When the Texans interviewed Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon virtually on Saturday, it marked the third time they’ve met with the Cleveland native over the past year.
A year ago, Gannon was a finalist for the job that went to Lovie Smith. A year later, Gannon is a top candidate for the head coaching vacancy and regarded by many around the league as a strong possibility to potentially land the job, according to league sources.
“JG can stand in front of the room and lead,” an NFL player said. “I could definitely see him getting a head coaching job and building a winner. Hopefully, Houston is the right spot for him and it’s a great fit.”
Gannon, 40, coaches one of the top defenses in the NFL and has a good relationship with Texans general manager Nick Caserio.
Gannon interviewed with the Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings last year.
Gannon has “knocked it out of the park” and “crushed” his meetings with NFL teams. Impressing them with his knowledge of the game, creativity, energy, detailed plans about strategy, staff and personnel, and his passion for the game, according to multiple league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
One member of an NFL team’s search committee said of Gannon’s interview: “He knows the answer before you even ask him the question.”
One NFL executive described Gannon as Brandon Staley 2.0. The Los Angeles Chargers coach and Gannon are close friends who grew up competing against each other in youth sports in Ohio.
“Incredibly intelligent and passionate,” a source said of Gannon. “This guy is a superstar. He’s worked with great people like George Paton and Rob Brzezinski with the Vikings. It says a lot that those guys think the world of the guy.”
The Texans have requested eight coaches for interviews, according to sources: Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who was their first interview, Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, who interviewed Friday, Gannon, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, whose interview request has been granted with the day still being scheduled, New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, who’s expected to interview as soon as Tuesday, in addition to requesting San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who’s currently expected to interview after contemplating the situation, and Los Angeles Rams assistant head coach and tight ends coach Thomas Brown.
Vikings Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith has told teammates and coaches that Gannon is the best coach he’s ever worked with.
None of this comes as a surprise to those who know Gannon well, including veteran former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams worked with Gannon when he was a scout for the Rams and with the Tennessee Titans as a quality control coach.
“Jonathan is a really good person with a great upbringing who’s never been afraid to outwork everyone around him and never afraid of any tasks,” Williams said. “He’s had to work his way up in the business. Those are the guys I love the most. If he winds up as a head coach, you have to have a working understanding of all of the other people at all of those levels and those positions they occupy. I think Jonathan does a great job of being a great people person. He’s sharp. He’s a detailed person. He’s a good football man. When you start out as a defensive assistant and quality control, no one can do their job without the information that’s passed on from him. Players want to know, ‘How can I be better? And he has a knowledge and a feel that is really impactful to help someone improve.
“When he was with the Rams working for Mike Martz, he was in the scouting department and that background in personnel evaluation is invaluable for a coach. In Tennessee, he was a defensive quality control coach and Jerry Gray was the defensive coordinator. Jonathan did a great job. He never had to be babysat. He never had to be overly coached. He understood what needed to be done and had a feel for the game. He always had the answer. He had some of his own ideas and he did a really good job. We stay close and talk back and forth, and I’m really proud of what he did last year.”
Gannon appears to check a lot of boxes for what chairman and CEO Cal McNair and Caserio are seeking in a head coach. Gannon is regarded as extremely smart. He’s young but not too young. He started his coaching career in college as a student assistant at Louisville under Bobby Petrino before stints as a quality control coach with the Atlanta Falcons and Titans, an assistant defensive backs coach with the Vikings, three seasons coaching the Colts’ cornerbacks, and subsequently hired by Eagles coach Nick Sirianni last year.
Gannon is known as an avid reader, focusing on books about leadership, team-building, and social elements to bring the best out of people. He embraces analytics. The Eagles are one of the most analytics-driven franchises in the NFL.
Gannon’s philosophy is simple when it comes to his approach to coaching.
“My job is to make you the best player that you can be,” Gannon said. “There’s a bunch of different ways to go about that, but that’s ultimately how I always thought in my mind. When I talk to a player or someone that’s been under my watch, that’s my job.”
“JG, that’s my guy,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “Just in terms of his football IQ and how he views the game is so interesting to just have conversations about how he sees certain things fitting. The one thing he did that was awesome for us and helped us a lot was letting each position group and specifically each position know how they fit into the scheme.
“I think as a player, you always want to know ‘why are things happening?’ For him to be able to do that in a personable way I think is rare. He’s got a lot of respect around here.”
The 14-3 Eagles finished second in total defense, first in pass defense while generating 27 takeaways and a franchise record 70 sacks.
