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Analyzing NFL's head coaching carousel as end of 2023 regular season looms

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With eight days remaining in the 2023 NFL regular season, seven playoff spots have been wrapped up, 17 teams remain alive for the other seven … and the way things play out will impact some looming decisions on head coaches' futures as well.    

Here's a snapshot look at some of the NFL's hot seats and plans for three jobs that are open already, based on conversations with numerous NFL sources:

Washington Commanders

New owner Josh Harris hasn't commented publicly since Nov. 24, when he issued a statement following the firing of defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio saying he feels “exactly how our fans feel today: disappointed and frustrated.”

The Commanders are 0-3 since and this week benched quarterback Sam Howell. So, while no decisions have been finalized, the situation appears to be trending towards major changes, including moving on from coach Ron Rivera.

If and when that happens, expect Harris to lead the search for his replacement. He's shown a penchant for attracting and hiring key personnel, including bringing in Nick Nurse and Daryl Morey to the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and Lindy Ruf and Tom Fitzgerald to the NHL's New Jersey Devils. The Commanders job is more attractive than it's been in decades, thanks to competent ownership, some building blocks on the roster, a potential top-three draft pick and extra draft capital to potentially package and target a new franchise QB.

The status of general manager Martin Mayhew is also up in the air. Expect the Commanders to at least explore a modified front office structure that more closely resembles other sports, with a president of football operations-type overseeing the head coach and GM. Eugene Shen, who was hired in October as senior vice president of football strategy, oversees analytics and software for the football department and will remain part of the leadership team moving forward.

Atlanta Falcons

It would be a surprise if the Falcons moved on from coach Arthur Smith, who is 21-28 over three seasons and enters Sunday's game at Chicago with playoff hopes alive. But owner Arthur Blank didn't close the door on changes in recent interviews, reiterating to The Athletic he was committed to Smith while adding: "We have two more games to go. Let's see what happens."

Smith signed a six-year deal when he was hired, and Blank knew a rebuild for a team in salary cap hell would take some time. The first two years were essentially clearing the decks and rebuilding, with this year being a far more competitive product on the field -- though the Falcons are still a 7-8 team that has twice benched quarterback Desmond Ridder for journeyman Taylor Heinicke.

Atlanta never went all-in on Ridder, a third-round pick who isn't expensive in the way a bridge starter may be. Turnovers doomed them in four of the games they lost with late leads. Addressing the QB spot will be paramount in 2024 because a lot of other pieces are in place: a talented skill group featuring several first-round picks, a solid offensive line and a defense that ranks top 10 for the first time in years despite the lack of a premier pass rusher.

If Atlanta finishes with solid performances in its final two games, Smith should be in good standing heading into Year 4. If it's a freefall, the Falcons' 81-year-old owner may have a different view.

Like Smith, general manager Terry Fontenot, who has spearheaded the massive roster and cap overhaul, appears to be on stable ground as of now.

Chicago Bears

The Bears have won four of their last six games and are 6-5 since snapping a 14-game losing streak back in October, showing improvement across the board and building a case for coach Matt Eberflus to see a third season.

The defense, in particular, has got better with Eberflus taking over play-calling -- a role he'd be likely to retain in 2024, even with the hiring of a new defensive coordinator -- and an immediate boost from the deadline trade for pass rusher Montez Sweat.

It hasn't all been smooth. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams resigned early in the season under mysterious circumstances. Running backs coach David Walker was fired. Quarterback Justin Fields' play has remained uneven, setting the stage for another major offseason decision by an organization that remains in line for the No. 1 pick, via general manager Ryan Poles' bold trade to send this past year's No. 1 pick to Carolina. But after a trying 2022, the Bears' roster has improved via an infusion of draft picks and cash, and the results have, too.

The Bears have a new team president, Kevin Warren, who is a big-picture thinker and always talks about taking a methodical, organized and deliberate approach to all decisions. (Informatively, Warren was a young executive with a Rams team that went 5-11 and 4-12 in Dick Vermeil's first two seasons, then won the Super Bowl in Year 3.) He'll have a strong voice in whatever decisions are made and take a wholistic view of things once the season ends.

So, Eberflus has two more game to make his closing argument: Sunday against an Atlanta team fighting for its playoff life and a rivalry game next week at Green Bay. Like all coaches hoping to carry momentum into the offseason, Eberflus needs a strong finish. But if the next two games look like the previous 11, signs appear to be pointing in a positive direction for Eberflus, while Poles appears safe.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints are still in the thick of the NFC South race, with a chance to get back to even against the Buccaneers on the road Sunday. But in Year 2, at 7-8, there will be at least questions about the status of head coach Dennis Allen.

Barring some sort of late-season debacle, there shouldn't be many. 

Saints owner Gayle Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis have supported Allen all the way through, and that hasn't changed during a season that began with a suspension of their best offensive player Alvin Kamara, included a variety of injuries to starting quarterback Derek Carr, and featured countless variations to the offensive line and front-seven looks due to more injuries.

