The second half of a losing season isn’t a fun time to be an NFL head coach. Despite your team having little or no hope of making the playoffs, you’re still working just as hard and spending just as much time in the office as you did when your season held some promise. In fact, in some cases, I wouldn’t doubt that head coaches of bad teams are working even harder these days to try to find some way to turn things around. In a situation when nobody believes there’s any hope — and even worse, when everybody knows that nobody believes there’s any hope1 — you’re often stuck trying to show signs of improvement before the new year to have something to hang your hat on heading into the following season.
This often leads to a resounding amount of disingenuous coachspeak, like (to take an example from college football) the quotes from Gus Malzahn after Saturday’s miracle win about how Auburn’s quarterback made a play when he needed to. Nope. Your quarterback threw into triple coverage on fourth-and-a-mile and Georgia horrifically misplayed a tip drill into your receiver’s hands for a once-in-a-lifetime touchdown. You know you were lucky. We know you were lucky. Would it really be so wrong to just say that? Wouldn’t that be more honest and show more character than talking like you’re the love child of two motivational posters?
Of course, there’s that other carrot simultaneously being dangled over coaches’ heads: the promise of a job in 2014. I count a dozen teams with virtually no shot of making the playoffs given their divisional circumstances, upcoming schedule, and current record.2 Those teams might be out of the competitive running, but many have head coaches who might very well be spending the remainder of this season coaching to retain their jobs for 2014. There are even a few other coaches handling competitive teams who have been near this discussion over the past year; they could move back into those talks if their respective teams collapse over the remainder of the campaign.
Atlanta, Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, Jacksonville, Minnesota, Oakland, St. Louis, San Diego, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, and Washington.
By my count, there are 14 NFL head coaches in varying states of professional distress with six weeks of action to go. One of them might very well have lost his job by virtue of a decision he made on Sunday. Judging from history, about half will no longer be coaching their current teams this time next year. Now’s the time to start homing in on who those guys might be.
Safe, Unless …
Rex Ryan, New York Jets
Jim Schwartz, Detroit
Ryan and Schwartz held two of the hottest seats in the business over the summer. Ryan was basically seen as a lame duck underneath New York’s new management, with local media agitating for his removal because Ryan dared stick in Mark Sanchez during the preseason behind a backup offensive line, as if the artistry and panache Sanchez produces could only be appreciated behind a line of Pro Bowlers. And the last time anybody had paid any attention to Detroit beyond Calvin Johnson was on Thanksgiving, when Schwartz had blown things so badly that the league named a punitive rule after him. That’s a bad precedent (see: Williams, Roy).
Of course, both Ryan and Schwartz seem pretty entrenched in their situations after surprisingly solid first halves. Ryan helped mold a raw defense into a talented, successful unit, another testament to what he offers as a defensively minded head coach, while Schwartz has gotten more out of Matthew Stafford and Reggie Bush than anybody else ever has. Ryan and Schwartz have both been wildly effective, but each team lost a game it was expected to win in Week 11. The Jets took Saturday night off to go party as a team at Dave & Buster’s,3 only to look like a team tuckered out by too much Skee-Ball when the Bills stomped them by 23 points Sunday. Schwartz’s Lions lost a tough game on the road at Pittsburgh, where he called for a bizarre fake field goal inside the red zone that seemed to serve as a turning point for the game.4
You know there’s some really angsty teenage employee of the Buffalo Dave & Buster’s who tweeted out something like “cant believe i’m stuck working at d&b’s on ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT” and then, two hours later, followed it with “YOU GUYS ARE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE RIGHT NOW” and then “I think Rex Ryan just rented every single pair of bowling shoes here.”
You’ll have to wait till tomorrow for discussion of that one.
I think Ryan and Schwartz have both done good enough to this point in 2013 that they should keep their jobs for another year. Ryan, in particular, is basically a defensive wizard for whom 29 or 30 teams should fire their defensive coordinator if the Jets set him free. But with their losses Sunday, if either of these teams really collapses down the stretch and loses five or more of its six remaining games, they would get fired.
