Who's on the Hot Seat Heading into NFL Training Camps?
As NFL training camps are nearly upon us, a lot of head coaches are going to be saying that to a lot of players over the coming week. Right now, every team's record is 0-0, and in the heat of padded drills it's easy for players to look around at each other and think, "This is our year."
For all but one NFL team, this isn't their year.
Even if the Super Bowl turns out to be a contest between the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers and loaded Denver Broncos, there are plenty of talented contenders who want—even expect—to be there at the very end.
When expectations aren't met, people lose their jobs.
The pressure is high at the other end of the spectrum too: Some head coaches barely escaped the last guillotine season with their necks intact, and many high-profile starters will have to hold off touted rookies or just-signed veterans.
Which players and coaches will fall short of lofty expectations? Which players and coaches are working on their ninth lives? Who's on the hot seat heading into NFL training camps?
Justin Blackmon, Jacksonville Jaguars Wide Receiver
When it comes to Jacksonville Jaguars, it goes without saying that over-drafted third-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert is on the hot seat. He may not even make it out of training camp with the starting job.
The real pressure is on second-year receiver Justin Blackmon.
Blackmon, drafted to give Gabbert a real weapon to work with, was instead mostly AWOL throughout 2012. In the nine games Gabbert started, Blackmon averaged just 2.9 receptions for 27.8 yards.
Once veteran Chad Henne took over, Blackmon's numbers shot up, with a season-best seven grabs for 236 yards and a touchdown in the very first game. To put it in perspective, Blackmon only had 250 yards in all nine of Gabbert's starts combined.
Blackmon averaged 5.4 catches and 87.9 yards per game with Henne starting, and the Jaguars will need him to be even more consistently productive going forward.
That's a big ask, since Blackmon is suspended for the first four games of the season for multiple violations of the NFL substance abuse policy, and according to Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union, he just underwent groin surgery.
If Blackmon can't keep it together, the Jaguars are going to have to rebuild their offense from the ground up—again.
Matt Schaub, Houston Texans Quarterback
Matt Schaub is not in danger of losing his job this season. However, the long-awaited future is now for the Houston Texans, and two straight outstanding regular seasons have ended in playoff failure.
Directly (through poor performance) or indirectly (by being injured), Schaub has been the reason this powerful, balanced Texans team hasn't been able to break out of the AFC pack and get to the Super Bowl.
The Texans' championship "window" has been open for a while, and those windows only stay open so long. Stud wide receiver Andre Johnson turns 32 years old this summer and is starting to show signs of slowing down.
Schaub, meanwhile, just turned 32 himself and might start to fade due to old age before he establishes himself as a postseason winner.
After this season, Schaub will have three seasons left on a five-year, $66 million deal (per Spotrac.com), but 2013 is the last year of guaranteed salary. If Schaub can't steer the Texans to the playoffs, owner Bob McNair will surely find someone else to drive his hot-rod squad.
Rex Ryan, New York Jets Head Coach
Rex Ryan's credentials as a defensive architect are sterling, but his reputation as a head man erodes with every consecutive year he runs the New York Jets.
Having been the victim of a management-imposed quarterback controversy, it might be fair that practically everyone in green and white got the axe but Ryan. That said, Ryan now has a new GM, new offensive coordinator and new quarterback.
Head coaches don't normally get to draft two first-round quarterbacks in five years; if the Jets continue to regress, it will be no surprise if Ryan is forced to beat feet.
Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns Quarterback
If you're a first-round draft pick heading into your second season, and your team adds not one but two veteran quarterbacks in the offseason, you are on the hot seat.
That's the situation Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden finds himself in after an up-and-down rookie season that was a lot more "down" than "up." With a solid offensive line, a talented fellow first-round rookie tailback to work with and two surprising young receivers, Weeden had all the ingredients to, well, do better than he did.
Weeden's well-known age issue (he'll turn 30 years old in October) means he doesn't have much time to get better before he gets worse.
That said, new offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a sterling reputation in NFL circles as an offensive mastermind, and new head coach Rob Chudzinski was doing great work with a similarly inconsistent, strong-armed passer in Cam Newton.
Obviously, Weeden doesn't have Newton's nigh-infinite upside, but he showed flashes of competence. If he can build on that, the Browns could make a push for the playoffs. If not, they'll likely turn to gray-bearded journeyman Jason Campbell...
...who's only 31.
Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals Defensive Tackle
Pass-rushing defensive lineman Darnell Dockett has been one of the most talented defenders in the league and a consistent bright spot on the often-dreary Arizona Cardinals roster.
Nevertheless, Dockett's Twitter game has been much stronger than his on-field game lately.
