The Most (and Least) Exciting Head Coaching Candidates For the Vikings

Photo Credit: Jonathan Dyer (USA TODAY Sports)

It might be time to reconsider tipping the cap to head coach Mike Zimmer for his tenure in Minnesota before Week 18’s finale. On Sunday afternoon the now-former Minnesota Vikings head coach’s put his legacy in serious question on his way out the door. With Justin Jefferson — the face of the franchise — just 16 yards away from tying Randy Moss‘s single-season franchise record for receiving yardage, Minnesota got the ball back at the Chicago Bears’ 31-yard line with 1:08 remaining. The most devoted Skoliders who made the pilgrimage to US Bank Stadium for a glorified exhibition game were begging for something to celebrate for their favorite player in an otherwise lost season.

With an opportunity to put the exclamation point on his legacy as the Vikings’ head coach, Zimmer provided the perfect microcosm of his tenure in Minnesota. With fans pleading for the Vikings to throw the ball to Jefferson, Zimmer and offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak instead elected to perform Zimmer’s favorite song during the encore of his farewell tour: run the ball.

After spending the week telling the media about how much he cares about his players, Zimmer’s actions as head coach spoke louder than his words in the final seconds of his last game. The record clearly meant a lot to Jefferson and Zimmer simply wasn’t having it.

Allow me to speak for all the Vikings fans who showered US Bank Stadium with boos as the clock approached triple-zeroes when I say, good riddance, Mike Zimmer.

Now that Zimmer’s been shown the door once and for all, let’s take a look at the most (and least) exciting coaching candidates that the Wilfs could hire. Each candidate provided will include an Excitement Level rating of 1-10.

Any Coach With a Defensive Background – 0/10

While current defensive coordinators Todd Bowles, Dennis Allen, and Steve Spagnuolo are all more than qualified for head coaching positions, the Wilfs are in no position whatsoever to bring in a defensive head coach for the third consecutive hire. If this nightmare scenario becomes a reality, Jefferson is as good as gone in Minnesota.

Nathaniel Hackett

Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator – 1/10

Hackett has been Green Bay’s OC for the duration of Matt LaFleur’s tenure with the Packers. Green Bay’s offense sets up the pass with an effective running game, stemming from LaFleur’s extensive background in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Hackett has played a role in a top-10 scoring offense for back-to-back seasons. While it’s difficult to screw up an offense that includes an all-time great quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, it’s important to give credit for what this scheme has meant to the MVP.

In theory, Hackett’s appeal would be his ability to bring Green Bay’s version of Shanahan’s offense to Minnesota. But being that Hackett never worked under Shanahan, and his exposure to the scheme has been entirely through LaFleur, you’d like to see more history in the scheme before allowing Hackett to implement the offense as a head coach. Also, Hackett doesn’t call plays for the Packers — that responsibility falls on LaFleur and Rodgers.

Despite Rodgers’ ringing endorsement for Hackett, Vikings fans should be less than enthused if the Wilfs decide that Hackett is the guy. Unless, of course, Rodgers finds a way to follow Hackett across the border to Minnesota.

Todd Downing

Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator – 2/10

After leading the Titans to the No. 1 seed in the AFC, Downing has done an outstanding job of weathering the storm of injury adversity for Tennessee’s offense this season. Derrick Henry (nine games), Taylor Lewan (two games), A.J. Brown (four games), and Julio Jones (six games) have combined to miss 21 games this season. Even though the Titans have been without their offense’s primary engine for a majority of the season, Tennessee still has the NFL’s third-best rushing offense.

Aside from their dominant running game, Downing has done an excellent job of manufacturing touches for the dynamic Brown in critical moments — especially Week 16’s Thursday night matchup against San Francisco.

Considering Minnesota’s shortcomings on third down this season, a play-caller who knows how to consistently get Justin Jefferson and/or Adam Thielen the ball on crucial downs is very intriguing.

