Reviewing potential offensive coordinator candidates to replace Arthur Smith for the Titans

With Arthur Smith leaving for the Falcons head coaching position, the Titans find themselves in the rare position of having two coordinator spots to fill in the same offseason. Zach Lyons broke down some of the top candidates on the defensive side earlier and you can check that out here — I’ll cast my vote for Wisconsin DC Jim Leonhard personally — but I wanted to jump into the options on offense as well.

The good news is that this is going to be a wildly attractive job for candidates. The last two coaches who sat in this chair are now head coaches in the NFL and the core group of players from the unit that finished 4th in the league in scoring is largely locked in for the next two years.

The Titans offense will return at least nine starters with Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis as the only potential notable departures, but they certainly have the resources to retain or replace those pieces. Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and A.J. Brown are all under contract through at least 2022 and the offensive line features a three-time Pro Bowl left tackle and three interior players who received All-Pro votes this year. This is a really good job.

Before we get into the list of names, let’s discuss expectations. There is no such thing as the perfect coordinator candidate. Coaches who have several years of extremely successful playcalling experience at the NFL level are either already coordinators with other teams or head coaching candidates.

The coaches who are generally available for OC or DC spots are almost exclusively up-and-coming position coaches with little or no playcalling experience or retread coaches who failed as either a coordinator or a head coach elsewhere. The other option is the college ranks, which has it’s own drawbacks given how different the college game is from the pros. Your preference will likely be driven by which weaknesses you’re most comfortable with.

With that being said, let’s jump into some of the candidates that could make sense for the Titans.

The Up-and-Coming Position Coaches

Mike McDaniel, 49ers run game coordinator

Let’s start with a guy who might be my very favorite option on this list. McDaniel has been working for Kyle Shanahan for 13 of the last 15 years going all the way back to Shanahan’s stint as the Texans wide receivers coach in 2006 under Gary Kubiak. During that time, McDaniel has risen from an offensive assistant to wide receivers coach to run game coordinator and is considered integral to the wildly successful run game that the 49ers have built over the past four years.

Shanahan has blocked multiple requests from other NFL teams to interview McDaniel over recent years, citing his importance to the 49ers offense as too valuable to let go.

“They have been extremely involved. Both of them could run their offense right now — probably could have years ago. Right now, LaFleur and McDaniel have been pre-recording videos for us to watch on all our pass concepts, our run game. They’ve done a lot of them — I’m talking 30 15-minute videos, where they’re in their living rooms in front of a projector going over how we install everything. Really just installing the offense for Kyle. And then we go into these offensive skill meetings, and Kyle elaborates on what they already have installed. I truly believe both of them are so capable and ready to run their own offenses. It’s going to be a bummer for us when we lose one of them. They’re going to be really hard to replace, because they’re so valuable and important to this offense and contribute so much to what we do as a team.”

With the new NFL rules passed this summer that prevent teams from blocking assistants from interviewing for promotions, McDaniel is now free to leave, if he so chooses.

Complicating this picture, however, is Robert Saleh’s departure for the New York Jets head coaching job. Saleh is reportedly bringing Mike LaFleur along to be his offensive coordinator and playcaller, leaving the 49ers clear to promote McDaniel to offensive coordinator in title, though Shanahan will still be the playcaller.

That promotion is expected to happen, but the lack of playcalling duties could lead McDaniel to keep his options open. He’s already been linked to the Dolphins open OC position (which would include playcalling duties) and he would make a ton of sense in Tennessee as well.

McDaniel is a true Shanahan disciple and that means that a lot of the language that was used to install the Titans offense three years ago by fellow Shanny disciple Matt LaFleur would easily translate. The same is true for the offensive system that he would likely run. Things would look very similar to what we saw under Arthur Smith, though I’m sure McDaniel would have his own spin on some things.

Further, McDaniel already has a relationship with Titans offensive line coach Keith Carter from their time together in Atlanta so there is a potential advocate for him in the building (that is, if Carter isn’t advocating for himself for this job, but we will talk more about that later) and a built-in comfort level with arguably the key position coach for his outside zone, west coast offense.

