Three Takeaways from the 2024 NFL Head

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With the Washington Commanders’ decision Thursday to hire Dan “We swear he was our first choice” Quinn, the NFL’s weirdest game of head-coaching musical chairs is finally over. Somehow, it ends without several of the most high-profile and qualified candidates getting a seat. Despite their impressive résumés, Bill Belichick and Mike Vrabel were passed over and seemingly barely considered. Meanwhile, Ben Johnson pulled himself out of contention for the Washington job, choosing instead to remain as Jared Goff’s play caller in Detroit.

The eight jobs went to three coaches with offensive backgrounds and five coaches who specialize in defense. Three of the hires have at least one full season of prior NFL head coaching experience; two of the five who don’t are former NFL linebackers. The coaches hired in this cycle range in age from 36 to 60; three are Black coaches and one is of Hispanic descent. One coach is a Harbaugh brother; none is a direct branch off either the Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay offensive coaching tree.

Looking at the coaching class of 2024 as a whole—and especially at the coaches who got left out—provides an interesting window into what matters most to NFL team owners right now. It also tells us a lot about what to expect in the months to come. Here are the three biggest takeaways now that this year’s coaching carousel has stopped spinning.

The Power Dynamic Between Owners and Coaches Has Shifted

On February 11, Shanahan and Andy Reid will face off in Super Bowl LVIII. Yet just over a week before then, the era of the all-powerful head coach that produced them may have ended—at least, that’s how it seems when taking stock of the NFL’s new hires.

Let’s start with the lack of leaguewide interest in Belichick. While he was never expected to be the top candidate on every team owner’s wish list in this cycle (he didn’t seem like an option to inherit a complete rebuild), it is nonetheless genuinely shocking that he only formally interviewed for one job, with Atlanta. (He also reportedly had a conversation with the Commanders.) But that may say less about Belichick’s age, tactics, or capabilities than the way he likes to run a team, as hiring him would have meant ceding him control over just about everything, from staffing decisions to roster building to media strategy. In his final press conference as the Patriots coach on January 8, Belichick vaguely indicated that he would consider giving up control over personnel decisions in order to stay in New England, but only if that was “collectively” agreed upon. It was lip service; his divorce from the Pats was finalized within days, and there was no indication that he wanted to simply stick to coaching in Atlanta.

The circumstances with Vrabel are different, but similar. He didn’t lose his job in Tennessee because of on-field performance (even if the Titans did have a disappointing 2023 season); he was forced out because he lost a power struggle with ownership and the front office, something that surely came up in his interviews with the Falcons, Panthers, and Chargers. That has a lot in common with what happened to Pete Carroll in Seattle: After having final say over the Seahawks’ 53-man roster for more than a decade, he was pushed out last month and into a nebulous front office role. Carroll didn’t interview for any coaching jobs in the weeks since.

Belichick, Vrabel, and Carroll each would have brought a history of winning to a new organization, but each probably would have wanted to do it in his own way. Apparently that didn’t fly. This cycle is perhaps best viewed as a referendum on where the league stands in regard to head coaches who need control and those who can tolerate input from the owner and front office. In nearly every case, the owners filling vacancies voted against coaches who prefer absolute power.

Owners overwhelmingly chose to disperse power between the head coach and general manager, as most of the new hires were either paired with an existing GM (like new Tennessee head coach Brian Callahan with Ran Carthon) or were hired after a new GM, who was then part of the interview process (as was with Quinn in Washington, who was hired weeks after Adam Peters). Even the exception, Jim Harbaugh with the Chargers, isn’t as much of an exception as he seems: While Harbaugh was hired before new general manager Joe Hortiz, Hortiz spent the last 16 years working in Baltimore with Harbaugh’s brother, John.

The idea behind this kind of leadership structure is that it builds in checks and balances between coaches and personnel folks, and theoretically encourages those departments to work hand-in-hand. For an owner like the Falcons’ Arthur Blank, who hired well-liked and deeply respected former Atlanta assistant Raheem Morris over Belichick, it isn’t necessarily a sign that Blank wants to keep power all to himself. It does, however, signal that he didn’t want the coach to dictate the entire franchise.

Setting a goal of building a collaborative atmosphere between coaching and personnel is admirable—and it can work: just look at how it’s excelled for Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes in Detroit. But given the staggering accomplishments of some of the coaches available in this cycle, it’s worth asking if hiring the guy who might be most popular in the building might come at the cost of winning. We’ll find out soon enough.

Being an Offensive Coaching Wunderkind Isn’t a Direct Pipeline to a Top Job Anymore

If the NFL head coach hiring cycle was still operating as it has over the past five years, Bobby Slowik would surely have gotten a job this year. Slowik, the 36-year-old first-year offensive coordinator in Houston, checked every box that owners have coveted in the post-McVay NFL.

