Black Monday is still four months away, and yet it’s never too early to speculate which head coaches might have their names called if things go awry. The NFL is a brutal business, and the old three-year plan has been slivered to two — or in the case of the Cleveland Browns, one — in a demanding and impatient landscape.
Here are the NFL head coaches who have the most to prove heading into the 2014 season in order to keep their jobs:
Jason Garrett — It doesn’t look great on the outside for Garrett, who has an impatient owner in Jerry Jones who already is talking about the team’s "uphill battle" — Jones' words — this season. (If only the Cowboys’ GM would pick better players. Oh yeah, that’s Jones, too.) Garrett’s record is a respectable 29-27, but his limited playoff success and run of three straight 8-8 seasons and missed chances at the playoffs in Week 17s (losing in 2011, 2012 and 2013) are huge negatives. There’s only so much Garrett can do with this team, even with a top-notch passing combination of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. The defense could be the league’s worst unit this season. Jones only has capped one coach midseason — Wade Phillips, who was replaced by Garrett — in his tenure as owner, but a bad first half might double that career total.
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Joe Philbin — Some were surprised that the Miami Dolphins stuck with Philbin amid last season’s locker-room hazing mess, but new owner Stephen Ross was firmly in support of his head coach, pointing to the team’s solid finish (5-4) despite all the chaos around it. It’s crazy, but the Dolphins could have finished 10-6 with wins over the Bills and Jets in the final two games. GM Dennis Hickey doesn’t appear to have the power to fire or hire coaches, so we’re left to speculate what Ross might do. Philbin will be judged this season on his merit as a head coach only because this is no longer his offense; former Philadelphia Eagles QB coach Bill Lazor was brought in to run more of a Chip Kelly-esque system. If Philbin makes any critical in-game decisions that cost the team victories, his run as head coach could be shortened.
Doug Marrone — With strong endorsements league-wide from coaches such as Sean Payton and Bill Belichick, Marrone appeared to be a nice hire that fit the region as well as the team’s need to develop offensively. Last season was a write-off in Year One under Marrone because quarterback EJ Manuel was in and out of the lineup and the backup options were unattractive, none of which were Marrone’s fault. But he could be the fall guy this season if the all-in investment in Sammy Watkins fails and Manuel doesn’t develop considerably. Except for letting Jairus Byrd walk in free agency, the team approached this offseason with the thought it could compete in the AFC, if not push the Patriots for the division. But things look awfully dicey now, and Marrone might be next in the line of two-year head coaches who are hung out to dry.
Dennis Allen — Where is the plan? GM Reggie McKenzie had approached building the team through the draft, from the ground up, after a near-total restart. But suddenly, after a disastrous first few weeks in free agency in which many key cogs walked, the Raiders shifted gears and added several aging castoffs who might or might not be able to revive their careers. With Matt Schaub not appearing to be one of them, the Raiders now are changing courses again — it’ll be Derek Carr at quarterback to start the season. What if he fails? The Raiders are hanging their hats on a rookie quarterback and a hodge-podge roster of past-their-prime veterans, which is a bit frightening. Allen (8-24 in two seasons) might be the scapegoat if the losing continues, but McKenzie should not be above reproach either if the Raiders suffer another double-digit-loss season.
Rex Ryan — Ryan could save his job with a winning season, but there’s a sense that anything short of that could be it for him in New York. It’s almost as if the Jets know that Ryan is a great coach and that they might never have one much better than he is, but that still might not be enough for results-driven owner Woody Johnson. It doesn’t help that GM John Idzik and Ryan don’t appear to be totally simpatico on things, either. Idzik has failed to bolster the roster properly, and quarterback has been an issue since the day Ryan arrived. If the new acquisitions on offense don’t pan out in a sizeable way and the issues in the secondary can’t be covered up, Ryan’s run in New York — despite a very respectable record of 42-38 and 4-2 in the postseason — could be up. Winning early and making two straight AFC title games set the bar at an unfairly high level, ironically.
Mike Smith — The stability of the Atlanta Falcons’ franchise is one thing that kept Smith in a job after last season, one in which the team went from supposed Super Bowl contender to major flops amid a slew of injuries. There’s a great working relationship between GM Thomas Dimitroff, owner Arthur Blank and Smith, so that helps his cause. But another season like 2013 will render all that moot. The understanding is that the Falcons have the talent — offensively, anyway — to compete, even in the competitive NFC South. Smith might be able to survive a season of, say, 7-9 or 8-8, but anything below that would put him on serious watch.