Mike Kafka, Chiefs quarterbacks coach

We do love our coaches named Mike here in Tennessee…

Kafka was, interestingly enough, on the Titans practice squad for six days in 2015 as a backup to the backup for Marcus Mariota, so to say his rise to consideration for offensive coordinator positions has been quick is an understatement. The former Northwestern quarterback would start his coaching career just months later, catching on as a grad assistant for his alma mater in 2016 before getting a gig with the Chiefs as an offensive quality control assistant in 2017. He was quickly promoted to quarterbacks coach in 2018, helping shepherd the meteoric rise of Patrick Mahomes and then added passing game coordinator to his resume this season.

Still yet to call a play at the NFL level, Kafka is already drawing some interest as a head coach. The Eagles have been reported as a team that has some interest despite his remarkably similar background to their recently fired head coach, Doug Pederson.

With Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy looking like he might potentially come up empty for a third straight offseason, would Kafka make a move to get out from under both Andy Reid — who still calls the plays in Kansas City — and Bienemy, who holds the OC title? I think it would make a lot of sense if his aspiration is to reach a head coaching position as soon as possible.

The question for me is fit. Obviously, Kafka has done great work with Mahomes, though it’s fair to question how much of that success is Reid, how much is Bienemy, and how much is just Mahomes being a prodigious talent. However, the Chiefs offense is wildly different from the one we’ve seen in Tennessee. Would Kafka be willing to adapt his approach to fit more of what the Titans roster is built for? Or would he try to shoehorn this roster into a system that looks more like the Chiefs?

Luke Getsy, Packers quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator

Getsy is yet another young (36), bright coach to keep an eye on. Currently serving as the Packers quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, he’s helped Matt LaFleur take Green Bay’s offense to the top of the NFL. Sure, having Aaron Rodgers helps, but just a few seasons ago, people were starting to question whether Rodgers was in decline, now he’s about to win another MVP.

Another former quarterback, Getsy played at Akron, leading the Zips to their first ever conference championship during his time there. After a brief stint on the 49ers practice squad, he turned to coaching working his way up from a GA position at Akron. One of his stops along the way saw him serve as Corey Davis’ first position coach at Western Michigan in 2013, but he arrived in the NFL with the Packers the very next year as a quality control coach before taking over the wide receivers position coaching job, where he helped Davante Adams overcome what had been a disappointing start to his career and make his first Pro Bowl in 2017.

After a brief stint as offensive coordinator at Mississippi State under Joe Moorhead in 2018 (though he didn’t call plays), Getsy returned to Green Bay with Matt LaFleur in 2019 as quarterbacks coach and added passing game coordinator to his duties in 2020.

The fit is obviously interesting here. Matt LaFleur did the original installation of the Titans offense and Getsy would come in with familiarity of scheme and language from day one. The biggest question for me comes from his lack of playcalling experience, but that’s going to be true of every coach in this section of the list.

Adam Stenavich, Packers offensive line coach

Okay, let’s stick with the Packers for a moment and look at another position coach who is on the rise and has crossed paths with Kyle Shanahan: Packers offensive line coach Adam Stenavich.

A former practice squad offensive lineman, Stenavich has quickly risen through the coaching ranks since starting as a graduate assistant at Michigan in 2011 where he worked with a young Taylor Lewan. He made his jump to the NFL in 2017, getting hired on as Shanahan’s assistant offensive line coach in San Francisco before LaFleur hired him away to be his lead offensive line coach in Green Bay.

His performance coaching that unit has raised eyebrows around the league. The Packers have had a lot of moving parts on the offensive line over the last few years, but Stenavich has elevated the games of guys like Elgton Jenkins (Pro Bowl selection in just his second year), Corey Linsley (First-Team All-Pro for the first time this year), and journeyman right tackle Billy Turner.

In the Packers divisional round playoff win over the Rams, Stenavich’s group kept Aaron Rodgers clean on 36 attempts despite being without Bakhtiari and facing one of the NFL’s most fearsome fronts. They also cleared the way for a 188-yard day for the Green Bay ground game.

