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The right stuff: Who are the ideal candidates for the Cardinals head coaching job?

The Cardinals have already been linked to several candidates in their head coaching search. Which candidates should the team avoid, and which should they be pursuing?

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Former Texas Tech HC Kliff Kingsbury is reportedly interviewing with the Cardinals. Where does he rank among the candidates for the job?
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For the second time in two seasons, the Arizona Cardinals are looking for a new head coach. The man they hired this time last year, Steve Wilks, obviously did not work out and was fired after a single season in the desert. His 3-13 record is tied with the 2000 team as the franchise’s worst record since moving to Arizona.

The reasons the Wilks hire didn’t work were myriad—a lack of experience after only one season as a coordinator, being saddled with an abysmal OC to start the season, a bad QB situation, a personnel/scheme mismatch on the defensive side of the ball, and, of course, injuries. But it was clear from very early on that Wilks was not the right man for the job, and he was rightly fired.

The team will be better off without him.

And now the two men responsible for hiring Wilks in the first place—Team President Michael Bidwill and General Manager Steve Keim, who retained his job for at least one more season—are tasked with finding his replacement.

The coaching search is in full swing, and the Cardinals have already been linked to several candidates. Some are legitimate candidates, some are not—there’s always more smoke than fire this time of year. So let’s try to see through the smokescreen and identify what kind of candidate the team should be looking for, eliminate some of the names being bandied about, and come up with a list of desired candidates.

Who should be the man to lead the Cardinals in 2019?

Candidate Profile

Before we discuss specific names, we need to identify the traits the team should be looking for. This is entirely subjective, but given the current trends around the league and the state of the roster, I think there are three traits Bidwill and Keim should focus on during this hiring process:

  1. Offensive Background: The most important trait the team should be looking for in our next head coach should be a background in offense. The Cardinals’ offense was historically bad last season—finishing dead last in total yards, passing yards, rushing yards, and points per game. That simply can’t happen again, especially with our (hopeful) quarterback of the future on the roster in Josh Rosen. Whomever is hired will need to be able to develop Rosen into an above-average starter. If they can’t, it would set the team back years. Rosen’s development is the most critical factor to the future success (or failure) of the team.
  2. Previous Head Coaching Experience: One of Wilks’s fatal flaws was a lack of experience—you could tell both on gameday and during his press conferences that he was in over his head. To avoid having another coach fall flat on their face, Bidwill and Keim should privilege candidates with previous head coaching experience. Note that this does not necessarily mean NFL head coaching experience. Candidates with college head coaching experience should be considered as well—such as with Bruce Arians and his experience at Temple. (But hopefully more recent than the 1980s.)
  3. Youth: Finally, a team that had one of the oldest rosters in the league last season needs an infusion of youth in a hurry, replacing aging, injury-prone veterans with younger, healthier counterparts. Having the first pick in each round of the draft will help, and we have several talented second- and third-year players who we are developing as well (Rosen, Christian Kirk, Haason Reddick, Budda Baker, etc.). We should try to find a younger head coach to lead them for (hopefully) the next decade, rather than an older coach who might retire in a few years (like Arians). Plus, there’s precedent for younger coaches around the league, as several successful recent coaching hires were on the younger side (Mike Vrabel, Matt Nagy, Sean McVay). Let’s embrace that trend.

The ideal candidate would embody all three of these traits—although there are very few out there that actually do, as we’ll find out below. But two out of three would be acceptable, provided they at least have the first one down (offensive background).

Pipe Dream Candidates

There are several potential candidates out there who might fit well with the Cardinals but who don’t seem likely to land in Arizona for various reasons. Let’s run through some of those names quickly to get a feel for the types of candidates we should realistically be looking at. (Note: Each coach’s age is listed in parentheses after their name.)