I wrote about Downing in March of 2021 as someone to keep an eye on for potential head coaching positions, and the Eden Prairie native and Golden Gopher alumnus has put himself in position to be considered for top jobs. While Downing returning to Minnesota to be the Vikings head coach would be a cute story for the nauseatingly ever-present One of Us crowd, it wouldn’t necessarily provide the splash that Skoldiers are hoping for.

Brian Daboll

Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator – 3/10

Once the Minnesota Vikings traded disgruntled receiver Stefon Diggs to Buffalo following the 2019 season, Buffalo’s and Daboll’s offense immediately skyrocketed. Before Diggs’ arrival, Daboll’s career as an OC in Cleveland, Miami, Kansas City, and Buffalo consisted of offenses that were regularly near the bottom of the league in every statistical measure.

However, as the NFL continues to gravitate to more college-friendly Air Raid schemes, Daboll has successfully followed suit with the Bills. With Josh Allen, Diggs, Cole Beasley, and Dawson Knox, the Bills have been a top-three offense over the past two seasons, as well as a top-10 passing offense. But a huge part of Buffalo’s offensive success is attributed to Allen’s ability to ad lib and scramble. And as Skoldiers have seen with Kirk Cousins over the past four years, no one should mistake Cousins for a creator when plays break down.

While Daboll’s offense is clearly setting the world on fire, Cousins’ lack of mobility makes it a difficult scheme fit — especially with Minnesota’s shortcomings up front with the offensive line. If the Vikings bring in Daboll, they would likely need to find a more dual-threat quarterback in order to maximize all of Daboll’s Run-Pass Option schemes.

Mike McDaniel

San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator – 4/10

McDaniel was elevated to OC this past summer after spending his entire 11-year career alongside Kyle Shanahan in Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Before the distinguished OC title, McDaniel served as the 49ers run game coordinator during his first four seasons there.

McDaniel has a degree from Yale and is widely regarded as a true Xs-and-Os genius — especially in the run game. What hurts McDaniel at this stage of his coaching career is that he’s yet to call plays, as Shanahan is still considered to be one of the best play-callers in the entire league. While McDaniel is on a trajectory to be a head coach sooner than later, he’ll likely need to be hired as a play-calling OC for a defensive head coach — like former colleague Matt LaFleur did for Mike Vrabel and Tennessee back in 2018 — before he can be taken seriously as an NFL head coach.

When factoring in the undeniable success rate of Shanahan’s coaching tree, the Vikings could do much worse if they took a chance on the quirky offensive mastermind. While folks are quick to question McDaniel’s unique personality and small stature when it comes to potentially leading men as a head coach, it’s important to remember that the best forms of leadership comes from those who are unapologetically true to their authentic selves. And McDaniel doesn’t appear to have any problem letting his true colors show.

Read my piece from late December for more about McDaniel and Kyle Shanahan’s coaching tree.

Eric Bieniemy

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator – 5/10

Unfortunately, the sizzle behind Bieniemy has fallen off considerably. He was widely regarded as a dynamite head coach candidate from 2018-20. When former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy took the head coaching job with the Chicago Bears following the 2017 season, Bieniemy was elevated to OC in Kansas City. And with Patrick Mahomes becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time on Andy Reid and Bieniemy’s watch, it was only a matter of time until the former Vikings running backs coach got the call to lead a franchise, right?

For whatever reason, Bieniemy has been passed over for head coaching opportunities over the past three seasons. And with Nagy getting the boot from Chicago, the appeal of Reid’s coaching tree may have lost some luster. Bieniemy has never been an offensive play-caller — Reid is the bona fide best offensive play-caller of all -ime — which theoretically makes an OC-to-HC jump for Bieniemy difficult. However, former Reid OCs like Nagy and Pederson had never called plays before getting the call to be head coaches. So why is Bieniemy’s lack of play-calling being used against him?