Stenavich even got a personal shoutout from Rodgers during the FOX postgame interview as the quarterback credited “Stenny” for a great plan against the Rams front. The question will be whether he’s ready for the leap to playcalling and organizing the entire offense, but this feels like a rising star in the coaching ranks and given the scheme fit, he’s worth keeping an eye on for the Titans offensive coordinator position.

Shane Waldron, Rams passing game coordinator

While the “hire everyone who ever had lunch with Sean McVay” train has slowed the last couple years, I think it’s still clear that McVay has built his staff around smart, forward-thinking coaches and Waldron has been an integral part of that group since joining the Rams as a tight ends coach in 2017.

He added passing game coordinator to his title in 2018 after Matt LaFleur left for Tennessee and has had the label ever since. The L.A. offense has cooled since their red hot peak in 2018, but that’s largely been driven by a drying up of talent along the offensive line by my estimation.

Waldron also has connections with both Mike Vrabel and Jon Robinson from his time in New England. He was hired by Bill Belichick in 2008 — Vrabel’s final year with the team — as a quality control assistant and then elevated to tight ends coach in 2009 before leaving the NFL to coach wide receivers in the UFL and then moving to the college game where he primarily served as an offensive line coach. Waldron returned to the NFL in 2016 with Washington and then joined McVay with the Rams a year later.

With a diverse background of position coach roles — he’s held every position coach spot except running backs — and the Patriots stamp of approval, Waldron makes for an interesting option for the Titans. While McVay’s version of the Shanahan scheme differs from the version we have seen in Tennessee — more shotgun and 11-personnel, less play action — it’s not nearly as big a leap in styles as you’d see from Mike Kafka jumping from KC. I’d like this fit quite a bit.

Tim Kelly, former Texans offensive coordinator

There are some links here that make Kelly too interesting not to mention. First, he has deep roots with Mike Vrabel, having coached alongside the Titans head coach for four years in Houston. Second, he’s starting right tackle Dennis Kelly’s brother.

However, I wouldn’t be putting Kelly on this list if I didn’t think there was something there with him. He was nominally given the offensive coordinator title in 2019, but Bill O’Brien was still calling plays. He got full reigns of the offense after BOB was fired midway through the 2020 season and that stretch of games saw Deshaun Watson play the best football of his entire career.

The big question with Kelly is scheme fit to me. The Texans offense was drastically different from what the Titans have run the past three years. It’s not impossible for a new offensive coordinator to come in and adapt what he knows to fit a system that is already in place, but it can add a level of difficulty to what is already a tough transition.

The Retreads

Pep Hamilton, former Chargers quarterbacks coach

Hamilton is still young (46) and is coming off a season where he was a position coach, but he lands in the retreads category thanks to his previous stint as an NFL offensive coordinator with the Colts.

His career really launched when he served as Jim Harbaugh’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Stanford, where Hamilton was credited with helping develop Andrew Luck into a generational prospect. After Bruce Arians left the Colts for the Cardinals head coaching job, Chuck Pagano hired Hamilton to re-join Luck in Indy.

Hamilton had initial success with the Colts, guiding the Indy offense up from 18th in scoring the season before he arrived to 14th in year one and 6th in year two. However, the wheels fell off in 2015, when Luck began to struggle and the team started 3-5. That led to Hamilton being fired. Indy would close 5-3 to finish with an even 8-8 record, but it wasn’t the offense that led them there. After averaging 21.6 points per game under Pep, the Colts dropped to just 16.6 under his replacement, Rob Chudzinski.

After spending a year with the Browns as an “associate head coach” for Hue Jackson, Pep returned to the college game and his old mentor Jim Harbaugh, taking over as Michigan’s passing game coordinator in 2017 and 2018. He was the head coach of the DC Defenders in the short-lived XFL in the spring of 2020 before returning to the NFL as quarterbacks coach for the Chargers.

Justin Herbert’s electric, record-breaking performance as a rookie turned heads in 2020 and now Pep Hamilton is a hot name again. His preferred style is best described as west coast-ish. It’s not the pure Shanahanian looks that we are more accustomed to seeing and the language is a bit different, but it’s certainly got some familiar elements, including lots of heavy personnel groupings and a balanced run-pass approach.

Rich Scangarello, former Eagles senior offensive assistant

This is a guy to keep an eye on in my opinion. He was part of a strange log jam of high level offensive assistants in Philadelphia last year, joining Marty Mornhinweg and Press Taylor under head coach Doug Pederson. Things went terribly for the Eagles last year, but Scangarello’s background is still interesting.

After a one year stint as an offensive assistant for the Raiders in 2009, Scangarello spent several years coaching in the lower levels of college football before getting a job on the Falcons 2015 staff — that staff had Kyle Shanahan as OC, Keith Carter as an assistant OL coach, and Matt LaFleur as QB coach — as a quality control assistant. Following that season he got his first playcalling gig at small Wagner college, before rejoining Shanahan as the 49ers quarterbacks coach in 2017 and 2018 where he helped keep San Francisco competitive despite being without Jimmy Garappolo for 24 of their 32 games.

His success developing Nick Mullens led to an opportunity on Vic Fangio’s staff as the offensive coordinator in 2019. That stop didn’t go smoothly. Scangarello had his playcalling publicly criticized by Joe Flacco, Emmanuel Sanders, and even Fangio throughout the season, and while his work with Drew Lock at the end of 2019 was impressive, it still wasn’t enough to keep his job as Fangio chose to jump at the chance to add seasoned playcaller Pat Shurmur when he was fired by the Giants.

When Doug Pederson brought Scangarello to Philly, it was with the intent that he would help bring some of the heavy play action, Shanahanian style offensive elements to the Eagles playbook. However, with very little practice time before the season, the Eagles never were able to get the reps in to truly master the details of that part of the game.

Now, Scangarello finds himself looking for work for a second straight offseason. Looking back on his work with Lock at the end of 2019 is more impressive now, however, after the second-year QB largely regressed under Shurmur’s watch in 2020. The criticism of Scangarello was largely that he was a good play designer and often did a great job building an opening script, but got lost when asked to call plays off-script, often becoming overly conservative.

Those concerns would remain for me, but obviously there is a scheme fit and his work with Lock is very encouraging in retrospect. Could the young playcaller have developed as a playcaller in his time in Philly, working under two experienced coaches in Pederson and Mornhinweg? That’s the question that must be answered with this candidate.

Anthony Lynn, former Chargers head coach

Lynn lost his job primarily due to his horrendous game management as a head coach. However, he had some success as an offensive coordinator that led him to that job, including building a top-10 scoring offense around Tyrod Taylor and a very limited Bills roster in 2016.

Lynn didn’t call plays with the Chargers, but we know one thing about the former NFL running back: he wants to run the football. That mentality would seemingly fit well with a Titans offense that is already built around a strong rushing attack.

Jay Gruden, former Jaguars offensive coordinator

With the old regime in Jacksonville out, Gruden will be looking for another job for the second straight offseason. He obviously didn’t have much success in Jacksonville — the Jags finished 30th in scoring at 19.1 points per game — but he’s certainly had previous success as a playcaller in the NFL.

Gruden rose as an assistant under his brother in Tampa Bay, but caught on with the Bengals as offensive coordinator 2011. He was largely credited with helping build a top-10 offense around a young Andy Dalton, a feat that got him the head job in Washington.

Gruden’s time in the nation’s capital was a mixed bag. He finished with a 35-49-1 record, but it’s fair to say that he was working in highly adverse conditions during his time in Washington. Gruden did an outstanding job developing Kirk Cousins, but after his quarterback left for Minnesota (and Alex Smith suffered a gruesome leg injury) the offense went in the tank, leading to the head coach’s dismissal.

While his results are largely mixed — and there are also some personality question marks — his scheme is a fit for what the Titans do, and with a decade of playcalling experience, he’s a guy who knows what he’s doing.

Shane Steichen, former Chargers offensive coordinator

Steichen has a very similar background to the one Arthur Smith brought to the Titans offensive coordinator role two years ago. He got his start with the Chargers in 2011 as a defensive assistant under Norv Turner. When Turner was fired after the 2012 season, Steichen went to Cleveland for a year before returning to San Diego to work under Turner’s replacement, Mike McCoy, as an offensive quality control coach.

