With reporting that the Vikings will be conducting a search in the coming days to replace Mike Zimmer as head coach, the question of who the leading head coaching candidates may be this year comes immediately into question.
Not far behind that are questions like how to assess what makes for a good head coach, and whether to go with an offensive or defensive head coach, younger or older, previous experience or not, college or pro, and so forth. Most importantly, who would be a good fit for this Vikings franchise right now, and who can do what no other head coach has been able to do- bring a championship to Minnesota.
None of those are easy questions, but if the Vikings are to improve over Mike Zimmer, they’ll need to have some answers as they conduct their search and begin interviewing candidates. There is a lengthy list of potential candidates, which is a good thing, but there is no obvious choice either.
Let’s look at some of the leading candidates, in no particular order.
Todd Bowles, Defensive Coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Bowles, 58, may have the best resume to step in immediately and fill the void left by Mike Zimmer in terms of experience and ability to help cure what ails this Vikings team the most- a poor defense. Bowles has led a top ten defense in points allowed in 6 of his 11 years as either a defensive coordinator or head coach. The downside is that he’s also led a 28th or 29th ranked defense in four of those years- two with the Jets, one with the Eagles and one his first season in Tampa. He was also head coach of the Jets from 2015-2018, and his 10-6 record his first year is the only winning season the perennially dysfunctional Jets have had since 2010.
But most recently Bowles was able to turn around a Bucs defense that ranked 31st in points allowed, despite an offense that led the league in giveaways his first year. That year he improved the run defense from 24th in yards allowed and 20th in yards per attempt allowed to the top ranked defense on both metrics and has remained a top five run defense ever since. The following year, with the help of going from Jameis Winston to Tom Brady at QB, and the subsequent massive drop in interceptions, the defense went from 29th in points allowed to 8th. This year his defense ranks 10th in points allowed, despite suffering some key injuries to their defensive secondary.
Bowles was a safety in the NFL for eight seasons, mostly with the Washington Football Team, and has been a defensive coordinator for seven seasons, and a head coach for four. He has a total of three Super Bowl rings: one as a player with Washington, one as a coach with Tampa Bay, and one as a member of the player personnel staff with Green Bay. His defensive dominance of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in last season’s Super Bowl earned him a lot of accolades and was a key factor in Tampa’s victory.
Bowles tends to be a more aggressive play-caller on defense, blitzing at higher rates and using more versatile players to fit his 3-4 based scheme. He also uses more unconventional defensive fronts at times and tries to fool opposing offenses with disguised formations. Players love his aggressive style and play calling.
Eric Bieniemy, Offensive Coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs
Bienemy, 52, was a running back in the NFL from 1991-1999 before eventually becoming the running backs coach for the Vikings in 2006, later coaching Adrian Peterson, and becoming Asst. Head Coach/Running Backs Coach in 2010. After returning to college coaching, Bieniemy came back to the NFL as the Chiefs running backs coach in 2013 and was later promoted to offensive coordinator in 2018. As offensive coordinator for the Chiefs, Bieniemy’s offense has ranked no worse than sixth in either points scored or total yards in each of those four seasons.
The problem for Bieniemy, and the reason he’s become known for how many times he’s been passed over for a head coaching job, is it’s unclear how much credit he gets for the Chiefs offensive performance. Andy Reid has been the architect of the Chiefs offense, calls the plays, and Patrick Mahomes is the field general, so where does Bieniemy fit in?
Andy Reid has said that play calling is a more collaborative process, in which Bieniemy is involved, and he also knows the scheme well. He is also key in offensive game planning and is praised for his leadership in the locker room.
Bieniemy has been interviewed at least a few times for a head coaching job but hasn’t been selected- something Mike Zimmer was frustrated with for many years as a defensive coordinator.
The one thing that will remain a legitimate question for any offensive head coaching candidate that has an MVP-caliber quarterback is how much is the coach and how much is the quarterback? Most would say the quarterback deserves most of the credit. In the case of Bieniemy, he also faces questions as he also is not the play caller, so come game day, how much credit can he really be given for the team’s offensive performance? His being sandwiched between Reid and Mahomes makes it difficult for teams interested in him as a head coach to really know what he can do, and what he should be credited for.
Jerod Mayo, Inside Linebackers Coach, New England Patriots
Mayo, 35, has been coaching for just three years. Mayo was the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft and played for the Patriots from 2008-2015. He was defensive rookie of the year, a first team All-Pro, 2x Pro Bowler over that span, and has a Super Bowl ring as well. After retiring in 2015, Mayo later became the Patriots Inside Linebackers coach in 2019 and has garnered a lot of praise as a coach.
In fact, he’s already interviewed for a head coaching job last year with the Eagles, and the interview reportedly went very well, but the Eagles ultimately went with Nick Sirianni. But the fact that he’s already been interviewed for a head coaching job, after just two seasons as a coach and defensive play-caller, is notable. Here is what Tom Pelissaro wrote about him in his recent list of rising head coaching candidates:
Still in just his third year in coaching, Mayo already has been on the radar for a couple of years as a legitimate candidate. The Eagles interviewed him for their head-coaching job in January and came away impressed with his rare leadership traits. Before going into coaching, Mayo played eight seasons for Bill Belichick in New England, running the defense and relaying the signals for most of that time, including as a rookie to the veteran likes of Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Vince Wilfork. He now serves as the de facto coordinator of the NFL’s No. 2-ranked scoring defense. His pedigree and makeup are intriguing.
Mayo was known for his incredible work ethic as a player, which has carried over into coaching. He is a guy that will carry a lot of street cred with players based on his background as a player, his intelligence, positive attitude, and his ability to teach the fundamentals necessary for success. The Patriots don’t have an official defensive coordinator, doing it by committee instead, but Mayo has been the defensive play-caller since joining the Patriots coaching staff in 2019, which is interesting as both of Belichick’s sons are defensive coaches with longer tenure. He had that role as a player on the field as well.
Mayo is said to be following the same path as Mike Vrabel, who was also a linebacker for the Patriots that got into coaching and worked his way up to head coach of the Titans. He also has a bit of a Mike Tomlin vibe about him, which I’m sure doesn’t hurt his chances either.
Matt Campbell, Head Coach, Iowa State Cyclones
Campbell, 41, has been head coach at Iowa State since 2016 and has built a winning culture and team at Iowa State despite it being a small school without the recruiting advantages of the powerhouse programs like Alabama, Ohio State, etc.
And it’s that track record- doing more with less - that has gotten him on the NFL radar as a head coaching candidate, despite not coaching at one of the bigger college football programs. Prior to Iowa State, Campbell went 35-15 over four seasons at Toledo, and then took an Iowa State program that had 12 bowl game appearances in 12 decades, to five consecutive bowl games, including a win at the Fiesta Bowl over Oregon in 2020.
When it comes to evaluating college coaches, some look beyond the wins and losses and focus on how well they did with the players and resources available to them. Recruiting advantage is very real in the college ranks, and is negligible in the NFL, and some college coaches from the top football powerhouses that went to the NFL didn’t do so well without that advantage. So, for a guy like Matt Campbell, being able to put together an ascending program at a small school that won the Big 12 and Fiesta Bowl in 2020 garners attention. In fact, he reportedly turned down the head coaching job with the Lions last year and is on the radar with other NFL teams as well.
But there are two question marks about Campbell. The first is whether he’s willing to make the jump to the NFL if he were offered the job by the Vikings. He recently signed a contract extension at Iowa State through 2028, and he’s declined several opportunities to coach in the NFL over the years.
The other thing about Campbell applies to all college coaches: can he do as well at the NFL level? He wouldn’t lose the recruiting advantage that a lot of other college coaches moving up to the NFL enjoyed, but the NFL is a different animal than college football, and it remains to be seen if his scheme and leadership style would translate to the pro game.
Byron Leftwich, Offensive Coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Leftwich, 41, was a quarterback in the NFL for 9 seasons, most of them as a backup, before getting into coaching. He was quarterbacks coach in Arizona from 2017-2018, and then became offensive coordinator in Tampa in 2019, where he remains.
Leftwich is another offensive coordinator that certainly has benefitted from having an MVP-caliber quarterback in Tom Brady, but in Leftwich’s case, he also had the third ranked offense in points and yards in his first year at Tampa with Jameis Winston at quarterback. His offense was ranked third in points last year too with Tom Brady and is second this season. His offense has also benefitted by having a solid offensive line and Pro Bowl receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
Leftwich has coached (and played) under Bruce Arians, whose Air Coryll offense he runs, as Arians delegated running the offense and calling plays to Leftwich in 2020. Tom Brady also speaks highly of Leftwich.
Leftwich may be given more credit as an offensive play-caller than Eric Bieniemy for his offense’s success and having a top offense without a top QB under center helps his credibility too, but he also benefitted from a pretty solid offensive unit at every position group- which an Air Coryll scheme depends upon for success.
But Leftwich brings a lot of credibility as both a player and coach with a Super Bowl ring, and he’s said to have a lot of leadership ability in the locker room.
