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Only certainty in time of uncertainty: Coaching changes are coming

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The coaching buzz is in full swing. Speculation is that there won't be as many changes as last season -- 11 new coaches were hired, including the interim spots in San Francisco and Oakland becoming permanent -- and the number of teams looking for coaches could be closer to between five and seven. Economics -- having to pay the fired coaches and the new ones -- could have something to do with some of the decisions. Still, change is a certainty, as is one unexpected move.

We know there will be changes in Washington and Buffalo. From what I've been told, add Cleveland to the mix, although new football chief Mike Holmgren might not fire Eric Mangini right away.

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Teams that might have openings

Jacksonville: Coach Jack Del Rio received a five-year contract extension before the 2008 season, but his future hardly is certain, sources have said. While the Jaguars are mathematically alive entering Week 17, a loss to the Browns on Sunday could be the final straw for a coach who won only one playoff game in his previous six seasons.

Carolina: Coach John Fox would like an extension, but the Panthers haven't broached the subject entering the final year of his contract. This could turn into a staredown that ends with Fox as a lame-duck coach in 2010, although that wouldn't be healthy. A buyout is possible and could be in the works if Carolina can persuade someone such as Bill Cowher to come on board. If Fox hits the open market, he won't be unemployed for long.

Houston: This situation is as dicey as Jacksonville's. Texans owner Bob McNair has said more than once that this team will make the playoffs. It hasn't. The Texans are stacked with talent on both sides of the ball, but they can't win in the AFC South. If you don't win in your division, you don't get to the playoffs. If Houston somehow makes the postseason, coach Gary Kubiak should be safe. If not, he could be fired or forced to hire a new defensive coordinator. No top-notch coordinator will come on board, though, if Kubiak is a short-timer -- unless that person is a coach-in-waiting (Gregg Williams, Mike Zimmer). Cowher's name is very hot as a possible replacement.

Chicago: By all accounts, coach Lovie Smith is safe, but some assistants will be blown out (offensive coordinator Ron Turner is a near-certain casualty). It also wouldn't be shocking, according to sources, if Smith is let go. A loss to the Detroit Lions this weekend would drop the Bears to 6-10. They don't have a first- or second-round draft pick this year. If Smith stays, look for Chicago to try to lure Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who coached currrent Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in Denver, sources said. If Smith is fired, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier could be at the top of the replacement list.

Oakland: Tom Cable went through more drama than quarterbacks this season. Nobody knows what the Raiders will do, but players seem to like Cable and the direction in which things are pointed. Still, this is the Raiders.

Tampa Bay: There is increasing talk that rookie coach Raheem Morris will be one-and-done, although the Buccaneers have been better on defense since he has taken over and played hard down the stretch. But this is a franchise where economics could come into play. The Bucs will spend to replace Morris, but only on Cowher (maybe Fox if he becomes available). Otherwise, Morris could be retained through 2010.

Dallas: Despite the Cowboys making the playoffs, there is very little confidence among NFL personnel men that Wade Phillips is safe. A victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday would give the Cowboys the NFC East title, but a playoff victory is more important for Phillips' job security. The bigger issue could be who owner Jerry Jones would hire to replace Phillips. Mike Shanahan seems bound for Washington. Cowher is available. There remains talk of a Jon Gruden-to-Dallas possibility, but I continue to be told that he will do television for at least one more season.

Seattle: Two words are routinely uttered by NFL folks and agents regarding what's going on with the Seahawks: a mess. With no one in charge of football operations, coach Jim Mora could twist for awhile. Depending on who's hired as general manager, Mora might be safe. The injury-riddled team, which is 5-10 entering Sunday's finale, is growing old, so a total overhaul could be in order.

Candidate pool

Other than Cowher and Shanahan, who's all but certain to be a Redskin by Tuesday morning, here are some guys who could fill coaching vacancies.

Frazier: The Vikings' defensive coordinator is said to be high on several teams' lists. His Tony Dungy-like way of dealing with people is attractive. He also has been ascending in coaching circles for a few years.

Zimmer: He has improved every defense he has coached (Dallas, Atlanta, Cincinnati) and draws incredible respect around the league. His experience could work against him, however, since so many teams are going after young coaches. Still, sources said teams want to talk to him. His contract with the Bengals expires at the end of the season.

Jason Garrett: The Cowboys' offensive coordinator has lost some of his sparkle. However, he was impressive on the interview circuit the past few years and still is regarded as a top candidate.

Winston Moss: The Green Bay Packers' assistant head coach has a presidential-like presence and commands people's attention, according to one general manager. Impressions of him sound a lot like those of San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary, except Moss has more coaching experience.

Mike Martz and Brian Billick: Both veteran coaches could be back in play, depending on the number of jobs that come open. The Bills would like an offensive-minded leader, and these two proven coaches fit the bill.

Potential surprise?

Bill Belichick could decide to step down after this season, his 10th as coach of the New England Patriots. This is nothing more than speculation, so it doesn't need to be made into anything more than that. Plus, this rumor has surfaced among league gossips at this time the past few seasons. If this is the surprise coaching move this season, no matter the warning, I would be floored.

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