It wasn’t a surprise that Texans head coach Gary Kubiak was fired Friday. That writing had been on the wall since the team’s current eleven-game losing streak stretched past the team’s week eight bye. Kubiak was among the longest-tenured head coaches in the NFL, having led the team since 2006, and team owner Bob McNair has a strong idea of how he plans to replace him. According to the team’s official website, McNair told reporters that, after firing Kubiak, his ideal candidate would be someone who’s had success as a head coach in the NFL:
“We would like someone who has had head coaching experience, but has also had NFL experience,” McNair said. “It’s a combination of those two things would be the ideal situation and there are people who meet those conditions.”
Teams usually talk about their desire to cast a wide net when making a coaching switch—to find new ideas, hot young talent, the best man for the job, etc—so McNair’s specificity was a bit surprising, like the owner was intent on squashing the Art-Briles-or-Kevin-Sumlin-to-Houston rumors before they started.
It makes a certain amount of sense: the likely NFL Coach of the Year for the 2013 season will be Andy Reid, who’s led the Kansas City Chiefs to a 10-3 start as a head coach who’d had success in the NFL before, in Philadelphia. The old cliché about the NFL being a “copycat league” became a cliché for a reason: even despite the surprising turnaround of Chip Kelly’s Eagles this year, the odds are that most teams with head coaching vacancies are going to be looking at coaches who fit the Andy Reid template.
So let’s take a look at some of the options for the Texans, and examine why each one is a good or poor fit.
Why he’s a great fit: There’s not a former NFL head coach who is currently unemployed who has had more success than Smith (even if some of them, like Bill Cowher and Tony Dungee, are employed as analysts, rather than coaches). He holds an 81-63 record as a head coach, a career 3-3 playoff record, and went 0-1 in his sole Super Bowl appearance. Those are very similar numbers to Andy Reid’s, prior to Reid coming to Kansas City. Smith is a native Texan and a steady sideline presence, and a gifted defensive mind. (Witness the sudden fall of Chicago’s once-vaunted defense in the team’s first season without Smith.) While defensive coordinator and current interim head coach Wade Phillips had a good deal of success with the Texans defense last season, McNair—and Texans fans—are likely salivating at the thought of what a coach like Smith could bring out of players like J.J. Watt and an eventually-healthy Brian Cushing.
Why he’s not: The Texans’s defense has struggled this year, but the start of the team’s skid this season can be traced to Kubiak’s steadfast devotion to Matt Schaub and his inability to fix the team’s offense. That’s a familiar story for Smith, who cycled through quarterbacks and offensive coordinators at an alarming rate in Chicago. He’d probably be a good fit to make the Texans’s defense shine, but does anyone trust a coach who stood by Rex Grossman for as many years as Love Smith did to find a quarterback for Houston?
Odds he gets the job: 2:1. Smith was singled out by McNair in his press conference after firing Kubiak, and he’s going to get a job somewhere next year—he’s got to be the current favorite.
Why he’s a great fit: Whisenhunt’s had a losing record as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, but like Reid and Smith, he’s also taken a team to a Super Bowl. Still, as an offensively-minded coach, Whisenhunt’s had success on multiple levels: He revitalized the career of Kurt Warner before his retirement, and he’s had similar success with Phillip Rivers in San Diego this year, where he serves as offensive coordinator. His struggles in Arizona, meanwhile, were largely due to an inability to find a suitable replacement for Warner, and few coaches are going to have great years if they’re choosing between John Skelton and Ryan Lindley as their starter. The QB depth chart in Houston is likely to look very different under the next head coach, with at least Schaub and probably T.J. Yates gone—if the Texans continue on pace to end up with the top pick of the draft, it’s easy to imagine Whisenhunt having great success with a quarterback like Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater under center.
Why he’s not: Kurt Warner isn’t coming out of retirement, and there’s an argument to be made that the Cardinals’ Super Bowl run was as much about Warner as it was about Whisenhunt. As an offensive coordinator, Whisenhunt is an inspired hire, but as a head coach, he’s a guy who posted only two winning seasons in six years, and he never manged more than ten wins in a given year, even during the stretch when his division was the weakest in the NFL.
Odds he gets the job: 4:1. Whisenhunt’s currently under contract to the San Diego Chargers, which means he’ll have to wait until that team’s season is over—likely week 17, though they’re not yet eliminated from playoff consideration—to pursue the job. McNair could jump on Smith, or another candidate who’s not currently coaching, in the meantime.
Why he’s a great fit: Phillips is currently the interim head coach of the Texans, and there’s a strong argument to be made that the team’s success last year has a lot to do with his transformation of the defense into a fearsome unit. Despite the fact that Cowboys fans still bear a grudge, he posted a 34-22 record in his tenure in Dallas, with two playoff appearances (and one win) in three and a half seasons. His current stint as the interim coach in Houston marks the sixth team he’s been a head coach for, and everyone knows that the sixth time is the charm when it comes to coaching, right?
