Every coaching job in the NFL is tough, but as we head down the home stretch of the 2015 season, a few coaches are facing more pressure than usual. These aren't necessarily coaches on the hot seat -- which, in the modern NFL, can be pretty much any head coach with a losing record -- so much as coaches who have a particularly tricky set of variables to deal with.
In the zero-sum world of the NFL, few coaches would ask for an added degree of difficulty. But these coaches have all received some additional challenges:
1) Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
Unlike the last team to complete an undefeated run -- Don Shula's 17-0 1972 Dolphins -- any squad entering the final quarter of the season with a shot at perfection in the modern NFL is bombarded, in surround sound, with talk of that pursuit from print, electronic and social media. Think about what that can do to a team. You've instilled in your players an unwavering focus on "one game at a time," the next game at hand -- and suddenly they're inundated with questions that ask, at least by implication, if they think they can win their next seven games.
Rivera -- a.k.a. "Riverboat Ron" -- can probably weather the storm. After going 7-9 in 2012, his Panthers lost their first two games in 2013, and there was little doubt he'd be out of a job if they went 0-3. I was in the broadcast booth for their third game of the season, and I remember the mood in Charlotte. You know the rest: Carolina routed the New York Giants, 38-0, then went on to finish 12-4. They went 7-8-1 last season, but managed to win their division and a wild-card game. This year, of course, behind a maturing Cam Newton and a stout defense, they've won their first 12 games (they're actually on a 16-0 run dating back to the last four regular-season games of 2014).
Now Rivera has to decide how to play his cards. How much does he use Newton, who is at once the most dangerous and most vulnerable franchise quarterback in the league, due to all the designed runs he makes and all the punishment he absorbs? The Panthers will likely clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with one or two games to spare. Then what? The old question of "Rest or rust?" is particularly nettlesome in the NFL, where the top two seeds in each conference get an extra bye week of rest anyway. If Rivera sits Newton for Week 17 -- Jan. 3 -- the quarterback will be looking at a three-week layoff before the divisional round begins Jan. 16.
Rivera has said he will play his guys to the end because that is just what they do. But last week against New Orleans, Newton took some tough hits, with the quarterback leaving briefly to be checked for a concussion (he was ultimately cleared and returned to action). He's on pace to finish the season with nearly 150 carries and 30 sacks. It might be prudent to ratchet down the bravado and think about saving Newton from some punishment. At the very least, Rivera should build game plans around running the ball and limiting the passing game to three-step drops. Panthers fans can live with watching backup quarterback Derek Anderson in the regular season. After all, they sure don't want to see Anderson in the playoffs.
2) Gary Kubiak, Denver Broncos
Kubiak's dilemma is well-documented, and it will probably be the most-discussed topic in the last four weeks of the NFL season.
Filling in for an injured Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler has gone 3-0 as a starter since Week 11. The previously untested backup has validated Kubiak and the system he wants to run: with an emphasis on the quarterback under center and a strong reliance on the running game to set up passing opportunities. Osweiler has completed more than 60 percent of his passes and has a 4:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio during Denver's three-game winning streak. Most important to Kubiak is the fact that the Broncos have rushed for more than 130 yards per game in each of those wins, rather than the sub-100-yard rushing average that was the norm under Manning.
The Broncos are in a dogfight for playoff seeding and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. They have tough games ahead: They'll face a scrappy Raiders team in Denver, travel to face the red-hot Steelers in Pittsburgh, then return home to play the most balanced and talented team in the AFC, the Cincinnati Bengals.
The legendary Manning's last game was his worst as a pro; he put up a 25 percent completion rate, zero touchdowns, four picks and a passer rating of 0.0 in a Week 10 loss to the Chiefs. When Manning returns to health, the choice Kubiak will face feels fundamental. Should he play the hot hand in Osweiler or bring back the elder statesman -- who, as it happens, is one win away from breaking the record for wins by a quarterback? These things tend to have a way of working themselves out. The first time Osweiler throws two or three interceptions in a game, Manning might look a lot better to Kubiak. But as long as the Broncos keep winning with their lockdown defense and a mistake-free Osweiler, it will be difficult to pull the youngster from the starting lineup.
