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Possible candidates to replace Matt LaFleur as Titans offensive coordinator

Marcus Mariota will get his fifth playcaller in five seasons in 2019. Who might it be?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Well... here we go again! The Titans are in the market for a new offensive coordinator once again after Matt LaFleur was named head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

This will be Marcus Mariota’s fifth (fifth!!!) playcaller since entering the league in 2015. Ken Whisenhunt called plays for the first seven games of Mariota’s career before getting fired. Jason Michael called plays briefly as the interim offensive coordinator under Mike Mularkey at the end of Mariota’s rookie year before giving way to Terry Robiskie who ran the offense in 2016 and 2017. When the Titans parted ways with Mularkey’s staff last offseason, Mike Vrabel brought in LaFleur to run the offense.

Now that LaFleur has moved on to greener pastures, Vrabel faces the biggest hire of his short tenure with the Titans. Tennessee’s next offensive coordinator must find a way to unlock Marcus Mariota’s potential in a way that LaFleur never did (whether that’s due to injuries or scheme/playcalling is up for debate). For what it’s worth, here are Mariota’s career numbers broken out by playcaller:

  • Whisenhunt: 1-4 record, 103 of 161 (64.0%), 1,239 yards, 9 TD, 5 INT, 93.2 rating, 7.70 YPA
  • Michael: 2-5 record, 127 of 209 (60.8%), 1,579 yards, 10 TD, 5 INT, 90.2 rating, 7.56 YPA
  • Robiskie: 18-14 record, 598 of 972 (61.5%), 7,117 yards, 43 TD, 25 INT, 87.9 rating, 7.32 YPA
  • LaFleur: 8-6 record, 228 of 331 (68.9%), 2,528 yards, 11 TD, 8 INT, 92.3 rating, 7.64 YPA

The bad news is that this is a cycle that is going to repeat itself every two to three years under Vrabel as long as the team is having success. It’s the downside to hiring a defensive-minded head coach in the modern NFL. Other teams are so thirsty for the next offensive guru that any coordinator with even a whiff of success will be plucked away.

That doesn’t mean you can’t win with a defensive coach though. Bill Belichick has built one of the greatest dynasties of all time as a defensive coach with a revolving door of offensive coordinators calling plays for Tom Brady. It’s not just the GOAT either. Pete Carroll and Mike Tomlin have both won big as a defensive head coaches. Mike Zimmer has had some success recently as well.

The good news for Mike Vrabel is that the pool of possible offensive coordinator candidates seems deeper in 2019 than it was in 2018 when he plucked LaFleur away from the Rams.

Internal Candidates

These are the coaches on the Titans current staff who could end up being promoted to offensive coordinator.

Pat O’Hara (Titans QB Coach)

If stability is the goal, this might be your best bet. O’Hara worked closely with LaFleur installing this offense in 2018 and would be able to keep the same concepts and terminology largely in place. That could be very beneficial for the continuity of the offense and ability to pick things up where they left off in 2018 when OTAs start this spring.

O’Hara has had an interesting career to say the least. He was a quarterback at USC in college and then bounced around the NFL as a backup for a few years. He caught on with the Arena Football League in 1995 and would play there for over a decade before retiring and breaking into coaching at the high school level, a stop that included being the offensive coordinator of Olympia High School in Orlando while Titans legend Chris Johnson was the running back.

After several years in the high school ranks, O’Hara returned to the Arena League as a coach and would spend the next decade as an offensive coordinator or head coach for various teams. He would catch on with the Texans as an offensive assistant in 2015 before following Vrabel to Tennessee to become the quarterbacks coach. Mixed in with actual football coaching has been a side career as a consultant on several football movies and TV shows including The Waterboy and Any Given Sunday.

O’Hara makes sense if the Titans value continuity over experience. While he has called plays before at the high school and Arena League level, the NFL is obviously a massive step up.

Tony Dews (Titans RB Coach)

O’Hara is clearly the internal candidate that makes the most sense, but I could see Dews becoming a coordinator prospect at some point. He has one of the most well-rounded backgrounds of any coach on the Titans staff.

