Like clockwork, the NFL coaching carousel is set in motion every offseason, kicking off the underachievers, letting on newcomers, and frequently letting those same underachievers back on the carousel astride a different horse (I’m looking at you Wade Phillips).
However, in recent years the speed with which said carousel rotates has quickened and the standard of minimum performance necessary to remain on the ride has been raised.
Although this past go-round saw only three open spots filled—Mike Shanahan in Washington, Pete Carroll in Seattle, and Chan Gailey in Buffalo—there were nine new coaches in 2009, four in 2008, and four in 2007.
In all, 24 of the 32 NFL head men, or 75 percent, have held their positions for less than five years.
While hiring trends come and go, such as the current inclination toward cheaper, fresher faces and voices, it is a given that there is no such thing as a cool seat in the NFL.
Everybody’s job is on the line every year.
But that is not to say that there aren’t coaches for whom the stakes are clearly higher this season.
Patience is scarce everywhere, but it is especially thin for those who have either been around for a relatively long tenure without producing the ultimate achievement or for those that have been provided a loaded stable of talent but have been unable to maximize it.
In particular, there are 10 coaches whose seats are already feeling uncomfortably warm.
Record: 31-33 (9-7 in 2009)
In his four seasons at the helm, Kubiak has been a model of progression, leading the Texans to a 6-10 mark in 2006, back-to-back 8-8 years in 2007 and 2008, and finally a 9-7 finish, the franchise’s first over .500, last year.
Moreover, in what has been a difficult division (well, up until last year), the Texans finished last in ’06 and ’07, third in ’08, and second in ’09.
And that progress has come in spite of star quarterback Matt Schaub’s injury proneness and a serious lack of consistency in the running game.
But baby steps of progress don’t mean much in the NFL. Progress must lead somewhere—namely, the playoffs—and it must lead there soon.
In addition, it must be noted that Kubiak took over in Houston as an offensive mastermind—the brains behind two John Elway-led Super Bowl teams and a 2,000-yard rusher in Denver.
Kubiak, along with offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, were so effective with their scheme in the higher altitudes of Colorado that it became almost laughable how easy it was to plug in a no-name tailback and schedule him for 1,000 yards.
And last year, Kubiak’s Houston offense did rank 4th in the league overall in total offense, so he hasn’t entirely lost the touch.
However, Houston ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing yards per game and was led by Steve Slaton, who finished with 437 yards on 3.3 yards per carry.
That’s not going to get it done, particularly for a guy whose offensive reputation carries him.
Thus, unless certain extenuating circumstances (such as, for example, injuries to Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson) precipitate a step backward, 2010 is a make or break year for Kubiak.
Either Houston makes their first playoff appearance or Kubiak will no longer have to concern himself with the temperature of his seat.
Record: 136-110 (8-8 in 2009)
Fisher is the elder statesman of the NFL, with a current run five years longer than Andy Reid, who is the only other guy hired to his post in the 1990s.
And Fisher’s 15-year resume speaks for itself: a .553 winning percentage, three division titles (2000, 2002, and 2008), one Super Bowl loss (to St. Louis in 2000), one AFC Championship loss (to Oakland in 2002), and one Music City Miracle.
Heck, Fisher has more seasons with double-digit wins (six) than he does with a losing record (four).
Yet, it feels like Bud Adams is getting restless.
While Fisher has taken the franchise to the Big Game, that was a full decade ago.
Sure, the Titans rode Kerry Collins geriatric arm to a 13-3 record just two years ago, but they were promptly dismissed from postseason competition by a rookie quarterback (Joe Flacco).
Add to that the issues Vince Young has had in transitioning to the NFL, both on and off the field, and a defense that finished 28th overall last year, including 31st against the pass, and Fisher’s job could very well be in jeopardy.
As the past has shown, it is unwise to bet against Fisher.
In all likelihood, Vince Young and Chris Johnson will run wild in 2010, earning Fisher his seventh playoff bid and saving his job. That’s how it always seems to work for this guy.
But nevertheless, if the heads of VY and CJ get in the way of their legs and the Titans post another mediocre season, Fisher may be looking for a job for the first time in a decade and a half.
Record: 56-55-1 (10-6 in 2009)
There’s no argument that Lewis has done a remarkable job in Cincinnati.
