Every team is different in how they approach the hiring of a head coach. While the processes and methodology might be different from organization to organization, the overall goal remains the same: Find the right candidate for the job.
The NFL's calendar and regulations, amount of data available and the marketplace force franchises to adhere to a unique hiring process. It’s not as simple as submitting a résumé and cover letter to an NFL owner. There are a lot of factors that take place in not only narrowing the initial candidate pool, but finding the right individual for the highly coveted head coach position.
When can teams interview candidates?
Typically the process begins immediately after a coaching change is made. Organizations will submit requests through the NFL league office for coaching candidates in other organizations. Some owners will even look to the college ranks.
A candidate that is currently on staff of the franchise searching can be interviewed at any time, as well as coaches who are not under contract in some capacity with another team.
What about coaches in the NFL playoffs?
The rules change for coaching candidates who are in the playoffs based on when their team competes.
Coaches whose teams have earned a first-round bye can interview for open positions during the bye week with their current team’s permission. For teams playing in the Wild Card round, interviews have to wait at least a week. If a coach’s team loses, the candidate can interview with a team at any time. However, if the coach’s team wins, the searching team needs approval for an interview, which must take place before the Divisional Round.
No initial interviews can be requested or granted for candidates whose teams are still in the playoffs after the Divisional Round, i.e. anyone from the four teams vying for a Conference Championship.
Teams are typically only allowed to interview a candidate one time while the candidate’s team is in the playoffs. However, there’s an exception to that rule for teams playing for a title thanks to the two-week window between the AFC and NFC Conference Championship games and the Super Bowl. If a coach’s team advances to the Super Bowl, teams again need permission to schedule a second interview.
Once the assistant’s team has arrived to the Super Bowl site, the candidate is unable to interview. The interview must take place the week after the Conference Championship, but before the team travels to the Super Bowl.
Who are the types of coaches interviewed?
Most head coaching candidates over the past 30-plus years have come from three pools – coordinators and position coaches, former NFL head coaches and college head coaches.
All three pools have had their fair share of success stories and failures. Coordinators are typically the most sought after because of their management of personnel and game planning. It’s a natural progression in the coaching ranks to move up from a position coach to coordinator to head coach. Some examples include the New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay.
Former head coaches are highly sought after because of their previous experience. The two most notable currently in the NFL are Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs' Andy Reid. Belichick went from the Browns to the Patriots and won five Super Bowls. Reid caught on with the Chiefs after a successful tenure with the Eagles and continues to win at a high rate.
The Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll is an example of a coach being hired from the collegiate ranks, but he previously had head coaching stops with the Patriots and New York Jets. With the way NFL offenses have been trending toward the college game with more run pass options and spread formations, successful college head coaches are in high demand.
Then there is the occasional employment from the broadcast booth (Jon Gruden going from ESPN to the Raiders), a different league (Marc Trestman from the Canadian Football League to the Chicago Bears) or an outside-the-box hire (Dick Vermeil after 15 years between jobs), but those are few and far between.
What is the Rooney Rule?
Named after the late Dan Rooney, former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, this rule requires a team to include minority candidates among its interviews for a head coaching vacancy. The Rooney Rule also applies to include general manager jobs and equivalent front office positions.
Adopted in 2003, the Rooney Rule is an NFL policy requiring every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one or more diverse candidates. The NFL strengthened the Rooney Rule last month, adding additional requirements, including interviewing at least one diverse candidate not currently employed by the team.
When do coaching hires typically take place?
The timeline varies from team-to-team depending on the number of candidates interviewed and whether those candidates are coaching for teams still in the playoffs.
For example, last year the Chicago Bears named Kansas City offensive coordinator Matt Nagy its head coach on Jan. 8, 2018, two days after the Chiefs were eliminated from the playoffs. On the other side, the Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts didn’t have head coaches in place until after the Super Bowl.
Keep in mind, there is more to the interview process than a candidate meeting face-to-face. Teams throughout the process make numerous phone calls, check references around the league, and analyze the candidates’ on-field résumé. Then there is the negotiating process on length of contract and compensation once a candidate has been identified.
What happens after the hire?
Once the head coach is in place, the rest of the staff will be assembled. That includes offensive and defensive coordinators, position coaches, and potentially some support staff roles.
The new coach typically has some flexibility on who they want to bring in. In some cases, teams already have assistant coaches under contract. Those coaches can either seek additional employment, be bought out or retained under the new head coach. A good example goes back to Chicago where Nagy kept defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in the same position.
Then the calendar follows normal protocol with the NFL Combine, free agency and draft following suit.
One wrinkle per the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement is a team that hires a new head coach is entitled to conduct an additional voluntary veteran minicamp. That allows a team to operate an offseason workout program two weeks earlier than other franchises.