After a playing career as a tight end in college, he began coaching and at some point along the way coached the following position groups: defensive line, offensive line, tight ends, special teams, linebackers, wide receivers, and running backs. By my count that’s every spot besides defensive back and quarterback.

When Dews was hired on to coach the running backs for the Titans, Matt LaFleur told a story about Dews calling him up one time when he was passing through Atlanta. LaFleur was quarterbacks coach for the Falcons at the time and Dews was coaching wide receivers at the University of Arizona, but he just wanted to pick LaFleur’s brain about quarterback play. It’s a small story, but it’s stuck with me.

While much of the credit for Derrick Henry’s revival has been given to Eddie George’s inspirational words, Dews really deserves some credit as well. A guy doesn’t start playing THAT well without some good coaching happening behind the scenes.

Dews has never called plays so he’s probably an extreme longshot this time around, but I’m listing him here because outside of O’Hara I think he’s a guy a chance to become a future coordinator on this offensive coaching staff (Tyrone McKenzie has future DC written all over him on the other side of the ball).

Former Head Coaches

Ahh, the dreaded retread. I often think about the “Peter Principle” when I consider football coaches. For those unfamiliar, it’s a management principle that states that employees tend to rise to their “level of incompetence” within a hierarchy. Essentially, if a salesperson is great at selling, they’ll eventually be rewarded by being promoted to sales manager. However, being a great salesperson does not make you a great sales manager as those jobs require two different skill sets. If that great salesperson eventually fails as a manager, that doesn’t retroactively make them a bad salesperson also.

It applies often to football coaches for me as a great running backs coach doesn’t always make for a great offensive coordinator and a great offensive coordinator doesn’t always make for a great head coach. However, in the age of hot takes, most treat coaches as a binary “good” or “bad”. If a coach fails, they’re derided as an idiot regardless of the success they might have had at previous stops to earn that opportunity.

I bring all that up because it applies in this category. These former head coaches are almost all available because they’ve failed at their previous jobs. That doesn’t make them terrible, awful coaches. It just might mean that they reached their level of incompetence and need to return to being the great coordinator that got them that opportunity to begin with.

Adam Gase (Former Dolphins Head Coach)

Gase was a somewhat surprising firing in Miami after compiling a 23-25 record over three seasons on South Beach. The Dolphins never saw the offensive explosion that they’d hoped for when they hired Gase in 2016, but then again, Ryan Tannehill has been in and out with injuries, starting just 24 of 48 games over Gase’s tenure. Matt Moore, Jay Cutler, David Fales, and Brock Osweiler combined to start the other half of the games.

There are two schools of thought on Gase. The first is that he’s a sharp offensive mind who has been saddled with terrible quarterbacks for most of the past four years (the three Miami years and one as the OC in Chicago before that). Before that, he was setting records as the Broncos playcaller with Peyton Manning at the helm. His 2013 Denver offense is still the highest scoring offense of all time at 606 points during the regular season. He certainly earned the respect of Manning who still speaks highly of Gase.

Gase seems fairly likely to land another head coaching gig though. He’s already interviewed for the Jets and Cardinals head jobs. If he doesn’t, he could be an interesting fit as an offensive coordinator for the Titans.

He does have a tie to the current coaching staff as well. Gase got his start straight out of high school when a Michigan State staff featuring Nick Saban, Josh McDaniels, and Dean Pees hired him to help break down tape. That’s a pretty good group to learn from at a young age.

Jim Caldwell (Former Colts and Lions Head Coach)

Like Gase, Caldwell was once connected to Peyton Manning. Caldwell was Manning’s longtime quarterback coach and he parlayed that success into a couple head coaching gigs in Indianapolis and Detroit with an offensive coordinator stop in Baltimore in between.

He was fired by the Lions last offseason despite posting a 36-28 record over four seasons in charge. His last season saw his Detroit offense ranked 7th in the NFL, but missing the playoffs with a 9-7 record was enough for the Lions to head a different direction. Caldwell’s tenure in the Motor City looks even more impressive a year later.

