It's customary that a pall is cast over an NFL organization when Black Monday rolls around and a coaching change is made, with football's version of the seven stages of grief playing out in condensed fashion. But in reality, in most cases you can see the move coming for weeks before it finally unfolds, putting the lie to Yogi Berra's famous axiom that it ain't over till it's over.
In the highly pressurized world of NFL coaching, it's often over long before it's over. And many times, the players are the first to recognize the end is near. Former Vikings and Ravens center Matt Birk remembers hearing the subtle but unmistakable late-season change in tone in the words of an embattled head coach or two, and realizing it was just a matter of time before they were gone.
"One thing that's a pretty reliable sign that it's over and the coach thinks he's in trouble is when they start to talk like 'I don't care if I get fired, we're going to do it my way no matter what,'" said Birk, who experienced two coaching changes in Minnesota: when Denny Green was let go with one game remaining in 2001 and Mike Tice was fired after going 9-7 in 2005. "They're trying to make sure guys are engaged, maybe because they see guys not as committed and not showing up early at the facility, or just not as into it as they were before.
"But when they start to talk like that, and really start to dig their heels in one last time and take a last-stand mentality, you're like, 'Oh, no. It's starting to get to him.' You could hear it. You kind of cringe when coaches start saying stuff like that, because you know what's coming."
Look around the NFL this season, with so many teams contemplating a potential change at the top of their coaching ranks. Firing season started early again when the New York Giants put Ben McAdoo out of his misery after Week 13, even though it seemed like the second-year coach was going, going, gone for as long as two months before the boom was lowered.
As the season went south for the Giants, things disintegrated around McAdoo, and the familiar behaviors of a losing team suspected of mailing it in started to appear. The "losing the locker room" chatter burbled to the surface, players' efforts were scrutinized and questioned, and each week became a running referendum on McAdoo's fitness for the job.
To a degree, you've heard similar themes emanating from other losing locales such as Indianapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Underachievement spawns discontent from fans and media and within the locker room as coaches attempt to put up a brave front as they twist in the wind and occasionally conduct strange press conferences that seem to portend a tenure that has run its course. (Think Chuck Pagano's stream-of-consciousness-style riffing on the movie Groundhog Day to the bewilderment of Indy's assembled media in late November.)
Things can get incredibly self-focused in a late-season NFL locker room when the losing won't end and a coach's job security becomes the only topic that matters, turning players into independent contractors who happen to wear the same uniform. Nothing more distinctly signifies to a player that a coach is about to get canned than when he sees his teammates forget all about there being no "I" in team and instead concentrate on the first and last letters of the word "mine."
"You've got guys who have their own personal agendas within that kind of situation," said former Giants and Raiders quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who started the majority of games for New York in 1992, when coach Ray Handley's brief tenure (14-18) as Bill Parcells' hand-picked successor died a slow and painful death in the nation's largest media market. "That's a sad thing to say, because as a professional, no matter what the outside forces are, you want to do your job day in and day out.
"But when your season falls apart like that, you've got a lot of fracturing within a team. You see it all the time. Some guys will go in their own selfish direction because of selfish reasons. Maybe they don't think they've been treated fairly or whatever their gripe is. It's just a bad situation the whole way around and one that, if you've experienced it, you hope you've only experienced it once."
Alas, Hostetler wasn't that fortunate. He experienced a pair of coaching changes with the Raiders in the mid-'90s, with Art Shell being let go after the '94 season and Mike White getting the ax at the end of 1996.
"It's a tough, tough time and place to try and be successful in, because there's just not that unity that you need," Hostetler said. "I've seen it in multiple places and it goes hand in hand with teams where the head coach is having a tough time being able to get the losing stopped. I really don't know how you stop players from being that way when things are going south."
Brad Johnson was the primary starting quarterback on a somewhat infamous team that fired its coach late in a chaotic season, with impetuous Washington owner Daniel Snyder ridding himself of Norv Turner in December 2000, despite the club still having a winning record (7-6) at the time. Washington that season supposedly was the original NFL "Dream Team," starting the year with Super Bowl aspirations after winning the NFC East in 1999 and then adding the likes of Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Mark Carrier in big-money free-agency signings.
Washington started the year 6-2 and then dropped off a cliff, losing four of its next five games. Turner was held accountable for the second-half collapse, and a once-promising season in D.C. got really ugly, really quickly, en route to an 8-8 third-place finish.
"When you know the coach is going to be out, it's like the U-Haul trailers are backed up and ready to roll," said Johnson, who had gone to the Pro Bowl and thrown for more than 4,000 yards for Washington in 1999. "They've been rented. The Penske trucks, too. They fired Norv that year.
"When they fired him, it was kind of like disarray, like, Where is this thing going? The hard part is you've got three games left that year and you've still got to hang in there mentally, knowing that other GMs around the league are going to evaluate you. You've still got to put something on tape if you want to keep playing."
Over the course of his 16-year NFL career spent with three teams, Kevin Mawae learned to trust his ears when it came to whether a coaching change was coming, and his eyes as to whether it was necessary. He saw the telltale sign of some teammates' lagging effort, but he also knew heads were going to roll when a coach and an owner started shadowboxing in the press.
