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A lot of Cardinals fans out there want Sean Payton to be our next coach.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Wishlist for the 2023 Arizona Cardinals head coach… Is Sean Payton at the top?

It’s finally time for the Cardinals to find a new head coach. Who should be at the top of the wish list?

We had to wait until a little after Christmas, but Cardinals fans finally got their wish when the organization parted ways with GM Steve Keim and HC Kliff Kingsbury. This franchise desperately needed a fresh start in the front office and on the sidelines, and this offseason will hopefully lay the foundation for the next great Arizona Cardinals team.

But now that the big items have been crossed off our wishlists, it’s time to create a new wishlist. Specifically, a wishlist for our new head coach. But before we get to names, we need to figure out what kind of coach we should be looking for. Traits, characteristics, tendencies, etc.

To figure that out, let’s start with the coach we just fired: Kliff Kingsbury. When we hired him, we were looking for a young, offensive-minded head coach—someone who could grow with and develop our franchise QB. (Josh Rosen at the time… how things have changed!) Kingsbury didn’t have any NFL coaching experience, but at the time that wasn’t viewed as a major issue.

Should we be looking for the same kind of candidate now? Yes and no. Here are the traits I think we should prioritize in this coaching search.

Traits to Look for in the Next Cardinals Coach

Offensive Background

This team needs help on both sides of the ball, but the modern NFL is built around the passing game. You can get by with a mediocre defense, but you’re dead in the water if you don’t have an offense that can put points on the board. Case in point: 9 out of the top 10 scoring offenses made the playoffs, with the one exception being the 9-8 Lions who only missed because of a tiebreaker. And of the 14 playoff teams this year, 13 of them were in the top 19 in scoring, with the exception there being the Buccaneers down at 25, who only made it because they won a crappy division. Looking at defense, there were four teams in the top 10 in scoring defense (Jets at 4, Commanders at 8, Saints at 9, and Patriots at 10) who didn’t make the playoffs, while three teams ranked in the bottom 10 (Dolphins at 24, Seahawks at 25, and Vikings at 29) all made the postseason. Admittedly, this is a pretty simplistic way to look at things, but suffice to say you need a really good offense to compete in today’s NFL. Defense, not so much. I know Michael Bidwill has said he’s not looking specifically at offensive or defensive coaches only, but I really think we need to find an *actual* offensive guru to turn this team around.

Significant NFL Experience

While I think our next coach should be offensive-minded like Kingsbury, I think the similarities should end there. Kingsbury’s previous coaching experience all came at the college level, and he never seemed to be able to figure out the rigors and rhythms of an NFL season. He was oft lackadaisical about preseason/practice, and he had trouble making mid-game and -season adjustments, which was a huge contributing factor in the well-documented second-half collapses of the past few seasons. Our next coach needs to be someone who’s been there, done that, who knows how to successfully navigate an NFL season. That means no college coaches or hotshot assistants with comparatively little NFL experience.

Winning Pedigree

This goes hand-in-hand with the above, but our next coach needs to have a track record of success, i.e., winning. Kingsbury had a losing record at Texas Tech, and that predictably followed him to the desert. This time around, Michael Bidwill needs to bring in a proven winner, someone who can drag this team out of the depths of mediocrity. This doesn’t necessarily mean a proven NFL head coach like the guy in the title of this article. That’d be great, but we should also be looking at experienced assistants from winning programs. It could be someone like Bruce Arians, who we hired a decade ago after he won two Super Bowls as an assistant in Pittsburgh before winning Coach of the Year as the interim coach in Indianapolis. All BA did was win, and that continued in the desert as arguably the most successful coach in Cardinals history.

Candidate Tiers

I know, I know—this wishlist is pretty demanding so far. Just about every team would love for their new head coach to be an offensive-minded NFL coaching veteran with a winning background. So which candidates out there fit the bill? I took a look at all the names out there linked to the current NFL coaching vacancies and split them into four tiers based on how well they fit the criteria above. Let’s start with a familiar name in the very bottom tier.

