With much of the United States and the world stuck in quarantine, we’re doing this a little earlier this year: it’s time for our third annual NFL expansion series. Given that the NFL added a 17th game to the schedule (starting in 2021) and an additional playoff team in each conference, it’s not farfetched to think league expansion could be on the horizon. But if the NFL had decided to expand and add another franchise in 2020, what might it look like?
Part I of the series focuses on team branding and the organization’s coaching staff and general manager. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be diving into the expansion draft, free agency, and the 2020 NFL draft. Let’s get right to it with the city that’ll host this imaginary expansion team.
The NFL is likely to expand to London at some point, and if a franchise ever relocates or is founded, London will be near the top of the list. The capital of England is one of the greatest cities in the world, and the popularity of football has exploded across the pond in recent years. London has some rabid fans and could quickly boast one of the top fanbases in the NFL, and the market would provide the opportunity to build a loyal following that extends all throughout Europe.
Behind Mexico City, New York City, and Los Angeles, Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America in terms of population. Toronto already has NBA, NHL, and MLB franchises (all three have won championships in their respective leagues), so all that’s missing is the NFL. The downside is the freezing temperature up north late in football season, but we’ve seen plenty of super-cold games in places like Green Bay and Minnesota over the years—and a dome could be built if necessary. If the NFL decided to add a couple of international teams at once for any future expansion, Toronto and London would be the ideal choices.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
You probably can’t go wrong with adding an NFL team someplace in the southeast or in the Texas/Oklahoma area, and Oklahoma City has shown they are ready for more sports franchises with the way the Oklahoma City Thunder have boasted one of the NBA’s top fanbases for over a decade. OKC has solid proximity to other cities with NFL franchises, so the team could be placed in a number of different divisions.
Fargo, North Dakota
As demonstrated by the underrated college football powerhouse North Dakota State, they play some pretty good football up in the Dakotas. An NFL team in North Dakota wouldn’t be flashy, but the fan interest would likely be strong. One issue is that a Fargo team could cut too much into the Vikings’ fanbase.
St. Louis, Missouri
People in St. Louis cannot be happy with the NFL—or perhaps more specifically with the Rams franchise—after their team was taken away a few years ago, but a new team of their own might help fix any animosity the area feels. Earlier this year in the XFL, the St. Louis BattleHawks refreshed memories on how great the St. Louis fans can be, and the city already has the Cardinals and the Blues as established sports franchises.
Remaining in North America is the difference here, and Toronto gets the edge over London for our expansion team. The city can either give an exceptional cold-weather homefield advantage, or we can go with a state-of-the-art dome built with our imaginary billions.
Naturally, Wolves is going to be a premier option for an NFL expansion team name. Everyone loves dogs, and wolves are a step up in terms of intimidation while also simply sounding better for a team name. A howl sound could be used in the stadium in key situations, and the crowd (or part of it, like in one of the end zones) could be nicknamed something like “The Wolves Den”. The branding and slogans (like Wolf Sports’ own “Join The Pack”) would be smooth with the Wolves, and players around the league might love to join a squad with the name.
The Owls (or Snowy Owls, which look awesome and would fit for a northern team) is an excellent choice for an NFL expansion team name. The birds are wise creatures, which would fit with Toronto wanting to be a smart football team and a smart organization overall. The owl is arguably an underused mascot in sports, and the team logo could go in a number of different directions and work well.
The latest expansion team among the United States’ four major professional sports leagues—the Las Vegas franchise in the NHL—used the Golden Knights nickname, and they are the only team in the NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL to use the Knights name. While Knights might ultimately be a better fit for a place like London, it’s still a generic type of name that could fit almost anywhere.
In the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks have “Fear The Deer” locked down, but we could still go with the Deer name—or something else related like Whitetails or Elk. Being called the Deer could give the franchise a leg up on potential future NFL Christmas games, and the team-themed holiday sweaters featuring reindeer could sell with ease.
There are the Anaheim Ducks in the NHL, but their presence wouldn’t be a huge factor in deciding against a Toronto Ducks NFL team name. Similar to owls and deer, there are a number of duck breeds in Canada (hence the name for the brand Canada Goose), so we could also go with something like Geese instead of Ducks.
The NBA’s Timberwolves are the only major professional sports team to use wolves as a team mascot, so it’s probably the most underutilized team name out there. Toronto Wolves is an easy choice, and for colors we’d use mostly neutrals and earth tones like black, grey, and brown along with a cooler secondary color in blue or green.
NFL teams that have head coach openings should at least reach out to Nick Saban to see if there is any interest, and the case is no different with the Toronto Wolves expansion team. Realistically, the likelihood of the 68-year-old six-time national champion head coach leaving Alabama and taking the job to build an expansion team is very, very low. But perhaps he’d want to return to the NFL and win there at some point—and this scenario would give him the opportunity to have full roster control and select quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with the No. 1 pick if he wants.
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly almost certainly wants to get back into professional football in an attempt to win a Super Bowl, and what he has shown with the Bruins over the past couple of years indicates that he’s open to adapting and slowing his offense down if that’s what it takes to get another shot in the NFL. Kelly has a clear vision of how the football operations should be run, and he’s a coach that guys want to play for despite media narratives.
Perhaps the Colts fiasco did more harm than people think, but it’s probably only a matter of time before Josh McDaniels gets another head coaching job. The longtime Patriots assistant would be one of the first guys to sit down with about the head coach position for the Toronto Wolves. Keep in mind that in this imaginary expansion exercise, Tom Brady is a looming free agent.
