The 2022 NFL season hasn’t even started, but there’s already speculation about who will be on the sidelines in 2023. That’s the nature of the league.
Jim Harbaugh could also be in play. Yes, he signed a contract extension with the Michigan Wolverines after flirting with the Minnesota Vikings. Yes, he said that Ann Arbor is where he wants to be. But there’s very little preventing Harbaugh from a return; only a $3 million buyout that shrinks every year after that. By pro standards, that’s not a lot of money.
Payton and Harbaugh are great options that owners can easily sell to their players and fan base. Proven winners with track records of making teams a lot better quickly. Let’s first look at Payton.
The most stunning news of last season’s coaching carousel was Payton stepping down from the New Orleans Saints, where he’d been in charge since 2006. Payton and Drew Brees were the faces of the most successful run in franchise history, including 2009 when the previously downtrodden franchise won a Super Bowl.
Payton walked away from the NFL, but it probably will be a one-year hiatus (he might be the Miami Dolphins‘ head coach right now if not for the Brian Flores lawsuit). He’ll be in demand and it’s reasonable to link him to the Dallas Cowboys, where he was an assistant before getting his shot in New Orleans. Jerry Jones will turn 80 this fall and is desperate to win another Super Bowl after decades of playoff irrelevance. If Mike McCarthy underachieves again in the postseason, he’ll probably get fired.
Publicly, Jones is supporting his coach. Privately, that might not be the case for a team that’s built to win now in a wide-open NFC. Jones got three championships in the 1990s with teams that Jimmy Johnson built. The Cowboys are 4-11 in the playoffs since 1996 and haven’t reached the NFC Championship game since Troy Aikman was the quarterback. This run of futility included last year’s 23-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on an embarrassing final play.
Generally, Jones has been reluctant to bring in strong personalities. He prefers quieter coaches who let the attention-hungry owner hog the spotlight. However, Jones did hire Bill Parcells, who in turn hired Payton. Jones and Payton know each other very well. Perhaps they could make it work and get the most out of a roster that includes Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, and Micah Parsons.
It’s natural to connect the dots and speculate that Jones and Payton have a wink-wink understanding that he’ll be the Dallas coach in 2023. However, if you’re Payton, it makes more sense to wait patiently and see what other jobs could be available. What if the Los Angeles Chargers miss the playoffs again despite having Justin Herbert? That would be an attractive opening. A lot can change between now and January.
Another coach who might be taking a wait-and-see approach is Harbaugh, who will coach his eighth season at Michigan. For now, he sounds content. However, if the Vikings offered him the job, he would have taken it. He was probably as shocked as anyone that Minnesota chose Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell over him. So, Harbaugh went back to Ann Arbor where he’s coming off a breakthrough season, winning the Big Ten championship and reaching the College Football Playoff.
But can he sustain it, especially since Ohio State has dominated the conference for so long? The Wolverines’ 2021 success might be an outlier. And when you look at the rapidly changing nature of college sports (transfer portal and NIL) it’s natural to wonder if Harbaugh’s style still fits in today’s college athletics. Michigan is, once again, expected to finish behind the Buckeyes. Until more schools are allowed in the playoffs, Harbaugh will have a slim margin for error.
In the NFL, the path to a championship is easier, especially with its expanded playoffs. And you don’t have to constantly worry about recruiting, players transferring, or appeasing nosy boosters. There’s only one guy you must keep happy —the owner. When Harbaugh left Stanford for the San Francisco 49ers, he chose wisely. He joined a team with a talented roster that had underachieved under Mike Singletary. He immediately took that team to three straight NFC Championship game appearances and was a play away from winning the Super Bowl. Harbaugh might have stayed in the pros if not for losing a power struggle with then-general manager Trent Baalke following an 8-8 season.
Harbaugh says he’s done chasing the NFL, but what if a team chases him? There will likely be several intriguing openings this winter. And even if those teams don’t have an established quarterback, there could be two great prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft: Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.
Harbaugh and Payton have options. It will be fun to see which ones they choose.