Midseason coach firings are last resort for NFL decision-makers

In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):

I always try to go for a long run Monday morning, in part to clear my head and process all I saw Sunday. This week, it occurred to me to click on the Radio.com app on my iPhone, and tune into WIP in Philadelphia, maybe the angriest sports talk station in the country.

What I heard from the Philadelphia Eagles fans wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be. It was worse.

The station was running a poll that simply asked whether or not coach Andy Reid should resign now, nine games into his 14th season. As I jogged up Huntington Avenue in Boston, 78 percent said yes.

Here's what it left me wanting to know: Does it ever make sense to fire a coach in-season?

Since 2000, 22 coaches have been fired in-season (see box, below). All those teams had their reasons, and they vary. The one commonality is that, in each spot, it's a final-straw situation.

"Each individual situation is just that -- its own situation," said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who's seen it twice in Atlanta, at his arrival in 2003 and again in 2007. "They have to be looked at accordingly. That said, there are some overriding concerns. Is it a foregone conclusion that the guy's gonna be fired? That can affect how the players are playing and are developing. There aren't very many good reasons to do it. There are instances where it's appropriate, but it should always be the exception and not the rule."

There's blood in the water in Philly now. That also goes for, if to a lesser degree, Kansas City, San Diego and Cleveland. And if history is any guide, the list will only grow from here on out.

Since seven coaches have been axed in-season the past two years alone, it's a safe assumption at least a couple clubs will pull the plug sometime between now and the end of the season. Whether that's the right move is up for interpretation. Which is why, on Monday, I got on the horn with a half-dozen decision-makers who've been there to come up with some things to remember if your team is considering dropping the hammer ahead of schedule:

» The locker room is important: All the players won't be fired when the coach is, so the continued development of the younger guys is vital. This means looking beyond the record, and seeing if the team is still responding. If it isn't, it might be time for a change. And that's not just for the health of the players, but also the franchise.

"You want players to keep competing for roster spots," an AFC personnel executive said. "You want them to know it still impacts their future. The new coach is gonna come in and evaluate and plan, and when he does, the tape is a player's calling card. If a lot of players aren't performing, that's on tape. ... You're gonna have a new coach, maybe a new offense and defense, and there'll be depth-chart changes. You don't want the new head coach getting false impressions."

» The existing staff's makeup must allow the change: McKay lauded the work interim Falcons coaches Wade Phillips (2003) and Emmitt Thomas (2007) did in trying circumstances, emphasizing that having the right guy on staff to steady a shipwreck is important. So is the presence of two play-calling coordinators, or at least the ability of the staff to take over if the head coach is a play caller and keep a lost season from turning into a joke.

"You don't want it to be a clown show," one former GM said. "People are paying to come to the games, and players still need to practice hard and have reason to come to work. It's important to maintain some professionalism, especially on game day. You have to have people capable of running the team, if you're gonna make the move."

» Be careful about falling for the interim coach:Eight of 22 interim coaches since 2000 have been hired full-time. The jury's still out on Jason Garrett, Leslie Frazier and Romeo Crennel. The other five lasted 13 combined seasons -- compiling one playoff appearance and zero playoff wins -- and each was fired. As one NFC exec said, "You see tempo pick up, there's more energy at practice, it's something new for the players," but the club has to stay focused on the forest, and not the trees.

"They can go from being inclusive to and getting the most out of people (as interim coach) to not wanting to fail," one owner said. "How's he gonna do when it's his job and the s--- hits the fan? Is he gonna fight and compete? Everyone's gonna hit that patch somewhere. That's a reason why you don't see a lot of the interim coaches get hired. They were part of the problem to begin with, and having the job full-time is different."

» Getting a jump on a hot name -- or your search -- can be beneficial: The Niners would be one example. They fired Mike Singletary a week early in 2010, which sent the signal to Jim Harbaugh (already being pursued by his alma mater, Michigan) that an NFL job would be available in his backyard. At the very least, it allows a club the latitude to start background checks and research, come up with a short list and make a quicker hire, which puts the new coach in position to hire a better staff with the candidate pools still full.

But if you're pursuing the belle of the ball, which Harbaugh was and Oregon's Chip Kelly might be this year, it can backfire. As one NFC exec said, "That coach knows the key is the right situation, not just the first situation. If that person's in a feeding frenzy, there's no reason for him to hurry. He knows he'll be coaching somewhere, and for some of these guys, the last thing they want is to be pursued while they're coaching."

» Sometimes, the team has no choice: There have been recent instances where the decision became academic because the coach, or his agent, called the owner, told him that plans for the next year needed to be made and asked for an answer. In that case, if the decision's been made to move on, it basically has to be accelerated. "The owner," the NFC exec said, "isn't gonna lie to him. That's his top employee."

