As the Indianapolis Colts continue to search for Chuck Pagano’s replacement, a handful of developments have started to emerge. Most notably, of the six coaches the Colts have interviewed or attempted to interview, one is already off the list. This morning’s announcement that Kansas City offensive coordinator Matt Nagy is now the head man of the Chicago Bears narrows down the existing list to five potential coaches.
The two most bandied-about names, it seems, are New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and Kansas City Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub. McDaniels is not only the most apparently popular name on the list but also the best-known; his years working with Tom Brady in Foxborough under the watchful eyes of Bill Belichick, as well as his ill-fated first head-coaching stint with the Denver Broncos, have made him no stranger to NFL circles. By contrast, Toub is not especially well-known, but the much-publicized fact that he’s worked side by side with Colts GM Chris Ballard at every single job he held from 2004-2016 has some convinced of the inevitability of Toub’s hiring in Indy.
But what about the other three coaches that Ballard has reached out to? They haven’t been discussed quite as much, but if they’re on the list in spite of all the hoopla surrounding McDaniels and Toub, it has to be for a reason, right? Here’s more on them, and why they may or may not be the right choice to take over for Pagano.
Current position: Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, 2nd season
Background: Former USC defensive back under current Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. Played in NFL for five seasons; was a teammate of Colts running back Frank Gore with the 49ers in 2005. Was part of the formation of the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary as defensive backs coach from 2012-2014.
Most notable accomplishments: While some credit also must go to his two predecessors, Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn, Richard, in his role as a founding member of the LOB, turned the Seahawks’ defense into one of the most feared units of this decade. Winners of one Super Bowl and two NFC Championships, the Hawks’ turnaround into one of the NFL’s most consistent winners doesn’t happen without Richard around.
Pros of hiring him: What better way to turn around a struggling Colts defense than to unleash a young secondary full of potential? Safeties Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers have made quite a few highlight-reel plays when they’ve been healthy. Cornerbacks like Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston, Pierre Desir, and Kenny Moore still have a long way to go, but the raw talent in all of them was on display at different times this year. Someone with Richard’s background is eminently qualified to take this group to the next level, and if he succeeds, it would make anyone who lines up in the front seven look even better by forcing opposing quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer. Indeed, player development all around seems to be his forte, as Seattle linebackers Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright have gone from very good to two of the league’s best since Richard took over the whole defense.
Richard is also only 39 years old, making him seem relatively youthful in the coaching profession. With the young, high-energy approach paying huge dividends for the Los Angeles Rams and Sean McVay this season, it’s logical to think that Indy would be tempted to follow suit. On the subject of similar lines of thinking, the familiarity with Indy’s front office that’s considered to be such a huge plus for Toub is also present with Richard. Colts VP’s of Player Personnel Ed Dodds and Rex Hogan came over from the Hawks last offseason; no doubt they’ve been briefing Ballard with everything they know up to this point.
Cons of hiring him: Just because a gamble on a young, inexperienced coach worked for one organization doesn’t mean it will for another. McDaniels didn’t fare well in Denver. Lane Kiffin was only 30 when the Raiders hired him, and lasted less than two seasons before returning to the collegiate ranks. Ben McAdoo lost control of the Giants in a spectacular fashion this season, leading to his dismissal. If Richard is hired, it should be because he’s qualified, not trendy.
Specifically, it would be on Richard to ensure that he and Ballard fill out the rest of the coaching staff with established presences that Richard can lean on just in case. McVay did this by hiring veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Kyle Shanahan, the 38-year-old head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, has respected former players like DeMeco Ryans and Jeff Zgonina as defensive assistants. Any mishires at either coordinator spot, or elsewhere, would reflect especially poorly on Richard, more so than a veteran coach.
Odds of hiring him: Better than you’d think. He hasn’t interviewed with anyone else just yet, it seems. McDaniels is highly coveted around the league. Toub hasn’t even interviewed with the Colts officially, though it’s expected that he will soon. If Indy misses out on one or both of their perceived top two, Richard seems like the third choice.
Background: After working as a defensive backs coach for several colleges, Wilks was hired by the Bears for the same position in 2006, at a time when Ballard worked for the team as a scout. He left to take the same job with the San Diego Chargers in 2009, then did so again for the Carolina Panthers in 2012. He became Carolina’s assistant head coach in 2015 and defensive coordinator in 2016.