Nathanial Hackett, Offensive Coordinator, Green Bay Packers
Hackett, 42, has been the offensive coordinator for the Packers the last three seasons under Matt LaFleur. While the Green Bay offense has been impressive over that span, Hackett will have the same set of questions that Eric Bieniemy faces: how much credit does he get for the Packers offensive performance? And for the same reasons. The Packers have Matt LaFleur’s offense, with LaFleur calling the plays, and Aaron Rodgers as field general. So how much credit goes to Hackett?
Hackett has been coaching in the NFL for 13 years, including stints at Buffalo and Jacksonville as offensive coordinator, but has just one other season running a top offense- 2017 in Jacksonville. Still, he’s said to be creative, thoughtful, and high-energy with a little quirkiness that helps connect with younger players. He’s said to be especially good at providing game planning tips to players to help them execute each week.
Still, it's unclear if Hackett’s style works as well as a head coach, and whether his offense can produce consistently with him calling the plays and without an MVP quarterback.
Joe Brady, Former Offensive Coordinator, Carolina Panthers
Brady, 32, doesn’t have a strong record of accomplishment in the NFL as an offensive coordinator, and was recently fired by Carolina after nearly two seasons. But his claim to fame is his season at LSU in 2019, where he was the passing game/wide receivers coach during LSU’s dominating season and national championship- coaching Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase. Prior to that, he spent two seasons with the Saints as an offensive assistant under Sean Payton.
But despite his lack of a record of accomplishment in the NFL, Brady had five interviews for head coaching jobs last year and has received a lot of calls and interest from other NFL teams since he was fired at the beginning of December. The reason is that he’s a highly regarded offensive mind. Whether those calls are regarding an offensive coordinator or head coaching vacancy remains to be seen.
I suspect most teams may give Brady a bit of a pass on his tenure with Carolina, given the lack of personnel and weapons that were available there, particularly for Brady’s style of offense. But for a team like the Vikings, whose strong suit is the passing game, and with Justin Jefferson having worked with Brady in that championship year at LSU, Brady could draw some interest. It may be more as an offensive coordinator than as a head coach at this point, but either way, Brady is unlikely to be unemployed for very long.
Brian Daboll, Offensive Coordinator, Buffalo Bills
Daboll, 46, has been offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Buffalo Bills since 2018, and had previous stints as OC of Kansas City, Miami, and Cleveland. But it’s only been the last two seasons in Buffalo that he’s run a top offense, as Josh Allen improved and Stefon Diggs was acquired. Prior to that his offenses were all bottom tier.
But the turnaround in Buffalo since he’s been there, including Josh Allen, has brought more attention to Daboll as a potential head coaching candidate. He is said to have a good eye for matchups that transcends scheme, but he hasn’t been as popular a head coaching candidate at this point, although he’s likely to continue to draw interest.
Matt Eberflus, Defensive Coordinator, Indianapolis Colts
Eberflus, 51, has been defensive coordinator for the Colts for the past four seasons, and has had a top ten or twelve defense in three of those four seasons, ranking 18th in 2019 in terms of points allowed.
He inherited a defense that needed upgrades at nearly every position, and after five weeks his first year as DC, turned the Colts defense into one that allowed just 16.4 points a game. He is regarded by some as the best defensive head coaching candidate this year.
Eberflus runs a 4-3 front with primarily a Cover-2 zone shell on the back end. He has been skillful in adapting his scheme to his personnel, however, with some unusual formations, particularly on his defensive line which initially lacked athleticism and top pass rushers. He started by employing a variety of stunts and twists to help generate more of a pass rush, and lacking a true 3-technique, used two nose tackles shaded in the A-gaps to thwart base inside zone runs. He also used some zone blitzes on occasion to help pressure the QB.
Later, with the addition of DL DeForest Buckner, and his development of LB Darius Leonard, the Colts defense improved to where this season they’re top ten in DVOA and several other key defensive metrics.
He has a reputation as a motivator, calling out players in practice and pointing out who’s winning and who’s not, offering praise just as quickly. He’s also seen as aggressive when it comes to play-calling, and when it comes to teaching how to force turnovers. His defense has been top ten in takeaways every year in Indianapolis, and this season is #1.
In 30 years of coaching between college and the NFL, he’s only coached at 5 different places, suggesting he’s done a good job everywhere he’s been. His only short stint was two years as linebackers coach in Cleveland in 2009-10.
Other Top Candidates
Josh McDaniels, Offensive Coordinator, New England Patriots. McDaniels is on the list every year but seems more likely to stay in New England as potential successor to Bill Belichick. His past head coaching gig in Denver didn’t go well, although that was over ten years ago.
