I always approach the end of the year with a mix of excitement and dread. The final Sunday is replete with winner-take-all division battles, while the playoffs are around the corner, bringing with them some intriguing Super Bowl possibilities. But next Monday is also when the annual changing of the guard in the head-coaching ranks commences, meaning a number of lives will be dramatically affected.
That coaches lose their jobs at the end of the season is natural, because pro football is a zero-sum game in which every winner has a corresponding loser. But it's gotten worse, because in the modern age, owners and fans are less patient than ever before.
We should remember that sometimes, change isn't good. AFL founder and late Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt was once asked about the most regrettable decision he made during his Hall of Fame career. He said it was firing Marv Levy too soon, after the strike-marred 1982 season. Staying the course isn't often a popular decision in real time, but the wisdom of doing so becomes clearer in retrospect. When the Pittsburgh Steelers stuck with Bill Cowher through the playoff-less seventh, eighth and ninth years of his tenure (1998 to 2000), many called the franchise stale and inert. Of course, in 2001, Cowher led Pittsburgh to a 13-3 record and the AFC title game, and he went on to capture the franchise's fifth Super Bowl title in 2005.
I try to keep that all in mind at the end of each year. A lot will be written and said about why certain coaches should be fired. But I don't think the portrait is complete without at least stating the case for keeping the coach in question. Changing coaching staffs isn't like installing a new air-conditioning filter. It takes time for a system, philosophy and culture to take root. In short, you should be absolutely sure you need to make a switch before pulling the trigger.
Organizations that are contemplating firing their coaches should ask themselves this question: Are we confident we can get someone better to replace him? One organization has already answered that, as the Miami Dolphins announced that head coach Joe Philbin will stay on in 2015. He has, after all, put the team in a place to compete for a playoff spot, and the Dolphins seem to have successfully identified their quarterback of the present and future in Ryan Tannehill.
Below, in alphabetical order, is the case for keeping seven of the coaches considered to be on the hot seat:
Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
The man has 176 wins in this league, along with two Super Bowl rings. You can get a different coach, but you will not get a better coach -- so why bother?
Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has tried almost every conceivable option: two Super Bowl-winning coaches (Mike Shanahan and Joe Gibbs); one of the winningest head coaches in the NFL (Marty Schottenheimer); one of the most successful college coaches ever (Steve Spurrier); and not one, not two, but three different offensive gurus (Norv Turner, Jim Zorn and now Gruden). Snyder bailed on Schottenheimer after a single season and Zorn after just two seasons. Do you really think changing head coaches yet again will make a difference? It would be more sensible to give Gruden another year and see if he can create an environment where his quarterback -- whomever that might be -- can thrive. Beyond that, it might be a good idea to stop kidding yourself: This is not a one-year fix.
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers
OK, we all know he's almost certainly gone, right? It seems like there are irreconcilable differences between the head coach and management. Fine. But don't tell me it's a football decision. The Niners went to three NFC Championship Games (and one Super Bowl) in the past three seasons. They took a step back offensively this year, but the system is still sound. And Harbaugh is still a damn good football coach.
Rex Ryan, New York Jets
The question of "Who's next?" should be paramount here, because you're not going to find a better defensive coach than Ryan. And if the Jets fire Ryan and go the typical route of replacing him with someone who projects as his philosophical opposite, well, they'll likely end up handing an offensive guru the keys to a roster built around defense. Consider that aside from quarterback Mark Sanchez, every first-round draft pick of the Ryan era has been a defensive player -- which means the Jets have a first-round defense and a second-round (OK, I'm being generous) offense. But with young signal-caller Geno Smith starting to show signs of maturity, it would likely be wiser to let Ryan continue as the head coach, use all the team's resources to acquire offensive weapons and perhaps find a strong coordinator to oversee an offensive overhaul.
Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons
Full disclosure: Smith was on my staff in Baltimore, and he's also my brother-in-law, so you can factor that in with regard to my assessment. But let's look at the facts. When Smith took over in 2008, the Falcons had been through five coaches in five years. They had fired Jim Mora and hired Bobby Petrino, who promptly went 3-10, then abandoned the organization before his first year was over to take the Arkansas job -- at a time when the face of the franchise, Michael Vick, was staring at a federal prison sentence for financing an interstate dog-fighting ring. Atlanta was in total disarray. Enter Smith, who reached the playoffs in four of the next five seasons (and if the Falcons win Sunday, he'll have made the postseason in five of seven seasons). Think of the stability the Pittsburgh Steelers have shown over the years. They kept Chuck Noll after he went 12-30 in his first three seasons. They kept Cowher through the downturn in Years 7 through 9. And they stuck with Mike Tomlin after his team missed the playoffs in Years 6 and 7. The Falcons are a class organization that should take note of what the most stable franchise in the NFL has done in similar situations.
Tony Sparano, Oakland Raiders
The Raiders have been the most dysfunctional NFL franchise of the 21st century, and there are some hard questions being asked about the personnel decisions made by general manager Reggie McKenzie. Still, McKenzie has identified and acquired some key parts, such as rookie quarterback Derek Carr and first-year linebacker Khalil Mack. Even after Oakland fell to 0-10, the team didn't give up, playing hard for interim head man Sparano, who took over after Dennis Allen was fired in September -- and the Raiders have won three of their last five games. For his part, Sparano seems calmer and more assured than he did during his first head-coaching gig in Miami.
Marc Trestman, Chicago Bears
This situation is a little more complex than some of the others. If you think you need to take a scorched-earth approach and truly start from scratch (realizing that you'd then be looking at a two- or three-year rebuilding project at least), then fire everyone -- and I mean everyone, right down to the scoreboard operator. On the other hand, if you think you can acquire the right defensive people to make this Bears team competitive, then perhaps you keep the GM (Phil Emery) and coach (Trestman) who gave Jay Cutler his big contract and see what they can do. Like Dallas last year, Chicago doesn't need to turn one of the NFL's worst defenses into its best; it merely needs the unit to become average. (When pondering the Bears' plight, it's worth remembering that, two years ago, they fired the defensive-minded Lovie Smith following a 10-6 season.)
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @CoachBillick.