It’s nearly time to think about replacing NFL head coaches, and there are plenty of interesting candidates

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels watches New England warm ups before a game against Broncos.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

One NFL season is winding down, and another is just underway.

Not the playoffs, but the coach-hunting season, when teams looking to make a change at the top are evaluating all the potential candidates — both recycled head coaches, and assistants worthy of a look.

There aren’t a lot of hot, must-have candidates out there now — the closest might be New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, or Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz — but no one who has fans saying, “If we don’t get him, we’re never pulling out of this tailspin.”

That’s OK. Look at how this fall went. A year ago, Sean McVay could have walked down the street in any NFL city without getting stopped once for an autograph. Now, as leader of the 10-4 Rams, he has made an overwhelming case for being the NFL’s coach of the year.


Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone wasn’t a particularly coveted commodity, neither, nor was Buffalo’s Sean McDermott, nor Anthony Lynn of the Chargers. The Jaguars are in the playoffs, and the Bills and Chargers are still in the hunt.

We could see 10 or more teams change coaches this off-season, and there will be some pie-in-the-sky names floated out there — Jon Gruden, Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh. But a lot of owners are going to be looking for their McVay, a young, out-of-nowhere phenom who can turn a losing franchise into a winner at whiplash speed.

The Rams coach has made it tough on everyone this year by raising the bar and creating unrealistic expectations elsewhere. Of course, the season isn’t over, and the Rams have yet to secure a spot in the postseason, although they can win the NFC West with a victory Sunday at Tennessee.

For obvious reasons, the most enticing coaching prospects come from the most successful programs, so it stands to reason that Philadelphia offensive coordinator Frank Reich will be in the conversation about possible head coaches, and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo also has created some buzz. Everybody is hoping some of that Carson Wentz magic will rub off on them.


Former Raiders coach Dennis Allen has done a good job as defensive coordinator in New Orleans, getting respectable production out of a unit that in recent years had been historically awful. Detroit has dropped from middle of the pack in defense to 27th, but defensive coordinator Teryl Austin will still get some looks.

The most intriguing defensive coordinator on the horizon in terms of head coaching candidates is New England’s Matt Patricia, who, along with McDaniels, figure to go from the Patriots sideline to top jobs elsewhere sometime soon.

Houston’s Mike Vrabel, Miami’s Matt Burke, and Seattle’s Kris Richard are among the young defensive coordinators who are now blips on the head-coaching radar screen.

Arizona has had a disappointing season filled with injuries, but Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher has yet again done an impressive job. The Cardinals are ranked seventh in total defense, after finishing fifth and second in Bettcher’s first two seasons as coordinator.

Cincinnati’s Paul Guenther, in his fourth season as defensive coordinator of the Bengals, could wind up replacing the departing Marvin Lewis with that club.

There are several interesting offensive candidates too, with McDaniels at the top of that class. He’s almost certainly going to have his choice of jobs, so he can afford to be picky. By all accounts, he’s not taking a job unless the team already has a franchise quarterback or at least someone he sees shaping into that.

Kansas City has reversed its fortunes recently, and some of that credit has gone to coach Andy Reid handing off play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. Naturally, Nagy has emerged as a potential head-coaching candidate. Considering the success of former Kansas City coordinator Doug Pederson in Philadelphia, Nagy is an intriguing new branch to the Reid tree — particularly with Chris Ballard, formerly of Kansas City, now general manager of the Indianapolis Colts (who almost certainly will be looking for a coach.).

The coaching search won’t be limited to assistants and coordinators on offense and defense. There are enticing possibilities on special teams too. Keith Armstrong in Atlanta is widely regarded as excellent, and could wind up as a head coach at some point, although some people were turned off by his tirade in a meeting room in a 2014 episode of “Hard Knocks.” It remains to be seen if that would affect his options.


Then, there’s John Fassel, who has been integral to the success of the Rams, and had three special-teamers make the Pro Bowl this season. He was interim coach after Jeff Fisher was fired last year, has a dad (Jim) who was an NFL coach, and is as beloved by his players as anyone who wears a whistle in the game.

In short, there are lots of coaching candidates this season, but none is regarded as a sure thing. Of course, in light of the way good young coaches have emerged this fall, that doesn’t mean much.

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer