Commentary

Jacksonville gets a head start

Team can be first to pursue former head coaches like Billick or top assistants like Ryan

Originally Published: November 29, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The timing of Jack Del Rio's firing, with five games left in the season, may not make a lot of sense on the surface. But it could make a difference as Jacksonville looks to replace him.

Finding a coach to replace him is a tough sell, and with owner Wayne Weaver selling the team to Shahid Kahn, the organization needs to get a jump on other owners before they start firing their coaches. As all owners know, the pool of hot assistant coaches is at its shallowest because more head coaches are calling plays and not developing coordinators who might ready to become head coaches.

By firing Del Rio now, Weaver and Kahn can see whether Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher has any interest. Gruden is unlikely to be interested after signing a five-year contract extension with ESPN. Cowher probably won't be interested because Jacksonville has a general manager in place in Gene Smith. Fisher may listen, but he probably will wait for other opportunities before deciding what's the right job for him.

That could put the Jaguars in position to interview former head coaches who are in broadcasting, such as Brian Billick or Jim Mora Jr.

That must be done before the Jaguars have to slug it out against more attractive opportunities. Because of its tricky economic situation, Jacksonville can't outbid other teams with vacancies looking at assistant coaches. The Jaguars also need someone who can sell tickets. Dallas Cowboys assistant coach Rob Ryan could be near the top of the list.

The Jaguars could be persuaded that Ryan can do what his twin, Rex, did with the New York Jets: establish a tough defensive mentality and create an environment in which players believe they are winners. The Jags have a good defense and run the ball well with Maurice Jones-Drew. Ryan would need to find the right coordinator to develop Blaine Gabbert and the offense.

Among the offensive assistants the Jags might consider are Rob Chudzinski of the Panthers, Jay Gruden of the Bengals and Brian Schottenheimer of the Jets. Some defensive considerations are Chuck Pagano of the Ravens, Dennis Allen of the Broncos, Mike Zimmer of the Bengals,Winston Moss of the Packers and Jerry Gray of the Titans.

Because Jon Gruden is unlikely to coach and because luring Cowher would be a tough sell, Fisher is the top name on the head coaching lists. But if five to seven jobs are open, Fisher is unlikely to go to Jacksonville.

Don't rule out the possibility that interim coach Mel Tucker might keep the job. He'll have five games to show whether he can be an NFL head coach.

With a young roster and a new owner the Jaguars can promote a franchise that is building itself through the draft, and the Jags have a good talent evaluator in Smith. If Gabbert starts to show he can be a franchise quarterback, the Jaguars could attract some interesting candidates.

Billick knows what to do on offense. Ryan might be able to motivate the players and establish an intensity that's been missing with this team.

Weaver and the organization have done a good job selling tickets while the team is rebuilding and the economy is tight. Those skills will be needed to find Del Rio's replacement.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer