Only in the National Football League can the importance of a good head coach have such a dramatic impact on a team.
Put a brilliant head coach like Bill Belichick on a team like the Tennessee Titans or Oakland Raiders, and I have no doubt that he'd manage to lead them to the postseason within a year or two.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have quality teams ruined by subpar coaching. It happens every year and it's a shame because a coach should be able to maximize a team's talent instead of limiting it.
The following ten head coaches are facing the most pressure on them in 2014, and yes, this list includes everyone from Super Bowl champions to, well, Jason Garrett.
1. Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
No head coach in the NFL is facing more pressure than Jason Garrett.
He's as good as gone if he doesn't make the playoffs. Just look at his track record. He's coached for three full seasons, and the Cowboys lost a winner-take-all season finale for the division title all three times: in 2011 to the New York Giants, in 2012 to the Washington Redskins and in 2013 to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Owner Jerry Jones likes attention, and the Cowboys have still been one of the most-talked about teams in the league...just not for good reasons. Jones passed up an opportunity to draft polarizing quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round of the draft, likely because of Tony Romo's massive contract. But don't count on Jones looking to make a splash in the offseason by luring in a big name on the coaching market, whether it's a former NFL great like Jon Gruden or a brilliant college coach like Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin.
Garrett has proven that he doesn't have what it takes to lead the Cowboys into the postseason. It boggles my mind that he has survived after losing the three most important games of his career. If, or should I say when, the Cowboys miss the playoffs in 2014, Garrett will be fired.
2. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
How in the world does Marvin Lewis still have a job as a head coach in the National Football League? It's absolutely ridiculous.
Lewis has coached 11 seasons. He's led the Bengals to five winning seasons and three 8-8 seasons. Five times Cincinnati has reached the playoffs, including each of the last three seasons. Yet they haven't won a playoff game. In fact, only once did they come close, losing by 14, 10, 21, six and 17. Their offense has averaged just 12.8 points in the five losses, never scoring more than 17 in a game.
The Bengals are absolutely loaded with talent. You could make a legitimate case that their biggest weakness is either their quarterback or their head coach. And both could be on the way out after the season if the Bengals don't reach the playoffs and win at least one playoff game.
3. Rex Ryan, New York Jets
Rex Ryan went as far as to tell his players during the 2013 season that he expected to be fired at the end of the year. He managed to keep his job, despite a third straight season without a postseason appearance. Don't expect him to extend that streak to four and keep his job.
Whether it was the decision to sign Tim Tebow, draft Geno Smith or trade Darrelle Revis, Rex Ryan has been heavily scrutinized throughout his entire career. He came close to reaching the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2010. Now he's come close to reaching the postseason. There needs to be significant improvement in 2014 or Ryan is gone.
4. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles
Could you have dreamed up a better NFL debut for Chip Kelly and the Eagles? The highly-publicized offensive genius entered the National Football League with massive expectations and failed to disappoint, leading the Eagles into the postseason just a year after a dismal 4-12 final season under Andy Reid.
Kelly turned Nick Foles into Peyton Manning, as the young quarterback threw for 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions and posted the third-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history. But that wasn’t all Kelly did. As Brad Gagnon points out, Kelly’s offense was all about mismatches and speed.
Kelly’s first season was a lot more of a roller coaster ride than your average fan realizes. After their big Week 1 victory, the Eagles dropped three in a row. They won their next two but then suffered through their two worst losses of the season and were at 3-5 halfway through the season. That’s when the Eagles caught fire, winning seven of the final eight games to capture the NFC East division title.
The 2014 season is all about proving that 2013 wasn't a fluke, that defensive coordinators haven't figured out Kelly's offense, that Nick Foles wasn't a one-year wonder and that the Eagles can survive without DeSean Jackson.
The Eagles are the heavy favorites in the NFC East in 2014, but it's not about winning the division for the Eagles. They need to do more. They're a young, deeply talented team and they need to make a serious postseason run.
5. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
There has been speculation that Tom Coughlin has a lifetime contract to coach the New York Giants based on his two dramatic Super Bowl runs. I don't buy that for one second.