Bieniemy has been in the room with Reid for the duration of his time in Kansas City. Whether it was being a league-leading rushing offense with Jamaal Charles and/or Kareem Hunt, or allowing Mahomes to flourish as a first-year starter in ’18 by installing similar Air Raid concepts from the quarterback’s time at Texas Tech, this offense consistently figures out ways to put their personnel in the best position to win.

Reid and Bieniemy have responded admirably this season when opposing defenses started to figure out Kansas City’s propensity for big plays by defending them with two-high safeties and refusing to blitz. Instead of relying on the driver, the Chiefs have consistently hit their irons by manufacturing quick touches for their horizontal speed threats Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, and all-world tight end Travis Kelce.

Bieniemy has done a lot for his case to be a head coach by showing 31 other franchises that he’s capable of effectively adapting. And the Andy Reid coaching tree still has such a promising track record, despite Nagy’s termination from the Bears.

Jim Harbaugh

University of Michigan head coach, former San Francisco 49ers head coach – 6/10

Fresh off a Big Ten Championship and berth in the College Football Playoff, Harbaugh appears poised to make his return to the NFL. Harbaugh was on the receiving end of an excruciatingly raw deal from Jed York when he was fired following an 8-8 season in 2014. Even though it needs to be taken with a grain of salt, considering he only coached four seasons in the NFL, Harbaugh has the fifth-highest career winning percentage in NFL history.

Harbaugh’s calling card throughout his stewardship of the 49ers was to wear opposing defenses out with a tenacious running game. Alongside current Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Harbaugh’s 49ers finished eighth, fourth, third, and fourth in rushing yards across his four seasons in the Bay Area. Predictably, the extensive run game came at the expense of San Francisco’s passing game, as the 49ers were consistently one of the worst passing offenses throughout the league as it pertains to volume, yardage, and touchdowns.

While Vikings fans are quite familiar with the adage, “beggars can’t be choosers,” Harbaugh’s hell-bent desire to pound the rock doesn’t necessarily jive with a franchise that currently has one of the biggest and brightest stars in the NFL by the name of Justin Jefferson. With Dalvin Cook having the second-most touches among NFL running backs since 2019, maybe Harbaugh could replicate the production he helped generate from fellow bell-cow Frank Gore.

But with the NFL gravitating towards a more pass-happy league, the fears of Harbaugh’s limitations in the passing game are real. Harbaugh is a much better fit for Chicago, where teams have no choice but to run the ball effectively in the Windy City when games turn ugly fast in December and January. And if Harbaugh could pluck Roman away from his brother in Baltimore and have him return as his OC, Justin Fields would really benefit from Harbaugh and Roman’s ability to maximize mobile quarterbacks like Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick.

Doug Pederson

Former Philadelphia Eagles head coach – 7/10

Speaking of Andy Reid’s coaching tree, Pederson captured his first Super Bowl two years before his old boss hoisted the Lombardi Trophy for the first time. While Pederson was sent packing after he lost the locker room following a clear-as-day Week 17 tank job in 2020, Pederson is a Super Bowl winner who knows the map to reaching the NFL’s mountaintop.

Before 2020’s blunder, Pederson compiled a record of 35-19 (including playoffs) from 2017-19. While recent trends of NFL head coaching hires prefers young, up-and-coming offensive coaches, Pederson is a grown up with championship pedigree after being groomed by Reid for seven seasons in Philadelphia and Kansas City.

What’s most impressive about Pederson’s resumé? Capturing that 2017 Super Bowl after going toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in an absolute shootout inside US Bank Stadium with his backup quarterback, Nick Foles. Both teams combined for 74 points and 1,151 total yards offensively in the contest, and Pederson provided coaches at every level with one of the most commonly recycled short-yardage trick plays in football history.

Pederson could galvanize the Vikings fanbase by becoming the first head coach in franchise history who has a Super Bowl in his back pocket for a franchise that is still looking for their first-ever Lombardi Trophy.

