Dan Quinn, a defensive coordinator and former head coach with a middling record who once found himself in a Super Bowl, is reportedly getting a second interview for the Washington Commanders’ head coaching position. He’ll sit down with Josh Harris, the new owner, and Adam Peters, the new general manager, in Miami. That would be to replace Ron Rivera, a former defensive coordinator and head coach with a middling record who once found himself in a Super Bowl.
Don’t do it, Josh. Think differently, Adam.
This is nothing against Quinn, the former Atlanta Falcons coach and current Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator. (But did you see the last data point on Quinn’s résumé? That would be 415 yards and 48 points coughed up at home in the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers. Yikes.) It’s nothing against Raheem Morris of the Los Angeles Rams, Aaron Glenn of the Detroit Lions or even Mike Macdonald of the Baltimore Ravens — all accomplished defensive coordinators, with Macdonald’s star particularly on the rise.
But the first coaching hire of Harris’s tenure happens to come with uncommon alignment across a variety of fronts: The new owner got to handpick the person to run his football operations department. Peters now has a partnership with Harris to handpick their coach. That coach, importantly, will have a say in whom the Commanders will take with the second pick in the draft. That pick almost certainly will be the quarterback around whom the GM and coach will build their roster.
Dominoes line up this way about as often as Mitch McConnell and Elizabeth Warren go out for beers. What it means: The Commanders should hire an offensive-minded coach to mold and shape the quarterback who will — fingers crossed — be the centerpiece of this rebuild.
“We’re looking for the best leader for this team, for the Washington Commanders,” Peters said this month when he was introduced, his only public comments since taking the job. “And so we have set criteria that we’re going to have it be aligned in that vision. And it’s not going to be in a box. It’s not going to be offense. It’s not going to be defense. It’s going to be the best leader for this organization.”
That’s absolutely the way to present this search. It’s also then okay to assemble your group, cast a wide net and say, “Tie goes to the offensive guy.” At least.
This isn’t because onlyfourof the 14 head coaches in this year’s playoffs were former defensive coordinators. It’s not because you just ousted Rivera, a former linebacker and defensive coordinator. And it’s not that defensive coordinators can’t make good head coaches even in a league that constantly thirsts for more offense.
Shoot, a year ago, DeMeco Ryans was the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator. He just finished transforming the Houston Texans from a team that owned the second pick in the draft into one capable of reaching the playoffs — and winning a game once it was there. That approach can work.
But to make it work in Houston, Ryans had to get the offensive coordinator right. That he did — in choosing Bobby Slowik, then a 35-year-old offensive assistant in San Francisco — is a credit to Ryans. It says here, though, that handing rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and the entire offensive operation to a first-time coordinator took, um, guts. That it worked out is great for Stroud, great for Ryans and great for Slowik, who now is garnering interest as a head coaching candidate. Still, it was a risk — and now that it succeeded, Slowik could be gone after a single season.
That risk isn’t worth taking in Washington. Among the candidates the Commanders have interviewed is Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, just a year older and with one more season as an offensive coordinator than Slowik. Because the Lions are in the NFC championship game, Johnson can’t be interviewed in person until next week, so the process with him is on pause for now. (Fine. Fill the void by talking to Quinn.)
There’s so much appealing about Johnson, whose Lions rankedthird in the NFL in yards per game and yards per play and fifth in scoring. Yes, what Peters said about leadership has to be correct. Johnson has to be able to demonstrate to Harris and Peters that he could create an environment in which he enabled and inspired everyone in the locker room and on his coaching staff to get the best out of their abilities. Maybe he flunks that part of the exam. If so, look elsewhere.
But if that box is checked, then how is he not the hire? In three seasons with Johnson — the first when Johnson was the Lions’ passing game coordinator, the past two when he was the coordinator — Detroit quarterback Jared Goff upped his completion percentage, increased his touchdown throws and cut down on his interceptions compared with his time with the Rams. That’s real growth, and the Lions are playing for a spot in the Super Bowl because of it.
When was the last time this franchise had a coach lined up with the quarterback he wanted? Joe Gibbs, who drafted Jason Campbell? Maybe. Jim Zorn, bless his heart, then inherited Campbell. Mike Shanahan had Donovan McNabb foisted on him by owner Daniel Snyder, then watched Snyder trade up to take Robert Griffin III. Jay Gruden swiftly grew frustrated with Griffin and turned to Kirk Cousins. Yeah, that pairing produced statistically successful seasons, but the franchise never committed to Cousins for the future, and in the draft heading into his final season Gruden was being told he had to take Dwayne Haskins.
Rivera inherited the late Haskins for his first season, but because of the pandemic he had no chance to evaluate him in the offseason. He subsequently turned to Alex Smith, then to Ryan Fitzpatrick, then to Taylor Heinicke, then to Carson Wentz, then back to Heinicke, then to Sam Howell.
That’s quite a record. Time to purge it all.
Peters has already outlined the idea of having an aligned vision throughout the organization. In this case, that has to extend from owner to GM to coach — to quarterback. Dan Quinn, Raheem Morris, Mike Macdonald: fine football coaches, all. But not for this team at this time. The new head coach should outline a new offensive vision and be responsible for helping select and develop the team’s first true franchise quarterback since … forever.