3-4) John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens and Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams
These two successful coaches, with their teams sitting at 4-8, are concluding extraordinarily difficult seasons, with some but not all the key pieces in place. In fact, the challenges they face are mirror images of each other.
Harbaugh and the Ravens are at a true crossroads, a situation the franchise has not been in since relocating to Baltimore for the 1996 season. A team with a championship pedigree has been decimated by injuries. Next year, the group projects as an aging squad devoid of top-end talent at several key positions. The Ravens' top wideout, Steve Smith, is planning on retiring; their top running back, Justin Forsett, is 30, will be coming off a season-ending broken arm suffered last month and has likely peaked; their best defender, Terrell Suggs, is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a season-ending injury of his own. For all the justifiable praise the personnel department has received, the Ravens have drafted just one Pro Bowl player (C.J. Mosely) since 2009. And yet, they look like contenders going into 2016, because they're set at the single most important position in the game: quarterback, where Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco (who was also lost for the year last month) will be returning.
Fisher's Rams team, by contrast, is packed with talent. Five players in their front seven are first- or second-round draft choices, and the offense boasts difference-makers like Tavon Austin and rookie running back Todd Gurley. The front office has amassed multiple extra draft choices in Fisher's four-year reign, and St. Louis opened the season with a league-high 13 rookies on the roster. But unlike Baltimore, the Rams are bereft of certainty at the quarterback position, and they rank 31st in total offense. Fisher is heading into his fifth season with no clarity on how he's going to fill the most important position, and he still hasn't posted a winning season for the team. As if all that weren't enough, he's facing the prospect of a potential relocation to Los Angeles.
5) Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers
Heading into his 10th season as Packers coach, McCarthy turned over primary play-calling duties to assistant coach Tom Clements, who has been with McCarthy throughout his tenure in Green Bay. And now, though they have arguably the best quarterback in the game in Aaron Rodgers, the Packersrank 22nd in total offense. Consider that, since Rodgers became the starter in 2008, they've finished in the top 10 every year save for 2012, when they finished 13th.
All the blame can't be placed on Clements. Receiver Jordy Nelsonsuffered a season-ending knee injury in August. Stud running back Eddie Lacy has been hurt and looked a step slower. The offensive line has been decimated by injuries. But understandably, a lot of people want McCarthy to resume play-calling responsibilities.
McCarthy knows this would be a mistake. He is still heavily involved in the formation of the game plan. Though he is one of the best play-callers in the game, it is unlikely that taking the reins back from Clements would make a huge difference.
As I've written before, in the long run, it makes a lot more sense for even the most gifted play-caller to cede those duties as head coach so he can fully concentrate on the executive tasks he faces throughout the week and during the game. Remember, in last season's NFC Championship Game, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll -- who doesn't call the plays -- seemed more attuned than McCarthy while orchestrating Seattle's unlikely come-from-behind win over the Packers.
6) Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins
Jay Gruden was hired in 2014 to oversee the development of Robert Griffin III -- selected with the second overall pick in 2012, which the team surrendered a treasure trove of picks to acquire -- as the Redskins' franchise quarterback. Of course, RGIII has yet to take a snap this season, while Kirk Cousins, a fourth-round pick in that same draft, has the Redskins sitting at 5-7, having posted a completion rate of 68.6 percent and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 17:10.
Every coach who has worked with Cousins sings his praises. He's proven to be a solid player, easy to work with and able to manage the offense exactly how his coaches want. In September, this is what former Redskins coach Mike Shanahan had to say about Cousins: "I think what you see, I think what Jay has seen in practice, I think players see it, coaches see it, is a consistency in how somebody goes out, goes about their job on a day-to-day basis."
Gruden recently said they need to use the rest of the season to see if Cousins is going to be their franchise quarterback. Thus far, Cousins has proven to be a solid, workable player. But he has not shown the ability to make plays outside of the design of the offense. For better or worse, Gruden's fate is tied to Cousins'. With Washington tied for first in the NFC Least, the next four weeks will go a long way toward telling us about the future of Gruden -- and Cousins -- in the nation's capital.