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In the unlikely event: Reviewing head coaching candidates to replace Marvin Lewis

If the Bengals do eventually move on from Marvin Lewis after the 2016 season, these are the guys to look out for as potential head coaching candidates.

Cincinnati Bengals v New York Giants Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With the Bengals’ 2016 season essentially over, we’d be hard-pressed not to talk about the possibility of a coaching change following the conclusion of the season. We discussed the possibility of a coaching change in the State of the Jungle, pointing to the Bengals’ 2016 struggles as a serious cause for concern and claiming that this team needs change.

There are plenty of reasons why the Bengals would elect to retain Marvin Lewis. They could cite 2016 as an anomaly after five straight playoff berths, they could resist while pointing to teams’ relative lack of success in the first few years following a new coaching hire (which is imperative, given the Bengals’ perceived Super Bowl window) or they could cite the cliché that learning and implementing a new system takes time and could further set the team back.

But for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume Lewis will not be the Bengals’ head coach in 2017. I, for one, think he should — and will — get another head coaching chance elsewhere if he leaves Cincinnati and, for that reason, do not believe he would move up to Cincinnati’s front office if he weren’t the coach next season. However, that remains a topic for another day.

So if the Bengals happen to be looking for a head coach, what should they be looking for? The answer might seem simple, but it is a far more complicated process than we as fans likely give it credit for. In the Bengals’ case, the team needs a change in mentality but would benefit from a coach who would implement a similar scheme, especially on defense. Cincinnati’s defensive personnel, linebackers excluded, are strongly suited to the team’s current schematic philosophies, so hiring a coach who would overhaul the defense wouldn’t be as beneficial as hiring one who would make a couple of adjustments here and there to improve. An innovative coach who wouldn’t change the scheme too much is probably what the team would be looking for.

Several other factors play a role in a head coaching hiring processes: previous coaching experience (and whether that experience was in the NFL, college or elsewhere), familiarity with the Bengals’ staff and roster, age and more. Even a coach’s personality could dictate whether he lands the job in Cincinnati, as after all, coaches interview for jobs.

Let’s also not forget that if the Bengals’ coaching vacancy were to become available, it would be one of the most coveted jobs — if not the best job — on the market. Cincinnati still has talent on both sides of the ball, a few valuable trade chips and a litany of picks in the 2017 NFL Draft. More importantly, the core of the Bengals’ young playmakers are signed long-term, which is incredibly beneficial. With that in mind, here are some of the top candidates for a potential Bengals head coaching vacancy.

The young coordinator who could change the Bengals’ culture: Kyle Shanahan

For someone who would like to see the Bengals’ culture change, Kyle Shanahan is the complete package. While he’s most famous for being the son of longtime NFL coach Mike Shanahan, Kyle has created a track record of his own. At age 36, Shanahan is still young, but he’s one of the most innovative minds in football, right up there with former Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Under Shanahan’s tutelage, Matt Ryan has seen a career resurgence, while the Falcons’ offensive line has transformed from one of the NFL’s worst into a quality unit — take the recent $33 million extension for the now overachieving but once undrafted right tackle Ryan Schraeder as example number one. Prior to his stint in Atlanta, Shanahan spent a year in Cleveland, eventually electing to leave after disagreeing with the Browns management’s mandate that then-rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel would be the starter. (For those who believe Lewis is an extension of the Bengals’ ownership and management, Shanahan is the opposite.) Shanahan’s players have raved about him throughout the coach’s career, and he already has eight years of NFL experience as an offensive coordinator under his belt, with massively successful stints in Houston, with Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson setting records; Washington, with Robert Griffin III putting together one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history and Atlanta, with the Falcons’ transformation into one of the NFL’s most dynamic and dominant offenses. Check out this longform on the current Falcons offensive coordinator’s journey and successes.