Dockett's official NFL sack total has fallen every season since his career second-best of 7.0 in 2009, and he managed just 1.5 sacks last season. Though sack numbers can be deceiving for an interior rusher, Pro Football Focus graded Dockett dead last (subscription required) among 3-4 defensive ends in 2012.
Getting the best out of Dockett should be new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' top priority.
After this season, Dockett will have two years left on a six-year, $56 million deal, according to Spotrac.com. If his production doesn't take a big step up in 2013, there's no way he sees that kind of money in Arizona—or anywhere else.
Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers Quarterback
"Philip Rivers is a franchise quarterback."
This statement would go unchallenged after six of the past seven NFL seasons; it just so happens that the seventh was this past season. Rivers, with an career completion percentage of 63.6, career average yards per attempt of 7.8 and touchdown-to-interception ratio above 2:1, has long since proven he's a difference-making signal-caller.
Last season, though, something was wrong.
Rivers completed 64.1 percent of his passes, but for only 3,606 yards (just 6.8 yards per attempt). He was sacked 49 times for a league-most 311 yards lost. His decision-making and mechanics seemed to break down, as he fell away from the rush and often threw from his back foot.
To be fair, Rivers lost big-play threat receiver Vincent Jackson, and tight end Antonio Gates isn't the weapon he once was.
With new offensive-minded head coach Mike McCoy taking over, though, Rivers will have to prove himself all over again—and for a player who'll turn 32 in December, that's a scary prospect.
If Rivers can't recover his late-20s form, McCoy may go looking for his own brand of quarterback.
Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys Head Coach
Truth be told, whoever wears the whistle in Big D is always on the hot seat. Only Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones is more demanding and fickle than the fans who fill the billion-dollar stadium that (unofficially) bears Jones' first name.
While Garrett was Jones' hand-picked successor to Wade Phillips, the Cowboys have gone 8-8 in both of Garrett's two full seasons as head man. That makes three straight years without a winning record, and that just doesn't cut it in Dallas.
Garrett has already had play-calling duties stripped of him for this upcoming season, according to ESPN Dallas, as offensive coordinator Bill Callahan revealed he'll have that responsibility going forward.
With quarterback Tony Romo's massive offseason contract extension, it's clear who Jones blames for the Cowboys' failure to maximize their talent. If the head coach can't get Romo and company winning consistently, it'll be Garrett's head.
Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears Quarterback
When you lead your team to a 10-6 record, and not only does that not earn you a playoff berth, but it also gets your head coach fired, you're under an extraordinary amount of pressure.
If the team then invests $36 million in free-agent money and a first-round draft pick in protecting you, on the heels of having brought in your personal favorite receiver at great cost, with a do-it-all tailback already in place, the pressure gets ratcheted up several notches.
When the new head coach is not another defensive architect, but a quarterback guru who's coached Bernie Kosar, Steve Young, Rich Gannon and, uh, Scott Mitchell, as well as won multiple CFL championships, the pressure goes up several notches more.
Did I mention Jay Cutler is in the last year of his contract?
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers Head Coach
Ron Rivera was given one of the most exciting rookie quarterback prospects in years. Two seasons in, it's hard to show Cam Newton's improvement from the day he walked onto an NFL field and started breaking passing records.
Worse, though the offense features Newton and the most stacked backfield in the NFL, it regressed from the fifth-best scoring offense in 2011 to the 18th-best in 2012. Though the defense, Rivera's specialty, improved from 27th to 18th, a team with the 18th-best offense and 18th-best defense is not going anywhere.
Rivera has trusted Newton's development—and his job—to new offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who served as quarterbacks coach for Newton's first two seasons. If Shula's plans to strip down and speed up the offense don't result in more points and more wins this season, Rivera won't be around for next season.
Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams Quarterback
Bradford has been anything but a sure thing in the three years since being drafted No. 1 overall. He's looked like the real deal, a complete bust and everything in between in that time, partially owing to revolving doors at head coach and offensive coordinator.
For the first time in his career, Bradford will play under the same head coach (Jeff Fisher) and offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer) for two consecutive seasons.
Last year's top receiving threat, Danny Amendola, is gone, and so too is longtime workhorse back Steven Jackson.
That said, No. 8 overall draft pick Tavon Austin and third-round pick Stedman Bailey both bring tremendous speed and playmaking ability to Bradford's stable. Fifth-round tailback Zac Stacy could step up and shoulder some of the running load.
This is the make-or-break year for Bradford. He'll likely stay in St. Louis for no other reason than the contract, but if he doesn't make progress this year, Fisher and the Rams would be wise to assume he never will.