“I really believe in Jonathan Gannon,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “If I didn’t, there’d be no way he’d be in this building. I have so much confidence and faith in him and the job he can do. I think he’d be a great head football coach. He has all the intangibles and all the qualities that you need. Obviously, I’d never want to lose coach Gannon, but I think he’s more than ready.”
Perhaps Gannon doesn’t become a high-level coach this fast if not for a devastating hip injury as a freshman at Louisville.
During a game against Cincinnati, Gannon was dropping back into coverage and bumped into another player. He suffered a posterior dislocation of his hip with the femur bone going through the hip socket, similar to Raiders running back Bo Jackson’s injury.
A surgeon advised Gannon that it was an injury usually suffered during a car accident. His football career was over, and his teammates’ comparisons to former NFL cornerback Jason Sehorn ended. His coaching career was just getting started.
Petrino made him a student assistant and told him he would hire him as a graduate assistant. Petrino hired Gannon to work for the Falcons. He could have gone with Petrino to Arkansas, but he was hooked on the NFL. So, he joined the Rams’ scouting department and worked there for three years.
“He was obviously a tremendous football player,” St. Ignatius athletic director Rory Fitzpatrick said. “He made it to the state championships in the 110-meter hurdles and was an all-around tremendous athlete. He would have been a great safety if he didn’t have his hip injury, the Bo Jackson injury. I could see Jon being a great coach at any level with his emotional intelligence, his love for the game.
“He loves being a part of something. Where he’s at right now, if not for that injury, I don’t know if he starts on that path so early. He spoke with our kids and he got emotional about the injury, about the curveball that threw him in life. You choose the way you handle that. You can get down on yourself or do what he did. He went on a new path and he took every opportunity and made the absolute most of it.”
During the Saint Ignatius basketball team’s state playoff run two years ago, Gannon, in his first year coaching in Philadelphia, got on a Zoom to talk to the players.
“Jon is a good guy, he’s a good person, he cares deeply,” Fitzpatrick said. “He talked to our kids about his experience at Saint Ignatius and how much it meant for him to go through it all with his best friends. For him to be as busy as he is and go-go-go all the time, for him to take the time out with the kids, that was tremendous. He has a way about him. He’s engaging for anybody he talks to. I remember when he was in school and talking with his friends and adults, he has the ability to move between different age groups and find a way to connect with people.
“In coaching, there is no secret sauce. What separates people is, can a coach gain the trust of his guys? Can he get elite players to buy in? The NFL is a rough, rough world. When I think of Jon and coach Staley, and I’ve met both of them, their character, trustworthiness, those guys have relatability. That matters a lot.”
Since working with Williams for two NFL teams, Gannon has continued to progress. Authenticity is a trait that can’t be taught, and it’s a quality that Gannon is known for.
“I think he’ll be himself, I think he has to be himself,” Williams said. “He’s had the opportunity to be around some pretty successful people: Jeff Fisher, Mike Munchak, Mike Zimmer, Frank Reich, and now all of the people in Philly. I believe you learn from different people, but you’ve got to be who you are. At this level, all the really good players can sense if you don’t know what you’re doing. Respect and trust are earned. He has no qualms or worries about doing it his way.
“He’s not a person that’s satisfied. He’s always looking to grow and challenge himself to be better. Those are the good, fun people to be around. I’ve heard him say, ‘I don’t put my head on the pillow unless I’ve learned something new today.’ We do that or this game passes us by. We’ve got to be able to adjust and he has and he’s grown very well.”
Gannon didn’t flinch, or shrink under heavy pressure. The moment wasn’t too big for him.
It was a much lower profile setting than his current assignment: devising defensive schemes to compete with the most talented players in the NFL.
As a high school basketball player, Gannon was prepared and ready for the moment.
A football standout who earned a scholarship to Louisville and also excelled for the basketball team and competed in track and field, Gannon was standing at the free throw line after being fouled with seconds remaining in the state championship basketball game.
Although shooting free throws wasn’t his forte, Gannon swished both shots to clinch the victory for Saint Ignatius’ first state championship in school history.
“The game was on the line, a tight game, about 10 seconds left, season on the line, and Jonathan was not a high-percentage free throw shooter,” Fitzpatrick said. “He didn’t touch the rim. He swished both of them. He was so confident he would be the guy to win the game for us. He stepped up and banged both of them in.
“In all honesty, we have a school with a long tradition of great athletes. Jonathan was one of the best. I’m still convinced he could have played Division I basketball. His outside shot could have become a little better. He was one of the best ball handlers and his defense was incredible. That’s all about attitude and passion. He would dig in and guard the other team’s best player. I remember him guarding a kid who made it to the NBA who was 6-foot-9. Jonathan would always step up to the challenge. He was even in our chess club. Smart guy, great person.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.