As we approach the last Sunday of the regular season, when most of the games played have little meaning beyond pride and determining draft order, we begin to move into what I call the "sub-season" of the NFL. It is that unique period that will dominate the headlines and airwaves come early next week.
No, I am not talking about wild-card games or discussions over who is the most feared of the lower-seeded playoff qualifiers. I'm referring to the firing season, when the future of a number of organizations will change with the removal of the head coach and/or general manager.
Indeed, like everything else in the NFL, the time frame on franchise leaders is getting accelerated. Just this week, Chip Kelly was relieved of his duties as both the head coach and de-facto general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, while Gus Bradley was notified that he will remain head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016.
Pundits have taken to calling a civil, polite divorce a "conscious uncoupling." They have a euphemistic phrase for that in the NFL, as well: "The organization is moving in a different direction." As is usually the case, there are rumored to be upwards of 10 teams that might make a change at head coach. This is typical in the walk-up to the offseason, with the actual number usually coming down.
As Bum Phillips used to say, "There's two types of coaches: Them that's fired, and them that's gonna be fired." This is underscored by the fact that we live in a zero-sum league (virtually every game is a win or a loss) with a binary criteria for success: You are either in the playoffs or you're not.
In the past, the league's owners were more patient. Many coaches would get three or so seasons to "change the culture" of an organization (translation: start winning football games). That three-year time frame has changed in the modern NFL, with more money at stake, more scrutiny on performance and an insatiable desire on the part of fans to know how their teams are doing. The previously unthinkable -- being fired after just one season -- has become depressingly common. Just ask Hue Jackson, Mike Mularkey, Rob Chudzinski and, essentially, Ken Whisenhunt (who was canned by the Titans in early November, just seven games into Year 2).
The other key detail, in this quarterback-driven league, is where a team stands at the game's most important position. If you've been on the job for two years or more, and you still haven't found a quarterback, your days are likely numbered. (Which is why it's so important for a new coach to find a quarterback he can stick with as soon as possible.)
Taking away the 12 teams that currently hold playoff spots -- as well as the Eagles and Jaguars, both of whom already made a decision at head coach -- we're left with 18 NFL franchises. How will things shake out for them in the days ahead? Let's take a look, breaking up these teams into categories that describe their current status at the all-important QB position:
With a quarterback and on solid ground
Two coaches who have both the quarterback and the legacy to survive are Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and Baltimore's John Harbaugh. Both have top-flight quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings, and organizations that pride themselves on stability.
Three new coaches have a quarterback in place and credible results in Year 1 on the job: Dan Quinn (Atlanta), Jack Del Rio (Oakland) and John Fox (Chicago) don't have to worry. Matt Ryan, though having a tough season, is still fifth in the NFL in passing yards. Derek Carr appears to have a bright future, with 31 TD passes to just 12 INTs in his sophomore season. And even Jay Cutler seems to have re-established himself as the guy in Chicago, doing a fine job of cutting down on miscues (just eight interceptions this year, after leading the NFL with 18 in 2014). Of course, a big part of Cutler's resurgence is owed to offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who could receive a head-coaching job in the coming hiring cycle.
I decided to add the Cowboys to this list, even though they only have four wins and Jason Garrett has posted just one winning campaign in five full seasons on the job. The understandable regression without a healthy Tony Romo and the fact that Jerry Jones knows he has the perfect coach for working in the environment he has created makes Garrett's job safe. The only caveat is if Sean Payton were to become available, since that is someone whom Jones has coveted before.
Need a quarterback
On the other end of the spectrum are three teams that need a quarterback desperately, and thus might be susceptible to a larger organizational change. Making a simultaneous change at quarterback and head coach has been perceived to be more productive than making a change at QB while staying with an existing coach.
