It's become an annual tradition for Iowa fans over the past decade: sweating out the "Kirk Ferentz to the NFL" rumors that have popped up every off-season since Ferentz engineered Iowa's remarkable 11-2 campaign in 2002. Rarely do they amount to anything -- Ferentz's flirtation with Jacksonville after the 2004 season was almost certainly the closest he ever came to actually leaving Iowa City -- but they're ubiquitous all the same. That's not surprising, really: Ferentz has been a successful coach at Iowa*, he runs NFL-friendly schemes**, and he has an oft-cited NFL background (offensive line coach for Cleveland/Baltimore).
* Granted, it's hard to remember that in the wake of this season's 4-8 debacle and we can grumble about seasons where he should have had more success than he did, but overall he's still been successful here.
** Potentially from the NFL of at least 10-15 years ago, but...
After a 4-8 season, you might have expected Ferentz's stock to be lower among NFL types. You would be wrong. If this surprises you, you just haven't been paying attention. This is the same league that continues to give head coaching opportunities to Romeo Crennell and Chan Gailey, for God's sake. And this year in particular there's added incentive to link Ferentz to open NFL jobs, with two of the jobs (Cleveland and Kansas City) he's been most heavily linked with coming open in the wake of miserable seasons. (Hell, Jacksonville might also be available this off-season, giving us the full hat trick of NFL opportunities.) Of those two gigs, Kansas City is the one that Ferentz is being linked to, thanks to the old Scott Pioli connection.
Pioli worked with Ferentz at Baltimore/Cleveland and they've remained friends ever since. Ferentz went off to Iowa, while Pioli joined Bill Belichick at New England and earned a reputation as a savvy personnel guru (despite the fact that Belichick was also heavily involved with all of those decisions), which he parlayed into the general manager's job with Kansas City in 2009. Aside from one 10-6 season in 2010, things haven't gone well for Kansas City under his tenure, leading to this year's annus horribilis. Rumors have swirled that there would be a full housecleaning in Kansas City, with Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennell getting shown the door -- which could still happen and if it does, the Ferentz-to-the-NFL rumors almost certainly die on the vine.
But now stories are emerging that Pioli could survive in Kansas City, albeit with a new head coach and new quarterback. And who might that new head coach be? Take a guess:
If Pioli gets another chance in KC, it could be w/the coach he wanted all along - Kirk Ferentz. Again, nothing completely certain there yet.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) December 30, 2012
On Ferentz, he's wanted to coach his sons through Iowa. His youngest, Steve, is a freshman. But his job security could influence a move.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) December 30, 2012
Hearing this, too. RT @albertbreer: If Pioli gets another chance in KC, it could be w/the coach he wanted all along - Kirk Ferentz.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 30, 2012
Both Rapoport and Breer are reporters for the NFL Network/NFL.com, which suggests that this isn't just empty chatter. A lot of it doesn't ride above the usual connect-the-dots reporting we've seen so often over the last decade: NFL Team X has an opening, Kirk Ferentz is an NFL-y coach, huzzah. Or the Pioli variation: a Pioli-led team (Browns, Chiefs) is looking for a new head coach, head coach Kirk Ferentz is a Pioli associate, huzzah. But there's at least a little smoke here and Rapoport's second tweet is particularly intriguing.
There is, of course, a very strong possibility this is all nonsense, just like 99% of the "Ferentz to the NFL" rumors we've seen over the last decade. From a public relations standpoint, this would seem like a deeply unpopular move for the Chiefs to make; most Chiefs fans seem to want a totally fresh start (meaning Pioli should hit the bricks along with Crennell), so retaining Pioli and allowing him to bring in a man who's almost certainly going to be viewed as a Pioli crony (not to mention a coach coming off a 4-8 season with a combined record of 19-19 in his last three seasons) is not likely to be viewed with anything approaching enthusiasm. Then again, when have NFL teams ever cared that much about winning the public relations battle with their fans? Again, these are the same organizations that continue to hire the likes of Romeo Crennell and Chan Gailey.
It would also be strange to see Ferentz leave Iowa, given his long-stated desire to see his sons graduate from Iowa (his youngest, Steven, was a true freshman in 2012), although the struggles of the last three seasons and the growing discontent among the Iowa fanbase is surely not lost on him. The move would also require him sacrificing him a considerable amount of job security; as has been noted repeatedly, Ferentz has a (very lucrative) contract at Iowa through 2020. It might not be impossible for Iowa to fire him in the next few seasons, but it would be very, very difficult -- and hugely expensive. Conversely, NFL head coaches have virtually no job security (unless their names rhyme with "Till Telichick"). One bad seasons at Iowa and Ferentz can shrug his shoulders, chew his gum, and rest assured that he'll have a chance to turn things around the following season. One bad season in the NFL and Ferentz could be handed his walking papers.
So yeah: as usual, there are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of these reports and there's a very strong chance nothing will come of them and come September 2013, Kirk Ferentz will still be leading Iowa onto the field. But there's more reason than usual for him to consider a fresh start somewhere else, so... you never know. For most of the last decade, there would have been considering wailing and gnashing of teeth among most Iowa fans (myself included, probably) if Ferentz had bolted to one of the many NFL jobs he was linked to; this year, that's almost certainly no longer true. So it goes.
As always, we'll continue to keep track of any and all updates to this story.