We Weren’t Really Trying Anyway
Dennis Allen, Oakland
Gus Bradley, Jacksonville
It’s hard to imagine that either the Jaguars or Raiders expected to contend in their respective divisions this year; they were commonly seen before the season as the two teams most likely to be in the running for the top pick in the juicy 2014 draft. The Jaguars have lived down to those low expectations; they’re one of the worst teams in recent history per just about any metric you can imagine, even after coming up with their first win of the season against Tennessee. It would seem too early to fire Gus Bradley, but since Shahid Khan took over as the owner in Jacksonville, head coaches have been rapidly disappearing. The Jaguars fired Jack Del Rio the day that Khan took over the team in 2011, passed on retaining interim head coach Mel Tucker in that role, hired Mike Mularkey, and then fired him after just one season at the helm in 2012. If the Jaguars finish 1-15 and have little to show for their rebuilding year, it’s still unlikely that Jacksonville would fire Bradley unless there was some slam-dunk candidate available.
Allen’s Raiders have had a more interesting fate. Impressive work from Terrelle Pryor and a cast of veterans on defense at the beginning of the season seemed to show signs that Oakland was better than people expected, but a blowout loss to the Eagles served as the team’s low point and started the rumblings about a new coach taking over for the Raiders. In fact, last week, Bovada had Allen as the fourth-most likely coach to get fired before the 2014 season. A key win over the Texans on Sunday with undrafted rookie Matt McGloin at quarterback likely laid those concerns to rest for a while; Allen has done a good job with the talent available to him and deserves a shot with a top-five pick. It’s likely he’ll also stick around for another year.
Remember How Great Last Year Was?
Leslie Frazier, Minnesota
Mike Shanahan, Washington
Last year’s playoff surprises in the NFC aren’t doing so hot this season. With Adrian Peterson merely the best running back in football this season and no longer an MVP candidate, Frazier’s work in Minnesota hasn’t seemed quite as effective. The secondary — Frazier’s specialty, given his background as a defensive back in the pros and as a defensive backs coach at the beginning of his coaching career — has fallen apart, the defense in general is in disarray, and Frazier has bounced between three options at quarterback without seemingly ever establishing one that made any sense. I think Frazier is underrated as a game-day coach, but his job security is certainly in question.
It seems more likely that Washington would consider firing Shanahan, who has seemingly been on a downward swing since Robert Griffin’s knee injury in the playoffs. Shanahan’s wildly unsatisfactory answers about Griffin’s injury after that game were the beginning of a difficult, disappointing year for Washington, who all but surely fell out of playoff contention by losing to the Eagles on Sunday; Griffin suggested afterward that the Eagles “kind of knew what was coming.” Oops. Washington now has a three-game stretch at home to salvage its season, but that comes against the 49ers, Giants, and Chiefs. Let’s be generous and suggest this 3-7 Washington team finishes 5-11. That will complete a four-year stretch for Washington in which Shanahan went 26-38, with three seasons at 6-10 or worse and one brief run into the playoffs. A conservative owner would let Shanahan go at that point, let alone Daniel Snyder, whose day job is writing and reviewing erotic fan fiction of Daniel Snyder firing coaches.
In each case, I think these coaches have a lot to coach for over these next six games. If they can finish by winning at least four of their final six contests, they’ll have a shot at sticking around.
Playoffs or Bust
Jason Garrett, Dallas
Joe Philbin, Miami
Philbin’s ability to lead and control the locker room has come into question in light of the ongoing Jonathan Martin–Richie Incognito situation, although it certainly seems like the Miami brass is leaning more toward general manager Jeff Ireland as the one to blame. Philbin would find it easier to navigate the situation if his team were winning, but just as the furor seemed to begin to slow down, the Dolphins lost to the then-winless Buccaneers on Monday Night Football, which reminded everyone that the Dolphins weren’t very good with Martin or Incognito in the lineup, either.
They managed to take a step in the right direction Sunday with a win over the Chargers, in a game where they somehow allowed eight drives of 35 yards or more but only gave up 16 points in the process. Furthermore, they’re in surprisingly good shape for a possible playoff run. The 5-5 Dolphins are currently tied with the Jets for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, and Miami gets to play New York twice over the next six weeks in an attempt to break the tie (that they currently are losing). The Dolphins wouldn’t fire Philbin if Miami wins the sixth seed in the AFC; if they’re not at least in a meaningful competition for that spot through the end of the season, it seems likely the coming regime change in Miami would be met with a new head coach to go along with the new GM.
