Coaches are hired to be fired. This we know.
It can be a brutal business, where five years in any spot is considered a pretty good run and job security is scant. And thus it's not surprising that as we pass the quarter pole on the 2010 season, already certain teams and coaches are facing questions about possible changes. Just this week Cowboys owners Jerry and Stephen Jones gave another "vote of confidence" to Wade Phillips, 49ers owner Jed York did the same with Mike Singletary, but both of those clubs could well be in the market for a new coach by January, if not sooner.
The murky labor situation could certainly make some teams hesitant about absorbing salary through firings and leaping into the coaching market before we know more about how much football will be played in 2011. And certainly the unprecedented parity we are experiencing in the league this season, and the downright woeful nature of certain divisions, will lead to executives showing restraint and patience with in-season moves, because if this continues, 27 of 32 teams will still be in the hunt in the second half.
Still, the potential for abundant turnover is high. Some teams are falling well below expectations, others have coaches in lame-duck situations, and once you start to break it down the list of potential coaching hotspots is not a short one. As it stands now, I can't imagine San Francisco, Cleveland and Carolina not making a move before the start of the 2011 season, and between now and then more coaches will either do enough to be safe or fall into the turnover abyss.
Here's a look at the coaching landscape for now, beginning with the teams where change seems inevitable:
Panthers: John Fox is in the final year of his contract, he wanted nothing to do with a short-term extension, and the 0-5 Panthers are very young. Fox will be a hot free agent and the Panthers will likely go with a less-expensive, younger replacement. Coordinators like Leslie Frazier and Brian Schottenheimer have been on teams' target lists for years, and if there's a blowout in Dallas and Jason Garrett recalibrates some of his financial demands from a few years back maybe he comes into play. The Bill Cowher rumors have been swirling for years, but the people I speak to don't believe there is a financial fit there and don't expect it to go down.
49ers: This team, with 11 first-round picks on the roster, was supposed to win the NFC West. Even if the 49ers rally from an 0-5 hole to do so, Singletary's unique approach to the sidelines will prompt strong consideration for change. Stanford's Jim Harbaugh is seen by many execs as a star in the making, and I could see both Bay Area teams fighting over him. If I'm the 49ers, I'd think long and hard about NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci, who loves what he is doing but is also the last man to have any real success with that franchise. Fox would make sense, too.
Browns: Many were stunned Mike Holmgren stuck with Eric Mangini last year, but this team still has little offensive direction, needs a QB and help at skill positions. I can't fathom Holmgren not putting someone in place from his West Coast family tree for 2011. Money is usually not an object in Cleveland, and between Fox and Jon Gruden -- who share an agent with Holmgren (Bob Lamonte) -- you probably have the next Browns coach right there. If Gruden decides he wants to leave the booth, he will have no shortage of suitors, and could be looking to set a new threshold in coaching contracts approaching the $10 million range. If things get really bad in the short term -- like blackout bad -- Holmgren assuming interim reigns could be something to watch for as well.
Cowboys: A 1-3 start for a preseason contender that happens to be hosting the Super Bowl will cause problems, especially if the team is loaded with talent and has been erratic for the past few years and plays in Jerry Jones' new Taj Mahal. This is one of the most high-profile jobs in pro sports and has been manned by heavy hitters like Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells. If Jones could ever get Sean Payton or Jeff Fisher to Dallas, money would be no object. It's no secret he thinks the world of those two coaches. Some wonder if maybe he goes after another coach he has ties to, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, in a caretaker role for a year if contractual issues prevent him from getting a Payton or Fisher. I have a hard time seeing him turning it over to Garrett, but maybe if the offense flourishes and other options are not available he stays in-house.
Bills: Sure, it's only Chan Gailey's first season there, but ask Cam Cameron about what a single 1-15 season can do for your job security. The Bills have extreme issues all over the place and don't do much of anything well. In the difficult division they are in, I can't imagine things turning around quickly. Buffalo has had difficulty luring coaches in the past and any coach of stature who came there would likely want the personnel side overhauled as well. The Bills flirted with A-list guys like Mike Shanahan and Harbaugh last offseason; reality is maybe they lure someone like Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), or Marc Trestman (Montreal, CFL), but even that could be a stretch. This job is a tough sell for many, (if Brian Billick got assurances he could have a voice in the hiring of a new GM, he might be in play), and going with a rising coordinator would make sense. Come to think of it, Giants coordinator Perry Fewell would be perfect for the job ... oh, wait, yeah, going 3-4 with this ragtag bunch as the interim coach in 2009 wasn't enough. Right.
