NFL equivalents for each current CFL head coach

Graphic: 3DownNation (Photos: Curtis Martin | AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Coaches will be at the centre of much discussion this week as we stare down the NFL’s annual Black Monday firings on January 9th.

The full roster of CFL head coaches is already set for the 2023 season but we at 3DownNation didn’t want to be left out of all the fun. Given the wild popularity of our recent NFL-CFL quarterback comparisons, there is no better time to boot up NFL equivalents for all nine current CFL head coaches too.

As expected, our quarterback list generated intense controversy, criticism and even a few compliments. We ask that you all remember no two head coaches or human beings are ever the same. Each of our comparisons will have wildly different attributes and that’s okay. The purpose of this exercise is to find similarities that connect these people in a way to help CFL fans identify with their NFL counterparts.

Without further ado, here are our best CFL-NFL head coach equivalents.

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Chris Jones — Bill Belichick

This is a very flattering comparison for Chris Jones, but hear me out.

Both are highly respected defensive minds who have won championships as key defensive assistants and as head coaches. Each of them is holding the dual GM-head coach role for teams they have guided to championship glory before.

Long before Chris Jones landed his first NFL coaching assignment with the Cleveland Browns, Bill Belichick did as well. Each contributed to a staff that captured one of the Browns’ two playoff wins since the 1980s but both left an unremarkable legacy in Cleveland.

Each wears their own distinctive wardrobe on the sideline, with Jones donning his usual black shirts and Belichick opting for his trademark sleeveless hoodies. Both show flashes of a wicked sense of humour but are usually all business and rarely leave you with any warm and fuzzy feelings.

Chris Jones has been the head coach for two CFL programs just as Bill Belichick has been a head coach for two NFL programs. Jones is a disciple of the hard-nosed Don Matthews, an aggressive defensive mastermind who emerged with a Grey Cup championship in the mid-1980s. Belichick is a disciple of the hard-nosed Bill Parcells, an aggressive defensive mastermind who emerged with a Super Bowl championship in the mid-1980s.

While Chris Jones has struggled to replace his star quarterback, Michael Reilly, Bill Belichick has struggled to replace his own star quarterback, Tom Brady. That means that despite their prior success, neither coach has fielded a dominant team lately.

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Dave Dickenson — Kyle Shanahan

Dave Dickenson and Kyle Shanahan were both groomed for offensive coaching success from an early age. Dickenson learned from quarterback guru John Hufnagel off and on for decades, just like Shanahan learned from his dad, quarterback guru Mike Shanahan.

Just as Kyle has immediate family ties to another NFL head coach, Dave has family ties to another CFL head coach, his older brother Craig who runs the staff for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Both men have spent much of their lives in mountainous terrain in places like Colorado, Montana and Alberta.

Each has carved out successful coaching resumes with multiple different quarterbacks and both have struggled to win big games. This has been evidenced by Shanahan’s play-calling in his Atlanta Falcons’ epic Super Bowl 51 meltdown to the New England Patriots and by Dickenson’s Stampeders being upset in Grey Cup losses to the Redblacks and the Argos.

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Craig Dickenson — John Harbaugh

This one’s easy. It was just over a year ago that I wrote The Dickenson Bowl is Canada’s version of the Harbaugh Bowl, and for the most part, those comparisons remain true.

Craig Dickenson has a younger brother, Dave, who was a star quarterback and later a successful head coach in the CFL. John Harbaugh has a younger brother, Jim, who was a star quarterback and later a successful head coach in the NFL. Both took the unusual path to head coach from special teams coordinator. Neither have ever coordinated an offence or defence in college or at the pro level.

Most importantly, these coaches each boast a playoff win over their little brothers. Long after John beat Jim in Super Bowl 47 by a score of 34-31, Craig beat Dave in the 2021 West Semi-Final by a nearly identical score of 33-30.

Craig won his first Grey Cup at the end of 2008, shortly before John won his first Super Bowl in 2012. These two coaches have also met before when Harbaugh’s Philadelphia Eagles beat Dickenson’s San Diego Chargers in Week 13 of the 2001 NFL season.

Graphic: 3DownNation (Photos: Jeff Vinnick/B.C. Lions | AP Photo/Matt Durisko)

Rick Campbell — Mike Tomlin

These two head coaches are now in their early fifties and have found similar paths to success on their respective sides of the border. Each spent their assistant coaching days focused primarily on defence, working a lot with defensive backs. Tomlin dabbled in offence a bit as a wide receivers coach in college and Campbell spent time as a running backs coach in Calgary.

Both have reached the pinnacle of their profession; Tomlin as a Super Bowl-winning head coach with the Steelers and Campbell as a Grey Cup-winning head coach with the Redblacks. Both victories were among the most dramatic in the history of their respective title games. They’ve each lost in the big game as head coaches too.

Tomlin had the luxury of a Hall of Fame quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in Pittsburgh. Rick Campbell had the same with Henry Burris in Ottawa. Both are currently working with 24-year-old youngsters, Nathan Rourke in B.C. and Kenny Pickett with the Steelers.

Not our greatest comparison on this list but some eerily similarities, nonetheless.

Graphic: 3DownNation (Photos: David Mahussier | AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Mike O’Shea — Mike Vrabel

This should flatter Mike Vrabel but it might be our easiest comparison of the bunch due to their playing days.

