Why the upcoming NFL hiring cycle could mark the return of a defensive-minded head coach

The NFL coaching cycle is about to ramp up. There are already permanent vacancies in Las Vegas and the Carolinas, and league sources expect four to six more jobs to open once we get to 2024.

In recent years, team owners have tended to fill those jobs with offensive-minded head coaches. As of February 3, 2020, 22 head coaches have been hired and 14 have offensive experience.

But the steady departure from the offensive coordinator position in recent years has presented the league with a problem — one that could rear its head in a few weeks as NFL owners look to fill their top jobs with offensive-minded head coaches.

“There aren’t enough offensive guys to fill the spots,” one prominent coaching agent told CBS Sports.

“People are reaching for the offensive side,” one official said. “There’s not enough there.”

The NFL may be about to experience a reap what you sow situation at offensive coordinator. NFL teams have made 106 changes at the offensive coordinator position in the eight years leading up to this season. (That’s compared to 85 defensive coordinator changes over the same time period.)

“This extremely high turnover rate … is not ideal from a player development or career trajectory and sustainability perspective,” reads the most recent diversity and inclusion report the league produces each year.

Entering the 2023 regular season, the average length of time for an NFL offensive coordinator is just 1.2 seasons at the current position.

Sixteen offensive coordinators entered this season in their first year on the job. Another nine were entering their second season. So the league has 25 offensive coordinators with no more than two seasons of experience in their current gigs.

Only three offensive coordinators have held their current positions for more than three seasons: Pete Carmichael (Saints), Brian Callahan (Bengals) and Alex Van Pelt (Browns).

League sources agree Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is the hottest coaching candidate this cycle. He could receive multiple offers a year after deciding to return to Detroit as a sought-after coach.

But after Johnson, sources say there is no coach with an obvious offensive mindset who is right for the job. Callahan, Eric Bieniemi (Commanders), Kellen Moore (Chargers), Frank Smith (Dolphins), Brian Johnson (Eagles) and Bobby Slowick (Texans) are among the offensive coordinators who could get interviews, and some of them may even become head coaching jobs. But the point remains that the applicant pool is not as large as it was years ago.

NFL owners have been hesitant to use defensive-minded coaches in recent years, thanks to a league that has been consumed by offensive fireworks. It is believed that teams with defensive-oriented coaches will have to constantly hire new offensive coordinators when the last successful one leaves for the top job. And that regular stocking of the cupboard will eventually catch up with the team.

“It’s a rich man’s problem,” said another well-known coaching agent, referring to the fact that such offensive success would likely lead to postseason success and perhaps a lucrative contract extension.

This upcoming cycle could see the return of the defensive minded head coach. Or perhaps inspired by the success of Dan Campbell, a “leader of men” type coach.

Teams that may be forced to go on offense after Black Monday may very well find that their best options are on defense.

Today, there are several strong candidates to serve as defensive coordinators. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks have their units playing some of the best football in the league, and both have been head coaches before. Quinn nearly won a Super Bowl with the Falcons, and the passing time helped solidify Wilkes’ tenures at Arizona and Carolina last year as interim head coach.

“They had a culture established there with Steve in Carolina,” one league source said. “Now they have nothing.”

Lou Anarumo (Bengals), Aaron Glenn (Lions), Raheem Morris (Rams) and Mike McDonald (Ravens) are also considered candidates this cycle. Former Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who took a year off from coaching after surprisingly not getting a single head coaching interview last cycle, deserves another shot and is an eligible candidate again this year.

Today, the league is seeing the consequences of the actions of recent years. The constant departure of offensive coordinators in the NFL has contributed to the dearth of dunk candidates.

And in an offseason when a quarter of the league could be looking for a new head coach, perhaps the right leader is standing on the other side of the ball.

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