Mike Kafka might be the next great head coach – and if he is, he’ll be taking advantage of a trend that’s always been in the NFL but is getting stronger: the backup quarterback head coach.
There’s a market for former backup quarterbacks when it comes to head coaches. There’s a strong history there, with Sean McVay, Doug Pederson, Matt LaFleur, Sean Payton, Gary Kubiak, Jim Harbaugh, and others. The most recent hiring cycles have affirmed this, with LaFleur and Pederson joining Kevin O’Connell, Kliff Kingsbury, Zac Taylor, Frank Reich, Matt Nagy, and Freddie Kitchens.
The offensive coordinator for the New York Giants, Kafka, could join that list after seeing the surprising success that the Giants have had with Daniel Jones and the offense Kafka has designed around the QB they didn’t even tender a fifth-year option to.
Mike Kafka Was a Wildcat’s Wildcat as a Player
Kafka was primarily a running quarterback in high school but showed enough arm talent to be considered a dual-threat QB, ranked as a consensus three-star recruited by Northwestern, Pitt, Stanford, and Florida Atlantic. He chose Northwestern and earned playing time as early as his redshirt-freshman year, where he started a few games.
Kafka lost the starting job in 2007, but he earned another crack at the spot late in the 2008 season, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors in his first start and impressed in his follow-up start. He would have alternated series in the next game with the original starter but suffered a concussion and would have to wait until 2009 to be a full-time starter.
Throughout the 2009 season, Kafka would set school franchise records in some single-game performances and nearly captured the season-long records for passing yardage and total offensive yardage. He was projected as a mid-to-late-round quarterback in the draft with good anticipation, ability to read the field and feel for the game with a weak arm, and some concerns about his build.
He was drafted in the fourth round by head coach Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that had the previous year signed Michael Vick to be the backup to quarterback-of-the-future Kevin Kolb. Kafka was witness to Vick’s electric 2010 season after Vick took over the starting job following a Kolb concussion in Week 1.
That also means Kafka was witness to the “Dream Team” failure in 2011 after the Eagles “won” free agency and ended the offseason third in Super Bowl odds behind 2010 winners Green Bay Packers and perennial favorites New England. That team went 8-8, while the other favorites combined to go 28-4.
Kafka was slated to be the backup that year following Kolb’s trade to the Arizona Cardinals, but after Philadelphia signed Vince Young, he was relegated back to the third-string role. In 2012, following Young’s release from the roster, Kafka was once again expected to be the backup QB despite the franchise drafting Nick Foles. Kafka suffered a hand injury and after healing was released from the roster.
He signed with the Patriots and, at the time of the signing, was competing with Ryan Mallett for the backup job. But the Patriots released Kafka after signing Tim Tebow. He was claimed by the Jaguars, who slated him as the third quarterback before signing Ricky Stanzi, leading to Kafka’s release once again.
The Buccaneers signed Kafka in 2014, and he was released once more after training camp but made the practice squad as the de facto third-string QB. He moved on and off the roster, before participating in the NFL veteran combine and signed with the Minnesota Vikings afterwards. Kafka was injured once more, put on injured reserve, and waived once he healed yet again.
Kafka’s Coaching Career Has Enabled NFL Dual-Threats
Kafka spent two more years bouncing on and off practice squads — namely Tennessee’s and Cincinnati’s — and was immediately scooped up by Northwestern to be an assistant coach after his playing career was over.
His primary responsibility was to work with the receivers, meaning he worked with Rams receiver Ben Skowronek and Northwestern legend Austin Carr, whose jump in play from 2015 to 2016 was explosive, adding nearly 1,000 receiving yards over the previous year and putting up the best receiving season in Wildcat history.
After one season in Evanston, Kafka reunited with Reid in Kansas City as an offensive quality control assistant. He was shortly promoted to quarterbacks coach, overseeing Patrick Mahomes’ first season as a starter — and one of the greatest quarterback seasons we’ve seen in the NFL.
That also means Kafka was position coach of both the NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP when the Chiefs won the league title in 2019. In 2020, Reid added “passing game coordinator” to Kafka’s title, perhaps in response to the fact that Doug Pederson was hoping to hire Kafka as their offensive coordinator ahead of the season.
While the NFL rules allowed teams to block that kind of move — something Reid took advantage of more than once — that ability to prevent position coaches from becoming coordinators would be eliminated by a new rule that year. As the passing game coordinator, Kafka would have direct input into what would go into the playbook or the weekly playbook instead of providing feedback, essentially a change from suggesting to designing and implementing.