Four seasons after Mike O’Shea began his pro career as a defensive star in Canada’s steel city of Hamilton, Mike Vrabel did the same in America’s steel city of Pittsburgh. Both of these linebackers’ playing rights were owned by three different teams: Edmonton, Hamilton and Toronto for O’Shea and Pittsburgh, New England and Kansas City for Vrabel.

Both were once included in high-profile quarterback trades. O’Shea was traded from Edmonton to Hamilton for Damon Allen. Vrabel was once traded with Matt Cassel from New England to Kansas City. Each guy wore different numbers for different teams but made their mark as a middle linebacker wearing the number 50.

O’Shea played 16 years in the pros, winning three Grey Cups with Toronto while being named a CFL all-star once. Vrabel played 14 years in the pros, winning three Super Bowls with New England while being named an All-Pro just once. Both were once teammates of Doug Flutie and Mike O’Shea played under the legendary Don Matthews just as Vrabel played under the legendary Bill Belichick.

As the Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach, O’Shea over-achieved with Matt Nichols at quarterback and later won the 2021 Coach of the Year award. As Tennessee Titans head coach, Vrabel over-achieved with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback and later won the 2021 Coach of the Year.

O’Shea has enjoyed a much more accomplished head coaching career than Vrabel has but if these two ever met, they would have lots to talk about — although maybe not, given their quiet, humble personalities.

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Ryan Dinwiddie — Sean McVay

Both of these guys are the youngest head coach in their respective leagues and they’ve already won championships in their roles during the 2022 calendar year. First, McVay with the Los Angeles Rams and then, nine months later, Dinwiddie with the Toronto Argonauts.

McVay convinced Rams management to switch away from his first quarterback, Jared Goff, to go all-in on the much older 34-year-old Matthew Stafford and it paid off with a Super Bowl win. Ryan Dinwiddie opted to switch away from his first quarterback, Nick Arbuckle, to go all in on the much older 34-year-old McLeod Bethel-Thompson and it paid off with a Grey Cup win.

They both coach in one of North America’s biggest markets in Los Angeles and Toronto. Each is an offensive whiz kid with some serious California connections.

The temptation to link Dinwiddie to one of his ex-Winnipeg teammates Kliff Kingsbury or Zac Taylor was there, but Sean McVay is a much more suitable fit.

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Orlondo Steinauer — Todd Bowles

These two are a rarity among pro football head coaches. Both played safety throughout their lengthy careers and each wore the number 22 at some stage. Both are three-time champions, with Steinauer winning Grey Cups in 1999, 2004 and 2012 and Bowles winning Super Bowls in 1987, 1996 and 2020.

Both have built solid defences and both have been victimized by shoddy quarterback play of late. Dane Evans struggled this season for Steinauer in Hamilton just like Tom Brady has struggled for Bowles in Tampa Bay.

Both men had to switch teams twice in their playing careers and each spent time as a defensive coordinator in the American college system. Both are defensive-minded coaches who have been groomed for their current roles by previous offensive-minded head coaches, June Jones with the Ticats and Bruce Arians with the Buccaneers.

As president of football operations, it would appear that Steinauer carries a much bigger stick in the Hammer than Bowles does in Tampa, but neither are overly outspoken in the media. They are very professional in their dealings with their players, maybe because they both have a better appreciation for what is required to actually be successful on the field.

Graphic: 3DownNation (Photos: Montreal Alouettes | AP Photo/Don Wright)

Jason Maas — Josh McDaniels

New Montreal Alouettes head coach Jason Maas is a retired pro quarterback who is supposed to be a quarterback mastermind. First-year Las Vegas Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels never played higher than college but also has quarterback guru status.

Both have had mixed results. Maas helped Michael Reilly put up great numbers with so-so success in his first head-coaching go-round in Edmonton, just like Josh McDaniels helped Tom Brady put up great numbers with New England but had limited success in his first head-coaching go-round in Denver. Born just five months after each other, each has had a front-row seat to legendary quarterback play; Maas in Edmonton with Ricky Ray, and McDaniels in New England with Brady. They have the same initials but as you can see, there’s plenty more that links these two.

One coaches in Las Vegas, America’s Sin City. The other coaches in Montreal, Canada’s Sin City. Each has had great success in other roles but their time as head coach has been underwhelming so far, to say the least.

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Bob Dyce — Steve Wilks

A couple of well-respected head coaches into their second jobs running a pro football staff highlight this comparison. Dyce walked into a no-win situation in his first head coaching job with Saskatchewan, inheriting an 0-9 midseason mess after a season-ending injury to quarterback Darian Durant. Wilks was similarly doomed in his first head coaching job with Arizona, inheriting a mess after the offseason retirement of quarterback Carson Palmer.

Both Wilks and Dyce took over this season as interim head coaches and both have impressed. Dyce has already been given the permanent job in Ottawa and Wilks should be given the same treatment in Carolina. Each is considered home-grown since Dyce is Canadian and Wilks is from the same city he is coaching in today: Charlotte, North Carolina.

Both have been working their way up the coaching ranks for over 25 years and I have high hopes for both of these head coaches in 2023.

Brendan McGuire has covered the CFL since 2006 in radio and print. Based in Regina, he has a front-row view of Rider Nation.