green Bay’s Tom Clements and Winston Moss.

Clements has been the Packers’ quarterbacks coach since 2006, having previously held that job in Pittsburgh, Kansas City and New Orleans. Considering the rise of Aaron Rodgers, clubhouse leader for this season’s most-valuable-player award, Clements’ credentials are gold.

It’s hard to imagine the Packers not producing at least a couple of head coaches from that staff, particularly if the team goes undefeated and/or wins another Super Bowl. (On the staff of the 16-0 New England Patriots in 2007 were future head coach Josh McDaniels, and future Atlanta General Manager Thomas Dimitroff.)

Moss, a former NFL linebacker, coaches inside linebackers for the Packers and since 2007 has also held the title of assistant head coach. Green Bay’s defense has finished in the top five the last two seasons, the first time that has happened in consecutive years since 1968-69. Dom Capers, the defensive coordinator, gets much of the credit for that, but Moss has played a role in that too.

“I think [Moss] is ready to be a head coach right now,” said John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group that promotes the hiring of minority coaches and executives by NFL teams.

In addition to Moss’ ability to teach, Wooten said, he’s in charge of handing down discipline for off-the-field infractions and has “had very little problems” since taking on that responsibility.

Other assistants who Wooten says deserve a chance to be head coaches are New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who was Buffalo’s interim head coach after Dick Jauron was fired, and Curtis Johnson, New Orleans’ receivers coach since 2006. (Though for Fewell, blowouts like Monday night’s loss at New Orleans don’t help his cause.)

Twenty-five of the 32 teams have head coaches who had never held that position for other NFL franchises when they were hired, and there’s no reason to think there will be a shift back to hiring retreads. So you can expect most upcoming vacancies will be filled by first-time head coaches.

Jay Gruden, for one, isn’t looking beyond this week.

“It’s only been 11 games so far,” he said.

“I’ve never sent out a resume, so to speak. I’ve always been really fortunate with the job that I’ve had and tried to make the best of it, enjoy it, and then if something else down the road happens, it happens.”