The Chiefs’ offense continued to be one of the most innovative in the NFL, and it wasn’t long before Kafka had his shot to be an offensive coordinator. While most thought it would be with the Chiefs as offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy got hired away, Bieniemy stayed in Kansas City, meaning Kafka had to go elsewhere to be a coordinator.
When Brian Daboll was hired by the New York Giants to be their next head coach, he reached out to Kafka, who jumped at the opportunity to synthesize what he learned of the Reid offense with the principles of Daboll’s offense, one that turned Josh Allen from a near first-round bust to an MVP candidate.
While many expected Daboll to call the plays in New York, he instead gave the keys to Kafka, who has organized and called one of the most resourceful offenses in the NFL. Limited by a poor offensive line and a bare cupboard at receiver, the Giants’ offense has had to make do with whatever was available that week, which sometimes meant late-round tight ends, practice-squad receivers, backup offensive linemen, and Saquon Barkley.
Daboll and Kafka turned around Jones’ trajectory, who has also turned from a potential first-round bust to a viable quarterback. Kafka has been comfortable using Jones as a primary running threat or designing the passing game around Jones and the available targets, which can sometimes mean running the offense out of a three-tight-end set or a two-back look.
The Giants are 15th in points per game, a mark well ahead of where they should be given the talent on the roster. A big part of that has to do with what Kafka has been able to do as a coordinator.
Given Kafka’s history as a running, then scrambling QB that played in structure just as much as out of structure, it’s no surprise that he would be able to connect with Mahomes and Jones to find the right balance of scripted and improvisational play.
Now, with the surprising success of the 2022 Giants on his résumé, Kafka has emerged as a head coaching candidate.
Mike Kafka Expected To Make $4 million
New head coaches without much leverage don’t vary their salaries much. Sometimes, even having other teams interested in a coach doesn’t change the ultimate salary demands. While there are outliers — like the $6 million that Nick Sirianni makes with the Eagles — most make within half a million of $4 million.
Kafka is very new as a name on the coaching market and may not have the pull that candidates with more hype tend to have. He’ll likely stick within that range unless a team finds some other reason to open up their pocketbooks. If the Giants tempt Kafka with a raise in order to get him to stay, that could change things.
Teams That Could Target Mike Kafka
NFL franchises about to draft a new quarterback or on the lookout for someone who can stabilize their young, talented QB might be interested in Kafka, especially if they have a similar playing style to Mahomes or Jones.
The fact that the two Super Bowl participants last year were former NFL backup quarterbacks and that some of the most surprising teams this year are helmed by backup QBs could help his case, as could the fact that he coaches one of them.
There’s been a move toward the McVay/Shanahan school of offense when hiring offensive head coaches. But as that scheme has gotten a little bit stale, drawing on some of the most effective offenses outside of that school could be smart. Kafka has that with his experience under both Reid and Daboll.
Kyler Murray is, in many ways, Mahomes without the same sense of field space or restraint. While it’s difficult to think of Mahomes as a quarterback that plays with “restraint,” he’s best described as a blend of big-play dynamism and controlled efficiency.
If a coach can infuse Murray with those down-to-down qualities that make an offense really chug along, then there’s something to unlock within the Cardinals’ offense that could really take off.
Kafka has made several contacts on both sides of the ball in his various stops around the league, something he’s been open and diligent about. So he might be able to find the right kind of defensive mind to help fix Arizona’s defense.
Washington might not be able to move around for a quarterback in the draft and could seek a veteran free agent or continue a competition between Taylor Heinicke and Sam Howell. Both of them have the ability to extend plays, and Heinicke has already shown a penchant for mixing in structured and unstructured play, so he could be a good fit for what Kafka could bring. With the Commanders’ defensive strengths, they could turn around the franchise quickly.
Before Mahomes hit the scene as a deep-passing scrambler stretching the bounds of quarterback play, there was Russell Wilson extending plays and finding deep throws in Seattle.
However, right now, that process is broken, and the Broncos are stuck with Wilson. Denver might as well find a coach with a track record with that style of play and find ways to maximize it.
If the Browns decide to move on from the 2020 NFL Coach of the Year after failing to meet expectations in a season without many expectations, then Kafka wouldn’t be a bad fit.
Deshaun Watson clearly needs more practice to shake the rust off but can be an MVP-quality quarterback when everything is clicking. His style fits the structured/unstructured dynamic and fine-tuning that would be the perfect project for Kafka.