Jaguars: Jack Del Rio has escaped the past two years, and the team has managed a 3-2 start in what I believe is the most competitive division in football. But the team faded badly last season when the schedule ramped up, and in a market where blackouts are a reality, a change might be in the wind this offseason. No doubt some will wonder about the long-term future of the team there, with L.A. beckoning for some owner somewhere, which could make sorting out a successor tricky as well. But if the team ends up near the bottom of the AFC South standings -- with the way the defense concedes points that's entirely possible -- many will expect the team to finally eat the remainder of Del Rio's extension.
Bengals: Marvin Lewis has been unable to work out an extension and with the team falling well below expectations following a division title, few would be surprised if a change is made. Playoff victories haven't been there and the characters on the roster would try anyone's nerves. The problems are primarily on the offensive side of the ball, and I would not be surprised to see defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer -- beloved by his players -- to be offered the top position if a change is made.
Raiders: It took until the combine in late February to have anything close to clarity on Tom Cable's status despite a nice finish in 2009, and many anticipate more of the same this offseason. Oakland has been wildly inconsistent, and anything less than a breakthrough season would leave Al Davis mulling alternatives. A midseason collapse and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson would be in line to take over. Harbaugh is coveted, and Jackson could end up being the guy either way, as, like with Buffalo, this is a job some have feared over the years given their concerns about the organization.
Vikings: Yes, Brad Childress received a substantial contract extension just a year ago, but this team is all-in in Super Bowl or bust mode and has been brutal through four games. Throwing millions more at Brett Favre and landing Randy Moss is not done with hopes of finishing .500 after coming a play away from the Super Bowl last season. An undercurrent of potential player unrest has been a subplot to this regime, even with Favre -- the player most responsible for Childress getting that extension -- and Tarvaris Jackson's stilted development doesn't bode well for the future, either. If this team implodes, it could take a coach with it. Having Frazier on staff, as a possible replacement, could make absorbing the contract more palatable. Even in its lone win, Minnesota's offense was sluggish, and the upcoming schedule is tough.
Chargers: Winning this subpar division no longer does much for the fan base and the franchise is stuck in a vortex of blackouts right now. Even rallying from another slow start and getting to the postseason won't matter much with an early playoff exit. Norv Turner is an offensive genius, but the front office hardline stance with Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill did him no favors. It's going to take more than November and December victories to appease those who buy the tickets and there will be serious scrutiny of anything less than a strong playoff showing.
Giants/Bears/Buccaneers: All were potential hotspots when the season began -- and all would be on Cowher's shortlist, I'm told -- but all are thriving right now. The odds of all continuing to do so, however, could be bleak. Tampa considered Cowher last year but the money would have to be right and the Buccaneers would have to turn over the front office as well. The Bears are 4-1, but they were 3-1 a year ago and the offense has sputtered. Fans have been clamoring for change there for a while now, with a malaise setting in since the Super Bowl run. If they keep winning games it's a moot point. Tom Coughlin's teams play best with their backs to the wall and they're doing it again now. If they fall apart and make a move, I'm not sure it's Cowher. Remember, GM Jerry Reese did not hire Coughlin and has never had the chance to hire a coach. In talking to league sources who know Cowher and Reese, they can't fathom them as a fit together, and many believe the Giants would not want to let a bright, young executive like Reese go. Maybe a Gruden comes into play if things go poorly, but I would not be surprised to see Reese go with an up-and-coming type coach if he ends up in position to make a coaching hire.
Lions/Rams/Broncos: All of these teams are in the second year of their tenures with young, first-time head coaches. I don't see any changes being made, but again, with so much football left to play, a lot could change. Sam Bradford's play, and how I expect Matthew Stafford to play when healthy, should keep those teams competitive. Josh McDaniels has become a lightning rod with Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall among the talent defections since he took over, but if the Broncos take care of some business in a weak AFC West they should be able to stay in the hunt and avoid plunging too far.
