Top candidates to replace Urban Meyer as Jaguars head coach

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In a span of 11 months and two days from the day Urban Meyer was the biggest head-coaching hire in Jacksonville Jaguars franchise history, whatever excitement there was quickly dissipated.

Meyer's near-constant stream of controversies started soon after he was hired and seldom let up. It didn't help that the team struggled mightily outside of a shocking upset over the Buffalo Bills. It was at the point early this week where many speculated whether Meyer was trying to get himself fired after receiving a king's ransom to coach the team.

"Urban sprawl" has now taken on a new meaning in Jacksonville.

Thursday's early-morning firing of Meyer has turned the former Jags coach into a meme and restored the franchise to laughingstock status.

That said, there's actually a lot to like about the job to replace Meyer, even with the Jaguars' ignominious existence.

For one, there's almost nowhere to go up up from here for a franchise that has the league's worst record since the start of the 2018 season at 14-47. Then there's the chance to work with Trevor Lawrence, who is still a generational talent despite his rookie-season struggles, along with the Jaguars' oodles of salary-cap space in 2022 and favorable draft assets.

There actually should be plenty of interest in the job, assuming it doesn't go to interim head coach Darrell Bevell, who is replacing Meyer effective immediately. By sheer coincidence, the NFL announced on Wednesday a change in the coaching interview process, with external candidates being able to be interviewed during the final two weeks of the regular season, therefore giving the Jaguars a head start on the process.

Here are eight candidates we think could be among the top options.

Byron Leftwich

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator

The dots are pretty clear to connect Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich with the Jaguars head coaching job. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The dots are pretty clear to connect Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich with the Jaguars head coaching job. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Jaguars fans know Leftwich well, as he was the team's first-round pick (No. 7 overall) in 2003 and starting quarterback for 48 games. Although he never quite fulfilled expectations as a player, Leftwich's record of 24-20 as the team's starter qualifies as the golden age for this star-crossed franchise.

But his work as an assistant coach, first with the Arizona Cardinals and now with the Buccaneers, has put him on the fast track to becoming a head coach. 

It could be argued that Tom Brady is a coach on the field for the Bucs and head coach Bruce Arians is among the better offensive minds in the NFL in this or any other generation. But that can't negate the positive words many have had for Leftwich's understanding of the game, how he relates to people and for his natural leadership skills.

At 41, with only six years of coaching experience, Leftwich might not carry the same caliber of resumé as other candidates for the job. But his 12 years of playing experience, strong endorsements from colleagues and players and his connection to Jacksonville make him a natural option for the job.

Josh McDaniels

New England Patriots offensive coordinator

This is a tricky pairing, as McDaniels' first head-coaching experience with the Denver Broncos was a disaster and he also backed out of the Indianapolis Colts' job at the 11th hour — and some might argue, the 13th hour, given that the Colts had already announced he'd accepted the job.

And would McDaniels even want to coach the Jags? He's believed to want a second crack at a head-coaching job, and his work with Mac Jones this season has revived his coaching candidacy, but McDaniels could balk at the Jaguars' leadership structure under owner Shad Khan if he was not able to have some say over the front office.

McDaniels' Denver experience — especially in light with what has happened this season in Jacksonville — could make him a third-rail type of hire. But if the Jaguars believe that getting Lawrence on track and maximizing his talent is of utmost priority, they might be willing to live with the short-team PR hit if they believe that McDaniels truly is the QB whisperer they need.

Eric Bieniemy

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator

Before hiring Meyer, the Jaguars interviewed Bieniemy and four others for the job. Bieniemy also interviewed for jobs with the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions but received no offers.

Outside of vague reports that his head-coaching interviews over the years haven't been overly impressive, along with some years-ago question marks stemming from his days in Colorado, there are not a lot of obvious reasons why Bieniemy shouldn't be considered a prime candidate once again.

He's received glowing praise from Andy Reid and other Chiefs staffers, as well as strong endorsements from Kansas City's players, namely Patrick Mahomes. If the Jaguars believe Bieniemy has had anything to do with Mahomes' ascension into perhaps the game's best QB, then Bieniemy's candidacy should receive a bump. 

The Chiefs' offensive success speaks for itself since Bieniemy became offensive coordinator, reaching the AFC title game in 2018, winning the Super Bowl in 2019 and reaching the big game again last season with an offense ranked in the top six overall in yards and points each of those seasons. Kansas City is currently 9-4 and atop the AFC West heading into Thursday night's game against the Chargers. 

League sources also believe Bieniemy has been hurt by the fact that the Chiefs have been in contention each of the past four years, reducing his interview windows and making it logistically more difficult for him to prepare for multiple teams' interviews.

Could this be the year he finally gets his shot?

