As the excitement of the postseason sets in for the 12 teams bound for the playoffs, anticipation builds for six franchises searching for a head coach.
Issues at quarterback contributed to sinking the ships of all six fired coaches -- Gary Kubiak in Houston, Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland, Jim Schwartz in Detroit, Leslie Frazier in Minnesota, Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay and Mike Shanahan in Washington -- which may emphasize the need for a coach with an offensive background and proven achievements in building a franchise quarterback.
Two top candidates, Penn State's Bill O'Brien and Josh McDaniels, a one-time novice 32-year-old head coach who is in a second stint as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, were seasoned under Bill Belichick and worked closely with Tom Brady.
Top college coaches, including Stanford's David Shaw and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin, stated little interest in NFL openings.
Here is a detailed breakdown of all six vacancies as of New Year's Eve:
Another year, another coach in Cleveland.
The Browns went 4-12 and might again miss out on one of their primary targets. The perception of instability cost them Chip Kelly, the prize of the 2013 coaching hunt, and Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase declined interviews until his team is out of Super Bowl contention.
Patience not being a virtue of owner Jimmy Haslam or meddlesome team president Joe Banner, the Browns won't wait long to hire their third coach since 2012 and eighth since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999.
Cap space, a trove of draft picks including two first-rounders in 2014 and a young, talented defense could attract veteran and rising candidates alike. Cleveland could lock onto New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who would team with a fellow Belichick disciple in general manager Mike Lombardi. McDaniels, a native of Ohio, is praised as a sagacious play-caller and offensive mind and warrants a second turn as a head coach at 37. His first chance came at age 32 in Denver.
On Tuesday, the Patriots granted permission to the Browns to interview McDaniels, the NFL Network reported.
The Patriots have a bye this week before hosting a divisional playoff game, so McDaniels is available to interview immediately.
The Browns also reportedly sought permission to interview Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who would satisfy the NFL's Rooney Rule.
It would not be an upset to see Haslam dip into his silk-lined pockets to attempt to lure a top college coach in Cleveland. Could he make a run at Ohio State's Urban Meyer?
The Browns could move quickly to fill the vacancy, which could rule out playoff coaches such as Gase and Seattle Seahawks coordinators Dan Quinn and Darrell Bevell.
Jim Schwartz ended his five-year tenure with six losses in seven games and Detroit made the playoffs only once in a swirling storm of discipline issues and alternating meltdowns by a hyper-talented offense and overmatched defense. Schwartz parts with a $12 million to-go bag for the final two years remaining on his contract after going 7-9 in 2013.
It wouldn't take a taskmaster to turn around the Lions. Consider the team sat atop the NFC North at 6-3 before a late-season meltdown for the second consecutive season put them on their La-Z-Boys.
Schwartz was a hard-headed, defensive-minded coach who could coax effort out of his standouts with fire and brimstone talk but also coached with guts, not the guile of his mentor Bill Belichick.
Mild-mannered Martin Mayhew remains intact as general manager but the Fords, 88-year-old chairman William and his son Bill Jr., always have considerable input.
Lovie Smith, the former Bears head coach who interviewed with Philadelphia, Buffalo and San Diego before the 2013 season, is receiving interest from the Buccaneers and interviewed with the Texans in December. Working against Smith - he never got the right man to run a complementary offense in Chicago.
Offensive-minded coaches including Ken Whisenhunt who have a track record of drawing elite production out of quarterbacks will be front-runners for the job. The team has almost $90 million invested in quarterback Matthew Stafford, even though he has three career victories against winning teams and doesn't display the championship moxie coveted at the position.
For most of November and December, the North was a division for the taking and Detroit was right in the mix. This isn't a long-term rebuild. With Pro Bowl talent on the roster but little salary-cap space for at least the next two years, the Lions are in win-now mode as Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush tick through their athletic prime.
It is no national trade secret in Houston that there are two offseason priorities: hiring an experienced head coach and solving the persistent riddle at quarterback.
Owner Bob McNair said he will not share the identity of candidates, but at least two are well-known: Texas native Lovie Smith and Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien.
McNair wants O'Brien, who has done a terrific job in his two seasons at Penn State after serving as an offensive assistant at New England for six years, to resurrect a team that plunged from 12-4 to 2-14.
O'Brien, 44, is an offensive coach who, barring unforeseen complications, will take over a team with the first pick in every round of the draft - a team that won back-to-back AFC South titles and two playoff games before plummeting this season.
There is no guarantee O'Brien is ready to depart State College. He has a restrictive contract buyout and interviewed for two openings last season: Philadelphia and Cleveland.
Interim coach Wade Phillips was interviewed last week. The Texans also interviewed at least one undisclosed candidate.
"Something new and fresh is what everyone needs to get this bad taste out of our mouths," center Chris Myers said. "We can turn this thing around."