The defense-oriented coordinators who make sense in Cincinnati: Sean McDermott and Teryl Austin

Like former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and current coordinator Paul Guenther, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has created a defensive scheme predicated on two high safety coverages in Carolina. This alone puts McDermott above many other coaching candidates, as the Bengals’ defensive woes have been more on a lack of schematic execution than a major flaw in the schematic philosophy. And as we’ve seen with McDermott’s massive success in Carolina — despite dealing with the Greg Hardy drama, letting Josh Norman walk in free agency and electing to plug-and-play in the secondary rather than use premium picks on defensive backs, McDermott’s defenses have excelled. Guys like Norman and former castoff safety Kurt Coleman have had career years under McDermott, while guys like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Kawann Short have blossomed into superstars under his tutelage. The Panthers have been a top-10 yardage defense for the past four seasons and could still finish 2016 among the league’s best if the team continues to improve the way it has over the past few weeks. McDermott’s players cite him as a guy who knows how to get the best out of everyone, and the coordinator’s track record displays the same. Check out this article for more on the Panthers defensive coordinator.

Like McDermott has done over the past few years, the LionsTeryl Austin has also created a dominant defense predicated on two high safety coverages. Austin’s success prior to 2016 landed him four head coaching interviews this past offseason, and the coordinator has seen even more success since then. Despite losing Ndamukong Suh in free agency, dealing with a litany of injuries on a seemingly annual basis and coaching for a team that doesn’t seem to attract the NFL’s best talents, Austin has made the most of his circumstances and has consistently gotten the job done. Check out this article for more details about Austin’s successes and desire to become an NFL head coach.

Offensive minds who could turn around the Bengals’ attack: Mike Shula, Harold Goodwin and Anthony Lynn

Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula could make sense in Cincinnati, as his successes with longtime Jaguars quarterback David Garrard and 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton alone deserve recognition. Mike, son of the NFL’s all-time winningest coach Don, has helped Newton progress as a pocket passer throughout his career, which in turn helped Carolina turn what was an abhorrent offense prior to Shula’s arrival into one of the NFL’s best in 2015. Here’s an article outlining Shula’s track record.

Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin could make sense as a head coach in the Queen City. Goodwin has been a fantastic coordinator in his Cardinals tenure, breathing life into a seemingly past-his-prime Carson Palmer and turning Arizona’s once miserable offense into a high-flying attack. Though, something seems off in Arizona this season.

Recently promoted Anthony Lynn, the Bills’ running backs coach to start the 2016 season and now-offensive coordinator, is another trendy candidate with an offense-oriented coaching philosophy. Since Lynn took over as offensive coordinator in Buffalo, the Bills have been the NFL’s best team when it comes to running the football. Lynn’s name will certainly come up in conversations this offseason, as he has previously been interviewed for multiple head coaching gigs. Here’s an article detailing Lynn’s success, specifically early in the 2016 season.

Patriots coordinators who will get interviews around the NFL: Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia

Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia will unquestionably come up in conversations, and for good reason. The Patriots have been one of the NFL’s best teams, if not its best team, throughout the tenures of both of these coordinators. The one problem with both coaches, however, is that the Patriots were good prior to their arrival and the team will continue to excel once both coordinators leave — at least until Tom Brady is no longer an ageless superstar or Bill Belichick miraculously loses his ability to coach. Add that to the fact that Belichick, an all-time great NFL coach, doesn’t have a coaching tree even as good as that of Marvin Lewis. There are individual concerns with both coaches, too.

McDaniels quickly fell out of favor in Denver after failing to back up a 6-0 start (his Broncos won five of their next 22 games, and McDaniels was fired), even getting caught in a videotaping scandal. Not to mention, the coach’s very brief in St. Louis was an utter disaster.

Patricia, like McDaniels, hasn’t seen success outside of New England (at least since 2003), as he’s served on the Patriots staff for the past 13 years. For Bengals fans clamoring about how Ken Zampese was a scary prospect to serve as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator given his tenure and the amount of time it took him to get promoted, what makes Patricia any different? He’s served on Belichick’s staff in all sorts of varieties but was not promoted to defensive coordinator until his ninth season in New England.

Ultimately, both McDaniels and Patricia deserve consideration, but both candidates come with a major cause for concern in that neither coach has been successful outside of New England for quite some time, if at all. For what it’s worth, Belichick recently advocated for both coaches in their pursuits of a head coaching gig.

Other names to keep an eye on

While he’s not the sexiest name on the market — and unlike many other candidates, has been a head coach before and didn’t look incredibly dynamic or creative in his tenure — Jim Schwartz has a track record that makes him a hot head coaching candidate. His tenure in Detroit remains a cause for concern, but Schwartz’s pedigree as one of the NFL’s brightest defensive minds is worth mentioning. The coach turned around defenses in Buffalo and Philadelphia, helping both teams massively overachieve despite obvious limits in personnel. For more on Schwartz, check out this article.