The Browns and 49ers both have had abysmal seasons and need to nail down future plans at the quarterback position. The Browns have fired their previous three head coaches after just two years or less on the job. That doesn't bode well for second-year man Mike Pettine, whose defense (the side of the ball that got him hired) currently ranks 26th in the NFL. Pettine was part of the brain trust that moved up to the 22nd overall pick to get Johnny Manziel, and still, after nearly two full seasons, hasn't gathered enough data to decide if Manziel can be a successful pro quarterback.
Meanwhile, San Francisco would seem to be a place to fit the circumstance of a new coach/new quarterback scenario, but the 49ers might stick with first-year head coach Jim Tomsula. GM Trent Baalke handpicked Tomsula for the job, and knows he already has the only coach in the NFL who'll allow him to step in and coach players at practice.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher is the anomaly in this category. Typically, a head coach who goes four years without posting a winning record would be primed to hit unemployment. (In fact, Fisher himself hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2008.) With the quarterback position still in flux in St. Louis, you could see a firing happening here. But Fisher is respected, he's built the makings of a fierce defense and he is the dean of NFL head coaches, with what is believed to be the support of management. Oh, and management, of course, has other things on its mind, like a potential relocation to Los Angeles.
With a quarterback ... but questions about future
The remaining nine teams fall into this more ambiguous category. Each has an existing quarterback, but the future of the head coach seems in question. Obviously, in Tennessee and Miami -- where Mike Mularkey and Dan Campbell currently hold interim posts -- a change likely will be made. In neither situation has the interim coach made an irrefutable case to be given the permanent job. Both franchises have quarterbacks with solid credentials for future growth, and thus, the jobs will be coveted.
The Colts and Giants could be ripe for change. In spite of having two of the better quarterbacks in the NFL (Andrew Luck and Eli Manning, respectively) and having a winning pedigree (Chuck Pagano went 11-5 in each of his first three seasons, and of course Tom Coughlin has two Super Bowl rings), both coaches are rumored to be on a scorching-hot seat. The way the season has ended for Coughlin, who will be 70 next August -- and the fact that the Giants have not been back to the playoffs since winning the Super Bowl in the 2011 season -- might signal the time for a change. Pagano's team, in spite of losing Luck for the majority of the season, has fought through difficulties to remain in the division race into Week 17.
In New Orleans and San Diego, the fate of Sean Payton and Mike McCoy might depend on the status of their 30-something quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. Specifically, whether each organization wants to fully commit to the QB or start thinking toward the future. Yes, the Chargers signed Rivers to an extension in August. Are they now going to ride it out with him, through the ups and downs, or look to draft a QB in waiting? And if they are thinking about drafting a young QB, do they want to bring in a new coach as part of that process?
The final three teams in this category are in similar situations, despite some different circumstances.
Jim Caldwell has Matthew Stafford in Detroit, and the team has shown improvement since Caldwell moved Jim Bob Cooter into the offensive coordinator position. Caldwell's future is bound up in the possible total restructuring of the front office.
Lovie Smith knew he would be under pressure in Tampa Bay after a two-win debut season in 2014. But the organization likely will bet on the continued improvement of Jameis Winston (the rookie quarterback has shown promising flashes in Year 1) and hope for the defensive credentials of Smith to finally reach critical mass.
Even though there are some who still question if the quarterback position is solid in Buffalo, Rex Ryan will be given a chance to transform the Bills into something they have not been this century: a playoff team. That said, Ryan might be on a short leash in 2016, due less to the quality of quarterback Tyrod Taylor than to his defense falling from fourth in the NFL in 2014 to 20th this season. (UPDATE: The Bills announced Wednesday afternoon that Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley will be back for next season.)
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You can almost always make a case for staying the course. And teams that historically have been patient often have reaped the rewards. It has been pointed out many times that the Steelers have had just three coaches in the last 47 years. But it is worth noting that Chuck Noll was 12-30 his first three years, and Bill Cower missed the playoffs in Years 7-9.
Unfortunately, the drumbeat for change bangs louder than ever in the modern NFL. I wouldn't be surprised if at least seven coaches are out of a job Monday, with nearly as many general managers.