The optimism builds from the moment free agency hits. It runs right through the 2012 NFL schedule release. Then, reality hits.
Harrison: Coach Power Rankings
No longer is the slate of next season's opponents abstract. For the first time, teams can look over the horizon and see their fate. For a select group of coaches -- those residing on the Warm Seat -- a difficult early-season stretch could turn the throne scalding hot.
Here is a look at seven coaches who face critical Septembers and Octobers:
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan.(2012 schedule) What?? Rex Ryan is on this list? Believe it. The brash and affable coach took over New York with two straight AFC title game appearances, even if the Jets didn't win their own division. Yet last year's mess of a locker room and tension-filled finale makes one wonder how much control Ryan really has. It can all change in a New York minute. The Jets open with re-tooled Buffalo, and Ryan must cringe imagining tackle Wayne Hunter getting abused by new Bills pass rusher Mario Williams. Visiting the Steelers and Dolphins back-to-back isn't easy, nor are home dates against the hard-hitting 49ers and well-rounded Texans. By the time the Jets return from Gillette Stadium on Oct. 21, fans could be furious with a 3-4 start, clamoring for Tim Tebow to start at quarterback and wondering about Ryan's prowess.
Cleveland Browns coach Pat Shurmur.(2012 schedule) As the third Browns coach since 2008, Shurmur arrived with a bright new quarterback prospect in Colt McCoy and a sure-thing running back in Peyton Hillis. Yet both struggled. Hillis is gone, and McCoy has a tenuous grip on his job. Where does that leave Shurmur? In trouble already. A 4-12 2011 did little to lend him credence with president Mike Holmgren, and having to face the NFC East and AFC West isn't so much fun. It could turn his seat quite hot, based on the opening schedule. Starting with the opener against the Eagles, the Browns face the Bengals twice in their first six games. In between, it's merely back-to-back road games at the Ravens and at the Super Bowl champion Giants. Ho hum. It could be an ugly 0-6 in Cleveland, and the drumbeat may begin for Holmgren to don the headphones again.
San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner.(2012 schedule) When hasn't Norv began the season on the Warm Seat? It turned scalding in 2011, even if the Chargers coach survived. Slow starts and mediocrity are the norm now, even with talent that would make most teams drool. Turner's future might once again be up for debate as his team begins 2012. It starts in the Black Hole against the Raiders in primetime, and among their first six opponents, only the Chiefs finished with fewer than eight wins. No one is more comfortable beginning the season on a losing skid, but even Turner might be quaking at a 2-4 start heading into an angst-filled Week 7 bye. With a Pro Bowl quarterback like Philip Rivers and a still-sturdy supporting cast, missing the playoffs twice in a row is unacceptable. If Turner threatens to make it three, the pitchforks could be out in San Diego.
Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.(2012 schedule) Maybe the coach of America's Team, whoever he is, is simply always on the Warm Seat. Entering his second full season, Garrett is no different. Dallas has missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, and last year's 8-8 scramble ended with the rival Giants nosing them out in the NFC East after a head-to-head win. Ugh. That only amped up the agitation, and having star power such as Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware and Dez Bryant provides the team with some outsized expectations. Those might be cooled if they lose to the Giants -- again -- in a nationally televised opener. In all, six of their first nine games are on the road, with three of those road opponents coming off playoff seasons. It's a daunting task, no doubt. The schedule eases slightly at the end, but Dallas will need to get there first. If Garrett can steer the team through choppy waters early, all should be well. If not ...
Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid.(2012 schedule) More than the injuries, more than the gross losses, no Eagles image was more indelible than the crowd chanting "Fi-re An-dy!" during the loss to the Patriots. Reid still survived to coach his 14th season. Nine of those have been playoff years, but it's likely playoffs or bust this time around. With Michael Vick healthy again and the "Dream Team" mantra dead and gone, the Eagles have a chance. They will likely be 2-1 starting a stretch of games that features the Giants, Steelers, Lions and then a bye. Out of the bye, it's the Falcons, Saints and Cowboys. Conspiracy theorists were out in full force, as the Eagles play four teams coming off their byes -- three in a row -- beginning Oct. 7 vs. Pittsburgh. Regardless, Philly is a Vick injury away from the wheels coming off during that brutal slate. Then, those chanting may get their wish.
Debate: Toughest schedule
Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier.(2012 schedule) The cerebral Frazier was supposed to restore order after the Brad Childress circus left town midway through 2010. But an injury to running back Adrian Peterson and instability at quarterback led to a downward spiral that landed them at 3-13 in his first full year. Sure, it helps their draft status, but Frazier has yet to convince a spirited fan base that he's the guy for the job. Being in the NFC North, one of the league's toughest divisions, doesn't help. But Frazier has a chance. His team opens with the Jaguars at home and the Colts on the road in (most likely) quarterback Andrew Luck's second game. His team should be 2-0 with a fighting chance to reach the midway point at 4-4. That would seem to show progress. The flip side is that, well, they might not show progress. Losing to even one of its first two opponents could be devastating. Stumbling out of the game, even knowing it may take Peterson (ACL) a while to get back to full strength, could lead to wondering about Frazier's future. If he takes care of business, there's a much better chance he survives the transition year.
Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt.(2012 schedule) Maybe the most difficult coach to evaluate in the NFL, Whisenhunt enters his sixth season with two playoff appearances -- and one Super Bowl run. That magical run has bought him time, even with 5-11 and 8-8 records in the past two seasons. Possibly misevaluating quarterback Kevin Kolb as a franchise-changer could place him on the troubling Hot Seat, but the team has enough talent to find a way to reach the playoffs somehow in 2012. With the AFC East teams on their schedule, it won't be a cakewalk. The fun starts in Week 2 with a trip to Foxboro, and they host the Eagles the ensuing week. Even what should be a layup against the Rams comes in the form of a road game on Thursday night after hosting the physical Dolphins. The schedule isn't devastating at the beginning for the Cardinals, but they need to be in playoff position by Week 13. That's when they end their season walking on coals. They face the Jets, Seahawks, Lions, Bears and finish in San Francisco. They have to be able to withstand that flurry.