Coughlin's Giants have missed the postseason in four of their last five seasons. They're famous for their late-season collapses, which cost them a shot at the postseason in 2009, 2010 and 2012. But the 2013 season was a whole other story, as the Giants lost their first six games. They finished strong, winning seven of their final 10 games, but the season was more about the struggles of Eli Manning than the Giants' strong finish.
The NFC East doesn't feature any powerhouses in 2014, if preseason expectations are any indication. The Giants loaded up in free agency and should be a sleeper to compete for a playoff berth in 2014. But if they miss the playoffs, that could signal the end of Coughlin's decade-long reign as Giants coach. You can't just miss the playoffs in five out of six seasons and keep your job.
Factor in Coughlin's age (he'll be 68 after the season) and it's easy to see the Giants looking in a different direction.
6. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
I wouldn't consider Mike Tomlin's job in jeopardy. Not this year, possibly not even next year. But that doesn't mean there isn't a tremendous amount of pressure in Pittsburgh.
Don't look now but the Steelers have just gone consecutive seasons without a postseason berth for the first time this millennium. Despite Mike Tomlin's incredible success in Pittsburgh, he needs to lead the team back into the playoffs—and soon or the Steelers could be looking for their fourth head coach in the last 45 years.
The AFC North is up for grabs this year. Cleveland has a rookie head coach and could possibly be starting a first-year quarterback when Week 1 of the new season rolls around. Baltimore is coming off its worst season in the John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era. And Cincinnati is facing a make-or-break season for both their head coach and their quarterback.
7. Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers
It's been a dramatic offseason in San Francisco, even worse than you'd expect for a team that has lost its postseason game in the final seconds or in overtime in each of the last three seasons.
Throw in the offseason drama with Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith...and, no, it hasn't really been a good offseason for 49er fans.
Harbaugh, like many of the others on this list, isn't remotely close to getting fired (although you have to wonder if a power struggle with Baalke could get him forced out). You just wonder how much longer the 49ers can come within a game, or even a play, of winning the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh needs to win, not 12 in the regular season, but three (or four, if they snag a wild-card berth) in the postseason, including the Super Bowl. Then he'll get his contract.
8. Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons
In six seasons as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Mike Smith has flown under the radar, despite five winning seasons. He drafted franchise quarterback Matt Ryan with his first-ever draft pick in 2008, and it's been nothing but success for the Falcons since 2008.
But success in the regular season hasn't equaled success in the postseason. The Falcons finished with the best record in the NFC in 2010 and 2012 but won just one total playoff game. Then everything fell apart in 2013. Injuries and struggles in the trenches on both sides of the ball led to a disastrous 4-12 season in Atlanta.
Is Mike Smith on the hot seat? No, not yet. But does he have a lot to prove in a career that still doesn't have a Super Bowl title (or appearance)? Absolutely. Lucky for Atlanta, the NFC South is anybody's division in 2014.
9. Joe Philbin, Miami Dolphins
Does anybody really think Joe Philbin has a chance in the world to keep his job? I don't and that's why he's so low on this list, despite the immense pressure on him this season.
Philbin probably should have been fired in 2013, especially after allowing the Bullygate scandal to rip through the team's locker room. Now he has a decimated team with a quarterback fighting for his job. That's not exactly the recipe for success in 2014.
Miami has a better chance of earning the top overall draft pick in 2014 than reaching the postseason. Goodbye, Joe Philbin.
10. Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams
Jeff Fisher has built a pretty good team in St. Louis over the past two seasons, even though the Rams won just seven games both years. That's because they've a) struggled with inferior quarterback play and b) played in the toughest division in football.
Fisher can't control the Rams' division, but he can choose his team's quarterback, and he's held on to Bradford despite the former number one overall pick turning in one mediocre season after another.
Fisher's tenure in St. Louis won't last forever. He came to the franchise with a reputation as one of the league's more successful coaches, and he hasn't delivered upon expectations yet. He's a master at the .500 season, doing it six times in 17 seasons in Tennessee, and it looks like he's back to his old tricks in St. Louis.
The Rams have arguably a top-three defense in the league. Even in a tough division, it's time to start making some noise. Fisher can't keep winning seven or eight games per season. He needs to lead the Rams into the postseason.
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