Pending their annual round of restructures, the Saints lead the NFL with roughly $312 million in cap commitments on the books for 2024. An older, expensive roster can make for challenges, and one would think next year's version would feature some younger players with a little more speed, especially off the edge on defense. But Allen and his staff have held it together to give them a shot late.

There may be changes coming to New Orleans, though. The offensive side of the ball will get a thorough examination following 2023. But those decisions for Allen and the Saints will be made in the coming months, with all indications as of now that he'll get a third season.

New England Patriots

Owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick still haven't met to discuss the future. Until they do, there will be more questions than answers about how this plays out, and there remains a scenario where Belichick returns to New England for a 25th season.

Belichick, 71, intends to coach in 2024. He's motivated to break Don Shula's all-time wins record. And with Kraft taking on a bigger role in recent years with decision-making within the football operations, such as last year's moves to bring back offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien and retain linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, Belichick has lost a level of control over how the building runs compared to when the team was winning six Super Bowls.

Kraft, 82, has consulted numerous people about how to move forward, with his stated hopes of a return to the playoffs in 2023 long gone amidst a 4-11 season. Kraft is also conscientious of how the Tom Brady situation played out and wants to make sure Belichick's exit, whenever it comes, is handled the right way, making a firing (as opposed to a "mutual parting") highly unlikely.

Could Kraft present a plan, including possible front-office additions/changes, that Belichick would accept? If not, would Kraft give Belichick permission to seek a trade? And is there a match out there for Belichick, who would need to find the right owner and roster situation to build things his way quickly?

If Belichick does move on, speculation has centered on Mayo as his successor. That's not a guarantee, though, and other options -- particular coaches with Patriots ties, such as Josh McDaniels or Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores -- shouldn't be ruled out.

Carolina Panthers

Since firing Frank Reich on Nov. 27, owner David Tepper has been gathering information on a variety of candidates -- and there's a lot for him to sell about the opportunity in Carolina. 

They have a quarterback, No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young, who has made strides in recent weeks. The culture of the building is in good shape. And resources are never a problem under Tepper, who has invested heavily in every area of the building (operations, player engagement, nutrition, etc.) since he bought the team in 2018. 

It's all set up well for a young coach such as Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who was believed to be their target last year before pulling his name out of the search (and all others) the night before he was supposed to get on a plane to Charlotte for an in-person interview. Modernizing and fixing the offense remains a priority, so Dolphins OC Frank Smith and Texans OC Bobby Slowik are also logical candidates, among others. Panthers defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero is highly valued in the building and should get an interview, too. Hiring an experienced coach such as Cowboys DC Dan Quinn, who knows the division well from his Atlanta days, is a possibility as well. 

Tepper has not commented on the status of general manager Scott Fitterer, whose status is unclear.

Las Vegas Raiders

Owner Mark Davis has told people close to him that he's increasingly impressed by interim head coach Antonio Pierce, who is 4-3 since replacing Josh McDaniels -- including a 20-14 triumph last week at Kansas City. 

Superstar pass rusher Maxx Crosby and other players have been effusive in their praise for Pierce, and several members of the extended Raiders family have reached out to Davis to express their support as well. But Pierce is not a slam dunk for the job. 

Davis is a believer that you need a big name in Las Vegas, and his two coaches there so far (Jon Gruden and McDaniels) fit the bill. Who could it be this time? Bill Belichick is certainly one if he becomes available, though it's hard to imagine a return to the Patriot Way would play well in the locker room after McDaniels' 9-16 stint. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Raiders assistant coach, would qualify. And Davis still loves Gruden, who hasn't taken a full-time coaching role since his resignation from the Raiders in 2021.

Pierce has two more games to make his case -- at Indianapolis today and home against the Broncos next week -- with slim playoff hopes still alive. Interim general manager Champ Kelly's status also remains up in the air.

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers are just getting started with their search process after firing head coach Brandon Staley and general manager Tom Telesco on Dec. 15 and replacing them with Giff Smith and JoJo Wooden, respectively, on an interim basis.

The chance to work with quarterback Justin Herbert is a big selling point; the team also has a soon-to-open new practice facility and life in sunny southern California on its side. So, it's no surprise some of the biggest names in this cycle -- including Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson – have popped up in the rumor mill. But expect an extensive interview list for both the head coach and GM positions, searches that could potentially run simultaneously.

The new regime will have hard decisions to make on some of the team's marquee players: running back Austin Ekeler will be a free agent in March, while the likes of receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams and pass rushers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack are all set to count large numbers against the cap in 2024. Competing in a division with Andy Reid and Sean Payton sitting in two of the four head coaching seats has never been tougher. But it's an attractive job nonetheless.

While the Chargers sometimes have been critiqued for frugality in the past, their president of football operations, John Spanos, the son of owner Dean Spanos, told reporters recently there will be “no limitations” on its search. 

"I think these three weeks will be advantageous for us to strategize and then make sure we're ready," Spanos said.

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