Tier 4: Vance Joseph

If you didn’t already know, current Cardinals DC Vance Joseph will be interviewing for the head job next week. While he does have significant NFL experience—nearly two decades in the league and a previous HC stint in Denver—he’s a defensive coach with no track record of winning. He was just 11-21 in his two seasons in Denver, and he just presided over the #31 scoring defense in the league last season. (Yes, yes, there were injury and personnel issues to deal with, I know.) Joseph is well respected around the league and he absolutely deserves another shot as a head coach somewhere... just not here. This organization needs wholesale changes across the board, and promoting a familiar, unpopular coach like Joseph is the last thing Bidwill should be doing. Let’s all just hope that Joseph’s candidacy ends at the interview stage.

Tier 3: The Young Hotshots

  • Ken Dorsey
  • Ejiro Evero
  • Jonathan Gannon
  • Ben Johnson
  • Jerrod Mayo
  • Kellen Moore
  • DeMeco Ryans
  • Shane Steichen

This is the same kind of well we dipped into when we hired Kingsbury, but I don’t think we should be going back to this well right now. The guys here are all very well regarded, and likely more than one of them will land a head coaching job in this year’s cycle. But they only check one—or even none, in the case of some of the defensive guys—of the boxes I discussed above. Dorsey, Johnson, Moore, and Steichen are all offensive whizzes, but they’re far too green. Some of them do come from winning backgrounds, but how much is due to them versus the guys they are working under? That’s always the risk with assistants. And Evero, Gannon, Mayo, and Ryans are defensive guys when we need to be looking at offense. I wish these guys the best of luck, but I don’t think the Cardinals should seriously consider any of them. (For the record, Ryans is my favorite of the bunch.)

Tier 2: Close, But No Cigar

  • Brian Flores
  • Leslie Frazier
  • Raheem Morris
  • Dan Quinn
  • David Shaw

These guys all are strong candidates but only check two out of the three boxes. Flores comes from the Belichick coaching tree, so he knows winning, and had a fairly successful 3-year tenure as the Dolphins head coach. The end of his tenure there is mired in controversy to this day. But he’s also a defensive guy. Longtime coaching veteran Leslie Frazier had an up-and-down 3+ year stint as the Vikings head coach, but he’s been a key part of the willing Bills program for 5 years now. But he’s a defensive coach as well. Morris is a veteran defensive coach who won a Super Bowl ring as the Rams DC last year. He’s a solid candidate, but he doesn’t wow you. Quinn is another defensive guy who’s been a key component of the Cowboys’ recent (regular season) success. He might be my favorite out of this tier (followed by Flores). Shaw is the only offensive-minded coach here, and he was incredibly successful at Stanford for over a decade. But he hasn’t coached in the NFL in nearly two decades, and never above the assistant level. I like all these guys and think they’re all worthy candidates, but I have four names at the top of my wish list.

Tier 1: The Best Fits

Each of the four guys in this final tier fit all three criteria discussed above. They are veteran, offensive-minded coaches with a history of success at the NFL level. Let’s count them down, starting with a guy who might be a somewhat surprising name given his recent history but is still a top-flight candidate.

4. Frank Reich

“Fired midseason and replaced by a failed high school coach” isn’t exactly the ideal first line on a coaching resume, but make no mistake: Frank Reich is a very good football coach, and one the Cardinals should take a long look at. He checks all three boxes: the former QB won a Super Bowl as the Eagles OC and was 40-33-1 in 3+ season as the Colts’ head man. That includes 10- and 11- wins seasons, as well as a playoff win back in 2020. Of course, that all unraveled this season and he was fired after a 3-5-1 start, but no one was succeeding in that job this season, not with a dire QB situation and Jim Irsay more or less calling the shots from the owner’s box. He got railroaded, no two ways about it. Wherever he goes, I think he’ll land on his feet and lead his team to success. I’d be very happy if that team was the Cardinals.