Garrett’s must-make-the-playoffs edict has been pretty obvious since the season began; the Cowboys have since mixed in wins over bad teams (the three other squads in the NFC East, the Rams, and the Vikings) and heartbreaking losses to good teams (with losses to the Chiefs, Broncos, Lions, and Saints all resonating for different reasons). The Cowboys are now 5-5 and in the thick of a race with crazy, diseased teams in the league’s worst division. They’re also being dysfunctional in traditionally entertaining Cowboys ways: Dez Bryant is being unfairly castigated in the media as a prima donna while Garrett publicly vacillates on the possibility of picking up play-calling duties. He could whenever he wants, you see, but he doesn’t because, um, well, that part isn’t totally clear. (Let’s just hope the “settle for long field goal” plays are still in the Bill Callahan playbook.) They’re probably still slight favorites to win the NFC East, having won their first three division contests with three more to go, giving them a huge tiebreaker advantage. Their out-of-division slate could see them play Josh McCown, Matt McGloin, and Scott Tolzien at quarterback. If Garrett’s Cowboys are celebrating on the field after their home game against the Eagles in Week 17, he should sign the contract extension on the star before Jerry Jones pulls it away.
Swear We Used to Be Good
Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh
Mike Smith, Atlanta
I suspect that all three of these guys are safe for 2014. Coughlin might not be so inclined; at 67 and with two Super Bowl rings as the Giants head coach, he might be sick of running down the sideline as opposing teams frantically run Eli Manning interceptions back in the other direction. Unless this four-game winning streak is followed by a long losing streak that pushes the Giants back down toward the bottom of the NFL barrel, Coughlin won’t get fired. He might choose to leave, but that would be of his own accord.
It also seems likely that Smith will stay in his role in Atlanta, despite his team having now lost four straight games while being outscored by 18.5 points per contest, and even that required some garbage-time work against the resurgent (!) Buccaneers on Sunday. Injuries are an obvious cause for the struggles of the 2-8 Falcons, and Smith’s 56-24 record heading into the season should give him more rope than this. Atlanta is a truly decimated team that might be responsible for the biggest year-to-year decline in league history by the time the season’s up, but Smith will get another crack at the job.
Tomlin’s role is a little murkier. Pittsburgh has begun to win, having won four of the six games it has played since the bye, but this has come with some weird coaching decisions on and off the field, like banning its players from playing Ping-Pong in the player lounge and temporarily benching Antonio Brown. Tomlin was 63-33 heading into the season, and it’s going to be hard to justify moving on from a guy who had been that successful so quickly. Beating the Lions at home certainly helped; the Steelers could even make a run at the AFC North, considering how frustratingly flawed that division is. Tomlin also had a ready-made scapgegoat in Todd Haley, who would be atop this list if it continued to assistant coaches. Expect the Steelers to fire Haley and make other staff moves to take some of the heat off Tomlin.
I expect all three of these coaches will keep their jobs for 2014. But their seat is warmer than most might think right about now.
On Their Way Out …
Gary Kubiak, Houston
Mike Munchak, Tennessee
I seriously can’t believe that Kubiak benched Case Keenum for Matt Schaub yesterday. I know what Kubiak said about the move — Schaub knows more of the playbook and would be better making protection adjustments at the line. It was still the wrong move; the fans spent the rest of the game expressing their angry sentiments at Schaub, notably booing him so badly that the Texans had to go with a silent count at times during the second half. At home. With a starting quarterback battling back from an unlikely run of pick-sixes. They were booing Schaub, of course, but it was a classic case where the crowd was unquestionably booing Kubiak because they didn’t think he knew what he was doing. Once you get to that point as a head coach — where the crowd is vociferously booing you at home in your return game from a mini-stroke because you have such a limited handle on how to deal with your quarterbacks — there’s very little chance of returning. You basically need a Riverboat Ron–style makeover and resurgence to rebuild your reputation locally. “Go-for-it Gary,” perhaps?