  • Mike McCarthy (55): McCarthy isn’t quite as young as you’d like, but he does have an offensive background and previous head coaching experience. Even better, he has a Super Bowl ring. While there are some questions about his offensive system and gameday coaching acumen, McCarthy would have brought instant credibility to the Cardinals organization. Unfortunately, he has no interest in coaching in the desert, perhaps due to family concerns. Or maybe he just doesn’t like the roster/team?
  • Eric Bieniemy (49): Bieniemy’s stock is through the roof after what Kansas City’s offense did in 2018. I do have some concerns about his lack of experience—he’s only been coaching in the NFL since 2013 with just the one season as a coordinator under his belt—but Bieniemy would be an undoubtedly splashy hire. However, like McCarthy, Bieniemy declined the opportunity to interview with the Redbirds. So arguably the two highest-profile offensive-minded coaches have turned the team down. Not a good sign.
  • Big-Name College Coaches: Lincoln Riley (35) is staying at Oklahoma. That’s what Jim Harbaugh (55) is saying about Michigan. David Shaw (46) has never shown any interest in leaving Stanford for an NFL job. Names like Iowa State’s Matt Campbell (39) and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald (44) are rising coaching stars, but moving from a mid-tier college team to the NFL might be a hurdle too high. These guys are various levels of intriguing, but the Cardinals have given no indication that they’re looking at the college ranks in this coaching search.

Candidates to Avoid

Of the more realistic candidates, there are several names being connected to the Cardinals that I don’t think would fit well. Let’s run through those names as well and cross a few more names off the list.

  • Aging Defensive Coaches: There are three names on this list—two former NFL head coaches in Todd Bowles (55) and Chuck Pagano (58) and current Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (60). These candidates are older than we should be looking for and, more importantly, don’t have an offensive background. Fangio in particular concerns me—although he is a very well-regarded veteran defensive coordinator, he’s the oldest of the bunch and has no head coaching experience. Bowles or Pagano could be a nice hire at DC if they don’t land a head job though.
  • Rising Defensive Coaches: Two names come to mind here: Cowboys defensive backs coach (and former Seahawks DC) Kris Richard (39) and Patriots DC Brian Flores (37). I think both are intriguing candidates, but neither have previous head coaching experience and they specialize on the wrong side of the ball. If our offense was in any better shape, I would be a lot higher on these two, but we simply have to focus on the offense right now.
  • Inexperienced Offensive Coaches: This describes three candidates whose names I’ve been hearing: Rams QB coach Zac Taylor (35), former Vikings OC John DeFilippo (40), and Browns OC Freddie Kitchens (44). These guys are all young and have helped orchestrate successful offenses recently. However, I have misgivings about all three of these candidates—none of whom has even 2 years of NFL coordinator experience. Taylor—who will be interviewing for the job—is very, very green and had a spotty record before landing in L.A. DeFilippo flopped big-time in Minnesota this season—and would Cardinals fans really want to hire another OC who has been fired mid-season? And Kitchens was actually on the Cardinals staff for 10 seasons and did very little to distinguish himself in that time. He did a good job in Cleveland after being promoted to OC, but how much of that success was just getting out of Baker Mayfield’s way? I don’t think any of these candidates are right for the job.

Candidates to Pursue

With several names eliminated, that leaves us with seven candidates the Cardinals should pursue to fill their head coaching vacancy. They are listed below in increasing order of preference.