3. Eric Bieniemy

If Reich was screwed out of his last head coaching job, Bieniemy has been screwed out of even getting one for several years now. He’s been the OC for the best offense in the league since 2018 yet hasn’t emerged as a serious candidate for many—if any—coaching vacancies during that time. His candidacy is always made more complicated by the fact that the Chiefs consistently advance far in the playoffs, delaying his availability for interviews, but the man is more than qualified for a top job at this point. He fits all of our criteria as well—although he has no head coaching experience, he has 15+ years of NFL coaching experience, a Super Bowl ring, and has been a key cog (along with Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, obviously) in one of the best offenses the league has ever seen. I would just LOVE to see what he could do with a healthy Kyler Murray. However long it takes, Bidwill absolutely has to at least interview Bieniemy.

2. Sean Payton

That’s right—Sean Payton isn’t at the top of my list, merely #2. His credentials are well documented: 152-89 (.631) in 15 seasons with the Saints, 7 division titles, 1 Super Bowl ring. He easily meets all our criteria. He also supposedly wants personnel control, which is just fine by me—whatever the man wants, we should give him. He’d be the highest-profile coach we’ve ever hired and would bring instant credibility to a franchise whose reputation, never the highest to begin with, has been tarnished in recent years. But it’s not about what Payton wants that worries me—it’s what the Saints want. Payton is still under contract there, and the Saints are rumored to want a 1st-round pick as compensation for letting him coach elsewhere. Is Payton worth giving up this year’s #3 overall pick? To some—many? most?—of you out there, the answer might be yes. But I think that price is a bit too rich for my blood. This team need a coach, yes, but it also needs players. Good players. And you’re hoping for a great player at #3. I don’t know if I give that pick up for a coach when there are several other strong candidates out there. Plus, and I’m just throwing this out there, Payton coached all but one of his seasons with Drew Brees at QB. If you’re paying him what you’re gonna need to pay him *and* giving up the #3 overall pick for him, don’t you have to be just a little bit scared that the Saints sustained success was more due to Brees than Payton? Don’t you?

1. Jim Harbaugh

That said, I think Sean Payton is the clear best realistic candidate for the Cardinals out there. But this is a wishlist, and we’re allowed to dream big when making wishes, right? If so, then Jim Harbaugh would be my #1 dream candidate. He ticks all the boxes, of course, but he just has that mystique about him, that “It” factor that separates the very good coaches from the great ones. He’s won absolutely everywhere he’s ever been—the man has a .710 winning percentage across all his stops, from San Diego to Stanford to San Francisco to Michigan—and under all kinds of circumstances. Of course, the big “knock” on him is that he hasn’t won “the big one,” be it a national championship or a Super Bowl like Payton. But he’s been on the doorstep several times, and it’s likely only a matter of time before he checks that item off on his resume. Maybe with the Cardinals? He’s given no indication he wants to leave Michigan anytime soon, but there’s always smoke blowing out of there. So why Harbaugh over Payton? Two things. One is that we wouldn’t have to give up a 1st-round pick to get him. The second is that hiring Harbaugh would make 49ers fans SO MAD. And that’s almost as important as winning to Cardinals fans, right?

Final Thoughts

So those are my top four candidates. All offensive-minded guys with tons of NFL experience and a winning pedigree. That’s what I think we should look for in the next coach of the Arizona Cardinals. How about you, RotBers? Vote in the poll below and sound off in the comments.

Poll

What kind of coach should the Cardinals be looking for?

This poll is closed

  • 46%
    Veteran offensive coach (like Sean Payton)
    (92 votes)
  • 2%
    Veteran defensive coach (like Dan Quinn)
    (4 votes)
  • 12%
    Promising young coach (like DeMeco Ryans or Shane Steichen)
    (25 votes)
  • 16%
    Don’t care as long as they are the best man for the job
    (32 votes)
  • 21%
    Don’t care as long as it’s not Vance Joseph
    (43 votes)
196 votes total Vote Now
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