Munchak is likely going to leave as part of the rebuilding project in Tennessee, with the Titans falling apart as a football team. After suffering a humiliating loss at home to the Jaguars, the Titans hosted the Colts on Thursday Night Football and blew a 14-0 first-quarter lead by the middle of the third quarter without ever really threatening to regain the lead again. Tennessee could have launched a bid for the AFC South title by winning both those home games against divisional competition; instead, they basically announced that their season was over. The uninspiring Munchak’s tenure as head coach is likely to follow.
The Hottest Seat
Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay
Let’s flip this one. What would it take for Schiano to retain his job? Hmmm. He’d have to stretch his two-game winning streak through the remainder of the season to finish 8-8, but even that wouldn’t be enough. He would have to publicly rescue Mike Glennon from a flock of bullies threatening to shove him into a particularly thin locker, preferably by appealing to their sense of good character and community service. (“A Schiano Man only shoves freshman lacrosse players into lockers, because that is what the Belichick Way tells us to do.”) He would have to save the crowd from a pending disaster when the pirate ship misfires and nearly takes out a section of the crowd with an ill-directed cannonball, all while resisting the urge to direct the unexploded ordnance onto Revis Island. He would somehow swing it so that all Doug Martin fantasy owners would gain access to Bobby Rainey and receive three touchdowns a week from the new superstar fantasy back. He would even leak all the amazing stories he had made up about Josh Freeman that Schiano wasn’t able to leak before Freeman’s release. So, basically, Schiano is done in Tampa.
Given current circumstances, I think that leaves Schiano, Munchak, Kubiak, Philbin, Shanahan, and Frazier out of their current jobs for 2014, with Coughlin retiring to open up a seventh head coaching gig. Who should take those jobs? That’s another story for another day.
Break Up Big Blue
The Giants are surgent! After getting off to a dismal 0-6 start, the Giants have ridden a four-game winning streak into what would normally be respectable property in the NFC East. They’re a game back of the Cowboys and Eagles for the NFC East crown, a prize that comes with a home playoff game against the Panthers or 49ers in which the NFC East representative will be a multi-point underdog. Get excited about the tiniest bits of progress!
Does that mean Giants fans should emotionally hop on the bandwagon and believe that this 2013 team can turn things around and make the playoffs? Have the Giants changed? Are they playing better football?
No. In fact, I’ll give you four reasons the Giants are on a four-game winning streak: Josh Freeman, Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor, and Scott Tolzien. Those are the four quarterbacks who spent the majority of time under center for New York’s four opponents during this winning streak, and even that oversells their ability. After being in the organization for a couple of weeks, Freeman came in out of sheer Minnesota desperation, and he was awful — or, if you prefer, he was Minnesota nice to the Giants. Barkley came in without any first-team practice reps for an injured Michael Vick. Pryor was injured and playing at well less than 100 percent. Scott Tolzien is, you know, Scott Tolzien. In any case, a lot of teams are going to have success against those four quarterbacks under the same circumstances, so it’s not much of a surprise that the Giants have suddenly found themselves to be a winning football team.
To the contrary, if anything makes the Giants look better right now, it’s that their losses from the beginning of the season make more sense. New York got blown out by the Panthers, Chiefs, and Broncos, who might be three of the league’s six best teams. That makes sense. They lost by five points to Dallas when the Cowboys recovered each of the game’s five fumbles. They lost by six points in Chicago. The only incomprehensible defeat is when they lost by 15 to the Eagles at home, and even that makes more sense when the Eagles play well. The Giants have been a consistently mediocre team that can’t hang with tough competition and can beat up some of the league’s lesser teams when they’re overrun by third-string quarterback play. Nothing has changed about the Giants yet.
They still have the same problems they did during the 0-6 start. The pass rush has barely shown signs of life. The Giants pressured Tolzien on Sunday, and Jason Pierre-Paul came away with a pick-six on a swing pass, but the G-Men failed to sack Tolzien even once on 34 dropbacks. The running game remains more theoretical than anything else, as the laboratory appears to give Coughlin an endless supply of backs to gain 3.2 yards every time one of them touches the ball. Oh, and Eli Manning continues to throw interceptions at an astounding pace; he now has 17 amid 364 passes this year, a rate of one every 21.4 passes. During his career as a starter before this season, Manning was throwing picks once every 31.6 passes. And it certainly feels like all those picks are pick-sixes, even though the analytical side of me knows that’s not true.