Marvin Lewis — The Bengals signed Lewis to a one-year extension in March through 2015, but not without some tension with the front office and owner Mike Brown. Really, it was a deal to prevent Lewis from being a lame-duck coach this season, and that’s it. The roster appears to be very well stocked on both sides of the ball, and right now Lewis has one major monkey on his back: an 0-5 postseason record that includes first-round playoff exits each of the past three seasons. Some of that could be blamed on quarterback Andy Dalton’s struggles in those games, but the team’s re-signing of Dalton shows that support for him hasn’t waned. Lewis also faces the challenge of replacing two very talented coordinators in Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden, but their familiar replacements (Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther) should make the transition easier. Could Lewis be in jeopardy if the Bengals win 10 games, take the AFC North crown … and then lose again in Round 1? Yes, absolutely.
Gus Bradley — It’s too soon for this ascending team to go away from the coach they believe to be the motivator and defensive mind to get the Jaguars back to respectability. Bradley has a ton of support from owner Shad Khan and GM Dave Caldwell, and the team has a long-term vision that extends to the 2015 season as a potential breakout year. Why else would Bradley feel comfortable playing Chad Henne over Blake Bortles right now? While the future is quite bright, there are some folks around the league who believe the Jaguars are going to be very competitive this season as well and that Bradley and his young, hungry roster could surprise in 2014. Still, the team could develop slower than expected, and another two- or three-win season will put any head coach on the hot seat.
Ron Rivera — Although Rivera might not have been GM Dave Caldwell’s first choice had he been the one to hire the head coach, the two have forged a decent relationship on the job, according to league sources. Rivera’s contract extension in January through 2017 and a 12-win campaign appear to have him on very solid ground. But there are some who are predicting doom and gloom this year, with several key defections, major holes at receiver and on the offensive line and in the secondary. If the Panthers suffer a losing season, that will be three in Rivera’s four seasons. Owner Jerry Richardson isn’t, shall we say, the most predictable man. He once fired both of his sons when he felt they weren’t getting the job done in roles with the team, so would he hesitate to can Rivera out of desperation as Richardson approaches his 80th birthday? We certainly can’t rule it out.
Jeff Fisher — There’s a built-in excuse for Fisher this season with the torn ACL suffered by Sam Bradford, so it might take a serious bottoming out (and maybe for reasons unrelated to Shaun Hill’s struggles) for Fisher to seriously be put on any coaching hot seat. But there are some quiet ripples of frustration in St. Louis that there hasn’t been more thunder from Fisher’s teams thus far, and he does get paid among the elite head coaches in the NFL. The flip side of that equation is that the Rams still owe Fisher a great deal of money, and they don’t want to flush it down the toilet. The guess here is that he’s in no real danger this season but that short of a winning effort in 2014, no matter what direction the team heads this coming offseason at quarterback, Fisher will enter 2015 with a lot to prove.
Marc Trestman — The first-year head coach was a head-scratch hire for some prior to last season, but he had his team within a minute of hosting a home playoff game in a trying but ultimately successful season. Yes, even with the team missing the playoffs and losing two fewer games than in Lovie Smith’s final year, Trestmam proved to people that being an NFL head coach isn’t too big for him. He coaxed out some of Jay Cutler’s best play when healthy, and the two continue to work well together. It’s not Trestman’s fault that the defense has yet to jell or that the lack of depth on the roster is semi-alarming. If the Bears miss the playoffs again, Trestman still should be safe — this is not a knee-jerk franchise — with GM Phil Emery in his corner. However, staff changes could be afoot.
Mike Tomlin — Even more so than the Bears, the Steelers represent continuity and stability. Chuck Noll’s death this summer reminded us that the team only has had three head coaches since 1969, one of the NFL’s most astounding statistics in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. And though Tomlin righted the ship last season after a 2-6 start to pull even at 8-8, the expectations are way higher than .500 seasons in Pittsburgh. Although the roster construction has been flawed, there are enough pieces to compete this season if things go right. So Tomlin isn’t in serious danger, but he can stem this talk by guiding his team to a winning season.
Tom Coughlin — The belief is that Coughlin has earned his chance, with two Super Bowl titles in a five-year span, to walk away into retirement on his own volition when he chooses without the threat of being fired. That privilege was seriously tested when the Giants started last season a stunning 0-6, especially when owner John Mara believed his team was destined for great things in 2013. Expectations have been a bit muted this season and the slow preseason development of the new offense have people hedging even more. But GM Jerry Reese quietly has retooled the roster nicely, and Eli Manning is heading into the penultimate season of his contract. This is a critical year for the Giants to answer some of their long-term questions, of which Coughlin certainly is one. Could this be his final run? With a losing season, perhaps. But don’t be shocked if the Giants compete this year and Coughlin sticks it out through at least 2015.
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