He was eventually promoted to quarterbacks coach in 2016 and was retained in that role when McCoy was fired and replaced by Anthony Lynn in 2017. By 2019, Steichen was elevated to offensive coordinator and given playcalling duties. The results, however, were middling at best. Steichen’s offenses ranked 21st and 18th in scoring, but there was a lot to like about the handling of Herbert this year.

The scheme Steichen installed was more similar to the outside zone, west coast scheme that the Titans run than the shotgun, quick passing attack that the Chargers had run under the previous OC Ken Whisenhunt so this would largely be a stylistic fit for the Titans.

The College Coaches

Tony Elliott, Clemson offensive coordinator

I’ll keep this short since we hit on Elliott yesterday when reports of contact between the Titans and Clemson’s OC hit Twitter and it sounds like Elliott is staying put for now.

However, it’s worth noting that the Titans had interest in going to the college ranks to potentially fill this spot.

Internal Candidates

Keith Carter, Titans offensive line coach

The Titans have several strong internal candidates if they choose to promote from within again. The internal promotion is very much a staple of the Patriots way, and while I don’t think the Titans are intending to copy anyone, the experience of Vrabel and Jon Robinson has seen that model work over the years and it’s natural to think they might be more comfortable going that route.

If the Titans are married to the scheme they currently run — and if they’re promoting a coach from within, you’d think they would be — their most experienced practitioner of that scheme is Carter, who joined Kyle Shanahan’s offensive staff in Atlanta in 2015 as assistant offensive line coach. He was promoted to running backs coach in 2017, before joining the Titans as offensive line coach in 2018.

Since arriving in Tennessee, Carter’s offensive line has shown steady improvement as they’ve adapted to the offense’s zone blocking scheme. His most impressive season was this year, when second-year right guard Nate Davis made the leap from a struggling rookie to a guy who earned two All-Pro votes and the Titans continued to put up big numbers despite being down to their third string left tackle and, at times, an undrafted rookie left guard. No matter who Tennessee plugged into the lineup, they looked prepared and that’s a credit to Carter.

So Carter has the deepest roots in the Titans offense, had arguably the most impressive position group of the 2020 season when you consider the adversity that room faced, and he’s coached multiple positions at the NFL level. To me, that screams offensive coordinator candidate.

I also think Carter has the right demeanor for an OC job. Before COVID when I could actually do things like this, I watched his offensive line work closely in training camp and came away impressed with his assertiveness and communication skills. He was more than willing to hold his players accountable, including star left tackle Taylor Lewan, another strong leadership trait for a young coach.

One of the biggest benefits from promoting internally is that it gives you a coordinator who intimately knows the roster, already has relationships with other coaches and players, and can pick up right where the old coordinator left off. In this case, with a top-five offense that has rarely missed beats over the past two years, that feels like a big deal.

The question, of course, is whether or not Carter would make for a good playcaller, and that’s impossible to know right now. He’s never done it before. Mike Vrabel should have a better sense for his aptitude in that department, and after the Arthur Smith experience, I’d be willing to trust his judgment here if he feels Carter is ready.

Another plus for Carter? His replacement is likely already on staff as assistant offensive line coach Mike Sullivan has held lead offensive line coaching gigs before and has been in Tennessee for seven years now.

Todd Downing, Titans tight ends coach

Carter certainly isn’t the only internal candidate that could make sense though. Tight ends coach Todd Downing is the only offensive coach on staff with NFL playcalling experience, and even though that was just one season, it’s more than most of these other options.

Downing broke into the NFL at the age of 23, and has held a job in the league for 18 consecutive years now. His career got jump started when he became an assistant quarterbacks coach for the Lions and built a strong bond with a young Matthew Stafford. He was promoted to quarterbacks coach a year later and helped Stafford to a career year in 2011, throwing for over 5,000 yards with 41 touchdowns.

He later would catch on in the same role with the Raiders, and again, he oversaw the rise of Derek Carr’s early career, including his best season in 2016 when Carr was considered a fringe MVP candidate. That success led him to a promotion to the offensive coordinator role, but that experiment didn’t go so well. After finishing 7th in scoring in 2016, they plummeted to 23rd under Downing as Carr struggled in his return from a broken leg.