Like Gase, he is also getting head coaching looks with reported interviews with the Jets, Cardinals, and Browns already completed. If he doesn’t get one of those jobs, Caldwell could be a sneaky strong hire for the Titans.

Mike McCarthy (Former Packers Head Coach)

McCarthy is the most successful coach to hit the open market since Andy Reid. While things ended ugly for him in Green Bay, he did compile a 125-77 record with nine playoff appearances in thirteen years with the Packers while also overseeing the development of Aaron Rodgers into one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

Marcus Mariota often lists Rodgers as one of the quarterbacks he wants to mimic and this would be the opportunity to learn from the man that coached Rodgers. Has the NFL passed McCarthy by? That’s certainly possible, but it’s also possible that things got a bit stale for the Super Bowl winning coach in Green Bay.

Again, he could be in the mix for several head coaching jobs. He’s interviewed with Jets already and could get on the list elsewhere. If he doesn’t get a head job, it’s worth wondering if he might sit out a year on the heels of a thirteen year run with the Packers or maybe try his hand in the media rather than jumping back in as an assistant coach, but I would at least make a call if I was the Titans.

Gary Kubiak (Former Broncos Head Coach)

The other Super Bowl winning coach that is (kinda) on the market is Gary Kubiak. The former Broncos head man profiles as a phenomenal fit for the Titans too. He’s from the same “Shanahan Branch” of the Bill Walsh coaching tree that Matt LaFleur came from so concepts and terminology would be very similar. He’s also one of the best offensive minds of the last decade in the NFL.

The problem with Kubiak is that he’s currently employed by the Broncos as a “personnel” consultant and the team is blocking attempts from other franchises to interview him. The popular thought around Denver seems to be that Kubiak will likely have a role in whatever staff ends up being hired to replace Vance Joseph. If things were to change there, then Kubiak would shoot to the top of my wishlist, but for now he’s not a realistic option.

Current Position Coaches and non-Playcalling Coordinators

Here are a few guys that could be ready to make the jump from position coach to coordinator. The important thing to remember with all these guys is that their current team could block a request to interview if they so choose, even if it’s a position coach getting a chance to be a coordinator. The only move that teams cannot block is if an assistant or coordinator wants to interview for a head coaching job. Last year, the Rams granted Matt LaFleur permission to interview and take the job with the Titans despite it being a lateral move in title because he got a chance to call plays. While it’s generally frowned upon around the league to block the advancement of your coaches, permission to interview is not automatic in these instances.

Sean Ryan (Texans QB Coach)

Ryan is currently the Texans quarterbacks coach, a post he’s held for two seasons now. The obvious connection here is with Vrabel and Pat O’Hara (who worked under Ryan when he was in Houston).

Ryan has been coaching in the NFL since 2007, mostly pinging between handling quarterbacks and wide receivers for the Giants and Texans. He has helped in the development of some pretty special players during that time though. He was wide receivers coach for the Giants during Odell Beckham Jr.’s best two seasons as a pro in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, he held the same role for the Texans, working with DeAndre Hopkins. Then finally, he’s been working with Deshaun Watson the past two years. How much credit is due to Ryan for the development of those players is debatable, but he has a strong track record as a position coach.

This would be Ryan’s first time calling plays at any level so he’s a little green and would be a pretty big risk overall. Vrabel will know him well though.

Zac Taylor (Rams QB Coach)

Similar to Kubiak, the reports are that the Rams are blocking requests to interview Taylor as a coordinator so I wouldn’t get my hopes up here. Not that Titans fans would. Tennessee played the “get a guy who was close to Sean McVay” game last offseason and the results weren’t great.

Taylor is currently serving as the Rams quarterbacks coach after coaching the wide receivers there last year. Having spent time under LaFleur, he would have a good understanding and maybe even some similar concepts/terminology to what the Titans are used to. The former Nebraska quarterback even has a little more playcalling experience than LaFleur did this time last year, having called the shots on offense during an interim stint in Miami and for a season at the University of Cincinnati.