Did he coach under Shanahan or McVay? Check. Has he helped develop a young quarterback to find unmistakable success? Check. Is he a play caller whose offensive scheme will stick even if his top assistants one day get poached by other franchises? Check. Even though Slowik called plays for just one season, you could argue that he was at least as qualified for a head coaching job as Kliff Kingsbury was when he went to Arizona, or Zac Taylor was when he landed in Cincinnati. Slowik did interview for multiple jobs in this cycle, including those with Tennessee and Atlanta, but returned to Houston with a new, reportedly more lucrative contract to stay on DeMeco Ryans’s staff and keep working with C.J. Stroud.

And what about Johnson? He pulled out of the Carolina head coaching search in 2023 after just one season as a play caller, and then did the same thing earlier this week after he was linked to Washington. The Commanders seemingly tried to spin this falling-out as a sign that the team was not as all in on Johnson as it initially appeared, and there were media leaks that perhaps Johnson wanted too much money or wasn’t particularly impressive in his interview. But even if one or both of those things are true, it wouldn’t have stopped a team like Washington from doing everything it could to hire the league’s hottest young play caller in recent cycles.

The three newly hired head coaches with offensive backgrounds in 2024 are Harbaugh, Callahan, and Carolina’s Dave Canales. None really fit the next Shanahan or McVay blueprint. Callahan, 39, is the son of longtime NFL coach Bill Callahan, and is technically a branch of the McVay tree, having worked under Taylor in Cincinnati. But he got his start in Denver, where he learned under multiple play callers, from Josh McDaniels to Adam Gase to Gary Kubiak. Canales, 42, worked in Seattle under Shane Waldron, a McVay disciple, but was with the Seahawks before Waldron’s arrival there. And Harbaugh is, well, Harbaugh.

If there is a move from this cycle that most closely matches the thinking that fueled recent hiring cycles, it’s Seattle’s appointment of the 36-year-old Mike Macdonald, who spent the last two seasons as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator. Yet even here, the logic is flipped. Macdonald was at his best when game planning against the Shanahan and McVay offenses.

So what explains this ostensible shift? First, defense was en vogue. Three of the new hires were defensive coordinators in 2023 (Macdonald, Quinn, and Morris), while two others, the Patriots’ Jerod Mayo and the Raiders’ Antonio Pierce, coached linebackers. (Pierce also served as interim head coach for nine games.) But it’s more than just that teams prioritized expertise on the other side of the ball. It seems like NFL owners this cycle weren’t looking for the next Shanahan or McVay; they were looking for the next Dan Campbell or DeMeco Ryans.

Campbell never coached under Bill Parcells, but he should count as part of that tree, as he played tight end for Parcells in Dallas before coaching under Tony Sparano and Sean Payton. The best way to describe Campbell is that he’s a culture coach; he’s all vibes and no breaks, aggressive in games (sometimes to a fault!), and deeply in sync with his locker room. Ryans was a longtime NFL middle linebacker who gained respect as a defensive coach both for his play-calling prowess and his leadership in San Francisco while working under Shanahan. The Texans executed the NFL’s biggest turnaround in 2023 not because of Ryans’s defense (which finished the regular season 16th in DVOA), but because of his impact on the entire organizational culture.

It’s too soon to know whether the move away from the Shanahan and McVay blueprint will pay off, but it has resulted in a more diverse class of coaches than the NFL has seen in a while.

The 2025 Coaching Cycle Is Already Underway

There were far more qualified candidates than there were jobs this year. That not only made for a chaotic couple of weeks; it also figures to loom large heading into next season.

Remember how much speculation there was about Sean Payton’s coaching future when he sat out the 2022 season and worked for Fox? Now imagine that with Belichick, Vrabel, and Carroll each potentially looking to get back onto the sidelines in 2025. Let the sweepstakes begin!

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that half the owners in the league could consider upgrading to one of those candidates should their teams underperform next season. Jerry Jones and Howie Roseman won’t be comparing Mike McCarthy and Nick Sirianni to some hypothetical coaches who could be available next January. They’ll be comparing them directly to known quantities who have won tons of games and Super Bowls.

There were clearly issues with Belichick and Vrabel that caused both to be left out of the recently completed hiring cycle. While those warts won’t totally go away in 11 months, a lot could shift. Maybe Belichick will be less inclined to hire, say, Matt Patricia. And maybe a stint working in TV could remind everyone how much he knows and how much he has to offer.

Johnson and Slowik certainly will be popular candidates next year too, as will Panthers defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. Plus, the rumor mill is starting to resurface some big names: Kingsbury is back in the NFL as Pierce’s new offensive coordinator in Las Vegas, a job he got over former Eagles and 49ers head coach Chip Kelly, who is reportedly eager to get back into the NFL.

The 2024 NFL coaching carousel was the most surprising—and in some ways, revealing—in recent memory. The way everything unfolded could lead to an even more seismic shake-up in 2025.

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