There is one set of games left to play in the regular season. It’s a few days away from one of the most public pink slip distributions in the country, and there is rampant speculation about how the pending coaching vacancies in the NFL stack up. Traditionally, there are a certain number of factors that are used to rank these positions, and while they vary among writers and analysts, a few keep popping up as important.
What is the cap flexibility of the team? What kind of draft capital does the team have? Are their young stars to build around? Perhaps most important, what do things look like with the quarterback situation? However, beyond those factors there are other issues that need to be addressed.
Before continuing, there are two necessary disclaimers. The first is that the people who are about to be fired are, by and large, guilty of nothing more than not being quite as good at their jobs as other people. Yes, some people who have already been let go had issues that merited firing due to their personal decisions. Mostly, though, this is just a hard job without a lot of tolerance for mistakes.
Second, this is the time of year when fanbases tend to overvalue the history and tradition and mystique of their own team. Almost every fanbase thinks “this team is more attractive than others because of our tradition.” Those people are right, but all of them are right. Every team is special, just like a beautiful, beautiful snowflake dancing in the apricity of a January morning.
The Numbers Game
For now, the glorious traditions likely up for competition belong to the Las Vegas Raiders, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Chicago Bears, and (on speculation) the Minnesota Vikings, the Denver Broncos, and the Seattle Seahawks. Obviously, this list might be wrong for a number of reasons.
Cap Room: There are a lot of ways to rank cap room, and while various means can be used to create more room, those means are available to most teams, so on some level there is a difference in how much flexibility each team has in the cap. Simply reporting how much total cap space a team has without context is a poor measure. After all, if I have more money in my checkbook than you do, but I still haven’t paid my mortgage and my car payment while you have, then we aren’t comparing apples to apples. For all rosters, I used Spotrac’s 2022 data on players signed and removed the players with void years, as they are not truly signed to a roster spot.
With 37 players signed and only 62.5% of the cap room taken, the Jaguars have roughly $5 million to spend per roster position that needs to be filled. That puts them in the lead. The Broncos trail with $3.7million, and the Seahawks have nearly $3million. The Raiders almost have $2million per spot, and the Bears are at less than half of the Broncos’ rate, with just under $1.8 per roster spot. The Vikings are short almost $12million in cap space but still need to find a way to fill 5 more roster spots, so they are in
cap hell. Sorry, Cap Niflheim.
Draft Power: The Jacksonville Jaguars have the #1 pick in the draft and have not compromised any of their top picks–they actually have an extra third-rounder. The Denver Broncos are picking 11th overall, and they own all of their own top picks and they have the Rams’ 2nd- and 3rd-rounders. The Vikings pick one spot later and at least own all of their own picks. The Raiders are in fourth, waiting until the 18th spot but having a full slate of picks. Bringing up the rear are Seattle and Chicago, drafting #7 and #8 but both missing their top pick.
Young Stars: The Raiders take the lead here, with three Pro Bowlers who are under 30 and under contract (Crosby, Perryman, and Cole). The Vikings are close behind with two such players (Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson). The fan in me is going to slate the Bears in third for the “Roquan was Robbed” crowd, and then all of the other teams disappear into the wash without a single Pro Bowler under thirty who is also under contract.
Quarterback Situation: This is trickier, because rating quarterbacks is much more subjective. The best two situations for a new coach are probably Minnesota and Las Vegas. Despite his flaws, Kirk Cousins has the fifth-highest passer rating at the moment and (more importantly) he’s a free agent after next year. That gives a year to bridge to something better and the flexibility to move on easily. Derek Carr offers the same flexibility, but his passer rating is only 14th. The next best situations would likely belong to the teams with promising rookies. Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields are both signed for three (or four) more years, and both have good arguments to make that they have not had the chance to show their full potential. Both current statistics and pre-draft profiles put Lawrence ahead of Fields, so that’s how I am keeping things. Drew Lock is not lighting the world on fire, but his contract is up in a year, so he’s not a huge problem. The worst position is actually Seattle, because Russell Wilson is locked in for another two years, and while he can be a great player, he is a headache waiting to happen for any head coach.
Subtotals: So, this simple evaluation would make the Jaguars the most attractive job, with an average rank of 2.25, ahead of the Raiders (2.75) and the Vikings (3rd). The Broncos (3.25) are a pretty middle-of-the-road landing spot.
The least attractive jobs are in Chicago (4.5) and Seattle (4.5). They don’t have the cap flexibility, the draft power, or the young new developing stars. They don’t have flexibility at the quarterback position or the room to make changes.
However, none of that probably matters.
Humans are not rational
Imagine for the moment that you are one of the best in your field–one of the top 50 or 60 individuals in the entire country at doing what you do. Now make your field competitive in a way that means you get constant objective feedback on your successes and failures. By definition, you have spent your career overcoming challenges that others have failed at. Not having a first-round draft pick is a problem, but so is having your best wide receiver tear an MCL in a game–and that has happened to almost every one of these coaches at some point, or something close enough. Coaches have to be problem-solvers, and the ones who are going to make good coaches at a high level are going to be accustomed to finding solutions, not cataloging issues.
Likewise, intellectually processing the difference between having $3million to spend per year per roster opening and having $2million to spend is not going to enter into primary decision-making. After the fact? After you’ve talked yourself into taking the job you want? Yes, that fact will be used to rationalize the decision to others. However, with very rare exception, human beings aren’t actually capable of maintaining a mental concept of numbers as large as an NFL salary cap, and even the people who have trained themselves to think in these ways are still used to using cognitive grouping techniques.
However, on an emotional level, career decisions for professionals are often made at the level of interpersonal comfort. The top three reasons why trained professionals tend to take new jobs are pretty consistent. Professionals want to make more money. Professionals want to work in a place where they feel respected or like their coworkers. Finally, professionals want more control or influence compared to what they had at their previous job. Nobody knows exactly which team is going to offer to pay the most, and all of them are likely to offer raises over coordinator positions or not actively coaching, so money is not necessarily a factor we can evaluate. Being a head coach involves a lot of control, and it includes an increase for any coordinator. In fact, the factor that is the most variable from team to team is probably its workplace culture. Does the head coach feel like he wants to work with the other people in the room? If so, the candidate will problem-solve almost any other obstacle.
I cannot speak to the “charm” level of any of these front offices, but Trent Baalke has been forced out of jobs before because of his abrasiveness so there might be something to rumors that he will hurt a coaching search. There is no objective metric for affability.
However, the fact of the matter is that if Ryan Pace is somehow retained and Rick Spielman is fired, that means that the man from Flower Mound will have become the 10th-longest tenured GM in the NFL who does not also own the team, and he will have done it without ever winning a playoff game and only a single winning season to his credit since he was hired on January 8th, 2015. If that doesn’t speak to the fact that he is likeable on some level, then I don’t know what does. If there is one skill that Pace seems to have, it is workplace culture.
Game on, Chicago?