Handicapping the field

And they're off. The high-stakes race to find the next head coach of the 49ers has begun, and viable candidates are out of the gate and currently sorting their places in the field. The Niners need a classy thoroughbred or proven warhorse to prevail when this chase finally is over, and not some nag that might break down at any point in the tough journey ahead. The franchise absolutely cannot afford to back the wrong horse this time. Here, SFI handicaps an early list of potential contenders.

Romeo Crennel: 3-1 – The 49ers will make the New England defensive coordinator their first above-board interview, meeting with him Saturday in Massachusetts, so that pushes him ahead of other candidates for now. Crennel interviewed for this same job with the Niners two years ago. He is a solid prospect with 24 years of NFL coaching experience, the last five as a defensive coordinator, and was recognized as the Pro Football Writers of America's NFL assistant coach of the year in 2003, when his defense ranked seventh in the league and the Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three years. The biggest question is if he really is head-coaching material. He definitely has proven he can coach.

Pete Carroll: 7-2 – The USC coach is the hot-ticket item right now, has close ties to the San Francisco Bay Area, and meets all the criteria that owner John York says the Niners are looking for. Carroll said Thursday that he has not been contacted by the 49ers and stated flatly that he's "not interested" in the job. But Carroll will at least listen if and when he is contacted. Don't believe for a second Carroll wouldn't consider a good opportunity to succeed again in the NFL. But this might not be it. However, the money York might throw at Carroll could change his mind.

Mike Holmgren: 4-1 – Pay attention closely to Saturday's wild-card game between the Seahawks and Rams. Holmgren has two years remaining on his eight-year, $32 million deal in Seattle, but he could be fired if the Seahawks lose to St. Louis for the third time this season. He might depart anyway unless the Seahawks go deep into the playoffs. Some say Holmgren hasn't done much in Seattle after a star turn in Green Bay, but he could be the right fit for this situation, even though he can't be left alone to make personnel decisions. If he becomes available, the Niners will make a heavy push.

Mike Nolan: 4-1 – He's ready and should be seriously considered. The Baltimore defensive coordinator has 18 years of experience as an NFL assistant but still is just 45 years old. The son of former 49ers coach Dick Nolan – who led the team to three consecutive NFC West titles from 1970-1972 – Nolan is one of those coordinators who could jump quickly to prominence if and when he's given a shot.

Kirk Ferentz: 5-1 – The Iowa head coach is a very intriguing prospect if the Niners consider him – or if he considers them. He's going to be an NFL head coach someday soon and has the tools to lead a young team forward. He had an earlier stint in the league as a Baltimore assistant and, like Carroll, is one of the few college coaches the Niners should consider.

Mike Heimerdinger: 5-1 – The Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator isn't a household name, but he won't hold that distinction for long. He's one of the up-and-coming offensive minds in the NFL today and has a proven track record of developing talent. He's ready for the next step up the coaching ladder, and might be the kind of rising prospect who could make his big NFL splash with the Niners.

Jim Fassel: 5-1 – The former New York Giants coach has a proven track record and is ready to take over as a head coach again after spending this season as a Baltimore consultant. He has some credibility because he didn't exactly fail in New York. He knows how to develop talent, but the Niners might worry about the perception that he'd be a retread hire. They've already been through that.

Brad Childress: 7-1 – The Philadelphia offensive coordinator could be a fine choice. Would he be interested? Perhaps the 49ers should find out. They better do it now before the Eagles start playing postseason games.

Mike Shanahan: 8-1 – Would be a good if not great choice, but does anybody really believe that Shanahan's leaving his situation in Denver? That likely will only happen if he's forced out, and owner Pat Bowlen already has given Shanahan his yearly vote of confidence. But you never know how that will hold up if the Broncos are drilled in their playoff opener Sunday in Indianapolis, where they'll be 10-point underdogs.

Gary Kubiak: 10-1 – If not Shanahan, why not his offensive coordinator of the past 10 years? Kubiak was the 49ers' quarterbacks coach in 1994 and has distinguished himself nicely since leaving San Francisco with Shanahan for Denver. The question is, why hasn't he received his head-coaching shot already? He may be more comfortable in – and better suited for – a coordinator's position.

Bob Stoops: 10-1 – The Oklahoma coach might be figuring he has gone as far as he can go with the Sooners after Tuesday's humiliation against USC in the BCS title game. He also grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where the York/DeBartolo regime is based. However, like Carroll, he has a great college situation where he is now, and he's already making the big bucks.

Jeff Fisher: 10-1 – The former 49ers defensive backs coach – now one of the NFL's top head coaches with Tennessee – would be an inspired choice. But he said on Sirius NFL Radio on Thursday, "My name has been coming up. There's not going to be any changes here. So I'll just officially squash those rumors here." Still, you never know. The lure of the 49ers for the team's former assistants might still be strong.

Gregg Williams: 12-1 – Might be the right kind of guy to come in and get things buckled down in San Francisco. Joined the Redskins this year as defensive coordinator and immediately turned his unit into one of the NFL's best. Williams was a casualty of restless ownership in his first head-coaching gig with Buffalo. The Niners should at least be looking into interviewing this guy.

Butch Davis: 15-1 – Yeah, he turned people off before failing in Cleveland. But he has that gruff exterior and no-nonsense approach that York might like. If the Niners are looking for someone solely to come in and kick ass, this could be their guy. But he botched his personnel responsibilities in Cleveland. The Niners would have to be very careful how much power they give him, and Davis doesn't like being put in his place.

Scott Linehan: 15-1 – Has done an outstanding job since taking over as Minnesota's offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2002. Might still need a bit more NFL seasoning before he is ready to run an entire team.

Jeff Tedford: 18-1 – The Cal head coach doesn't fit the criteria of NFL experience. He does fit the criteria of being a winner. He might not be ready to run an NFL team, but he is ready to run an NFL offense. He recently signed a contract extension with Cal, where – for those who remember – Steve Mariucci spent his first season as a head coach at any level in 1996 before taking over as 49ers head coach the next season.

Ted Cottrell: 20-1 – The Minnesota assistant interviewed well with the 49ers in 2003, when he was defensive coordinator/assistant head coach of the New York Jets. His stock has fallen since then.

Tom Clements: 20-1 – The Buffalo offensive coordinator is a quarterback guru who stepped up and displayed positive attributes this year in his first season as an NFL coordinator. Could be one of those out-of-nowhere candidates with the ability to surprise people.

Jimmy Johnson: 25-1 – He gets mentioned in this field just because his name has been making the rounds. But he has been out of the league too long, and certainly would be looking for a better situation than this to return. Besides, he bad-mouths the 49ers too much in his current gig. His credibility would be in question if he took the job. Still, regardless of those issues, people would stand up and take notice if he was hired, and his return would pique imaginations and demand respect.

Marty Mornhinweg: 30-1 – Believe it or not, the prospect of bringing back Mornhinweg is not as outlandish as it might appear. He bombed in his two-year stint as Detroit's head coach, but that primarily was because he wasn't ready for the job. Now, as Philadelphia's assistant head coach, he has regained some respect around the league. But it's difficult to believe the Niners would seriously consider making Steve Mariucci's former offensive coordinator their next head coach.

Rick Neuheisel: 50-1 – He probably could have had the 49ers job if he'd wanted it back in 2003 when he was being wooed by Terry Donahue. But his coaching star has crashed and burned since then.

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