The Vikings fired Leslie Frazier after the coach compiled a 21-33-1 record, and there was an obvious disconnect between the field and the front office as to what truly ails the franchise. General manager Rick Spielman, who kept his job, said at midseason that coaches get paid to make decisions, while Frazier's parting comments indicated he was provided with a lack of quality depth and a solid direction at quarterback.
The Vikings must address the quarterback position, and have a less than captivating roster outside of running back Adrian Peterson and tantalizing rookie playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson. Combined with the fact the team will play the next two seasons at the University of Minnesota while a new stadium is built, and Spielman faces a difficult task in adding immediate contributors through free agency.
The Vikings will kick the tires on some of the hot names in several coaching searches, including Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who said he will not interview until Denver is out of Super Bowl contention. Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles could help fix one of the league's worst defenses, while former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith knows the intricacies of competing in the NFC North and is also a respected defensive mind. Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is also primed for an opportunity to run a franchise.
However, the NFL is a passing league, and offensive coordinators including Jay Gruden from Cincinnati, San Francisco's Greg Roman, New England's Josh McDaniels and San Diego's Ken Whisenhunt are in play. The latter two have previous NFL head coaching experience.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs cleaned house, sweeping head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik out the door in one fell swoop following a 4-12 season that was doomed from the start with multiple players contracting MRSA infections and one-time franchise quarterback Josh Freeman unceremoniously released amid leeks of multiple failed drug tests.
Schiano compiled only 11 wins in two seasons, but built a legion of critics who questioned his my-way-or-the-highway approach with players and game-day decision making. Domenik leaves with a 28-52 record over five seasons.
Schiano has three years remaining on his contract that would could earn him in excess of $9 million. Dominik is believed to be signed through 2014.
The Glazer family, owners of the team, made the changes for two main reasons: they didn't see enough return on their recent investment in free agents and the trade for cornerback Darrelle Revis; and Schiano's team failed to show significant improvement in the second half of the season following a 0-8 start.
So what's next? The Bucs have a decent defensive foundation that includes core pieces in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David, Revis and safety Dashon Goldson. The offense, however, is a mess with rookie quarterback Mike Glennon unable to be fully evaluated behind a tattered offensive line and third-string running back to end the season.
Early speculation on Schiano's replacement will include two names: Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, and former Bears coach (and Bucs assistant) Lovie Smith.
The 44-year-old O'Brien spent five seasons under Bill Belichick from 2007-11 and has been head coach at Penn State. He has been strongly linked to the Houston Texans opening and is widely expected to leave the Nittany Lions to return to the NFL. Ironically, Schiano has strong Penn State connections and could quickly land the job if O'Brien indeed leaves.
The 55-year-old Smith was a Bucs assistant from 1996-2000 under Tony Dungy, then spent nine seasons as the Bears' head coach from 2004-12. Out of the NFL this season, he has good Tampa connections and went 81-63 in Chicago with four 10-win seasons.
There also is speculation that Smith might be reunited with Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who could return to the Bucs as general manager.
Mike Shanahan was fired with a 24-40 record in four seasons, giving him a .369 winning percentage that was actually lower than the .375 mark of predecessors Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn, neither of whom had coached an NFL game before coming to the Redskins.
General manager Bruce Allen indicated on Monday that he'll assume much of the control over free agency and the draft that Shanahan had the past four years, meaning Snyder won't be hiring a proven personnel expert.
It was reported on Tuesday that Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will interview with the Redskins this weekend.
McDermott has been integral in crafting the Panthers' defense into one of the league's best.
McDermott, 39, is in third season with the Panthers after spending more than a decade in the Philadelphia Eagles' organization.
Allen said the Redskins will consider veteran NFL coaches and assistants as well as college coaches. Among the names being rumored besides Super Bowl winners Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden, who have rejected previous feelers, are: former Chicago coach Lovie Smith, former Oakland coach Hue Jackson and ex-Arizona Ken Whisenhunt, who played for Washington in 1990; offensive coordinators Greg Roman of San Francisco and Darrell Bevell of Seattle, each of whom has had success with young, mobile quarterbacks like Griffin; Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer; college coaches like Penn State's Bill O'Brien (once an NFL assistant), Stanford's David Shaw, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly.
Baylor's Art Briles has been mentioned but hiring Griffin's college coach would set up an unwieldy dynamic. Maybe even Hall of Fame guard Russ Grimm, a former Redskins star and assistant, will get a call.
With Shanahan gone, it should become more clear who is calling some of the personnel shots. Allen helped build a Super Bowl team in Oakland before coach Jon Gruden was "traded" to Tampa and beat Oakland in that Super Bowl. Allen then joined Gruden in Tampa. So that means Washington is the only NFL team Allen has been on without Gruden. Ah, so far, anyway.