Eric Bieniemy's excellent work with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs still hasn't landed him a head coaching job. (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
Eric Bieniemy's excellent work with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs still hasn't landed him a head coaching job. (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

Kellen Moore

Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator

One of the hotter offensive names in coaching circles, Moore is the son of a former high school coach and a former backup QB in the NFL who has quickly developed into a strong offensive play-caller with the Cowboys. 

Moore is young at 33 years old, and his coaching experience is limited. Then again, we said similar things about Sean McVay once — or Mike Tomlin or Don Shula, for that matter. NFL head coaches have trended toward the young in recent years, so it hardly would be stunning. But is he still too green?

Dallas is a cauldron the likes of which Jacksonville will never be, even following the franchise's nadir this week. So Moore has experience, both as a player and assistant with the Cowboys, dealing with high levels of pressure.

It just remains to be seen whether now is too soon for his first head-coaching crack. There also has been talk of Dallas wanting to see Moore succeed Mike McCarthy at some point and perhaps offering Moore the kind of financial security needed to keep him on board until that succession plan enacts.

Jim Caldwell

Former NFL head coach

Few potential head-coaching candidates can boast the kind of skins on the wall that Caldwell does, with winning records as the head coach of the Colts and (!) the Detroit Lions. Caldwell has reached a Super Bowl with the Colts and has a career win percentage of .554 — and that includes the 2-14 season in Indianapolis where Peyton Manning missed the entire year with a neck injury.

Working against Caldwell's candidacy are his age (he turns 67 in January), health and the fact that he's been out of the NFL the past two seasons. The Miami Dolphins had Caldwell on Brian Flores' staff briefly in 2019, but Caldwell stepped away that summer for health-related reasons and was let go at season's end. His current health status is unknown.

Caldwell would command respect in the locker room. His low-key style wouldn't be a big brand seller for a franchise that's among the least-visible in the league. But he's perhaps the most anti-Meyer candidate imaginable, which could make him a stronger candidate in this current situation.

Doug Pederson

Former Philadelphia Eagles head coach

Pederson also would carry a lot of weight for his success in Philadelphia, even with his somewhat awkward exit from there.

Winning a Super Bowl, however, still resonates, and Pederson made the postseason three times in five years, also winning two division titles and amassing a record of 42-37-1 in the regular season and 4-2 in the playoffs.

The Jaguars' record since Khan took ownership? It's a paltry 41-106, and that includes the 10-6 mark and AFC South title in 2017. The franchise pretty much has been in a tailspin since. Had the Jaguars won the AFC title game in New England that season, they'd have faced Pederson's Eagles in the Super Bowl. 

Pederson reportedly has been looking for opportunities to return to the league as a head coach, and he's still relatively young enough at 53. His 14 years of playing experience, connections to Reid and his Super Bowl win make him a strong candidate. Plus, his easygoing style would make for a stark contrast to the Meyer experience.

But Pederson also can be picky and perhaps look for a more stable situation than this one, even with the allure of coaching up Lawrence. It's arguable that Pederson didn't fully succeed in his development of Carson Wentz, but Lawrence is roundly viewed as a better talent with a higher ceiling, even amid a tough rookie year.

Raheem Morris

Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator

Morris also was among the candidates the Jaguars interviewed last cycle, losing out to Meyer. Did the Jags come away impressed? If so, perhaps they'd want him back for another spin.

Morris struggled as the Buccaneers' head coach from 2009 to 2011, sandwiching two poor records around the team's 10-6 mark in 2010. But he was in his early 30s then and might be better with his second head-coaching opportunity — which some league sources believe will happen at some point.

Look to the work Morris did last season as interim head coach of the Falcons, taking over a rudderless team that lost its first five games. Although the Falcons only went 4-7 down the stretch, they played hard and lost five of those games by a combined 17 points. Players spoke glowingly of the work Morris did in a tough spot, and it was more than enough to earn him the Rams job, succeeding Brandon Staley in Los Angeles.

Morris has coached in college and in the NFL and has experience working with both sides of the ball. He's a fascinating dark-horse candidate, although he's viewed as a defensive-minded coach who probably would need a ballyhooed offensive coordinator at his side to win over some observers and help get the most out of Lawrence.

Nathaniel Hackett

Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator

Like Leftwich, Hackett has ties to the organization. He was the Jaguars' QB coach and offensive coordinator from 2015 to 2018, and — say what you will about Blake Bortles as a quarterback — Hackett did a fairly remarkable job in his roles there, all things considered.

There's a high level of appreciation for Hackett's talent by some in the Jaguars' organization still, and his past three years working with Aaron Rodgers has helped add more credibility to his resumé. Rodgers has had high praise for Hackett, too, although Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is still considered the main offensive architect there.

This might not be a home-run hire from Jump Street, but the Jaguars' familiarity with Hackett could be a selling point as the team tries to emerge from one of its darkest times.

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