Running from the pass
Everyone says this is a pass-happy era, the golden age of quarterbacks, right? Teams are using the short pass to offset lack of a run game and everyone is slinging the ball around the place. All that stuff.
But, my friends, everything in moderation. Even with the rule changes to open up the game and the way QBs are protected, throwing too much tends to hurt you in the turnover battle and ultimately on the scoreboard. Consider this:
Teams are 7-19 this season when their quarterback throws for at least 300 yards. Only two teams have winning records when their QB goes for 300 yards or more; Chicago and Houston are both 1-0 in those circumstances (on the flip side, the Cowboys, Colts and Chargers are a combined 2-6). Jay Cutler threw for 372 yards in Week 1 vs. the Lions, and won (with help from the Calvin Johnson ruling in the end zone). Matt Schaub went for 497 at Washington and still barely won, in overtime, with considerable help from the Redskins.
Meantime, teams with a 100-yard rusher are 21-10 this season. I'm just sayin'.
Payback on Cutler's mind
Speaking of Cutler, all signs point to him starting on Sunday against Seattle, and this is game he wouldn't miss for the world.
In the offseason, Cutler lobbied long and hard for Jeremy Bates, his old coach from Denver, to come to Chicago as his offensive coordinator. The two were very close, but Bates chose Seattle instead (understandable given the heat on Lovie Smith's staff, while Pete Carroll was just getting started with the Seahawks). Cutler was incensed at this decision, league sources say, and has circled this game since.
"It was like a bad divorce," one source said of Cutler's reaction to Bates going to Seattle. "It was like he was jilted."
Cutler can be a highly emotional fellow, as we know, and some are wondering if his emotions might run too hot this weekend. Certainly worth keeping an eye on.
A few thoughts from the game I covered last Sunday, Denver at Baltimore:
» As good as Kyle Orton has been, I was surprised to see the Broncos throwing it around so much trailing 31-10 late in the game. It certainly seemed to many that Denver was looking to pad Orton's stats and get him another 300-yard game, but there's obviously risk involved, especially against that defense. It left me scratching my head as to what exactly was being accomplished.
Denver can't run the football at all, we know that much, but the Ravens were content to let them run out the clock in the final minutes. Instead, it was bombs away to Brandon Lloyd. Even former Broncos QB Brian Griese, who was in a booth at M&T Bank Stadium, was commenting to others about how insignificant and hollow it seemed at that juncture of the game. The Broncos could not handle Baltimore's physical approach -- it won't get any easier against the Jets this week -- and lost three key players to injury in the game.
» From Baltimore's perspective, John Harbaugh's imprint is on this team, firmly. The Ravens used to be notorious for amassing penalties -- selfish/undisciplined personal fouls in particular. They led the league in penalty yards as recently as a year ago, but have been the least penalized team this season, by far.
» Harbaugh's Ravens don't succumb to lesser foes (something the team did with some regularity in the past). Consider, their five losses in his rookie season (2008) came against these teams: Pittsburgh (twice), the division champ and eventual Super Bowl champs; Tennessee (13-3; division winner); at Indianapolis (12-4; wild-card team); and at the Giants (12-4; division winner). Last season the losses came to the Bengals (twice), a division winner; at the Patriots (division winner); at the Vikings (division winner); vs. the Colts (division winner); at the Packers (wild-card team); and at the Steelers (division rival that just missed the playoffs). The Ravens' only loss this season was a controversial defeat at Cincinnati, which was the Bengals' eighth straight win in the AFC North. Pretty impressive.
Week 6 picks
I'm coming off a brutal week with my picks -- 6-8 and lost my lock (Saints, again). Horrible. I'm a mere 42-32 for the season. This week, begrudgingly, give me the Dolphins, Chargers, Ravens, Steelers, Texans, Giants, Eagles, Seahawks, Saints, Jets, Raiders, Cowboys, Colts and Titans. I'll take the Steelers for my lock.