The annual coaching carousel has already begun to creak along. It's a little early, with Buffalo coach Dick Jauron getting fired before Thanksgiving, but as the weather turns, it's inevitable in this league that teams will begin mulling changes, and the coaching hot stove league will be a furnace this offseason with so many top coaches available.
The Bills are now first on the coaching clock, and, according to league sources, owner Ralph Wilson is willing to empty his pockets to land a primo candidate and make a splash if the right fit is there. Ultimately, I don't see him landing a big fish, but I continue to hear that Wilson is not averse to spending on this hire despite his small-market limitations. The Bills will consider up-and-comers and coach/general manager tandems, but I tend to think they will end up with a first-time NFL head coach. The process, however, will begin with Mike Shanahan next week, as NFL.com's Vic Carucci reported on Wednesday.
Of the big-name coaches, Shanahan and Bill Cowher would be most attractive to Buffalo, but I have a hard time seeing either of them rushing to sign with the Bills before the full scope of the job market is in focus. The scuttlebutt is getting more intense by the week, and in the coming weeks there will undoubtedly be back-channel messages sent by teams to prospective candidates trying to gauge interest as owners consider whether an offseason coaching change is the way to go.
There are several teams commonly expected to have openings in 2010 -- Washington, Oakland and Cleveland are most likely to join Buffalo in the search. If the Texans fail to reach the postseason, they could make a change. If the Jaguars fall apart in the second half, there is some potential for a move there, though the team has stabilized under Jack Del Rio this season. Carolina's John Fox has 2010 left on his contract and the club has come along well the last six weeks despite devastating injuries and Thursday night's loss to Miami. A total collapse by the Bears, Cowboys or Chargers would create interesting situations there as well.
As for some of the key coaches and what I'm hearing in regards to their potential whereabouts:
» Mike Shanahan: Should the Chargers fail to make the playoffs and Norv Turner is fired, San Diego would be a dream job for Shanahan. He knows the division, would get two cracks a year at former employers (Raiders and Broncos), he has a home in western Mexico, and loves the area and lifestyle in California. The Chargers are close, the division is weak and 10 wins will get it done most years. They have a franchise QB locked up long-term. A lot of pieces are in place, and a good personnel department already exists.
Shanahan's hand-picked former QB, Jay Cutler, is struggling in Chicago, and the Bears would be a natural fit as well (but unlikely at this point that Chicago would make a move). I couldn't find a team executive who could actually see Shanahan ending up in Buffalo, which is considered quite remote by most people. If I had to pick a most likely spot for Shanahan right now, I'd say Washington. Owner Daniel Snyder likes him, they have similar interests and personality traits, and Snyder has long admired him. Snyder pays top dollar, too. It would be a rebuilding situation and the Redskins would, if they're smart, bring in a separate personnel component to the organization, but this may end up as Snyder's best/only move.
» Jon Gruden: Up until this week I fully expected him to be jumping back into coaching in 2010. But he extended his broadcasting contract with ESPN and I am told that deal is pretty ironclad. There aren't many ways out in 2010 and Gruden loves his current gig. He sees the franchise John Madden created, and at age 45 is relishing the opportunity to build his brand off the field. A source very close to him told me "there is zero chance" Gruden coaches in 2010. Washington would have been a very viable option, but "that ship has sailed," the source said.
» Bill Cowher: I continue to hear that if the right opportunity opens up, Cowher would put the band back together and jump into the game again. But he has earned the right to be very choosy, and he knows it. Cowher is interested in coaching, and not in one of the football czar-type roles. He would want to bring personnel people he is comfortable with along with him. There are three clubs that would really light his fire -- Carolina (he lives there and has strong ties to the area), Houston (owner Bob McNair is a fan of his work, I'm told, and the team already has many key pieces in place), and Chicago (again, the Bears have a QB and it's a good city for a hard-nosed coach). Staying in broadcasting wouldn't break his heart, either, but he's chatted with several owners the last few years and I'd be stunned if he didn't thoroughly investigate some options this offseason as well.
» Mike Holmgren: People close to the former Packers and Seahawks coach believe strongly that at this point a team president/general manager role is much more attractive than a coaching gig, and that's the kind of role he will land. Those same sources would also be thoroughly shocked if he ended up someplace like Cleveland or Buffalo. Holmgren has deep ties to Seattle, knows owner Paul Allen well, and if the Seahawks don't extend the contract of team president Tim Ruskell (it ends after the season), then Holmgren would love to get back there, sources say. He has a home there, he knows the roster and the division.
» Tony Dungy: Dungy has been pretty adamant that he is more than content broadcasting, mentoring, and doing his outreach and ministry work. However, some league execs believe that if the situation in Tampa were to get too dire, Dungy might return in some capacity to help Raheem Morris. Dungy has denied this as a possibility, and the Bucs have been more competitive of late, but there are people in the league who could see Dungy eventually back with the franchise in some way, at some time.
