The NFL regular season ended on a sour note for many teams, forcing six owners to quickly wash their hands of a messy situation and start fresh.
The Houston Texans led that charge earlier in December, canning Gary Kubiak after losing 10 straight and falling out of the playoff picture. The Cleveland Browns followed suit Sunday night, dumping first-year coach Rob Chudzinski after just 353 days on the job. Black Monday had the most casualties, though, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings all cut ties with their coaches.
Before the full slate of coaching vacancies was even set, rumors began to fly about potential candidates. Names like Lovie Smith, Josh McDaniels and Bill O’Brien were passed around like the flu, with front-office personnel bobbing and weaving around the rumblings as not to make things awkward before season’s end. Now it’s open season.
Some of the six openings certainly are more attractive than others. The key differences stem anywhere from the presence of a franchise quarterback to roster depth, draft positioning or even the role ownership plays on a daily basis. Some organizations are just better equipped for the future, and that should factor into plenty of decisions.
So while coaches decide if an opportunity is right for them, it only seems appropriate to rank the current openings from best to worst.
1. Houston Texans
A 2-14 season wasn’t what Texans owner Bob McNair had in mind after two consecutive trips to the divisional round of the playoffs. The Texans have the pieces in place to win now and could pull a turnaround similar to the 2012 Indianapolis Colts next season.
Houston already has studs in house with Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins on offense and J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith, Brooks Reed and Jonathan Joseph on defense. They would give any new coach a solid core to build around.
The big caveat for O’Brien, Smith or whoever else might land the job, though, is the power to select and develop the Texans’ quarterback of the future. Houston holds the No. 1 pick entering May’s NFL draft, and deciding between Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr and Johnny Manziel might be the best dilemma of any NFL coach this offseason.
2. Detroit Lions
The Lions looked like Super Bowl contenders through the first half of this season. Then all the bricks came tumbling down, as Detroit lost four in a row to finish the season 7-9.
While the late-season collapse didn’t do much to instill optimism, the Lions are pretty well set throughout their roster. Matthew Stafford is the type of franchise quarterback many teams would love to have. Calvin Johnson arguably is the best wide receiver in the NFL. And the defensive cupboard is stocked with playmakers like Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley up front and linebacker DeAndre Levy and safety Glover Quin.
Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. isn’t afraid to dish out cash for big-name players either, and he seems pretty patient with his coaches (see: Schwartz, Jim).
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After a 0-8 start, the Bucs looked like the worst team in the NFL. A 4-4 finish might have turned that perception on its head, though.
Although Greg Schiano couldn’t turn Tampa Bay into the contender the Glazer family had hoped for, Smith or whoever else lands this job will have some key pieces already in place.
Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson are major assets on offense. The offensive line is one of the most underrated in the league, and Mike Glennon at times looked like he might be the quarterback of the future. Defense is where this team’s strength lies, though, with Darrelle Revis, Lavonte David, Adrian Clayborn and Gerald McCoy leading a group of playmakers that could develop into a unit similar to what the Seattle Seahawks have.
The Glazers can be pretty frugal spenders at times, which might be a con for some candidates, and they haven’t shown much loyalty to coaches in recent years, shuffling through three in the last six seasons, which could cause even more uncertainty.
4. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings were a playoff team only one season ago, so there’s the potential to return to such success sooner rather than later. Some key voids must be filled before that can happen, though.
Adrian Peterson clearly is the focal point on offense, and he probably has three more prime years left in him before he starts to break down. Greg Jennings is capable of being a reliable No. 1 receiver, and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson showed over the final few weeks of the season just how dangerous he can be with the ball in his hands. Beyond that core, though, there are more questions than answers.
The new coach will need to retool on defense, as the Vikings finished 31st in the league. He’ll also need to settle the quarterback situation. Christian Ponder isn’t the answer — and it might be time to cut ties — nor is Josh Freeman or Matt Cassell. The eighth pick in May’s draft should at least give the new coach the QB of his choice, but there are more areas of concern than can be settled in one offseason.
5. Cleveland Browns
Whether McDaniels or another high-profile coach lands this job, how can there be any trust with ownership? Chudzinski was shown the door after only one season, even after setting the Browns up nicely for the future. That has to concern every potential candidate.
The Browns do have elite playmakers, with wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron already on the roster, and they proved to be among the NFL’s best defenses this season behind the likes of safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Joe Haden and rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo. While that influx of talent is enticing, there are deficiencies elsewhere.
Brandon Weeden isn’t the answer at quarterback, and while Brian Hoyer was good in his short stint, he probably isn’t worth a long-term investment. The Browns do hold the fifth pick in the draft, which could be used on someone like Derek Carr to try to firm up the position. The Browns also have another first-round pick, acquired from the playoff-bound Indianapolis Colts in the Trent Richardson trade, that should help beef up their roster elsewhere.
The new coach will have quite the road to traverse before even getting into contention, and that might test the patience of owner Jimmy Haslam and general manager Michael Lombardi.
6. Washington Redskins
If the ownership in Cleveland is bad, then it’s downright atrocious in the nation’s capital. Dan Snyder has been sticking his nose in the football side of things for far too long, and some coaches probably won’t be too receptive to such an approach.
Robert Griffin III clearly is the crown jewel in Washington, with Pierre Garcon and Alfred Morris proving to be fairly valuable assets as well. However, even the shine of that trio might not be enough to overshadow some of the Redskins’ glaring problems.
The defense is a major concern outside of maybe Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, finishing in the bottom half of the league in nearly every category this season. Griffin’s ego and attitude have been questioned in recent months, which will be a challenge for any new coach not named Art Briles. And trading up for Griffin two years ago cost the Redskins their 2014 first-round draft pick, which just so happens to fall at No. 2 overall — enjoy it, St. Louis.
Snyder has deep pockets, but most coaches would be foolish, or at least very brave, to lead this circus of a franchise for the next few seasons.