If you're going to enact the nuclear option, there's one thing that's clear.

"You're to your last straw," another NFC executive said. "There's no choice. You say, 'We're getting worse and worse. We lost the locker room. Players aren't performing. We have to do it.' Because the last thing you wanna do is do it during the season. Then, you gotta go in-house for the interim, and that guy's normally not the answer long-term. So how much are you really changing?"

If the NFL holds to form, soon enough, we'll have another chance to find out.

Four things I'll be watching on Sunday

1) Where the Jets stand. A New York Jets-related text came over Monday morning, from an AFC exec: "They're in trouble." He'd expound. "Certainly a lack of depth, a lack of vertical firepower, can't consistently run the football, erratic quarterback play, third-down issues," he continued. "All of their depth has eroded -- all the picks they traded to move up and acquire guys ate away at their ability to build depth." Indeed, because of big moves up for players like Darrelle Revis, Mark Sanchez, David Harris and Shonn Greene, and trades for vets like Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes, the Jets used just 23 draft picks in a five-year span (2007-11), with just 10 of those coming in the first three rounds of the draft. That's made it so the sting of losing players like Holmes and Revis is compounded. I believe Rex Ryan when he says his Jets will keep fighting. That's been their M.O. in the face of bad losses like the two Gang Green just endured. Whether they're good enough or not is another question. The St. Louis Rams, a team that still needs more work but has a nice core of young talent, should provide a barometer on Sunday for how far the Jets have fallen.

2) The style of Ravens-Steelers. This is my favorite rivalry in the league right now because, as much as anything else, you know what you're getting when the combatants square off. Here's the animated way John Harbaugh explained it to me last fall: "You go into this dark place. It's like you're in this globe, in a good way, and suddenly there's nothing outside of that moment, outside of that stadium. It's unique to these games, and yet, both teams are so comfortable in that place. It's where we're supposed to be. It's where they're supposed to be. It's hard to describe." Here's hoping it stays that way. Despite the Pittsburgh defense's lofty ranking -- it's No. 1 in total defense and pass defense, as well as sixth in run defense -- Dick LeBeau's group has come under criticism with its core aging another year. The Ravens rank 27th on that side, something Terrell Suggs told me he's "a little pissed" about, even taking the injuries into account. And now Ben Roethlisberger is hurt. Lots of moving parts here. But still, these two teams are a combined 13-5, a game apart, with the division lead on the line. Which means we get another big one in the next installment of the nastiest series the league has to offer.

3) Just how far the Colts have come. There's no better story in football than the one being written in Indianapolis. And early-season wins over Minnesota and Green Bay stand up as impressive. Now, the Indianapolis Colts' opponents over their current four-game win streak are a combined 11-26, so this week's trip up to New England does feel like a potential legitimizer for a young team. No matter what, though, it's pretty remarkable that the Colts are here, coming in even with the Patriots (both 6-3) in Week 11. Last season, these two clubs met in Week 13, and New England was eight games ahead of Indy in the AFC standings. "Ryan Grigson deserves to be Executive of the Year already," owner Jim Irsay told me. "What he has done is almost the impossible, what he had to deal with and then have your coach (Chuck Pagano) develop such a serious illness, without any planning. In New Orleans, there was planning, they knew it was coming. This happens after the third game. Just all the obstacles, having no cap room, all the things Ryan had to do when he came in, up to this point, honestly it's been incredible what Ryan's accomplished." Should be fun to see how it looks against Irsay's old foil Tom Brady.

4) How New Orleans deals with prosperity. Irsay said there that the Saints knew what was coming, but I'd argue that they got a little more than they bargained for. Over the past nine months, it's been a constant stream of adversity. *The advent of BountyGate. The coach/exec sanctions. The player sanctions. The string of changes in the head coach's office. The 0-4 start. *It's a credit to Joe Vitt and Drew Brees that the whole thing didn't unravel completely. Last week's stunner over the unbeaten Falcons signaled the awakening that's happened in New Orleans over the past month. Steve Spagnuolo's defense is still undermanned, but has stabilized. Brees has posted a passer rating of better than 110 in each of the team's four wins. Now, we'll get a test of this run's staying power. The Saints have to reset after that emotional one with a trip to Oakland this week, then get the Niners and Falcons (again) before the end of the month. After that, they visit the Giants. So if the Saints are in contention in mid-December, they'll have earned their way there.

