They call it Black Monday, and when nearly a quarter of the NFL's head-coaching population is wiped out in a matter of hours — including three men that led their teams to Super Bowls, one of whom went 10-6 in 2012 — it's clear that this is one bit of football-related hyperbole that may actually be understated.
With seven coaches fired on the day following the end of the regular season and an eighth, the New Orleans Saints' Joe Vitt, preparing to yield the floor to Sean Payton when the exiled coach's season-long suspension ends, there were more boxes being hastily packed in NFL facilities Monday than there were a week earlier at a certain bearded benefactor's North Pole workshop.
[Related: Tracking all of the NFL coach/GM firings]
Sudden turnover is no longer remarkable in a league which has reinforced its 21st century standing as the sports world's most unremitting win-or-else enterprise. At least two more head coaches, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Mike Mularkey and the Carolina Panthers' Ron Rivera, could get the boot in the very near future, while the New York Jets' Rex Ryan, the Detroit Lions' Jim Schwartz, the Dallas Cowboys' Jason Garrett, the Tennessee Titans' Mike Munchak and the Oakland Raiders' Dennis Allen seem to have survived to coach another day — but will be under severe pressure to make the playoffs in 2013.
While most of Monday's firings (Pat Shurmur/Cleveland Browns, Norv Turner/San Diego Chargers, Ken Whisenhunt/Arizona Cardinals, Andy Reid/Philadelphia Eagles, Romeo Crennel/Kansas City Chiefs) have been so anticipated that they seemed almost anti-climatic, the Chicago Bears' decision to excise Lovie Smith after narrowly missing the playoffs was somewhat of a surprise. Throw in the dismissals of a senior executive vice president (Mike Reinfeldt/Titans) and five general managers (Tom Heckert/Browns, A.J. Smith/Chargers, Rod Graves/Cardinals, Gene Smith/Jaguars, Mike Tannenbaum/Jets), with the possibility of others to come, and we'll have a lot of deposed NFL power-brokers tempted to drown their sorrows with New Year's Eve champagne.
"It's a sad day," one prominent agent said Monday. "It's the NFL's answer to the Killing Fields."
OK, maybe the hyperbole isn't understated.
Yet in NFL circles, as 12 franchises prepare to compete in the postseason and 20 others deal with the ramifications of having been eliminated, upheaval at season's end has become the norm, with Monday's transactions looming as a particularly brutal example.
Gone are the days of five-year plans and patient, methodical leadership. Crennel, hired as an interim coach late in the 2011 season, was jettisoned after a single 2-14 campaign (though the man who hired him, general manager Scott Pioli, has thus far been retained). A similar fate will likely befall Mularkey, who also went 2-14 in his first season with the Jags. Owner Shad Khan will allow his next GM to make that call, though it's doubtful that a candidate who favored keeping the current coach would make it through the screening process.
Then again, the Oakland Raiders — who'd fired coaches (Tom Cable, Hue Jackson) in consecutive years following 8-8 seasons — seem to have bucked that dubious trend by retaining Allen after a maiden, 4-12 campaign. Instead, four of Allen's assistants, including much-maligned offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, were relieved of their duties Monday.
Meanwhile, a trio of coaches with Super Bowl experience — Reid, Whisenhunt and Smith — is now on the open market. Reid seems likely to generate immediate interest as a head-coaching candidate; on Monday Cardinals president Michael Bidwill told reporters he plans to interview Reid for the team's coaching vacancy. Smith, according to an ESPN report, has already been contacted by four teams with head-coaching vacancies.
We now know that Smith had good reason to root openly for the rival Green Bay Packers to defeat the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday evening. Had the Packers prevailed in that game, or had the Vikes lost to the favored Houston Texans the previous week, Chicago (10-6) would have made the playoffs, and first-year general manager Phil Emery would have had a much tougher time convincing ownership to fire its coach after nine seasons.
Instead, Smith is out after compiling an 84-66 record (including the postseason) and guiding the Bears to a Super Bowl (in which Chicago suffered a 29-17 defeat to the Indianapolis Colts in February of 2007) and an NFC championship game appearance (with the Bears falling at home to the Packers two years ago). However, Smith missed the playoffs in five of his final six seasons, and that clearly won't cut it in today's NFL.
