As we enter the fourth quarter of the NFL season with playoff hopes still alive for at least 18 teams, that also spells the end of hopes and dreams for at least 14 other teams. With that reality comes the inevitable coaching changes in the NFL. I hate to see any coach get fired -- especially when a guy hasn't been given ample time to turn things around or if multiple injuries were at the root of a team's struggles - but it's a matter of fact that there will be several opening at the end of the season.
Not all of the high-profile former head coaches currently out of the league - Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, to name a few - will return to the sidelines next season, so owners will turn to the assistant coaches.
There are at least five coordinators that have done enough in 2009 to be viable candidates to lead a franchise in 2010. Oh, by the way: all five candidates are defensive coordinators. That shouldn't surprise anyone, because seven of the 11 new head coaches in 2009 came from the defensive side of the ball. Ten of the most recent hires in the league were defensive coaches:
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh
Rex Ryan, N.Y. Jets
Eric Mangini, Cleveland
Jim Schwartz, Detroit
Mike Smith, Atlanta
Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay
Mike Singletary, San Francisco
Jim Mora, Seattle
Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis
Here's my list of the top five coordinators in line for promotions (for the sake of fairness, listed in alphabetical order):
Defensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings
Coach Frazier played defensive back in the NFL for six years before working as a head coach on the college level for nine years, and then topping of his resume with 11 years of pro coaching experience. The Vikings defense is No. 3 against the run, No. 1 in sacks, No. 8 overall and allows just 15.6 points per game. If Minnesota makes it deep into the playoffs, Frazier should follow in the footsteps of his predecessor as Vikings defensive coordinator, Tomlin.
Defensive coordinator, Denver Broncos
Seemingly overnight, Nolan turned a failing 4-3 Denver defense into a hybrid 3-4 package that plays with great aggression. Nolan has NFL head coaching experience (three-plus years in San Francisco) and 19 years as an NFL assistant. He leads a group that is No. 2 against the pass in the NFL, No. 3 overall and allows just 16.8 points per game. The son of former 49ers head coach Dick Nolan needs little to no motivation to come in and do a terrific job.
Lombardi: Credit Zimmer
The difference in this Bengals team and any that I've seen before during my years in the league is their physicality.
They're more physical than they've ever been up front, even without a big-name defensive lineman. They just have a lot of really good players who are strong, physical, play hard and are fundamentally sound. I think that's a tribute to Mike Zimmer and his ability to get everyone to buy in. Defense is about a team concept and everyone taking care their own responsibility. The Bengals have done that really well, and you can't push them around.
In the secondary, the Bengals have two corners who can really cover. It's a strength they've built around. Their pass rush is unique in the sense that they push the pocket. No one gets deeper than the QB, which is the worst place to be in football.
-- Michael Lombardi
Defensive coordinator, San Diego Chargers
Rivera played nine years for the Bears' defense and now is in his ninth year of coaching at the pro level. Without Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams to anchor the defense, Rivera has been very creative in his schemes and the Chargers' defense has improved dramatically. The 12th-ranked defense allows 20.2 points per game. Rivera can be tough on his players, but he does listen to them and he will adjust battle plans after consulting with some of the key players.
Defensive coordinator, New Orleans Saints
Williams was head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 2001-03 and has 17 years of experience as an NFL assistant. His Saints defense is No. 1 in interceptions with 23 and No. 18 in overall defense. Williams has a reputation for being a very aggressive play caller and his blitz-from-anywhere scheme only gives up 20.9 points per game. Like Nolan, his head coaching experience is a plus.
Defensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals
After more years of mediocrity that I can count, Zimmer has turned around the Bengals defense. Zim's players tackle extremely well and only give up 15.6 points per game. The Bengals have the No. 4 overall defense, No. 2 against the run. Zimmer has a big test this week as his defense faces off with the Vikings.
The next wave of assistants who may get a chance to interview for top jobs include: Russ Grimm (assistant head coach, Arizona), Brian Schottenheimer (offensive coordinator, N.Y. Jets), Paul Alexander (assistant head coach/offensive line, Cincinnati), Dirk Koetter (offensive coordinator, Jaguars), and Bills interim head coach Fewell.
There is no doubt that a few assistants will get promoted to head coach around the league -- and they are all going to be cheaper than those high-profile coaches preparing for a potential return to the league.