Three conclusions

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1) Chip Kelly is serious about coming to the NFL. One way I know: Tampa wasn't the only pro job he was sniffing around last winter, according to sources with two teams. And whether it's potential NCAA sanctions at Oregon or Super Bowl aspirations that have him eyeing the league, it's accepted that Kelly will be out there on the market (though maybe not until after the Jan. 7 BCS title game). One AFC exec said of Kelly, "The intangibles, personality-wise, the organizational skills, the detail, the passion for winning -- all those check out. But you'd have to have an agreement -- we're gonna give this a go and see what happens. Is he gonna adapt? Is he gonna streamline it and become more versatile?" An NFC exec said he thinks the buzz around Kelly is owner-driven, since it's easy to be mesmerized by Kelly's hectic, flashy offense, but added "he'd have to change the offense. Or you'd have to have three quarterbacks to run it, because you couldn't keep them healthy." If Kelly follows through and makes the move this year, it'll be fascinating to see what happens.

2) The sixth playoff spot in the AFC is completely up for grabs. And the Cincinnati Bengals, a team I was bullish on in preseason, could be primed to make a run. Speaking with folks in Cincy this week, there is a feeling that a corner was turned in the big win over the Giants -- which snapped a four-game losing streak -- particularly in the way they protected the ball and played a good complementary game in critical situations on third down and in the red zone. But as offensive coordinator Jay Gruden told me, "It doesn't do us any good to beat the Giants if we turn around and lose to the Chiefs and the Raiders." The implication isn't complicated. Cincinnati dropped very winnable games against Miami and Cleveland in October, and needs to win the ones it should (and the Bengals should beat the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers) in advance of playing Dallas, Philly, Pittsburgh and Baltimore the final four weeks of the season.

3) Buddy Nix was right: The Bills are a franchise quarterback away from contending. Tight end Scott Chandler said in a quiet moment after Sunday's loss to New England that "we've gotta find a way to win. The offense is on the field at the end of this game, the defense is on the field at the end of the Tennessee game -- both times we come up short. Yeah, it's disappointing, two losses that could've been wins, easily. We've gotta find a way to finish the game and get a win. We just gotta get that killer instinct. We've gotta know we're gonna win the game. We need to know it's gonna happen." Buffalo's offense was at times mesmerizing Sunday, with Chandler, Stevie Johnson, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. The defense isn't far off. In this case, it was a Ryan Fitzpatrick pick that ended the team's upset bid. In a larger sense, I have to wonder if the swagger Chandler's referencing -- "knowing" you're going to win -- is missing because the players know they need more at the most important position.

Two college players to watch on Saturday

1) Oregon pass rusher Dion Jordan (vs. Stanford, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): Flashy as the Ducks' offense is, this 6-foot-7, 243-pounder is considered the most intriguing prospect on the roster of the nation's No. 1 team, and a potential first-rounder in April. "He's long, he's athletic, he runs well. If you're looking for a 3-4 outside 'backer, there's quality value in the kid," an AFC exec said. "He's got some pass rush, but he can also play in coverage, and he has a lot of physical tools. And you see all the things he'll need to do. He plays on his feet in their 3-4, and he's playing that position. So often we have to project 4-3 ends to that spot. Not with him, because of how they play." Eyes will be on Jordan this week in particular, because Stanford gives scouts a chance to see how he'll handle playing against a pro-style offense.

2) Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown (at Baylor, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN): The older brother of troubled Eagles running back Bryce Brown has been a steady force for a team that's not overly talented, but has been a machine in dispatching Big 12 opponents. "He's a great kid, he's done a hell of a job for them, and he's night-and-day different than his brother," said one NFC college scout. Given that quarterback Collin Klein doesn't necessarily translate to the pros so smoothly, Brown is likely the Wildcats' best prospect, and has drawn comparisons to Lavonte David, who played at Nebraska and has put together a big rookie year in Tampa. One college scout said that Brown isn't quite what David was, but the senior is active, and playing Baylor's spread this week will provide the chance to "see him move and cover people in space. He'll have to run, cover the seam, carry the No. 3 receiver. We'll see if he keeps up. That'll be his deal in the draft -- is he fast enough at his size?"

One prediction

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Four teams suffered significant quarterback injuries this week -- the Niners, Eagles, Steelers and Bears. And San Francisco will prove (if Alex Smith can't go) most equipped to weather the storm.

First, San Francisco has more proverbial clubs in its bag -- different ways it can win -- than any team in football. Second, the Niners' line is superior to those in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Philly, providing a better environment for the backup. And third, backup Colin Kaepernick, though inexperienced, is athletic enough to create on his own and already has a package built into the offense to take advantage of his skills.

The flip side: Pittsburgh could have the most trouble in the short term, because of its problems up front and the absence of Antonio Brown. Though it's worth noting the Steelers have made such prognostications of doom look pretty dumb in the past.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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