Some other things we learned on Monday:
• The Browns are celebrating Groundhog Day on New Year's Eve Day — but perhaps the third time will be the charm. Twice previously, under Randy Lerner's ownership, the Browns chose a head coach before finding a general manager, each time with disastrous results. In 2005 Lerner locked in on Crennel as his coach before hiring Phil Savage as general manager, and that turned out to be a bad mix. Lerner repeated the mistake four years later, hiring Eric Mangini and letting the new coach handpick George Kokinis as his general manager — an experiment that blew up before the end of their first season together. So on Monday, when new Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam told reporters that he and CEO Joe Banner want to hire a coach first and then find a personnel executive, it was hard not to feel for that region's long-suffering fans. Maybe that less-orthodox model will work for the new regime, as it has thus far in Seattle (Pete Carroll/John Schneider) and St. Louis (Jeff Fisher/Les Snead), but I'll bet a lot of Browns backers are having bad flashbacks right about now.
• More than 11 years after his retirement, former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf remains an NFL powerbroker. For the second consecutive offseason Wolf was enlisted by a franchise seeking fresh front-office leadership as a consultant — this time by the Chargers, though he also had some recent conversations with Jags owner Shad Khan about that team's impending GM search. Chargers president Dean Spanos hopes that, at least in the short term, Wolf's assistance will yield better results than it has thus far a few hundred miles to the north. Last year Wolf, along with Hall of Fame coach John Madden and former Atlanta Falcons general manager Ken Herock, advised Raiders owner Mark Davis in his search for a new general manager. Reggie McKenzie, a highly regarded Packers front-office executive, was the only candidate interviewed by Davis, who has since expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the team's backslide in 2012. If nothing else the decision to fire Jackson, a highly regarded offensive strategist, and replace him with Knapp turned out to be a fiasco, one which the organization essentially admitted in the form of Monday's firings. Cynics have noted that Wolf's son, Eliot, was promoted to director of pro personnel in the wake of McKenzie's departure, while Herock's son, Shaun (who had worked with McKenzie in Green Bay) was hired as the Raiders' director of college scouting. Look for Wolf to champion current Green Bay director of football operations John Dorsey and/or Packers vice president of football administration Russ Ball in San Diego. Reid, a former Packers assistant during the elder Wolf's tenure, could now be in play for the Chargers' coaching job, despite recent reports that the organization is not interested in pursuing him.
• Despite progress in recent years, the minority-coaching situation — which we addressed last week while examining the dearth of African-American offensive play-callers — remains a work in progress. Two of the league's five African-American head coaches, Smith and Crennel, were let go on Monday. The Panthers' Rivera, who is Hispanic, remains in limbo pending that organization's search for a new general manager. Because of the Rooney Rule, each team looking to fill a head-coaching or GM vacancy must interview at least one minority candidate, though sometimes such meetings are viewed as a sham in the coaching and personnel communities. For now, the list of minority coaching candidates attracting interest includes Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Falcons special teams coach Keith Armstrong, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Phillips, though that is likely to grow in the coming days. Minority GM candidates include Omar Khan, the Pittsburgh Steelers' director of football and business administration; Bills assistant general manager/director of football operations Doug Whaley; Marc Ross, the New York Giants' director of college scouting; and Titans vice president of player personnel Lake Dawson.
• These next few days — and, realistically, the first half of January, if not longer — will be rapid-fire, wild and fluid. There's a distinct advantage for assistant coaches and front-office executives whose teams are either a) not in the playoffs; b) owners of a first-round bye (and thus eligible to interview this week); or c) eliminated after this weekend's first-round games. The longer a team remains in the Super Bowl hunt, the more a prospective employer must wait to pounce — and owners are mighty impatient when competing against their peers for top talent and eagerly awaiting the chance to unveil a new regime and let it go to work. The Jags, for example, would like to settle on a new GM in the next week, with Cardinals vice president of player personnel Steve Keim, 49ers player personnel director Tom Gamble and Falcons director of player personnel Dave Caldwell among the top candidates.
• Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher aren't walking through that door — at least, not unless either big-name coach-turned-TV-personality gets an offer he can't refuse (favorable owner, chance to bring in his own personnel chief, great quarterbacking situation, copious amounts of cash) and has a change of heart. Oregon's Chip Kelly, who turned down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job a year ago, is considered an intriguing option. Other potential candidates with strong offensive backgrounds include 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman; Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy; Jackson, now a Bengals assistant; Reid; ex-Ravens coach Brian Billick; Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians; Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden; Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan; Penn State coach Bill O'Brien; and Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. On the other side of the ball, the candidates include Smith; Horton; Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer; Falcons defensive coordinator (and former 49ers coach) Mike Nolan; Broncos defensive coordinator (and ex-Jags coach) Jack Del Rio; Fewell; and Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.
In the weeks to come, while the 12 most successful teams of the 2012 season compete for a championship, many of the NFL's other organizations will attempt to move past Black Monday and convince their fans that a brand-new day has dawned. For some of those teams, the promise of 2013 will be traced to the final day of 2012 — when pink slips were more prevalent than pink champagne, and 100 yards of grass at practice facilities became metaphorical killing fields.
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