Taylor has reportedly had head coaching interviews with the Broncos, Cardinals, and Bengals. That combined with the reports that the Rams would likely block a move for a coordinator position make Taylor a longshot.

Kevin Stefanski (Vikings QB Coach)

Stefanski served as Minnesota’s interim offensive coordinator over the final three weeks of the season after they fired John DeFilippo. He’s spent the last thirteen years on the Vikings staff in various capacities, but it sounds like he’s unlikely to return to the team as they seek a more experienced coordinator candidate (Mike Mularkey is reportedly high on their list).

Stefanski got on the radar for a promotion largely due to his work as the quarterbacks coach in Minnesota in 2017. He helped get a top 10 NFL offense out of Sam Bradford and Case Keenum. After the season, then-Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur left for the Giants and requested to interview Stefanski for a job in New York, but the Vikings blocked the request to keep him in Minnesota.

Some of the shine is probably off Stefanski following a tough 2018 season for the Vikings and he doesn’t have playcalling experience outside of his cameo at the end of this past season. However, it’s worth keeping him on the radar for right now.

Brian Callahan (Raiders QB Coach)

The Titans showed interest in Callahan for the offensive coordinator position before filling the job with LaFleur last offseason so it would make sense that they might be interested again a year later. Obviously, the Raiders could choose to block the move, but it would be a clear promotion for Callahan in both title and playcalling duties so there’s a decent chance Jon Gruden would permit an interview.

Matthew Stafford has his best seasons as a pro while working with Callahan in Detroit and then dropped off pretty substantially in 2018 despite the Lions retaining the same offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, despite the overall struggles in Oakland, Derek Carr set career highs in both completion percentage and yards per attempt.

If the Raiders are willing to let Callahan out of his current contract for a promotion, he could be an option that’s high on the Titans list.

Mark Helfrich (Bears OC)

This will be a popular name since Helfrich was Oregon’s head coach during Marcus Mariota’s time as a Duck. Helfrich is now the offensive coordinator for the Bears, but does not call plays under Matt Nagy.

For the Titans to get Helfrich, they would have to convince Nagy to let him go first, similar to the situation with LaFleur last year. However, despite Helfrich’s connection to Mariota, it’s worth noting that he’s never called plays on the NFL level before and he was largely a continuation of what Chip Kelly built at Oregon before flaming out shortly after Mariota left. It’s really hard to say with any certainty whether Helfrich could be a good NFL playcaller. The pre-existing relationship with Mariota certainly wouldn’t hurt, but it doesn’t matter how much these guys like each other if Helfrich can’t do the job effectively. I wouldn’t necessarily be thrilled with this option.

Freddie Kitchens (Browns Interim OC)

Kitchens’ work with Baker Mayfield after Hue Jackson’s midseason ouster was inspired. As a former quarterback and longtime quarterbacks coach, he could be good for Mariota — very similar to the background that Matt LaFleur had coming in last offseason.

Kitchens is currently still on the Browns staff and has interviewed for their open head coaching position. They have the option to block any overtures from other NFL teams trying to hire him for coordinator positions and seem inclined to do that at least until they make their head coaching hire. Kitchens could be an interesting option if he comes free though.

Todd Monken (Former Bucs OC)

This is another sneaky fun hire. For all the issues the Bucs have had over the past couple seasons, offensive firepower wasn’t one of them. Monken was the Bucs playcaller for most of 2018, helping lead Tampa Bay to a 12th ranked offense despite the yo-yo situation between Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback.

Monken’s performance even earned him a couple head coaching looks around the league as he’s reportedly interviewed with the Packers and Bengals. He’s known to be an aggressive playcaller and a swaggering personality — both characteristics the Titans offense could use an infusion of.

If Monken doesn’t land a head coaching job, it seems likely he will be looking for work as a playcaller somewhere to continue to build his resume. This seems like a great fit for the Titans.