Downing was dismissed along with the rest of Jack Del Rio’s staff at the end of the season, but caught on as tight ends coach in Minnesota for a year before replacing Arthur Smith in the same role in Tennessee. The development of Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser (as well as MyCole Pruitt) under Downing has been impressive to watch.

The question is whether you count Downing’s 2017 season as Raiders playcaller as a positive (he’s done it before) or a negative (he wasn’t very successful).

Pat O’Hara, Titans quarterbacks coach

Another candidate that bears mentioning because quarterbacks coaches are often viewed as the top offensive position coach on a staff. O’Hara also has some playcalling experience, though it’s all at either the high school level (he was Chris Johnson’s offensive coordinator back in Florida) or in the Arena League.

Ryan Tannehill has clearly performed great under O’Hara, but it’s unclear how much of that credit should go to his position coach. Arthur Smith had a great relationship with the quarterback as well, as does Mike Vrabel. However, at the very least we can say O’Hara is doing a solid job in his position so far.

O’Hara also has the deepest roots with Vrabel among the coaches on the offensive staff, going back to 2015 when he arrived in Houston as an offensive assistant. I’m not sure if that counts for anything, but it’s worth noting that he’s the only offensive assistant that Vrabel brought directly from Houston. The other coach on the staff that followed Vrabel was Shane Bowen, who got the defensive coordinator duties in 2020, though he didn’t get the title.

Tony Dews, Titans running backs coach

Dews is another interesting coach on the offensive staff. He’s obviously done great work developing Derrick Henry over the past three years, helping him become one of the most dominant backs in NFL history.

He also has a diverse background, with experience coaching every position group on both sides of the ball with the lone exception of quarterback. That kind of wide ranging experience would seem likely to serve him well in a bigger role, though lack of playcalling experience is a clear drawback (as it is with many of these options).

Comments

  1. Some good candidates. Losing Art is a blow but maybe changing things up with a new co ordinator might be a good thing in a way. Opponents will have to adjust. Hopefully we get more of an offseason this year!

    1. I like Lynn, but my first choice would be Mike McDaniel. Just feel like he’s going to be a star when he finally gets his chance to call plays based on everything I’ve heard/read about him over the last few years. I would be relatively comfortable with most of the names on this list though.

  2. With as much trouble as Bienemy is having, I’d see if he’s interested in throwing his tweaks into our offense and see how it goes.

    Doubt he would mind taking an opportunity to be the sole playcaller and get out from under Reid

    1. Yeah, that would be interesting. Kind of a LaFleur situation. Sounds like there is a decent chance he gets the Texans job, but if he doesn’t, that could be worth a phone call for Vrabel.

  3. Man what a buffet of names! Fingers crossed we nail these hires.

    Hoping we go for some of the names that would bring slight variations of our offensive philosophy to keep things fresh.
    But worst case we promote from within, maintain status quo, and really get the defensive kinks worked out.
    We do that and we’re gold

  4. Any thoughts about Tom Herman? OSU connect in 13-14′, has a good spread game and run based game. Not going to Jacksonville with Meyer, could bring a lot of fresh ideas with him and get us a 4k passer finally since becoming the Titans.

    1. As a Texas alum, I’ve watched a lot of Herman and I have some concerns there. First, I don’t think his players liked him very much. In fact, there were reports that some of his own current players were recruiting against him this past year, which is part of why he was fired. Obviously, NFL is different, but you still have to be able to build genuine relationships with guys.

      The other drawback I have with him is that his offense was never *that* dynamic at Texas and he was only the playcaller for a very brief amount of time. Mostly it was Tim Beck or Mike Yurcich calling plays. If Herman is truly a great playcaller, does he give that up to those guys?

      I’d probably rather see them go elsewhere.

      1. That’s fair. I hadn’t followed him as closely after he left OSU and had the big year in Houston. I just remembered his offense in Columbus was pretty potent with Braxton Miller and JT Barrett. Thanks for the follow up

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