The Browns might be in a better position than they are right now if they would have retained Gregg Williams as their full-time head coach after he guided the team to a 5-3 stretch in 2018 (an incredible feat considering the state of Cleveland in recent years). Williams, who has claimed that he’s turned down multiple head coaching jobs in the past, would be someone that would help set a tone for the team to start an expansion franchise.
Similarly, Jim Caldwell did well in a tough situation in his last opportunity to lead a football team, going 11-5, 7-9, 9-7, and 9-7 in four seasons with the Lions, which is quite the accomplishment for a franchise that has not done well in quite some time. While his approach would be vastly different than Williams’, the offensive-minded Caldwell would be a positive guiding presence during the new franchise’s inception in his own way.
Choice: Chip Kelly
Nick Saban wouldn’t leave Alabama, but it was a 1A and 1B situation: Chip Kelly gets the reins for the Toronto Wolves and would get full control of the team’s football operations. Kelly would bring an aggressive and all-encompassing approach to the entire franchise.
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman and current FOX broadcaster Troy Aikman has said that he is interested in making the jump from the booth to an NFL front office, and he has the connection to Chip Kelly as a Bruin alum. An expansion team might be a risk worth taking for Aikman, as it would be a challenge, and most reasonable people wouldn’t blame him if things don’t work out.
Urban Meyer might get the itch and come out of retirement to coach again, but if not, the front office could be a path for him—earlier this year, there was speculation that he might run the Redskins moving forward. Meyer would be a gamble, but he knows how to recruit players that would fit his organization. However, the notable downside with Meyer is that it might get a little weird with the head coach if he disagrees with some on-field matters.
Cardinals Senior Personnel Executive Terry McDonough has been in the NFL for nearly three decades, so he has plenty of experience that he could bring to an expansion team. McDonough is an impactful member of the front office for Arizona, but he might want to run the show for a team like the Toronto Wolves.
Many of Louis Riddick’s opinions have been on TV and the internet as a member of ESPN, and the former player and executive is a fan of Chip Kelly, so he could be a fit. Also, Riddick at least seems to have a clear idea on how he thinks a team should be built—plus, both Riddick and Kelly know what it’s like to leave a franchise because of politics, as they were both fired from the Eagles largely due to the presence of Howie Roseman, so the two would likely form a good partnership that doesn’t involve going against each other.
Jack Easterby has risen from character coach for the Patriots to executive vice president of football operations for the Texans. He might not have any interest in leaving Houston, but Easterby would be the perfect general manager to help target the right type of guys you want in your program. I think he would be a great pairing with Kelly, but again, it might be tough to get him to leave an EVP position.
Choice: Troy Aikman
This is a very tough one, but I think the most realistic options would be Aikman and Riddick. Aikman gets the nod with the UCLA connection, and Kelly’s experience in decision-making would help Aikman be able to learn on the job.
While the Wolves went in a different direction at head coach, Jim Caldwell might be interested in joining the new team as its offensive coordinator. Caldwell is known to do an outstanding job working with quarterbacks, and that would be a large part of his focus for a team being built from the ground up.
Said to be a rising star in the coaching ranks, Press Taylor is the brother of Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and was initially brought into the NFL by Chip Kelly as a quality control coach for the Eagles back in 2013. An issue with getting Taylor to join Toronto is that he received a promotion to passing game coordinator in Philadelphia this offseason.
Pat Shurmur was twice a head coach in the NFL, and he arguably didn’t get a fair shake, receiving just two years in each of his stops with the Browns and Giants. Shurmur was the offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly from 2013-2015, and he went on to do a fantastic job with the Vikings before he became the Giants head coach.
Choice: Pat Shurmur
Kelly and Shurmur worked together for three years, so the transition should be seamless. In real life, Shurmur took the Broncos offensive coordinator job this year, but the prior relationship could get him to lean in our direction.
The Wolves defense would be a versatile unit, but our base defense would likely be a 3-4—Wade Phillips is a natural fit, and he probably wouldn’t be difficult to convince given his opinion about Kelly’s offense.
Despite 12 seasons as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, Greg Manusky went to college football as a quality control assistant for Kentucky this offseason. He would almost certainly be interested in meeting with us about the defensive coordinator position.
Former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan quietly did a phenomenal job in elevating the play of the Saints linebackers as the team’s position coach the past three years, and it’s about time he got another coordinator job. In reality, Nolan joined Mike McCarthy’s staff as the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys.
Choice: Wade Phillips
We were able to convince Pat Shurmur to take the Toronto gig over Denver, but we’ll stick with one coordinator that took the same position in real life. Wade Phillips might be the best option anyway, and he’ll get aggressive play from the Wolves defense.
Special Teams Coordinator
Bob Gregory is currently the special teams coordinator and linebackers coach for Washington, and he probably has some level of familiarity with Chip Kelly from their time in the Pac-12.
Currently a senior analyst for Maryland, Ron Zook might not be interested in a coordinator job. However, he did just coach the AAF’s Salt Lake Stallions as the special teams coordinator and secondary coach in 2019. Zook coached special teams for the Packers from 2014-2018.
Currently a special teams (and tight ends) coach for UCLA with Kelly in real life, Derek Sage would no doubt be in the mix to join the staff of the Toronto Wolves.
Choice: Ron Zook
Special teams will be critical for the team, and Kelly’s squads typically have exceptional third units. This would likely come down to Zook or Sage, but we’ll stick with the experienced theme for the expansion team and go with Zook to lead the special teams group.
. . .
Team Name: Wolves
Head Coach: Chip Kelly
General Manager: Troy Aikman
Offensive Coordinator: Pat Shurmur
Defensive Coordinator: Wade Phillips
Special Teams Coordinator: Ron Zook