Byron Leftwich

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator – 8/10

The former NFL quarterback has spent the past five seasons working under head coach Bruce Arians in both Arizona and Tampa Bay. While skeptics will be quick to point out that any coach can win with Tom Brady, Arians’ vertical passing attack has stood the test of time throughout the NFL. Whether it’s with Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, or Jameis Winston, the Arians aerial attack has recorded eight top-10 passing offenses and two Super Bowl championships — in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

Leftwich has been Tampa Bay’s offensive play-caller since taking the Bucs’ OC position in 2019. He’s learned from one of the best offensive minds in NFL history with a career winning percentage of .621 across eight seasons as a head coach. And Arians has made it a priority to groom Leftwich to be an NFL head coach.

After winning the 2020 Super Bowl in Brady’s first season in Tampa Bay, Leftwich is solidified as home-run head coaching candidate for a franchise that is looking to maximize their passing game. And with the comforts of an indoor stadium, a division that is completely up for grabs pending the ongoing Aaron Rodgers drama, and the luxury of having one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, Leftwich to Minnesota makes a ton of sense.

When the greatest quarterback of all time is deferring to his play caller like in the clip above, it’s clear that Leftwich knows exactly what he’s doing in the driver’s seat of an NFL offense. If Leftwich gets the call, Vikings fans can expect plenty of vertical shots to Jefferson. And if Leftwich is receptive to working with Cousins — who’s still one of the highest-graded deep-ball throwers in the league, according to Pro Football Focus — Skoldiers would need to loosen up their vocal chords before entering US Bank Stadium on Sundays.

Because they’ll be forced to sing “Skol Vikings, Let’s Win This Game” so many times they’re blue in the face.

Joe Lombardi/Joe Brady

Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator

Former Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator, former LSU passing game coordinator (both former New Orleans Saints assistants) – 9/10

Last week I wrote about what it would look like to build an organization around Justin Jefferson. To read more on what I wrote about Lombardi and Brady, click here and here.

Long story short, the New Orleans Saints’ offensive scheme that Brady brought with him to LSU in 2019 helped put Jefferson on the map.

If the Wilfs decide to prioritize Jefferson, there are two viable candidates in Lombardi and/or Brady to reunite Jefferson with the patented Saints offensive scheme that both coaches learned from Sean Payton.

Should the Wilfs deem it necessary to draw inspiration from the Saints’ blueprint, Vikings fans should be over the moon. This offense would routinely light up scoreboards with Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen inside their fast track at US Bank Stadium, just like the Saints have done for nearly two decades inside the Superdome.

Kellen Moore

Dallas Cowboys Offensive Coordinator – 10/10

I wrote about why Moore is such a highly sought after head coaching candidate back in October (click here).

My stance hasn’t changed much. Say what you want about Jerry Jones. The man is a number of different things, but stupid isn’t one of them. It’s the worst-kept secret that Moore is what drives this Cowboys offense. Head coach Mike McCarthy’s gameday responsibilities are essentially deciding when to punt, go for it, kick the field goal, or go for two.

Moore is the play caller and his scheme is responsible for the Cowboys being the No. 1 offense in both points and yards throughout the entire NFL. Regardless of how the postseason turns out for Dallas, I would be completely shocked if Jones allows Moore to leave Dallas and become a head coach elsewhere.

I’ll go as far to say that even if the Cowboys win the Super Bowl this season, and if push came to shove, Jones would elevate Moore to head coach before letting losing him to a different NFL team.

With Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliott, Dalton Schultz, Tony Pollard, Zack Martin, and Tyron Smith, the Cowboys have built arguably the best offensive roster throughout the league. And Jerry isn’t dumb enough to trust McCarthy with all those toys.

Stranger things have happened, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on Moore becoming the head coach in Minnesota. If it does happen, block off your spot on Washington Ave for the Super Bowl parade. It’ll only be a matter of time until Moore brings home a Lombardi after building an offense around Jefferson, Cook, and other future weapons (say, Jameson Williams, perhaps?) for the fast track of US Bank Stadium.

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