So, to be honest, I wouldn’t get on the Giants bandwagon just yet. Their schedule over the final six games is reasonably tough, with the Cowboys, Seahawks, and Lions all looking like meaningful competition, plus a home-and-home against a desperate Washington team. If they make it back to 7-6 before they host the Seahawks on December 15, that might be enough to keep the Giants in the playoff run. And if we’ve learned anything about the Giants over the past decade, it’s that all bets are off once they actually make it into the playoffs. Until then, though, let’s lay low on Big Blue.
Andy Reid has been excellent all year in his new job with the Kansas City Chiefs. You know the story. Denver brought an end to Kansas City’s undefeated season last night, but the Chiefs did a credible job in producing a performance that was better than the 27-17 final score might have indicated. They actually might even have won the game with a little bit of luck and some context-driven coaching from Reid, but in a year when he’ll win Coach of the Year, Reid didn’t deliver in the biggest game of the season.
The problem is that Reid didn’t adapt for the game situation he faced. All year, the Chiefs have been leading in the second half, often as a slight favorite over the team they’re up against, without a significant risk of being overrun by a far superior team. They’ve made plenty of questionable punting decisions on the conservative side of things under that same logic: With an elite defense and an offense built around avoiding turnovers, Reid has repeatedly dared teams to drive the length of the field against a top-five defense to do something about K.C.’s lead. Given the game context, it makes sense.
But Reid didn’t account for the changing context in terms of the opponent Kansas City faced Sunday. The Broncos were eight-point favorites in Vegas, and the Chiefs were underdogs who were up against it from the first drive of the game. Reid needed to coach that way and be more aggressive, knowing he was going to be stuck against a far superior quarterback. That means trying to create possessions and taking risks you wouldn’t take against the Jeff Tuels and Case Keenums of the world; you have to assume you won’t battle Peyton Manning to a narrow win.
Of course, he didn’t. Reid’s big mistake saw him kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 2:55 left in the second quarter while down 17-7. It was a brutal decision, given the team’s need to generate points and the context of that specific moment. I covered the simple logic of why going for it on fourth-and-goal is right in August, but it’s even more right in this moment. Kansas City’s offense is built around its ability to run the ball, and it will need touchdowns to keep up with Manning. Furthermore, by giving Manning a long field, it will likely force him to be conservative; the Chiefs then can use their timeouts to create a punting situation, just as the Saints did to Manning’s Colts when they went for it on fourth-and-goal and got stuffed just before halftime in Super Bowl XLIV. Since 1999,5 Manning has been at the helm of 21 possessions that began from his own 1-yard line, scoring on exactly zero of those drives. Given that a field goal and a kickoff would almost surely give the ball to Manning on the 20-yard line, that 19-yard difference in field position (were the Chiefs to be stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1) is contextually enormous.
Manning’s career started in 1998, but pro-football-reference.com only has drive data through 1999.
Then, when the Chiefs were even more desperate, Reid put the game off too long. Alex Smith got the ball into no-man’s-land in the fourth quarter down 24-10 with 11:58 to go. With Kansas City facing a fourth-and-7 from the Denver 43-yard line, Reid scandalously punted. How can you punt there? That’s a Goliath strategy, putting off the biggest play of the game because you don’t want to go for it yet. You just can’t do that. The Chiefs punted the ball into the end zone for a touchback, and two plays later, the Broncos had the ball on their own 41-yard line, right where the Chiefs had punted from. Playing a field-position game makes sense when your defense is going to shut down the opposing offense more often than not (e.g., with Manning on the 1-yard line). When you’re stuck trying to produce points and desperately attempting to catch up, though, you can’t punt inside the opposition’s territory on fourth-and-medium. Yes, Reid has done a great job this season, but he spent Sunday night coaching the wrong sort of game for the one he was actually in.