Arthur Smith is out, and a new head coach will be on the way sometime in the next month or so. I doubt the Atlanta Falcons fired their incumbent without having a really good idea of who they would like to chase after, but at the moment all we have to go on are rumors.
There is, as always, a varied and interesting pool of head coaching candidates this year. Those candidates include experienced former head coaches, including one of the most decorated coaches of all-time, as well as up-and-coming coordinators and seasoned coordinators seeking another chance to be a head coach.
We’ll have a narrowed-down list as reports filter in, but for the moment, here’s a fuller one with some of the many names the team might consider. My only guidelines here are simple: Please, please get this right, Falcons.
The experienced big names
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick
Don’t shoot the messenger, but as much as I resisted it when his name first came up, I believe Belichick will be near the top of Blank’s list. This would be luring Vince Lombardi to Atlanta, the way original owner Rankin Smith envisioned, but with a great coach who is both older and possibly falling out of step with the modern NFL. It’s also been heavily rumored for the past couple of weeks.
Belichick remains a stellar defensive coach who manages the little things well, but his personnel decisions in New England have been questionable basically forever and that has finally caught up to him in the post-Tom Brady era. Between his personnel decisions and his hires, the Patriots have cratered, especially offensively. It’s a big part of the reason Belichick might even be on the move in the first place.
The Patriots don’t appear to be on the cusp of firing him, but that possibility still exists post-Black Monday. The possibility that a team could surrender draft compensation to pry him away seems like a realistic one, though. Blank watched Belichick’s Patriots embarrass the Falcons for years—the less said about that, the better—and landing a coach widely considered to be one of the best ever would lend credibility to the idea that this team can win now and that the Falcons are serious about taking the next step. If it comes down to giving up a draft pick or two to get it done, well, I wouldn’t be stunned.
I just also am not sure I’d be happy. Having had a front row seat to Belichick all these many years because of where I live, I can tell you he is a great coach, but I’m not sure he is flexible enough to build a great staff or get out of the way on the personnel side. Giving him outsized power in an organization that has been criticized for having too many voices—Rich McKay is the name you’re all thinking right now—would likely be a mistake, and his age and deeply uninspiring post-Tom Brady tenure in New England doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. The Falcons would have to get him a bright offensive mind and a slam dunk quarterback for this to work, even if I think the defense would be terrific under him, but they’re more than likely going with Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator and a veteran quarterback if they go this route. Belichick would likely lift this team as constructed today, especially given that he’ll have so much more talent to work with, but there is a question of the long-term success and the ceiling for the 71-year-old in Atlanta.
If the Patriots aren’t willing to part with Belichick or the Falcons balk at the price, they could certainly turn to...
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh
Harbaugh’s work with the 49ers was justifiably lauded, and his program building in Michigan has been stellar, as well. With rumors abounding that he’s considering a jump back into the NFL ranks, it would not be surprising to see the Falcons in pursuit.
Harbaugh would give them the big name, the track record, and the penchant for turning things around quickly. Aside from his initial head coaching gig in Stanford, where Harbaugh took a couple of years to get things spinning, he’s achieved instant success at his stops in San Francisco and Michigan and would undoubtedly figure out a way to maximize what he has in Atlanta.
The downsides? Harbaugh is a weird, weird dude who has repeatedly been accused of skirting the rules in college, which doesn’t necessarily make him that much different than a range of coaches both pro and collegiate but does mean he could clash with other power brokers in the organization. Harbaugh also will want considerable say in everything that goes on in football operations, I’d wager, and that may be something he could get more easily in, say, Las Vegas than Atlanta. Also, if you don’t love Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, the fact that Harbaugh may well insist on making him the next franchise guy might give you pause.
I don’t think Harbaugh lands in Atlanta, but I do think he’s absolutely going to be on Arthur Blank’s shortlist.
Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores
There’s no doubt that the former Dolphins head coach got a raw deal in Miami, where he led the team to consecutive winning seasons for the first time in nearly two decades but was fired, ultimately filing a lawsuit against the league and three teams alleging racial discrimination in hiring and that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him money to tank. He has yet to return to the head coaching ranks after being fired in 2021, but unless teams simply won’t give him a shot owing to the lawsuit, he should get another opportunity to lead a team sooner than later.
Flores is a bright defensive mind and a well-regarded coach who would be able to build on the work Atlanta started on that side of the ball, and he would not come to Atlanta with concerns about age (Belichick) or needing outsized personnel power (Belichick, Harbaugh). It’s less certain what he’d do on the offensive side of the ball, but he might be able to lure away Eric Studesville from Miami, where the current associate head coach was his co-offensive coordinator in 2020 and 2021, and add a passing game co-coordinator as well.
I think Blank and McKay would have to strike out on Belichick and Harbaugh to seriously consider Flores, but I’d push the team to consider him.
Commanders offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy
He’s been waiting for his turn for a long time now, and finally got out from Andy Reid’s long shadow this season in Washington. Bieniemy coaxed some really good things out of Sam Howell in the early going there, but the Commanders offense was a mixed bag overall, for reasons I’d put as much on personnel as I do on the offensive coordinator, if not even more.
He now has a pair of assistant head coach stints on his resume, the kind of long experience as a coordinator for quality offenses that usually draws more serious consideration for head coaching jobs, and a clear desire to land one of the open gigs in this cycle. Critics will point to the so-so results in Washington and the influence of Reid and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, but Reid has been vocal about Bieniemy’s ability and I’d be confident in his ability to get this offense clicking once the team has a quarterback in place.
He’s not one of the biggest names in this hiring cycle, but he was my preferred choice back when the team actually hired Arthur Smith, and I’d absolutely give him a shot now.
Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson
Arguably the hottest name out there, Johnson has been lauded for working wonders with Jared Goff, Sam LaPorta, Jahmyr Gibbs, and the rest of the Lions offense. His ability to squeeze as much juice as possible out of the players he has at his disposal is tough to argue with, and particularly enticing given Atlanta’s frustrating usage of Kyle Pitts and Bijan Robinson at times.
The wariness with Johnson will come from his lack of experience. Bieniemy has been a pro offensive coordinator for six seasons and an assistant head coach for two; Johnson has been a passing game coordinator for a single season and offensive coordinator for a single season and was always a position coach before that. Every team wants to land the young coordinator who turns into a star coach—think Mike McDaniel and Zac Taylor in recent years—but we all know from recent experience that terrific coordinators don’t always turn into great head coaches.
Still, Johnson would be a big name hire for the Falcons and check that particular box while potentially turning the disparate pieces of this offense into the dynamite whole we envisioned coming into 2023. He’s a name to keep an eye on.
Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn
The highest-rated coordinator by players in the NFL, Glenn is a seasoned (and excellent) former defensive back who has some scouting experience to go along with his coaching tenure. He spent five years with the Saints and overlapped with Terry Fontenot there, and the combination of the respect from players and his fine work with the New Orleans defensive backs and Lions defense should put him on a list of candidates, especially if Fontenot is prominently involved in the search.
Like Johnson, he has limited coordinating experience, so it would be about projecting his ability to be a head coach. I think he has the right makeup for that role, and while he has been overshadowed by Johnson in the current hiring cycle, Glenn will be a head coach sooner than later.
49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks
Probably a bit of a longshot, but Wilks did the best he could in an impossible situation with the Cardinals and then did admirable work piloting the collapsing Panthers through most of the 2022 season after the team fired Matt Rhule. His work as a defensive coordinator in San Francisco has been mostly excellent, as well, despite Kyle Shanahan’s occasional desire to throw him under a bus for the defense’s momentary lapses.
As an experienced coordinator with a pair of head coaching stints under his belt, Wilks would not be a splash hire but would bring a track record of getting teams through tough times effectively to Atlanta.
Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald
The defensive equivalent of Johnson. Macdonald has one year of college coordinating experience for Michigan and one year in the pros for Baltimore, but he’s done a stellar job at both stops and his work with the Ravens has been eye-opening.
If Blank wants to return to the defense-first hiring he preferred through the Mike Smith and Dan Quinn eras, Macdonald is an intriguing possibility who seems likely to further improve a Falcons defense that did take a big step forward in 2023.
Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken
Everywhere he goes, he finds success as an offensive coordinator. He squeezed more than you’d guess possible out of some mediocre Tampa Bay offenses and the 2019 Browns, but his work with Georgia recently and Baltimore this year is proof that he’s improving as he goes.
Monken doesn’t have the head coaching experience, but is an experienced offensive coordinator with leaguewide ties and a proven track record of success. At minimum, he’d be good for this scuffling Atlanta offense.
Dolphins offensive coordinator Frank Smith
The next two names on this list are inexperienced coordinators who have drawn a lot of justified praise for their work with their respective teams. Smith cut his teeth as an offensive line coach and overlapped with Terry Fontenot back in New Orleans from 2010-2014, where he was an assistant line coach for those great Saints lines. Over the past two years in Miami, he’s overseen an explosive and talented Dolphins offense working with Mike McDaniel, and his ability to help McDaniel get the most out of gifted playmakers would make him intriguing in Atlanta.
Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik
A Kyle Shanahan disciple, Slowik was the passing game coordinator for the 49ers in 2022 before joining the Texans in 2023 as their offensive coordinator. The work he’s done with the Houston Texans offense and rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud has drawn a lot of attention—and for good reason—and the thought of pairing him with this cast of playmakers and a rookie quarterback to mold is an intriguing one as well.
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo
I don’t think he’ll be quite the big name he was in the 2023 hiring cycle, given that he was fresh off an impressive postseason, but Anarumo is one of the league’s better defensive coordinators and has had a lot of success with uneven rosters in Cincinnati. Reuniting him with Jessie Bates in Atlanta would be fun, too.
Bills offensive coordinator Joe Brady
If Fontenot has significant say, Brady’s name may come up. He was a rumored candidate for Atlanta’s head coaching opening last time out, but his star faded a bit following that. Brady has re-emerged in Buffalo and has helped pilot the Bills to the #2 seed in the AFC following an up-and-down season, however, and his stock appears to be on the rise again.
Brady was Ben Johnson last time out, as a hot name with relatively little experience, but he didn’t land a head coaching job in that cycle. With more experience under his belt and Buffalo impressing, perhaps he gets a second look.
Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron
If the Falcons want to maximize their passing game, Waldron is an interesting name. He cut his teeth doing passing game coordination work for the Rams with Jared Goff at the helm and then moved on to Seattle, where he was tasked with helping Russell Wilson cook and then helped revitalize Geno Smith’s career. Given a capable quarterback and a second receiver to go with the pieces Atlanta has already assembled, he should be able to work wonders for the moribund attack we saw in 2022 and 2023.
Waldron is also a far more experienced candidate than some of the others on this list, having three seasons as an offensive coordinator and three years as a passing game coordinator under a pair of the league’s most highly regarded coaches.
Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris
I know, I know. I can’t see the Falcons going back to Dan Quinn and making him Marion Campbell 2.0, but I’m adding Morris in case there’s a remote chance.
Morris flamed out in his first stint as a very young head coach for the Buccaneers, but he has varied experience as an offensive and defensive coach and is widely respected for the job he’s done at stops in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. His work with the Rams has been mostly excellent, and the fact that he has worked in so many roles in his NFL career and has coaxed improvement out of his units almost everywhere he goes means Morris really should be getting consideration for a head coaching gig again.
The internal candidates
Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen
The sorry end of the year performances from the defense against Chicago and the Saints will probably all but ensure Nielsen doesn’t get a head coaching gig, in Atlanta or elsewhere. If the team brings aboard an offensive-minded head coach and Nielsen is willing to stick around, the Falcons would benefit from some continuity from a coach who did quality work with a defense that had struggled for years.
Nielsen should at least get a courtesy interview for this gig, however, and probably just needs another impressive year or two in Atlanta or elsewhere to draw serious consideration for a head coaching gig.
Assistant head coach Jerry Gray
Like Nielsen, Gray probably is not a serious candidate for this opening, but he should at least get an interview. An experienced defensive coordinator who helped bring this defense back to relevance in 2023, Gray has been great for this secondary and would help the defense maintain continuity heading into 2024. At the very least, he’d be another coach who would be ideal to keep around if the Falcons make an offensive-minded hire.