Jim Bob Cooter rose to stardom in Detroit, guiding Matthew Stafford in his development over the past two seasons and elevating the Lions’ offense to a completely new level. And for what it’s worth, he managed to do so despite losing Calvin Johnson. At age 32, Cooter is still young — younger than Shanahan — which means he likely won’t be in head coaching considerations given that this is his second season as an NFL offensive coordinator. But if the Bengals were to hire Austin, perhaps they could lure Cooter to the Queen City. Here’s more on Stafford’s progression under Cooter.

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Ravens defensive backs coach Leslie Frazier could also be in the conversation, as Haley has helped the Steelers’ offense become a perennial powerhouse while Frazier’s guidance in Baltimore has helped the Ravens’ secondary become one of the NFL’s best after several years of chaos after Ed Reed’s departure.

Head coaches in the NFL and NCAA who would be solid candidates if available (but more than likely will not be available)

All of these coaches are currently tenured and would only come available if they are fired, something we don’t imagine will happen. That said, here they are. Bengals fan favorite Hue Jackson has yet to win a game in Cleveland, which — at least in year’s past — would put a coach on the hot seat. He might be safe, but there’s still a chance Jackson could get fired, especially if his Browns were to go 0-16.

Ron Rivera not only saw his Panthers’ hopes for a Super Bowl victory vanquish but also saw his team drastically regress in 2016. He’s probably not on the hot seat, but you never know.

Todd Bowles is a defensive mastermind, but his Jets haven’t been able to establish a playoff-caliber offense.

Mike McCarthy operates in a very similar way to Lewis — something the Bengals’ brass would probably like — and his Packers have massively underachieved this season.

Meanwhile, college coaches like Jim Harbaugh, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are more than comfortable and likely will not try to advance to the NFL ranks after this season. And even if these coaches were to decide to make the transition, the rarity of college coaches being able to immediately start to tack on wins in the NFL could potentially sway teams away from NCAA candidates, even as appealing as these three.

If the Bengals choose to promote from within...

Paul Guenther would probably make the most sense, if the Bengals were to promote from within. That being said, the likelihood of a Guenther promotion is slim. The defensive coordinator has been fairly successful since replacing Mike Zimmer but will always be (unfairly) compared to the now-Vikings coach. Guenther has done a good job, but hasn’t done enough to deserve a promotion.

Linebackers coach Jim Haslett has over six years of NFL head coaching experience, but it has been nearly a decade since his most recent stint (as the interim head coach for the Rams). With an underperforming linebacking corps, it’s hard to imagine Haslett will be promoted any time soon.

While it wouldn’t be a promotion from within, it’s worth mentioning Vance Joseph as a potential head coaching candidate. However, since the Bengals promoted Guenther (and not Joseph) to defensive coordinator after Zimmer’s departure, it seems as though the Bengals would choose Guenther over Joseph again if selecting between the two.

Coaches who will come up in conversation but should not be options

Tom Coughlin seems to have a massive cult following in Cincinnati. However, he will be 71 by August, which is more than five years older than the NFL’s current oldest head coach (Pete Carroll). How a 71-year-old could relate to 23-year-old NFL athletes is beyond me. That’s also not to mention Coughlin has found a new job with the NFL and reportedly loves it, and that his Giants had not been winning with regularity since their second Super Bowl win over the Patriots. Coughlin’s rings will never lose their shine, but his time as an NFL head coach has come and gone.

Mike Smith was once the AP NFL Coach of the Year, but then again, Lewis won the award in the following season. To make matters worse, Smith’s defense in Tampa Bay has been vastly inconsistent at best, which doesn’t bode well for a defensive coordinator who has head coaching aspirations.

Even aside from the fact that Jon Gruden hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2008, he’s not an option. Gruden is more than comfortable making millions, working as a broadcaster for ESPN and he’s under contract through 2021. There’s a decent chance Gruden would do a good job as a head coach, but the chances he decides to return to the coaching grind are slim to none.

I was going to talk about Doug Marrone, but I don’t think I really even need to. He exercised his escape clause in Buffalo and likely would not be an option for the Bengals’ head coaching gig.