Todd Downing, Offensive Coordinator, Tennessee Titans. A native of Minnesota and former Golden Gopher, Downing also had a couple stints as an offensive assistant with the Vikings and is finishing his first season as offensive coordinator with the Titans. He gets credit for keeping the Titans offense afloat following the loss of their star running back, Derrick Henry. He also benefits as a couple other OCs under Mike Vrabel have moved quickly into head coaching jobs- Matt LaFleur and Arthur Smith. But with only one season as an offensive coordinator, he may have more appeal next year than this year.
Leslie Frazier, Defensive Coordinator, Buffalo Bills. It would seem unlikely for the Vikings, having fired Frazier in favor of Mike Zimmer, to bring him back again afterward. Nevertheless, Frazier has done a good job in Buffalo, with a few seasons as a top three defense in yards allowed, and two in points allowed. This season the Bills defense is top two in both.
Kellen Moore, Offensive Coordinator, Dallas Cowboys. He’s just 33, but has three years as offensive coordinator in Dallas, two of which produced top six offenses in points scored. Dallas has no shortage of talent offensively, including an excellent offensive line, but it’s unclear if he’s ready for the next level of responsibilities just yet.
Kevin O’Connell, Offensive Coordinator, LA Rams. A former NFL quarterback, O’Connell is 33 and has served as an OC for three years- one in Washington and two in LA under Sean McVay. This is his first year with a top ten offense. McVay calls the plays, but both Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor have emerged as good head coaches that were once under McVay.
Doug Pederson, Former Head Coach, Philadelphia Eagles. Pederson won the Super Bowl in 2017 with Nick Foles in the playoffs, but things unraveled fast afterward, calling into question his ability as a head coach. The Eagles were dominant in the trenches in 2017, but injuries and losses there in subsequent years took a toll. Frank Reich, who some credit for the Eagles offensive success under Pederson, and Carson Wentz’ best years, also left after 2017 and the Eagles offense was never quite the same. Pederson didn’t coach this season but is looking to come back next season.
Dan Quinn, Defensive Coordinator, Dallas Cowboys. Quinn has been a good defensive coordinator wherever he’s been, most notably where he made his reputation in Seattle with the Legion of Boom, but his five-and-a-half-year stint as a head coach in Atlanta was a disappointment. It’s unclear another team like the Vikings are ready to give him another shot as head coach after one year as a defensive coordinator in Dallas.
Who’s the Best Fit for the Vikings?
Of course the million-dollar question is which, if any, of the above is the best fit for the Vikings and will help bring them one or more championships. The one thing that is certain is that whoever is chosen, if Mike Zimmer is fired next week, is that hiring a good defensive coordinator will be a priority, given the fact that the Vikings defense has been in the cellar the last two seasons. That doesn’t necessarily mean the new head coach has to come from the defensive side, but he better have a good DC who can turn things around quickly.
Candidates like Todd Bowles or Matt Eberflus would seem like relatively safe candidates in that regard, given their background and experience, even though Eberflus has never been a head coach. I suspect the Vikings defense would like playing for Bowles and his style of defense, and maybe Eberflus too.
But a slightly more risky candidate could also bring more of a reward. Jarod Mayo is appealing in that regard, who is praised not only for his coaching ability, but also his leadership, positive attitude and pedigree. And at the end of the day, getting a coach that players want to play for- and put their best effort on the field- is one of the keys of a great head coach. Mayo seems like a coach in the style of Mike Vrabel and Mike Tomlin, who seem to get the most from their team.
A guy like Matt Campbell might also have that ability, although whether he’s willing to make the jump to the NFL is unclear. There is also the added risk of whether his style translates to the NFL.
The other thing regarding a head coaching hire is who is he able to hire as coordinators and staff under him. Attracting quality coaches to his staff is key to success, particularly for a first-time head coach.
The other crucial factor regarding all the above candidates is which of them would take the job as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. I would think the Vikings job would be more appealing than Jacksonville, Texas, or even Chicago. Having a top 12 or so offense with all key players returning next season may appeal to many coaching candidates, along with a stable organization. Kirk Cousins being on the last year of his contract might be a positive or a negative for an incoming head coach, depending on whether they want to keep him or bring in their own quarterback. Extending Cousins is not a certainty even if the Vikings and a new coach want to do so.
But at the end of the day, whoever is named the new head coach, assuming the Vikings move on from Zimmer, will be a key voice in what happens with Cousins, the rest of the roster, and the existing coaching staff as well.
Of the Above List of Head Coaching Candidates, Who Would You Like Most to Succeed Mike Zimmer?
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