Why he’s not: Actually, the sixth time is rarely the charm, and it’s hard to imagine a fanbase as antsy as that of the Texans accepting Phillips as the solution to the team’s problems, since he was involved in a leadership role during the time those problems arose. Phillips is a fine defensive coordinator, but that 1-7 start in Dallas the year he was fired still probably means he’s out of chances to hold that job for another team on a permanent basis.
Odds he gets the job: 7:1. Phillips’ chance of getting the job is almost solely in his own hands: If he goes on to stop the losing streak and wins the next three games in a row, then it’d be hard to make a switch next year—and players who rightly fear for their jobs under a new regime sometimes are reinvigorated when playing for an interim coach. On the other hand, the final three games include road games at Indianapolis and Tennessee, and the seemingly-unstoppable Broncos at home. If Phillips pulls off a stunning trifecta, then he deserves the job. But we wouldn’t describe that as “likely.”
The current coach in Washington is likely to be fired at any moment, as reports that he threatened to walk away before last year’s playoff game against Seattle surfaced yesterday morning—and because the 3-10 team suffered yet another blowout loss yesterday afternoon. Still, those problems can probably be placed on Washington’s dysfunctional owner, Dan Snyder, whose tenure as an NFL owner has been largely defined by questionable personnel decisions and a tendency to alienate head coaches. During his fourteen seasons in Denver, Shanahan proved himself to be a gifted head coach—and his son Kyle, who currently serves under his dad as the offensive coordinator in Washington, was also the architect of the Texans’ most prolific passing offense when he held the same position in Houston in 2008-2009. Bringing that back would be a big win.
Why he’s not: According to the Houston Chronicle’s John McClain, Shanahan isn’t on McNair’s radar.
Odds he gets the job: 15:1. McClain is a good reporter who rarely gets this sort of thing wrong. Plus, if Shanahan gets a buyout from Snyder after he’s eventually fired, he might choose to take a year off—it’s not like there’s much left for him to prove.
Why he’s a great fit: Gruden’s name comes up every year when the head coaching vacancies start to appear, and it’s obvious why: he’s won seven playoff games in his career, plus a Super Bowl, and he’s a brilliant offensive coach. It’s easy to imagine him coming into Houston, armed with the number one overall draft pick, and having immediate success.
Why he’s not: Despite the fact that the Gruden-to-Houston rumor started at ESPN—the coach’s current employer—the odds aren’t great that he’ll leave his role as a broadcaster to coach again. As of this morning, Gruden said that he wouldn’t be coaching anywhere in 2014, which he’s said every year when his name’s come up, and he’s stood by it.
Odds he gets the job: 18:1. The only reason to even suspect that Gruden might be willing to leave ESPN to coach this year is the fact that it was ESPN’s John Clayton who initially reported him as a candidate. Still, that’s not enough to hang much on.
None Of The Above
Why they’re a great fit: Names like Seattle Seahawks’ offensive line coach Tom Cable and Stanford head coach David Shaw have popped up on reports from McClain and Clayton, but neither quite fits the McNair profile: Cable’s tenure as head coach of the Oakland Raiders saw him garner a record of 17-27 and never post a winning season, while Shaw’s only NFL experience were some position coaching jobs before moving to the NCAA. Other names that we’re just going to toss out there include candidates who do fit McNair’s description, but who haven’t been mentioned in connection to the opening: People like former Ravens’ head coach Brian Billick, who’s got a Super Bowl ring from his time with the team (and who interviewed for the open position with the Eagles last offseason); former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher (who expresses less interest in coaching again than Gruden); former Colts head coach Tony Dungy (who expresses even less interest than Cowher); and current Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who managed just three winning seasons in nine years as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Of those names, Cable, Shaw, and Del Rio are the most likely names, and any of them could succeed—head coaches who were fired from their first position when they were young often do better the second time around (look at Bill Belichick), which bodes well for Del Rio and Cable, while a strong college coach like Shaw would bring some excitement to the process in Houston.
Why they’re not: You can effectively toss out names like Dungy and Cowher. Billick, meanwhile, seems eager for an opportunity, though resigned to the idea that he probably won’t get it. A current assistant with limited success in a previous stint as a head coach is a viable option, but it’s hard to see why McNair would pursue, say, Tom Cable when Lovie Smith is available. And Shaw, while he’s an exciting possibility, just doesn’t fit McNair’s profile. Unless the Texans are able to pull off a stunning coup and lure someone like Cowher out of retirement, it’s more likely than not that hiring someone like Cable or Del Rio means that they missed on their first—or second, or third—choice.
Odds one of them gets the job: 3:1. We’d say that Lovie Smith is probably the most likely candidate still, given that McNair singled him out as someone he’d like to talk to, but that a person who is yet to be named is no less likely to get the job than someone like Ken Whisenhunt.