The fastest track to becoming a head coach at the NFL level in recent years has been displaying brilliance through offensive innovation and creativity. However, there have been a handful with expertise on the other side of the ball that have been hired to those positions as well.
Since 2020, there have been 17 offensive head coach hires made, nearly twice as many as there have been defensive with nine. The lone special teams representative is Joe Judge in 2020 and he only lasted two seasons with the New York Giants.
The defensive coach who’s most likely to join the shortlist of contrarian hires during the next hiring cycle of the 2024 offseason is none other than Baltimore Ravens’ Mike Macdonald. Despite being in just his second year on the job and only being the spry age of 36 years old, he is already being regarded as one of the brightest minds in the game.
Macdonald spent nearly a decade on the Ravens’ coaching staff under Head Coach John Harbaugh as assistant coaching linebackers and defensive backs from 2014-2020. He then spent a year away from the team, but still serving under another Harbaugh, in his first crack at calling plays and designing a scheme at the University of Michigan in 2021. Under his guidance and tutelage, the Wolverines had one of the best defensive units in the country that year and produced three first-round draft picks.
In his first year back at the NFL level in the elevated role, the Ravens’ defense overcame a rocky start to the 2022 season —where they struggled to hold onto leads — and wound up being one of the top units in the league.
Macdonald was still figuring out what roles certain versatile players should play and he was gifted First-Team All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith in the middle of the season via trade. Once he figured out a niche for 2022 first-round defensive back Kyle Hamilton as a hybrid nickel defender, the second half of his rookie season was sensational.
However, there are two attributes that have made Macdonald such a rising star and gain national media attention, recognition, and praise. He was recently named the Coach of the Week on Monday’s episode of Good Morning Football by NFL Network’s Peter Schrager.
One of them is his ability to devise game plans, which include disguised coverages and creative pressures, to confuse even the brightest quarterbacks into turnovers and errant throws. He also not only gets the best out of his top players but also masks talent discrepancies when backups are forced to step into starting roles, so much so that there’s hardly any noticeable drop-off at all.
Macdonald demonstrated both of these skills in the Ravens’ Week 2 win over their archrival Cincinnati Bengals. For the fourth meeting in a row, including last year’s Wildcard round playoff matchup, Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow and one of the league’s most explosive offenses were held in check.
“Five different starters missing on defense, they go into Cincinnati and Macdonald just had his guys ready to go,” Schrager said. “Injuries everywhere. No problem. The Ravens D found a way.”
Burrow failed to eclipse 222 passing yards, was under constant duress, and was deceived into several throwaways and bad passes. One of his costly mistakes resulted in an interception by backup safety Geno Stone, who is starting in the place of veteran Marcus Williams while he recovers from injury.
Ravens S Geno Stone with a game-changing interception on Joe Burrow, who himself described it as "really good disguise"— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) September 18, 2023
What was Joe Burrow expecting from the Ravens defense
Why the play design actually worked! (kinda)
How Geno Stone just made a great football play
Macdonald has also been without three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey for the first two games of the season. Yet on Sunday, he was able to limit two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase to just five catches for less than 40 receiving yards for the second straight game.
He made sure that third-year pro Brandon Stephens and veterans Rock Ya-Sin and Ronald Darby were prepared and in a position to make plays. The latter two were signed recently to compete for the other starting outside corner spot. However, Stephens has been stepping up since last season and deserves extensive playing time even after Humphrey returns.
A head coach’s job is to both manage his team and find a way to lead them through adversity that arises over the course of a game and season. The best head coaches can weather a storm and make sure the ship stays afloat when perceived debilitating injuries occur. However, they’re also able to make the best of the available resources so that the team is able to continue to thrive. That is what Macdonald has proven he can do through the first two weeks of this season and dating back to the second half of last season.
The Ravens are currently dealing with multiple key injuries and on Tuesday, starting nickel defender Ar’Darius Washington was placed on injured reserve. If Macdonald continues to consistently showcase his brilliance through ingenious game plans amidst this, his return to Baltimore could be short-lived.
He is on track to be one of the hottest head coaching candidates in about five months, which means the Ravens could very well be on their third defensive coordinator in the last three years by the start of the 2024 season.
Some teams to keep an eye on as potential landing spots for Macdonald if he decides to take that next step are the Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, Washington Commanders, and Chicago Bears. The Chargers, Bears, and Commanders currently have head coaches with defensive backgrounds and teams typically look to the opposite side of the ball when trying to find their next one. However, Macdonald’s resourcefulness to do more with less could make them reconsider.
The Chargers and Commanders also have offensive coordinators who might be next in line to take over if their team’s head coach is fired during or after the season. Washington is off to a 2-0 start this season, thanks largely to Eric Bieniemy’s play-calling — his first shot to do so after years of living in Andy Reid’s shadow with the Kansas City Chiefs. While Los Angeles is off to a 0-2 start, it’s not for an inability to score points and move the ball with Kellen Moore calling the shots on offense.
Of the four aforementioned possible landing spots, Las Vegas might be the most likely to become available. Their current head coach Josh McDaniels comes from an offensive background and the Raiders’ defense has been much-maligned for years, despite having promising and proven playmakers at every level.
It would definitely be a loss for the Ravens to have to potentially cross paths in the AFC with a brilliant defensive mind they helped foster. However, it’d also be a testament to both them and Macdonald if it ultimately came to fruition.