Yes, the team limped through the ’07 and ’08 campaigns with less than stellar defenses and a banged-up Carson Palmer, but in seven seasons, Lewis has led the Bengals to as many division titles and playoff appearances (two apiece) as they had in the previous 15 years.
And in the wake of such disappointing seasons in the previous two years, 2009 may have very well been his best coaching job.
Most importantly, Lewis has presided over the transformation of the Bengals from perennial laughingstock to perennial competitor.
But in their history, the Bengals have never made the postseason two years in a row, which would indicate the team will come up short in 2010.
For Lewis, that is simply not an option—especially after the team went out on a PR limb and brought in Terrell Owens.
With more offensive weapons than ever, a young and healthy defense, and high expectations after a 10-6 2009 season, failure to make the playoffs in 2010 will likely spell the end for Lewis.
Record: 5-11 (5-11 in 2009)
Mangini is the prototype for one of those coaches that is immediately recycled despite not really earning it.
He almost became one of the rare examples of a coach canned after just one season when Mike Holmgren came in to save this moribund franchise.
Thankfully for him, though, Holmgren decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and one more year to prove that “Man-genius” was not just a terrible nickname.
But that is all he has—one year—because another 5-11 mark will be all she wrote for the former Jets head man.
Now Holmgren, and I’d like to think Cleveland fans, are not unreasonable.
The Browns lack game-changing playmakers on both sides of the ball and happen to play in arguably the toughest division in football this season. Realistically, a playoff berth is a pipe dream.
What he must be able to demonstrate, however, is improvement—both from the year prior and throughout the course of the season.
With a veteran quarterback (Jake Delhomme), a running back hungry to prove his late-2009 flash of brilliance was not a fluke (Jerome Harrison), and a happy Josh Cribbs, the cupboard is not completely bare. Between six and eight wins can be had.
If the team regresses or stays roughly the same, though, you can bet Holmgren will be quick to recruit his former assistant Jon Gruden to join him in the Dawg Pound.
Year: 2nd (full season)
Record: 9-19 (5-11 in 2009)
Granted, there is no such thing as a safe job in an organization that is subject to the whims of Al Davis.
Seriously, a coach could get axed in the middle of a 10-game winning streak because Mr. Just Win Baby had a bad dream.
But Cable’s case is particularly precarious.
Frankly, it’s remarkable he has lasted this long. All Cable has done in his coaching career is lose and stir up trouble.
In four years at Idaho, his alma mater, Cable managed an 11-35 record against the cutthroat competition of the Big West and Sun Belt conferences.
In one-and-three-quarter years at the helm of the silver and black, his winning percentage is .346, and his most memorable accomplishment (if you can call it that) is breaking the jaw of an assistant coach/alleged Davis spy.
Making matters worse, there is at least some modicum of a reason to believe that the Raiders could be successful in 2010.
The team lucked into Jason Campbell, the most reliable and proven quarterback they’ve had since Rich Gannon, and performed a bit of addition by subtraction by cutting loose Justin Fargas, which opens the door for Michael Bush and Darren McFadden to really get into a rhythm.
Plus, the AFC West is by no means daunting. San Diego has a rookie running back and serious contract issues with two offensive starters, Denver is an unknown entity that lost its most talented player, and Kansas City is, well, Kansas City.
All of which makes for a rather toasty seat for Cable.
Cable does not necessarily have to make the playoffs to keep his job (because Al Davis seems smitten with him for whatever reason), but he does have to keep the team competitive and keep his fists to himself. If he can’t manage that, Oakland will be searching for its sixth coach since Jon Gruden’s unceremonious departure after the 2001 season.
Record: 33-15 (11-5 in 2009)
Believe it or not, Phillips’ time in Dallas actually marks the most successful run of his career, which is saying something.
In three years under Phillips—who has also coached the Saints (four games in 1985), Broncos (1993 and 1994), Bills (1998, 1999, and 2000), and Atlanta (three games in 2003)—Dallas has topped a brutal NFC East twice, and won the franchise’s first playoff game since 1996.
But like Cable in Oakland, a meddling owner means that no job is ever safe in the big D—particularly when there is a perception of underachieving talent.
While this season may not necessarily be Super Bowl or bust for Phillips, well, it pretty much is.