Former Coaches

John DeFilippo (Former Vikings OC)

If you were around here for last year’s coaching search you know that I loved John DeFilippo, or as he’s often known, “Coach Flip”. Well, DeFilippo landed as the offensive coordinator in Minnesota and things didn’t go so well. Mike Zimmer canned him just thirteen games into his first season with the Vikings and all sorts of grumbling about playcalling followed.

So why would the Titans want a guy who washed out of Minnesota? Well, for one, his work with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles in Philadelphia still stands. If you want to give all the credit for the Eagles success to Frank Reich based on how things have worked out this year, that’s fine, I get it. But I would point out two things. First, the Eagles themselves blocked Coach Flip from interviewing for offensive coordinator jobs following the 2016 season despite it being a clear promotion for him because he was considered too valuable to what they were doing in Philly. Second, and this is not to take anything away from Frank Reich who is doing a phenomenal job, but he was handed a generational talent at quarterback and a top five offensive line to work with. DeFilippo was handed Kirk Cousins behind a bottom five offensive line. That makes a difference.

That being said, there are some valid concerns here. Flip was accused of abandoning the run too often in Minnesota and asking his players to do things they simply couldn’t. Those aren’t the kinds of things you want to hear about a playcaller.

I still believe in Flip as a coach though and would be happy to see him land here to work with Marcus Mariota. Depending on how rough the market might be for him, you might even be able to get O’Hara promoted to offensive coordinator and then add DeFilippo as quarterbacks coach. It will be interesting to see where he ends up.

Todd Haley (Former Browns OC)

Look, I get that Haley has his warts. He’s been known to be hard to work with and his time on Hard Knocks didn’t exactly paint him in the best light either. However, he did coordinate one of the best offenses in football for six years before Ben Roethlisberger ran him out of town in Pittsburgh. At worst, he’s a proven playcaller with loads of experience and a prickly personality.

Haley’s baggage does come with a major side benefit though: nobody is going to come bang down the door to hire him as a head coach if he has a couple good seasons. For a team that has had a revolving door installed at the offensive coordinator’s office in Saint Thomas Sports Park, that could be a plus.

College Coaches

One name you won’t see here is Chip Kelly. He’s currently the head coach at UCLA on a 5 year, $23.3M contract with a $9M buyout. He would have to buy himself out of his contract AND take a pay cut to leave. Plus, he’s been a head coach for over a decade now and isn’t exactly known for playing well with others. Why would he want to take a job working for someone else? It’s not happening.

There are a few college coaches who could get interesting though.

Kliff Kingsbury (Former Texas Tech Head Coach)

Kingsbury ended his brief stay with the USC Trojans as he resigned to pursue NFL opportunities. He’s reported to be in the mix for head coaching positions with the Jets and Cardinals, specifically.

A practitioner of the Air Raid offense at Texas Tech, there is some question about Kingsbury’s ability to modify his offense for the NFL game, but his development of Patrick Mahomes in college will help his cause with teams.

This would qualify as a big gamble for any team that would hire him. He’s never worked in the NFL before and was just fired from Texas Tech after posting a 35-40 record in Lubbock. However, I’d be pretty surprised if Kingsbury doesn’t end up as the head coach of the Jets or Cardinals.

Lane Kiffin (FAU Head Coach)

If Kingsbury was interesting to you, then Kiffin might be as well. The brash college coach has a big name, but his ability as a playcaller and offensive mind are pretty universally respected at this point.

I tend to have a really hard time seeing Kiffin and Vrabel meshing well together and Kiffin seems quite happy in the college ranks for now so I’d put the odds of this option pretty low. This is the maximum chaos route.

Jake Spavital (Texas State Head Coach)

Spavital is kind of Kingsbury Lite. He’s currently the new head coach at Texas State, but he was West Virginia’s offensive coordinator and playcaller the last two seasons and was Johnny Manziel’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator during his final season in College Station.

Like Kingsbury, he’s an Air Raid disciple who’s spent his entire career in the college ranks. I’m not crazy about the idea of hiring an offensive coordinator with no NFL playcalling experience, but he’s among the few realistic college names.