When Bill Cowher was a defensive coordinator for the Chiefs back in 1991, he was a few months off a head-coaching interview in Cleveland with a more defined eye on his future. Even three decades ago, every coach in the NFL knew which other coaches were on the come-up; which coaches were about to take the next step and break away from anonymity on the sidelines.
It's an exciting time, Cowher recalled earlier this week, where you might start to refine your own identity. Maybe you'll see an issue arise on another team and pay more attention to how the head coach handles it in front of the press. Maybe you'll imagine yourself doing things just a little bit differently. As the chatter starts to grow, you might even think about whether or not you'll take assistants with you if a new job comes open.
"Your body of work speaks for itself," Cowher told me. "You don't have to solicit -- people will come to you, they'll find you. Just keep doing your job."
As we prepare for the start of the 2017 regular season, there are dozens of coaches in the position Cowher was in back then. Team success or failure often becomes the ultimate platform for coordinators and position coaches to rise through the ranks and become head coaches, but when all records are 0-0, everyone has a chance to make a good impression.
In that spirit, we're going to look at a handful coordinators who you might be hearing a lot about this coming season. It's far too early to begin matching names with future vacancies, but it's never too early to learn about coaches who will start to become quite popular in November or December -- or some who might reappear in the limelight after some time backstage. To be clear, these are my thoughts and mine alone, unless otherwise stated below.
1) Mike Smith, defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Smith signed a two-year extension to remain with the Buccaneers this offseason, but was the Chargers' first interview candidate in January. He interviewed with the Giants for their coach vacancy back in 2016 before the job went to Ben McAdoo. As NFL Network's Charley Casserly has told me on multiple occasions, interviewing with teams that are traditionally good at selecting candidates often helps get your name back to the top of the pile. Before McAdoo, the Giants had a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach in Tom Coughlin who lasted there for more than a decade.
Smith has a career 66-46 record in the regular season and finished either first or second in the NFC South in each of his first five years as the Falcons' head coach. With Tampa Bay starting the season as a trendy candidate to make some noise in the division, Smith's defense will be under the microscope.
2) The New England Patriots duo
Both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia interviewed for head-coaching vacancies again this offseason, but ended up sticking with the Patriots. McDaniels, to me, was the consensus top candidate on the market during this past coaching carousel, given his experience with Bill Belichick and his trial-and-error period with the Denver Broncos. In talking to one person familiar with McDaniels' thinking early last year -- before the start of the season -- I got the impression that if the right opportunity arose, he would be interested in giving it another shot. NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo linked McDaniels to some high-profile openings this offseason before, in mid-January, McDaniels pulled back to focus on New England's Super Bowl run.
"Where else can you go where every year you're in the playoffs, you're with top talent, and you're with probably the best NFL coaches to come along in a long time ... and you can learn from that guy?"
3) The Detroit Lions Duo
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell has managed to keep defensive coordinator Teryl Austin on staff despite Austin having interviewed for nine -- NINE! -- head-coaching vacancies over the past three offseasons. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press this past winter, Caldwell seemed stumped as to why the 52-year-old is still not an NFL head coach.
"I think obviously that he deserves an opportunity," Caldwell said. "And when you look at his work, what he's been able to do over the years, look at where he's worked, who he's worked for. He's well prepared for the task. He'll do a tremendous job. And I don't think there's any question about that. I'm certainly hoping that he gets that opportunity."
Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, arguably the second young coach off the Peyton Manning tree (along with Adam Gase) making a name for himself away from the future Hall of Fame quarterback, has done a tremendous job with the Lions after taking over the job halfway through the 2015 season. I think the great thing about Cooter is his age: 33. Still young enough to capitalize on the youth movement if 31-year-old Rams head coach Sean McVay succeeds and potentially old enough to escape the scrutiny that could come with hiring young NFL coaches if the Rams struggle.
"I'm way out of the world of worrying about that stuff, man," Cooter said. "We've got a big game this week and I know there's more to come. I'm locked in on that and that's all I need to worry about and all I'm going to worry about."
4) Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
Schwartz' 29-51 regular-season record while head coach of the Lions isn't going to be the sexiest resume booster on Earth, but he did a nice job with the Eagles' defense last year and has more firepower going into 2017, especially after the recent addition of Ronald Darby at cornerback. The Eagles were ninth in interceptions and 10th in total takeaways last season. They were fifth in rushing touchdowns allowed and 12th in total points given up.
"I think just the fact that he's been a head coach in the past (will help him be successful next time around)," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said last season, via the Detroit Free Press. "He's sat in that seat and it makes him obviously a solid candidate and I'm just hoping that nobody comes calling because I'd like to keep him around on my staff. But just knowing the role, knowing the position, and I think, too, the second time around, if he were given that opportunity, he'd probably do some things differently than what he did the first time."
5) Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, New York Giants
Spagnuolo went 10-38 as head coach of the St. Louis Rams from 2009-2011 and has weathered a long, long road back to where he was before he got his first head-coaching opportunity. When I asked Cowher the other day which coaches he might recommend -- the Super Bowl-winning Steelers coach is often asked by owners and general managers for advice -- Spagnuolo was at the top of his mind.
"He's a guy who's been there before, and I think he deserves a second shot," Cowher said.
Spagnuolo's second tenure as Giants DC has coincided with star safety Landon Collins' meteoric rise in New York. Last season, the star-studded Giants were second in points surrendered, 10th in total yards given up, third in rushing yards surrendered and second in passing touchdowns yielded. If a coach puts up those types of numbers two years in a row, no matter how talented the defense, it would seem like a worthwhile exercise to keep him on the short list.
6) Mike Vrabel, defensive coordinator, Houston Texans
Vrabel attracted some head-coaching interest from the Los Angeles Rams in this past cycle, but was eventually promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in Houston, a nod to how much he had to do with Houston's spectacular defense last year. With Vrabel still just 42, it seems like the former Pro Bowl linebacker (and three-time Super Bowl champ) is biding his time for the right job. Remember, he opted not to be Chip Kelly's defensive coordinator in San Francisco back in 2016 -- something that, to me, shows he is patient for the ideal opportunity and not just the first one.
While he'll immediately be associated with the horde of Belichick castaways that currently populate the coaching landscape, Vrabel also has a 14-year NFL playing career (some of which was spent under Cowher) to draw from.
7) The special teams coordinators
"The fact that I got interviews, I think it's good for the whole profession," Toub told me at the Pro Bowl back in January.
By the whole profession, he means special teams coordinators, who have been in and out of the NFL consciousness when it comes to head-coaching vacancies. Ravens head man John Harbaugh stands above the pack as a shining example, though Toub and Jaguars special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis have both spoken with teams about top jobs in recent years.
"The reluctance is this," Casserly said on NFL Network back in January. "It's the knowledge of offense, defense, who they're going to hire as coordinators and who their assistants are -- that's where some of them have come up short."
I also think part of the problem is precedent. Outside of Harbaugh, there really isn't another example to cite in the modern NFL. The upside? A coach who has to think outside the box constantly -- molding players who are used to doing one thing into productive members of the kickoff, punt and return teams. I wrote coordinators (plural) on this list because, hopefully, Toub's recent round of interviews opened some eyes. The Broncos are a top-tier organization, and them keeping an eye on Toub could lead to more teams checking out special teams coordinators down the road.
8) Harold Goodwin, offensive coordinator, Arizona Cardinals
Goodwin interviewed for the Buccaneers job in January of 2016 and met with the Bills, Rams and Jaguars this past offseason. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has let Goodwin and QB coach Byron Leftwich call plays in the preseason over the past two years -- but he does not want teams to be concerned about Goodwin's lack of play calling in the regular season.
"You're not hiring a play caller," Arians said of Goodwin back in February, via ESPN. "You're hiring a leader of men. You're not hiring a play caller, you're hiring a head coach. He will hire a play caller, but you're looking for a man to lead your team and lead your organization. There are a few us that call plays, very few, so don't hire an offensive coordinator. Hire a head coach."
9) The young defensive coordinators out West
"It felt good," Richard told The Seattle Times of the interview process. "It kind of felt good to piece everything together, create your formula, your philosophy, your ideas. It was just an awesome experience, so I'm very grateful."
Richard has done well to establish himself in NFL circles of late, but he's not the only guy from the Seahawks tree who could start making some serious noise in coaching circles. While Robert Saleh is in just his first year as a defensive coordinator with Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers, he's already managed to create a buzz around this young unit after just four preseason games. Saleh has worked under some big head coaches already, including Carroll, current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, Gary Kubiak and Gus Bradley. A sharp improvement in that 49ers defense would not go unnoticed.
10) Edgar Bennett, offensive coordinator, Green Bay Packers
Bennett doesn't get much head-coaching buzz, though neither did Ben McAdoo when he was Mike McCarthy's offensive coordinator in Green Bay. If McAdoo continues to succeed, I think it could help erase the hesitation some teams may have to plucking coaches from the recent Packers tree (Joe Philbin). If I were running a team, I would be very interested in a coach who worked in player development before coming over to direct Green Bay's running backs, wide receivers and now coordinate their offense. All of Green Bay's coaches are what McAdoo refers to as "cross trained," meaning they often fly the coup having a complete picture of the gig.