As we approach the midway point of the NFL season, the inevitable march to the first firing of a coach has begun. Based on last year's record number of in-season firings coupled with the performance of some of the teams thus far, we know the day is coming. It's just a matter of when.
Last year, the Cowboys replaced Wade Phillips with Jason Garrett in Week 8; Minnesota replaced Brad Childress with Leslie Frazier in Week 10; Denver replaced Josh McDaniels with Eric Studesville in Week 12; and San Francisco waited until Week 16 to replace Mike Singletary with Jim Tomsula. With three teams currently winless (Miami, Indianapolis and St. Louis) and two teams with only a single victory (Arizona and Minnesota), the rumblings have begun.
Naturally, the three winless teams are where this begins to manifest itself and will continue unless any of them have a miraculous turnaround. Each of the three teams presents a case study in how the process plays out.
» In St. Louis, it is understandable why the cry for Steve Spagnuolo's job is not more severe than it is. He and GM Billy Devaney built this team together over the past three years. They have played an early schedule you would not wish upon your worst enemy and are dealing with a rash of injuries. Still, the Rams are currently ranked 29th in total defense, and when your perceived expertise (Spagnuolo came to the Rams from the defensive side of the ball) becomes a weakness, people begin to question your abilities (something I know a good deal about). The good news is Devaney knows that if questions about Spagnuolo arise, he may not be able to detach himself from the process and he may also be at risk. This should save both of them unless they are not able to stem the tide and continue to rack up losses. There are a number of winnable games in the second half of the season -- they are in the NFC West after all -- that should provide a couple opportunities to avoid being shut out for the season.
» Indianapolis is a unique contrast. Bill Polian is the sole architect of the Colts and has garnered, deservedly, the lion's share of credit for their phenomenal run of success with nine straight years of 10-plus wins and one Super Bowl title. Though the problems of the Colts clearly run deeper than just the loss of Peyton Manning, the organization will have to dramatically re-evaluate its direction at the end of the season. Polian has banked enough chips to ride out this storm and, if he chooses, stick with coach Jim Caldwell. If this is indeed the plan, Polian needs to declare this very soon. Otherwise, as the losses mount, the speculation will make Caldwell's job of holding the team together almost impossible. As you look at the remaining part of the schedule, I don't see a game that you could comfortably say the Colts should win. If the declaration isn't made, then it might be an indication that Polian recognizes the scope of moving the organization forward, possibly without Peyton Manning or Jim Caldwell, and may chose to reorganize the coaching staff that is better suited for that change. Remember that after back-to-back seasons of 10-plus wins, Polian fired Jim Mora Sr. after going 6-10 in order to redirect the organization.
» In Miami, Tony Sparano's fate is all too familiar. Sparano took over the toughest of all the jobs available at the time. Miami had gone through a succession of mistakes that, if they were a college team, would have been put them on suspension by the NCAA for lack of "institutional control." Nick Saban burst into town with total control of every aspect of the organization. When he quickly realized he was not up to the task in the NFL, he bailed to Alabama. The interim hiring of Cam Cameron was a Band-Aid lasting only a single year before ownership decided to turn to Bill Parcells to clean up Saban's mess. This was one of the first examples of how the NFL is becoming more like Major League Baseball. Sparano was brought in to skipper the on-field duties while GM/President/Real Head Coach Bill Parcells directed the total Dolphins operation. This model might have worked until ownership changed and Parcells bailed on Sparano, leaving him and now-GM Jeff Ireland to handle the modified model and take the fall. Sparano is on death row with no chance of reprieve. The merciful thing would be to declare the organizations intentions one way or the other.
Option one would be to make it clear that Sparano is staying, thus giving him some chance of holding the team together. This does not seem likely, particularly in light of the fact they were shopping his job to Jim Harbaugh in the offseason.
Option two would be to give Sparano the option of stepping away from the inevitable now and giving one of the assistants the carrot of "if you can turn this around..." This is exactly what happened when Dave Wannstedt started 1-9 in 2004 then stepped down for a "personal reason."
The third option would be letting Sparano say now that he will resign at the end of the season and play out the string in hopes the team will rally around a coach they clearly like and finish the season with professionalism.
Options two and three allow you to begin your search for your next head coach well ahead of the rush at the end of the season when it becomes a free-for-all with all the other teams who have decided to "go in another direction." By the way, I hate that phrase. It is both demeaning and patronizing. Just call it what it is -- a firing.
Sparano is handling everything with a good deal of class. He hears the incessant questions about his job status, but he is the wrong guy to ask. It is like asking the coaches of all the college teams that are bailing out of conferences what is happening. Go ask the presidents and athletics directors instead. Like Sparano, these coaches are simply going to line up and play whoever is on the schedule next for as long as they have the title of head coach.
There is no easy way to do this. I have yet to hear the coach that says, "They fired me, but they did it very well." The mantra that this is an "unfortunate side of the business" (right up there with "going in another direction") dehumanizes what is a gut-wrenching, emotional experience for all the coaches, assistants, and their families. You would like to think that class and dignity would be the order of the day, but history tells us differently.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick