2024 NFL head coach cycle: Assessing each open job

By Judy Battista, Senior National Columnist

NFL owners can only dream of what the Houston Texans got last January: a home-run head-coaching hire who has transformed the culture of the franchise, developed a young, talent-filled roster and won the AFC South in Year 1. Of course, the Texans cycled through two straight one-and-done head coaches before they hired DeMeco Ryans, which stands as a cautionary tale for how badly owners can mismanage the most crucial hire they can make.

Early in the 2023 season, it seemed likely we would have an avalanche of openings, certainly many more than the five jobs that were open in last year’s cycle, particularly because this  campaign saw three in-season firings, a relative rarity. But some teams that were thought to have coaches sitting on hot seats righted themselves, and their respective head men are staying put as a result.

As ever, the same handful of candidates are likely to get long looks for many of these jobs. (Hello, Ben Johnson, offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions.) And the hiring cycle may feel more extended than in the past, because the league has put into place restrictions on when teams can start interviewing outside candidates, in the hope that slowing down the hiring process will prompt owners to consider a wider array of candidates with whom they are less familiar, especially coaches of color. Hiring of minority coaches, in particular, remains a primary focus of NFL executives, including Commissioner Roger Goodell — and, in the last few years, a source of disappointment and frustration.

Here are the jobs that are open. There are only 32 of these roles on Earth, so they are all attractive for those who want to be an NFL head coach. But some will be more sought-after than others. Here’s an assessment of each of the openings, presented in alphabetical order:

Atlanta Falcons, 2023 record: 7-10

The 2023 Falcons lost four of their last five games, with the final two defeats coming in blowout fashion. This late-season collapse ultimately cost Arthur Smith his job. But really, it was Smith’s failure to stop the signal-caller carousel and find a suitable quarterback, as well as an inability to maximize all of the highly drafted offensive playmakers, that doomed the well-liked and respected coach. Smith went 7-10 in all three years of his tenure, never finishing higher than third in a largely underwhelming NFC South. Figuring out the QB position obviously will be priority No. 1 for the next coach. Arthur Blank is one of the most respected owners in the NFL and he wants to win now. He has most recently had a string of inexperienced coaches — might he opt for a head man with more skins on the wall this time around? The presence of young talent and Blank himself make this as an attractive opportunity.

Carolina Panthers, 2023 record: 2-15

David Tepper bought the team in the summer of 2018 and has employed six head coaches so far, including interims. The most recent full-time HC casualty was Frank Reich, who was fired after just 11 games at the helm. Does that flash a gigantic warning sign over this job? Maybe, but probably not enough to completely deter candidates. Tepper’s handling of his coach is not the only factor potential aspirants will have to consider. The roster has to be restocked following a series of baffling personnel decisions, including not trading edge rusher Brian Burns (who is now headed for free agency after there was reportedly a lucrative offer on the table in 2022), as well as trading away offensive cornerstones Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore, with the latter move coming in the deal that ultimately led to the Panthers drafting QB Bryce Young with last year’s No. 1 overall pick. In related news, the Panthers fired GM Scott Fitterer after three years on the job. Tepper is cleaning house, but the ability to shape the structure of the franchise could be alluring to some candidates. Carolina has no first-round draft pick in 2024, as it was sacrificed to get into position to select Young. The quarterback struggled as a rookie, and there are big-picture concerns about how his smaller frame will hold up in the NFL. Expect Tepper to explore offensive-minded coaches who can develop Young. And finally, whoever gets this job has to be aware that Tepper is likely to be hands-on. The owner has practically limitless resources, and he wants to win — that can be a good thing, in terms of coaching salaries and team facilities. But the Panthers’ next head coach also should recognize that Tepper is experiencing the same struggle so many other new team owners do: Staggering success in one’s other line of work does not necessarily guarantee a smooth transition to successful ownership of an NFL franchise.

Las Vegas Raiders, 2023 record: 8-9

Mark Davis has a penchant for big-name coaches (SEE: Jon Gruden, Josh McDaniels), but if he regrets not retaining Rich Bisaccia after the well-liked and respected interim led the Raiders to a playoff berth in the wake of Gruden’s sudden resignation in 2021, that might influence Davis’ decision about retaining current interims Antonio Pierce and Champ Kelly as head coach and general manager, respectively. After taking over for the fired McDaniels at the beginnng of November, Pierce rallied the Raiders and brought some positive energy to the building — and he kept the team in the playoff race until Week 17, posting a 5-4 mark in his nine games at the helm. Star players like Maxx Crosby and Davante Adams have lobbied for Pierce and Kelly to be retained. If Pierce becomes the full-time head coach, a premium will be placed on hiring a top-notch offensive coordinator. But looming out there is the big question: Is Jim Harbaugh coming back to the NFL? He is a former Raiders assistant who had a good relationship with Mark’s father, Al Davis. Harbaugh’s success as a coach — at Stanford, at Michigan and getting ever so close to a championship with the San Francisco 49ers — could make him a leading candidate for multiple jobs. But he would be especially well-suited to make the big decisions that need to be made about the Raiders’ offense: what to do about the starting quarterback, and what to do about the futures of Adams and Hunter Renfrow (well-paid veterans) and Josh Jacobs (headed for free agency).

Los Angeles Chargers, 2023 record: 5-12

If the most attractive NFL jobs are the ones that come with a franchise quarterback, then the Chargers should have their pick of the best candidates. No other current opening offers a signal-caller like Justin Herbert, which is why the biggest names available will likely be linked to this job. That said, it will be interesting to see if the Spanos family is willing to pay top dollar for a sought-after coach. For what it’s worth, team president John Spanos said will be “no limitations” on the hiring search. The Chargers are also hiring a new general manager, which could be a package deal with the new coach, giving the coach significant influence over the direction of the team. There is considerable talent on the roster, but also some big decisions ahead for the new regime: Austin Ekeler will be a free agent, and names like Keenan AllenJoey Bosa and Khalil Mack are all set to carry high cap figures in the 2024 season. The drawback to this job: Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes reside in the AFC West, too, and despite their relative struggles in 2023, they just won their eighth straight division title.

Washington Commanders, 2023 record: 4-13

This job has been open on a fairly regular basis over the past quarter-century, but it hasn’t been this attractive in a very long time. This is new owner Josh Harris’ first opportunity to reset the franchise he took over just before training camps opened in 2023, and one looming question is just how far he will go in cleaning house. Will he focus on the football side first, or will the business side of the franchise also undergo an overhaul? Harris has a track record for success with the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils that suggests the Commanders, once one of the NFL’s gold-standard teams, are finally poised for victories and respectability again. Adding to the allure: Washington has the second overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, giving the new regime the opportunity to select a franchise quarterback. This is one of the most intriguing jobs in the NFL because we’ll learn a lot about Harris and his vision for the team. Harris has already indicated he is willing to go outside the box, as he hired former NBA Executive of the Year Bob Myers. Myers knows how to build winning organizations — look at the Golden State Warriors — but his sudden entry into the NFL is a stunner. Also interesting: GM Martin Mayhew and personnel executive Marty Hurney are staying on for now.

The National Football League (NFL) is a professional American football league consisting of 32 teams, divided equally between the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). The NFL is one of the four major