In 2012, no coach won more games without making the playoffs than Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears. No other coach was fired after having a winning record, let alone one that stood at 10-6.
And yet, after nine seasons that included three NFC North titles and a Super Bowl appearance, Smith was on the unemployment line Monday, along with six other NFL coaches. A respected leader, Smith was let go with one year on his contract, leaving players crushed by his departure.
Smith also left the best roster for anyone to inherit, as well as a spot with one of the NFL's power franchises in a major city with strong ownership. Oh, and he left a quarterback for the new coach to utilize.
That's why, of the seven openings that emerged on "Black Monday," the one with the Bears is the most desirable.
How do the rest of the spots shake out? Here's my complete list:
1) Chicago Bears
Unsurprisingly, general manager Phil Emery said Tuesday that he believed the new coach will work with the majority of the players on the roster. Why wouldn't he? There are Pro Bowl players aplenty on both sides of the ball, with Julius Peppers, cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman and others on defense, and receiver Brandon Marshall on offense. Oh, and don't forget Jay Cutler. Of the seven openings, just two have answers -- not questions -- at quarterback. Having a talented passer like Cutler on the roster makes an already coveted job in one of the league's marquee landing spots all the more attractive. The only issues are on the offensive line, and there's the draft for that. Whoever takes over in Chicago will have the opportunity to win big immediately.
2) San Diego Chargers
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The #FireNorv movement is finally over in San Diego, replaced by the #HireNorvsreplacementquicklyandeffectively movement (which has not quite caught on with Twitter users). Whoever replaces Turner, who finished 7-9 in his sixth season with the team, will find plenty of reasons to believe they can quickly return to the playoffs. For one, the Chargers have a quarterback. Philip Rivers might have fallen from grace, but the talent has not evaporated. The next quarterback guru will attempt to fix him, and if they succeed, look out. The Chargers need an infusion of offensive-line talent and a boost at some offensive skill spots, but help is available on defense, thanks to members of the front seven like Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes. The organization has every right to expect its new coach to make San Diego competitive right away.
3) Philadelphia Eagles
Andy Reid exits as Philadelphia's winningest coach ever, though he failed to deliver the ring the city so craves. What he left behind for the next coach is subject to debate and personnel evaluation. The Eagles either have two viable options at quarterback for 2013 -- Michael Vick and Nick Foles -- or they have none. The answer depends on the scheme run by the new coach, as well as his faith that Vick can stay healthy. At the offensive skill spots, receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy are fascinating weapons. The Eagles have oodles of defensive talent up front, including menacing tackle Fletcher Cox. But how much talent is there on the back end? Either way, the new head man will have the chance to thrive in one of the most football-hungry cities around, in one of the most intense atmospheres. If he's a football nut, he'll love it. One of the negatives? Standing up for a morning-after-the-game news conference while the firing squad known as the Philly media takes aim is not for the faint of heart. You've been warned.
4) Buffalo Bills
This is an underrated job and opportunity because, well, people tend to overlook Buffalo. One can imagine why -- the Bills own the league's longest playoff drought. But the new hire would find this job welcoming; ex-coach Chan Gailey said the Bills are the only franchise he's been fired from that he'll still root for. There is a commitment from the city, possibly a new stadium on the way, and boatloads of defensive talent, such as Mario Williams and Jairus Byrd, and offensive weapons like C.J. Spiller. One major question: What happens at quarterback? Ryan Fitzpatrick is unlikely to be considered Buffalo's quarterback of the future. Perhaps the new coach will get to groom the next signal-caller. Also, don't forget this factor: Bills fans, known as the Bills Mafia, are intense. They are dying to wrap their arms around a winner, with the spoils going to whoever brings them one. One would just need to overcome the doom-and-gloom attitude that has long enveloped the Bills.
5) Cleveland Browns
The Browns haven't won in years, but perhaps their time as one of the league's most dysfunctional franchises is coming to an end. New owner Jimmy Haslam hopes so, as does CEO Joe Banner. It seems this leadership regime is willing to give the new coach plenty of say; Haslam said publicly that he'll attempt to sign a coach first, then a personnel man to work with him. For coaches who require power, that would be ideal. The Browns have two other strong positives. First, they have a wanting fan base that will embrace the coach who leads them out of the abyss. Second, they have strong and young defensive and offensive lines, which will allow the team to build from the inside out. But Cleveland also needs to rebuild everywhere else, including, perhaps, at quarterback. Is Brandon Weeden the answer or another problem? The team needs help at almost every position.
6) Arizona Cardinals
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Coach Ken Whisenhunt was the only coach to ever take the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, thanks in part to the re-emergence of Kurt Warner. Since then, Whisenhunt went 28-36 while going through nine other quarterbacks. That's a lot of losing for a team with a history of it. The questions at quarterback abound, outweighing anything else you were wondering about regarding this team. Given that the Cards ended the season with one win in their final 12 games, there are problems everywhere. Of all the current openings, this one appears to come with the worst roster, with maybe two stars in receiver Larry Fitzgerald and cornerback Patrick Peterson. The to-do list for the next coach will be long, and results might not come right away. The person taking over will have to be in it for the long haul.
7) Kansas City Chiefs
Before the 2012 season started, some prognosticators saw the Chiefs as the favorites to win the AFC West. So, after a 2-14 finish, it was no surprise that Romeo Crennel was fired. We were all fooled. Even with five Pro Bowl players, the talent on the roster was badly over-estimated; long strings of losses followed. The good news for the new coach is that Kansas City has the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. The bad news is that there is no Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III out there, and no one is a lock to be selected first. That might make trading the pick for the future difficult. In addition, the new coach would have to consider the power structure. As of now, Scott Pioli is the general manager. But his status could change, maybe even after the coach is hired. Could a coach take the job while facing the prospect of possibly having a boss who didn't hire him? A lot of questions surround a massive rebuilding job in Kansas City. The next person will have to win back a frustrated and cynical fan base, too.