Dallas is loaded again across the board, and there is nothing (and I literally mean nothing) that would please Jerry Jones more than watching his Cowboys play in his new $1.3 billion gift to himself.
And don’t forget that Jones has a $3 million assistant, Jason Garrett, who is waiting in the wings to take Phillips’ spot.
So really, the only thing Phillips can do to save himself is, in the immortal words of manager Lou Brown from Major League, win the whole (expletive) thing.
Record: 32-16 (13-3 in 2009)
It must be frustrating for Turner to find himself so high up on this list when all he has done since arriving in sunny San Diego is win.
In most other scenarios, three years and three divisional titles would make you the toast of the town.
In most other professions, that type of success would warrant a promotion and a bonus.
But in the NFL, success breeds elevated expectations, and a subsequent failure to satisfy those expectations means you are a failure.
Because while Turner has brought the Chargers great regular season accomplishments and even moderate playoff triumphs, so did Marty Schottenheimer.
Since Drew Brees proved himself as an elite quarterback in 2004, the Chargers have boasted select talent in all phases of the game, but have always found a banana peel.
Now, their future Hall of Fame running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, is gone, and two offensive starters appear resigned to sit out for as long as it takes for them to get a new contract.
In other words, this is a make or break year for Turner.
Simply winning 12 games and the AFC West before bowing out in the AFC Divisional Round will not suffice this time around.
Getting tantalizingly close to being close yet again will not be adequate.
Similar to Phillips, a former Chargers’ defensive coordinator, it’s Dallas or unemployment for Turner.
Record: 52-44 (7-9 in 2009)
It’s almost hard to believe that it has been three whole years since the Rex Grossman-led Bears sacrificed themselves for the legend of Peyton Manning, but it has.
And since that magical run in 2006, the Bears have run up a 23-25 record—the picture of mediocrity—and the excuses have been exhausted.
Considering the moves that the Bears’ franchise has made in the past two offseasons, anything less than a playoff berth will almost definitely result in Smith’s pink slip.
First, the team traded Kyle Orton and something like a dozen draft picks (okay, two first-rounders and third-rounder) for Jay Cutler, who subsequently came within two touchdown passes of tying the franchise record while simultaneously leading the league in interceptions.
Then, this offseason, the team brought in Mike Martz, the offensive mad scientist, to try and channel Cutler’s prodigious talents.
Additionally, the team opened its checkbook and inked Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor, and Brandon Manumaleuna to big free agent deals.
All of which means that the window for Smith is all but closed.
Unless the defense is lights out and Martz’s offense sputters spectacularly, Smith will need to get to the playoffs to earn himself another year.
Record: 71-57 (8-8 in 2009)
If nothing else, John Fox has been consistent in his inconsistency in his Carolina Panthers’ tenure.
Just look at his year-to-year records: 7-9, 11-5, 7-9, 11-5, 8-8, 7-9, 12-4, 8-8—a run that includes three playoff appearances, one Super Bowl loss and one NFC Championship loss.
Unfortunately for Fox, owners do not enjoy rollercoasters, unless, of course, they ultimately lead to the top of the mountain.
If Fox somehow inspires the Matt Moore-led Panthers to another NFC Championship game, at minimum, he will be assured of a 10th year at the helm.
Anything short of a solid playoff run, however, and Fox will be out.
Hey, at least his backside will finally get to cool down.
Record: 57-55 (7-9 in 2009)
In seven years in Jacksonville, Del Rio has seen some wonderful highs—a 12-4 mark in 2005 and an 11-5 season in 2007—as well as some disappointing lows—5-11 records in both 2003 and 2008.
However, in that time, Jacksonville has made the playoffs just once and not won a single postseason contest.
Which is a long way of saying, it is a surprise that Del Rio got even this year.
And unfortunately, things don’t look promising for a save-my-job campaign.
The team possesses a dearth of talent on the perimeter and has completed a near total transformation of its aging defensive line.
In a division with defending-AFC champion Indianapolis, plus Houston and Tennessee, which are both dangerous on paper, Jacksonville will need a stunning season to get out of the AFC South cellar.
Del Rio once famously used a “Keep Chopping Wood” motto to inspire his Jaguars, and ironically, that’s exactly what he will be doing after the 2010 season.