As for less high-profile candidates to make the rounds this offseason, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, Panthers defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, CFL coach Marc Trestman, Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and Bucs special teams coach Rich Bisaccia are among those who could be in the interview mix.
A much more mature Young
It's only been three starts, and things have a way of changing from week to week in this league, but I have a hard time not seeing Vince Young with the Titans next season.
He has a $4.25 million roster bonus due in 2010, along with a $7.5 million salary. But with the way he is handling himself on and off the field, with all Tennessee has already invested in him, how much owner Bud Adams supports him and wants him to succeed, the way the offense has flowed with him under center, his unique skill set and newfound maturity and appreciation for the game, he is looking every bit the part. Talking to scouts who have watched him recently, they point to his maturity, confidence, willingness to take what the defense gives him, and his restraint from forcing the ball. All of that serves him well.
Adams, the driving force behind Young being drafted by the Titans, clearly wanted to see him on the field after Kerry Collins' foibles during an 0-6 start, and the owner's patience has been rewarded. Coach Jeff Fisher is wholeheartedly onboard. Young is spending more time in film study, he is making bright decisions with the ball, and managing games. His big arm and ability to run with the ball are elements prized in this league, and as long as he continues to avoid turnovers, check the ball down to Chris Johnson, and throw the ball accurately, it's making the decision to keep him a no-brainer.
Beyond all of that, the free-agent quarterback market, barring a new CBA, is dreadful (I talked about that last week), and the Cutler trade was an anomaly (young potential franchise QBs just don't hit the trade market). So what are Tennessee's other options? Give $20-30 million guaranteed to a kid who has never thrown a pass in the league and start all over again? I just don't see it.
Also, consider this: Young is 21-11 as a starter in his career and 7-0 in his starts dating to December 2007. He has completing 70 percent of his passes in three starts this season. He has thrown just one interception in 62 attempts. I've been awful hard on Young in the past, especially when it seemed like he was throwing his career away, but I want to be just as effusive in recognizing his strides. Winning back his coaches and teammates was a significant accomplishment, and I applaud him for it.
Battered playoff hopes
This turned out to be a brutal week for injuries, particularly for running backs and linemen. Ronnie Brown, Michael Turner, Brian Westbrook, Jordan Gross, Cedric Benson and Marc Columbo were among the walking wounded. That's a tough haul for one Sunday. Many of these injuries, and some others, like the one suffered by Broncos QB Kyle Orton, could be long-term and have major ramifications on the playoff picture.
When you're talking about playoff hopefuls losing starting tackles this time of year, that can be huge. The dropoff from Orton to Chris Simms is considerable, and when you talk to people who know Orton, they'll tell you he has a history of ankle problems and sitting him a week might make sense, even with the division possibly at stake against the Chargers this week. Orton has a high pain threshold, sources say, and given the reality that he could easily aggravate his severe ankle sprain, there has to be some concern. It's a very difficult call for coach Josh McDaniels and the medical staff, and Orton will definitely push hard to play as long as he can remotely plant and throw.
Fourth down ... and four to go
- Browns QB Brady Quinn should know better than to toss himself at the knees of a defenseless player, and the fact that he's a linebacker means absolutely nothing in this case. That's bush league. You can end someone's career that way. Given the way fines are generally doled out, I wasn't surprised he got marked for $10,000, since he's not a repeat offender, but perhaps it's something for the Competition Committee to discuss as a further point of emphasis for these kind of QB chop blocks. ...
- From the We'll Never Know Department: The Bears' frustration with Matt Forte has grown. His decision to spend most of the offseason at Tulane and not at Halas Hall won't soon be forgotten (and likely won't be repeated), and a few weeks back the team was on the verge of going to more of a committee approach at running back -- but then backup Adrian Peterson got hurt. Injuries to running backs have scrapped those plans, and Forte is the only option now. ...
- Philadelphia's issues at middle linebacker linger. Chris Gocong got the nod last week, with Will Witherspoon going back outside, but the Eagles might have to change it up again. The Jeremiah Trotter experiment hasn't paid big dividends, and scouts have noticed that all the fluctuation at linebacker have taken a toll on the overall gap control. The rotation on the defensive line remains a strength, but the Eagles were constantly trying to add a linebacker for a reason. Stewart Bradley's preseason injury is still being felt. ...
- I went a ho-hum 9-6 on my picks last week, and now am 90-53 for the season (or thereabouts). This week, for full disclosure, I liked the Panthers on Thursday night, and give me the Colts, Cowboys, Lions, Packers, Bills, Steelers, Vikings, Giants, Saints, Cardinals, Chargers, Patriots, Bengals, Eagles and Titans.