Most notable accomplishments: His work with players like Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers in San Diego, and Josh Norman in Carolina, show how comfortable Wilks is with players that have the potential to be elite cover corners. Helped guide the Panthers to an NFC title in 2015, with playoff runs in four of the last five seasons.
Pros of hiring him: Wilks is certainly a popular man. As it currently stands, there are four NFL teams looking for new head coaches; Wilks is speaking to three of them. Every report listing a team’s interest seems to include some variation of the phrase “well-respected around the league,” something that was said frequently about Ballard when he was hired. The fact that he’s been retained by Ron Rivera at every coaching stop since Chicago can certainly be viewed as a ringing endorsement.
Like Richard, Wilks has more than demonstrated his savvy with defensive backs. He could also work with Indy’s young secondary on a back-to-front approach to rebuilding the defense.
Cons of hiring him: Wilks is another candidate who has never been a head coach, although he’s certainly been around the league for more than long enough. Still, even Richard has been in charge of Seattle’s whole defense for more seasons than Wilks has been in charge of all of Carolina’s, making any concerns about the leap to running a whole team at least equally valid.
Odds of hiring him: Tough to call. The Giants’ front office is now run by ex-Panthers GM and avid Wilks supporter Dave Gettleman. The Cardinals are said to be equally bullish on him. He’s basically Richard with 10 more years of experience and without the LOB, so it’s not hard to see the appeal for Indy. Wilks’ status will be almost impossible to gauge until either he finishes his interviews, or someone else makes a hire.
Background: Former linebacker for New England and Kansas City. Began his coaching career as Ohio State’s linebackers coach in 2011. He took the same position with Houston Texans in 2014 before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2016.
Most notable accomplishments: Three Super Bowl wins and 57 career sacks as a player. Recruited Chargers star Joey Bosa at Ohio State. Has been instrumental in the development of young talent like Jadeveon Clowney and Benardrick McKinney as an assistant with Houston.
Pros of hiring him: The only thing the Colts have done anywhere near as poorly at as preventing sacks over the last few years is getting them. Vrabel has plenty of knowledge there from his playing days, and it has translated well to his tenure as an NFL coach, with Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and former-Texan-turned-Colt John Simon among those who have benefitted. That would certainly please Ballard, who had high hopes for rookie Tarell Basham heading into last season that never seemed to fully materialize.
Vrabel also brings the same “part of the Belichick family” appeal as McDaniels, but from the defensive side of the ball; there are those who would argue that that’s the more important side. He’s also one of the few players Belichick has actually publically endorsed, not only for his knowledge but for his leadership qualities.
Colts fans might also remember him for his tendency to score touchdowns while lining up at fullback, which may or may not explain why Texans star JJ Watt has learned to do the same.
Cons of hiring him: Aside from the same concerns about his age and experience that have been expressed about Richard and Wilks, the quality of his work when given more responsibility is going to be the focal point if Vrabel is hired as a head coach this year. Houston gave up way more points this year in Vrabel’s first season at the helm than they did under his predecessors, Romeo Crennel and Wade Phillips. True, they faced a ton of injuries, and the departure of ace cover corner AJ Bouye in free agency didn’t do them any favors, but perhaps someone with more experience and skill might have made better adjustments.
It should also be pointed out–both for Vrabel and McDaniels–that Belichick assistants don’t tend to do well as head coaches in the NFL; indeed, they have combined to produce only a single postseason victory between them. While there is optimism that McDaniels will do better the second time around and that Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has all the pieces in place to succeed with good injury luck, Vrabel will have a very long road to haul to prove that he can buck that trend.
Odds of hiring him: Probably low. Granted, Vrabel has already conducted his interview with the team, and the only other interview he’s had so far has been with Detroit, so it doesn’t seem like he’s looking in too many other places for a promotion. That said, the lack of attention surrounding his candidacy sounds like an indicator of lukewarm interest. It likely boils down to whether or not the Colts are so set on becoming better at getting to opposing quarterbacks that they simply have to hire a head coach whose background is in doing just that.