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Former Steelers coaches among top candidates for open head coaching jobs

Former secondary coach Ray Horton and former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt look to spread Bill Cowher's coaching tree even further with potential head coaching jobs of their own this offseason.

Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

The Bill Cowher Coaching Tree is spreading its roots even wider than it already has.

With such former coaches having worked for Cowher in Pittsburgh in the 1990s such as Denver's John Fox and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis leading other franchises now, and former wide receivers/quarterbacks coach Bruce Arians having just missed a surprise entry into the 2013 playoffs with the Arizona Cardinals, plenty of coaches who either started their careers or extended them under Cowher are planting their own seeds across the NFL.

Former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was fired by the Cardinals (and replaced by Arians) after the 2012 season, but a solid year in San Diego as the team's offensive coordinator has made him an attractive head coaching candidate. The Detroit Lions have reportedly all but made Whisenhunt an offer, one that's expected to be formalized as soon as the Chargers' season ends.

Former secondary coach and current defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns Ray Horton is said to be a main target of the Minnesota Vikings for their head coaching job as well.

Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers, both current defensive coordinators for the Steelers and Packers, respectfully, as well as Chan Gailey and Mike Mularkey (both former offensive coordinators) have rich NFL resumes, making candidates like Whisenhunt and Horton even more attractive. They've learned the trade in their younger years around highly experienced and successful coaches.

Whisenhunt branched off enough to think he has enough in terms of body of work to let it stand on its own. Horton hasn't been a head coach before, but as Dan Dierdorf recently told the Detroit Free Press in regards to current Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, sometimes some coaches just have "it," even if "it" isn't experience.

It's possible neither Whisenhunt nor Horton get a nod this offseason - Whisenhunt in particular. Timing is a huge component of hiring a head coach and the hot coordinator candidate sometimes gets passed over if his team advances all the way to February. Teams want a coach in place before then, if possible, and sometimes their second option being hired in mid-January is better than their first open in the second week of February.

That isn't to say Whisenhunt isn't an outstanding candidate in Detroit. Despite his uneven finish in Arizona, both in terms of wins/losses as well as quarterback development, Whisenhunt helped resurrect the Hall of Fame-worthy career of Kurt Warner, as well as help launch the Hall of Fame-worthy career of Ben Roethlisberger. He established a top-notch running game in Pittsburgh and a high-powered passing attack with the Cardinals.

He seems like a great fit in Detroit.

Horton has had success in every position he's been in, with the possible exception of 2013 with the Cleveland Browns - a team that said it wanted to get younger and it wanted to play younger players, only to fire their head coach after one season for not winning. Outside of that, the defensive turnaround in Arizona, when he was defensive coordinator, is unmistakable, and the mark he left in Pittsburgh in terms of secondary production (not to mention 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu) will stand out nicely on his resume.

Perhaps the fact the Vikings don't currently employ a 3-4 defense may hold Horton's candidacy back, but that's circumstantial. Arizona wasn't a 3-4 team when he took over, and we've seen New Orleans (under Rob Ryan) and Green Bay (under Dom Capers) successfully transition mediocre-to-poor defenses from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 in less than two seasons fairly recently.

The Cowher Coaching Tree could get even more depth by the end of this coaching period, leaving even more teams for longtime Steelers fans to root for, even if for no other reason than "he used to coach for the Steelers."