  • Jim Caldwell (63): Caldwell is the oldest and least splashy name on the list, and I suspect many Cardinals fans would bristle at the prospect of hiring him. I mostly agree, but if the Cardinals keep missing out on their top choices, Caldwell could be a decent fallback option. He is 62-50 (.554) as an NFL head coach, and he coached in a Super Bowl with the Colts after the 2009 season. You could say he rode Peyton Manning’s coattails and not be wrong, but he was also 36-28 in a 4-year stint in Detroit, with two playoff appearances. Perhaps pair him with a rising coaching star at OC or DC and groom him to replace Caldwell in a couple years? Not ideal, but better than Wilks, right?
  • Matt LaFleur (39): Like Taylor, DeFilippo, and Kitchens, LaFleur is also quite inexperienced, with just two seasons as a coordinator on his resume. But that resume is more impressive than the other three—he was the QB coach in Atlanta during Matt Ryan’s MVP season and then was the OC for the Rams during their breakout 2017 season. Some of the sheen has worn off LaFleur a bit after an ineffectual season as the Titans OC in 2018, but I would feel confident putting Rosen’s development in his hands.
  • Pete Carmichael (47): Carmichael has been the OC in New Orleans since 2009, helming one of the most consistent and explosive offenses in league history. It’s also an offense that has evolved to fit the team’s personnel (something much needed in Arizona after Wilks), morphing from a high-flying vertical passing offense during Drew Brees’s younger years to a more ground-oriented attack with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Sean Payton’s fingerprints are all over the Saints, sure, but don’t discount Carmichael’s contributions as his right-hand man. Rosen would be in good hands with him as well.
  • Dan Campbell (42): If you’re looking to hire an offensive-minded coach, you could do a whole lot worse than pilfering one from the Saints’ staff. Campbell is the assistant head coach and tight ends coach in New Orleans and, unlike Carmichael, has head coaching experience after serving as the interim head coach for the Dolphins for 12 games in 2015 (going 5-7). Campbell has long been regarded as a potential future head coach, and the time may be right to give him his first real shot at a head job, especially if Bidwill and Keim—who have already requested an interview—want to avoid hiring another coordinator.
  • Kliff Kingsbury (39): You wouldn’t think a college coach who was five games under .500 in the Big 12 (35-40 in six seasons at Texas Tech) would be a hot NFL head coaching candidate, but with more and more NFL teams embracing “college-type” offensive concepts, it actually makes sense. It makes even more sense when you realize Kingsbury had a hand in developing several future NFL quarterbacks—likely NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes II the biggest name among them. Kingsbury’s biggest issues at Texas Tech were on the defensive side of the ball. If you can pair him with a veteran DC (like Bowles or Pagano mentioned above), you might strike gold. It’d be a bold move—the kind the Cardinals haven’t really made in the past—but Kingsbury could potentially be a dynamite hire. Bidwill and Keim are at least curious enough to offer him an interview.
  • Adam Gase (40): Gase has actually already interviewed for the job. He does come with a bit of baggage, as do all fired NFL coaches looking for a second gig, but there’s a lot to like here as well. He’s both young and experienced (three years as the Dolphins’ head coach, including a playoff appearance), and is regarded as having a solid offensive coaching acumen. Although his offenses in Miami frankly weren’t that good, Ryan Tannehill—barely league-average—was his primary QB, and he had to deal with a season of Smokin’ Jay Cutler. He also always seemed to get the most out of a very untalented roster—case in point, the Fins were 7-9 this season despite ranking in the bottom third of the league in offense and defense. I like the idea of a young, experienced offensive coach coming to the desert with something to prove. Gase would be a solid hire.
  • Josh McDaniels (42): But the coaching candidate out there I like the best is the Patriots OC, Josh McDaniels. Like Gase, he checks every box—offensive background, experience (two seasons as the Broncos HC), and youth. But he also has something Gase doesn’t—nor any other coach on this list: 5 Super Bowl rings. McDaniels also has baggage—the whole Colts thing last offseason, getting fired halfway through his second season in Denver—but he has been instrumental in turning the Patriots into an offensive juggernaut. If there was any chance for the Cardinals to hire him, they should jump all over it. Unfortunately, the rumor mill doesn’t seem to give much credence to this potential pairing, and no interview appears to be on the horizon. That’s too bad—if and when McDaniels gets another crack at a head coaching job, he’s going to be very successful.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. The Cardinals should be looking for a young(ish) offensive coach with previous head coaching experience, whether in the pros or at the college level. I personally think Josh McDaniels would be the best hire of any coach who fits those criteria, but he does not appear to be a viable candidate for the job, unfortunately. Thus, the Cardinals should turn their attention toward a trio of candidates they have already been linked to: Adam Gase, Kliff Kingsbury, and Dan Campbell. If not McDaniels, one of those three candidates should be the next head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

Do you agree, Redbirds fans? What do you think of the names on this list? Should the team seriously consider a defensive-minded coach? Or one without head coaching experience? Let us know your thoughts on the coaching search in the comments.