Best NFL head coaching job is battle between Lions and Raiders

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

A year ago at this time, if the Indianapolis Colts job had opened up, the question would have been easy to answer. Best NFL head coaching opportunity? Across the board, it would have been the Colts in a cake walk, simply for the sake of hitching the wagon to a franchise quarterback in the midst of his prime. Those opportunities don’t present themselves often.

And yet, here we are in 2018, with multiple franchise quarterbacks awaiting new head coaches in the coming weeks. The NFL’s rare pasture of offseason opportunity has suddenly opened up like an Oklahoma land rush. For possibly the first and last time in league history, the three richest franchise quarterbacks under contract – the Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford, Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr and Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck – are all without head coaches. Alongside them? The New York Giants’ Eli Manning, a fading cornerstone who nonetheless still owns two Super Bowl rings, and Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft by the Chicago Bears.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is the top selling point for the head coaching job in Detroit. (AP)

Love them or loathe them, that’s a lot of quarterback assets in play for NFL head coaching candidates. And it makes for an extremely appealing job market this offseason, one of the most robust in history. Or at the very least, far better than last season’s crop of jobs, which promised starting quarterbacks who were either unproven, mediocre or in the winter of their careers.

With that in mind, a swath of 14 NFL insiders – comprised of personnel evaluators and influential agents – were asked to name the best NFL opening this offseason based on their personal criteria. Not surprisingly, it became largely about the quarterbacks.

How they voted:

1. Detroit Lions (6 votes)

The upside: The Lions have two things that are coveted cornerstones in a head coach opening – a franchise quarterback in his prime and an ownership with a long history of being hands-off when it comes to football decisions. The talent level is more of a debate depending on who you talk to. Everyone has their brand of scheme and player preference. At the very least, there is universal agreement that the Lions have a team built to compete for the postseason that can get appreciably better with some tweaks.

Beyond Stafford, it’s a big plus that there is a legitimate left tackle, No. 1 cornerback and pass rushing defensive end (if Ziggy Ansah is retained) in place. With those building blocks in mind, a step forward is more of a course correction than a complete change in direction. And while the salary cap is far less of a concern for NFL teams than in past seasons, Detroit is in fairly good shape. Ownership is open to spending money and the next coach can expect targeted additions in free agency if necessary.

The concerns: There is still debate about general manager Bob Quinn. Some people like him a great deal and believe he’s going to plant his flag with this next head coach. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach, pointing out that the hire ahead will be Quinn’s first truly defining moment, more so than the landmark contract for Stafford or even astutely not making a long-term commitment to Jim Caldwell last offseason.

Critics also point out that personnel moves are a massive part of the general manager grade, and Quinn doesn’t have a long enough track record in that department to determine his ability to consistently judge talent and react to roster deficiencies. It’s clear that some people in the league are still trying to figure out Quinn’s tendencies as a personnel man. And this hire should be a revealing moment in that effort.

The other big concern in play is offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Consistency of scheme is important for a quarterback and Stafford has found an established groove with Cooter. He has publicly lobbied to have Cooter remain with the team. At the very least, the next coach has to have the option of keeping Cooter in the fold.

In any other year, this job would be far and away the best one on the board largely because of Stafford. But the Lions will be challenged by the fact that there are two other openings with presumed franchise quarterbacks on board.

The duo of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (L) and wide receiver Amari Cooper struggled this season. (AP)

2. Oakland Raiders (5 votes)

The upside: Like Stafford in Detroit, Carr is the draw in Oakland. The Raiders also have a top-five defensive player in pass rusher Khalil Mack. Despite an injury-riddled season, Amari Cooper is another attractive piece. And generally, the state of the art facilities in Las Vegas – once the team gets there – is considered a nice cherry on top.

The proponents of the Raiders suggest all the pieces are there offensively and that this season was the result of a bad mish-mash of coaching and scheme mistakes. The salary cap is functional and the core talent is young. And it’s still considered a Super Bowl roster on offense. General manager Reggie McKenzie is also well-liked and considered a guy who works alongside his coaching staff rather than above them.

Those who believe Oakland is the top job this offseason are the people who really liked the Raiders coming into the season. And they blame head coach Jack Del Rio and offensive coordinator Todd Downing for running the ship aground. One hilariously consistent applause? Agents love the Raiders and are eating up the Las Vegas move simply from a tax implication and free-agent recruiting standpoint.

The concerns: As much as Carr is the draw, there is some faint concern about his step back this season and some of the injuries. Not deep concern, mind you. But Carr is getting a lot of money on a legitimate contract and didn’t look completely right after a back injury this season. Carr has several years of productivity to back him up, but the slight pause is there.

You can add Cooper into that equation as well. More from a confidence standpoint when it comes to dealing with injuries.

Ultimately, the takeaway is getting the coaching and the defense on track. Oh, and one more thing: despite the positives of the relocation to Nevada, the personnel crowd isn’t big on the process and distraction of it. Not to mention the fan base implications that will deepen as the move gets closer. It’s not a deal breaker, but for a coach who would come in with ownership pressure to get back on track in Year 1, it’s another layer of extra stuff that is less than ideal.

In the minds of a few of those who voted for Detroit over Oakland, the lack of that extra off-field responsibility was a slight factor.

The Colts’ Chris Ballard (L) has a solid reputation as a general manager dealing with coaches. Team owner Jim Irsay presents challenges. (AP)

3. Indianapolis Colts (3 votes)

The upside: The three who voted for this job all pointed at Andrew Luck. But they also used the word “if” in that equation. As in, “if Luck is healthy” or “if Luck can play”. But given the opportunity to vote for another opening, they chose the Colts anyway.

Two of the three – both in the personnel arena – are big believers in general manager Chris Ballard. Like the Quinn supporters when it came to the Detroit job, they think Ballard is going to stock this roster and should work well with his chosen head coach. Having the third overall pick on top of Luck potentially returning is also a bonus, although that draft position wasn’t solely based on Luck being out this season. The roster needs a solid amount of work and there is an argument for some level of addition at every position outside of quarterback.

There’s also a ton of money to work with in free agency (nearly $84 million) and to extend existing talent. So, in a way, the upside is all potential. Luck being healthy potentially returns a top-five quarterback to the roster, and cash and draft position give an opportunity to stack some talent on a roster that needs it.

The concerns: Several of the people who voted for Detroit or Oakland said they would have cast in favor of Indianapolis if they knew Luck was going to be 100 percent healthy. His talent is too special to not vault the Colts to the top of the pack. But there is a significant level of concern over whether Luck will play again – and even if he does, whether he’ll have a chronic shoulder problem or simply not be the same.

Just from conversations, the feeling is that Indianapolis is viewed as boom or bust based on Luck’s medical evaluation. If he’s good to go, this is the top job in spite of a litany of roster concerns. If he’s not going to be the same, this is the worst job available because it looks like a total reclamation project.

One other wrinkle that was brought up by critics: Owner Jim Irsay, despite showcasing patience with Chuck Pagano over the past two years, is not considered a net positive by some. Irsay also chirps a lot in the media about the state of the team, which is something you don’t hear in a place like Detroit. And his frustration over the already “lost” seasons of Luck’s career also create an opportunity for more drama or pressure going forward. It’s a lot to deal with considering other good jobs open.

 

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