"You see it coming and you're just kind of braced for it, like, I wonder who's going to be the next guy," said Mawae, who spent eight of his 16 seasons with the Jets. "I also know, too, especially in pro football, where there's smoke there's always fire. So if you're hearing something in the middle of the season about a coach and it might be his last year, that means somebody in the building is saying something and something's going to happen. They're not just rumors out there."
In coach Herm Edwards' final season with the Jets, in 2005, New York bottomed out at 4-12 after making the playoffs in three of the previous years under Edwards. Mawae said he saw the dissolution of that particular marriage coming almost all year.
"That last year with the Jets when Herm left, that was strange," Mawae said. "Because there was some back-and-forth with (Jets owner) Woody (Johnson) and Herm in that whole situation. They'd ask, 'Is Herm going to be the head coach next year?' And it was, 'Well, I don't know. Does Herm want to be my head coach?' Then the question would go to Herm, 'Do you want to be here?' And he'd say, 'Well, if Woody wants me to be here.' It kind of went back and forth like that."
In 2000, Al Groh was named Jets head coach, replacing Bill Belichick, after Belichick had briefly agreed to replace Bill Parcells. Naturally, it was only going to get weirder that year for the Jets. New York started 6-1 and was still sitting pretty at 9-4 with three weeks remaining in the season. But then came three consecutive losses, the Jets missed the playoffs, and Groh abruptly resigned to accept the head coaching job at the University of Virginia.
Not that the whirlwind of events that year surprised Mawae and the rest of the team's veterans all that much.
"None of that was as big a shock inside the locker room as it was outside the locker room," Mawae recalled. "We should have won the division that year (it was the last season before the beginning of the Patriots dynasty in the AFC East), but we went on a complete slide at the end of the season. There was a lot of internal turmoil during that season that a lot of people don't know about. Both player-to-coach stuff, and coach-to-coach stuff. It was a mess."
When a coach's job is in trouble and the wheels start to come off, it's virtually impossible to stop the bleeding and keep an NFL locker room united and focused on the task of winning, players say. Losing begets losing, and a coach who's expending energy on deciphering his own fate is invariably not doing his best work.
"As a player, you can definitely feel it building (on a coach)," Birk said. "Because you're never insulated from the outside world. You hear the chatter and you kind of start wondering if the rumors are true or not. When a coach is embattled and the season's not going well, and you're not going to playoffs, a certain amount of professionalism is still there, but everybody's human. When you're 4-10 and you lose another game, yeah, you're disappointed you lost as a competitor. But some of the emotion is taken out of it. You know what's coming, and everybody just wants the season to end at that point. It can't get over fast enough."
The little things that make for winning teams often slide during coaching death watches, players say. As the air escapes from the balloon, some players are less inclined to go out of their way to help their fellow players. Coaches tend to let key detail work slip through the cracks in the course of constructing a game plan. Many players are trying primarily to look out for themselves. They try to figure out if they're going be deemed part of the solution or part of the problem by the next regime. And no one is particularly eager to lay their bodies on the line for a coach who's considered a dead man walking.
"There are no secrets in the locker room, even though nobody talks about it," Mawae said. "On every team I played for I can give you one or two guys who I knew if things got tough, they're going to lay it down. Or if things got sketchy, they're out there just going through the motions, because the paycheck was so good."
And when a coach is on the firing line, he's almost powerless to stop the erosion of effort, leading to plenty of stories about teams where half the cars in the players' parking lot were idling and ready to go even before the final game of the season ended.
"It's always a race to 10 wins," Mawae said. "But once you get one too many losses and you're not going to make it to the playoffs, all of a sudden the IR numbers go up, the training room gets more full and guys start missing games. They say, 'Well, I have nothing to play for, so let me just shut it down this year and save myself for next year.'"
One longtime NFL club executive who requested anonymity said that in some cases, firing a coach during the season can actually be beneficial to a team if it removes the cloud of doubt and uncertainty that comes with a coach who is deemed to be just waiting for his pink slip. He almost recommends it.
"It's a lot harder during the death-watch situation than it is after a move is made," the veteran club executive said. "It's easier on the entire building, as opposed to not making a move and everyone continuing to wonder. There's a certain amount of relief in the building once you make a move, just to know the outcome. If you're going to do it, do it, because otherwise everyone's in a really difficult position if they know what's coming but nobody's willing to talk about it."
As was the case with McAdoo in New York this season, once the drumbeat for change starts, be it among fans, the media or even in a coach's own locker room, nothing short of a long winning streak can make the noise die down or go away.
"I don't know if I've ever seen a coach survive in this day and age once the media has you in their sights," the club executive said. "You're usually done when that happens. Because everything gets put under a microscope and people start to follow their own agendas and go into survival mode. A team can never play their way out of it and it's almost impossible to tune all that out. The players can't do it and the coaches can't do it. It's just quicksand. It's game over."
With Black Monday having arrived, and another regular season ending, it's about to be game over for another set of soon-to-be-fired NFL coaches. It's a last dance that remains the same year in and year out in the league, and by now everyone knows the steps.
All quotes were obtained firsthand.
Don Banks has covered the NFL since 1990, both as a beat writer for newspapers in Florida and Minnesota and as a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 16-plus years. He currently freelances and lives in the Boston area. Follow him on Twitter: @DonBanks.