I see that look and I know what you're thinking. It's ridiculously early to tackle the topic of NFL coaches on the hot seat. We're only staring down Week 3 for crying out loud. Could we at least manage to put September behind us before we start speculating how many casualties there will be this season among the ranks of the headset crowd?
Short answer? Uh, no. Not when you've got Oakland's Lane Kiffin generating a media vigil at the Raiders team complex early this week, just to see if he makes it past Tuesday with his job intact. Not when you've got the Rams' Scott Linehan having a bit of a meltdown in his postgame news conference Sunday, then hear team owner Chip Rosenbloom on Monday put his head coach on notice and threaten changes if improvement is not forthcoming. Not when Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis seems to be grasping at more and more straws by the week in an effort to motivate his comatose Bengals, and not when Vikings owner Zygi Wilf feels it necessary to give Brad Childress that kiss of death known as a vote of confidence.
After having seven new head coaches hired in 2007, and just four in 2008 (with two teams, Miami and Atlanta, hiring both years), I get the feeling that in 2009 we're in for more of a 2006-type overhaul of the sideline set. That year, a whopping 10 different NFL clubs tapped new coaches, nearly one third of the league. And don't forget, it's already a given that Jim Mora is taking over for Mike Holmgren in Seattle next season, with Jim Caldwell likely to do the same for Tony Dungy in Indianapolis (just FYI, we do not consider the retirement-minded Holmgren or Dungy to be among the hot-seaters in any way, shape or form).
That said, I'm going to make my Coaches on the Hot Seat report a once-a-month, in-season staple here at SI.com, identifying the likely suspects as the season unfolds, with coaches either performing their way on or off of our endangered list. In subsequent installments, we'll even try to identify the pool of most likely candidates who will interview and wind up getting all these forthcoming NFL coaching vacancies.
For this first crack at it, we're starting with 10 names that bear watching, even though some of them have teams off to 2-0 starts. What? You think anything Wade Phillips does before January's playoffs means a thing to his long-term job security? You obviously haven't been paying attention. Which is why we're here to help.
1. Lane Kiffin, Oakland -- Have to admit I absolutely love Kiffin's Alfred E.Neuman-esque "What, me worry?'' approach to his impending demise in Oakland. What's that old Dylan song say, "When you've got nothing, you've nothing to lose''? That's been Kiffin's basic take since late January, when it surfaced that Raiders owner Al Davis drew up a resignation letter for him and tried to strong-arm the second-year coach into signing away the remaining $4 million of salary on his three-year contract. Nice try, Al. Fire me instead, said Kiffin, no fool.
As the years -- and the head coaches -- go by in Oakland, Davis drifts more into the realm of bizarro world, like the NFL's version of MarlonBrando's whack-job character in Apocalypse Now. I keep wondering when the intervention's coming, but nobody ever seems to have the time to organize one. But for now, Kiffin is 1-1 this season and apparently gets to coach another week while awaiting his inevitable fate. His role model has to be Denver's Mike Shanahan, who was canned four games into his second season with the Raiders, after going 8-12 in 1988-89. Nineteen years later, Shanahan still gets that evil grin when he's sticking it to Davis yet again.
Kiffin's at 5-13 in Oakland, so if he can just hang in there for two more games, maybe he'll wind up eventually coaching an AFC West Division rival to a pair of Super Bowl rings and long-term success. Raiders receivers coach James Lofton appears to be in Davis' on-deck circle, but some say keep an eye on Oakland offensive line coach Tom Cable as a long-shot candidate to get the nod from Big Al.
• Pink slip potential: 99.9 percent.
2. Scott Linehan, St. Louis -- If Linehan's Rams haven't hit rock bottom by now, Lord knows no one wants to see what that train wreck might look like. Since starting his St. Louis tenure a surprising 4-1 in 2006, Linehan is 7-22 and in the throes of an all-out death spiral. After the Rams' 41-13 home-opening loss to the Giants on Sunday, Linehan finally started showing some sure-fire signs of job stress, losing it for a bit in his postgame news conference, at least by his nice-guy standards.
The 0-2 Rams are just horrible. They rank last in the NFL in total offense and total defense, and have been manhandled to the tune of 79-16 in their first two games. Their fan base is dwindling, empty seats are a regularity at Edward Jones Dome, and even a move back to the Los Angeles market doesn't seem out of the question. If that doesn't spell coaching change in the NFL, nothing will.
With Rosenbloom's ominous comments on Monday, it seems possible that the Rams could make an in-season coaching change for the first time since ex-Rams Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield turned in his whistle after eight games in 1962. But don't look at defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, the ex-Saints head coach, as a replacement. His unit has been dreadful, and I don't think the front office is crazy about him either. New/old Rams offensive coordinator Al Saunders is an interim possibility, at least given his wealth of NFL experience.
• Pink slip potential: 95 percent.
3. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati -- The Bengals are 0-2 and things already seem hopeless. In the next five weeks, Cincinnati plays at the Giants, home against the Browns, at Dallas, at the Jets and home against Pittsburgh. Maybe they put forth a great effort and beat the struggling Browns. Maybe. Otherwise it's 0-7, and who knows where things could lead for the guy who was hailed as the savior of NFL football in Cincinnati in 2005.
I think Lewis became a dead man walking of sorts the day this preseason when Bengals owner Mike Brown decided that troubled receiver Chris Henry could rejoin the club. That move totally undercut whatever authority Lewis had remaining in his own locker room -- he had come out weeks earlier and proclaimed that Henry was not welcome in Cincinnati -- and once that's gone in the NFL, you're just marking time.
This week, Lewis went on an extended riff about lug nuts in a news conference setting (I can't type that sentence without laughing), saying that his players have to be consistent every play, like the grease monkey mechanic who changes tires all day long.
"When they go take their car in, they hope the guy inside did it right, and hope that he doesn't decide that you only need three of the four lug nuts,'' Lewis said. "That's the way we'll go about it, and that's the way it has to be.''
Lug nuts. Feel free to supply your own punch line.
• Pink slip potential: 75 percent.
4. Rod Marinelli, Detroit -- After that apparent 6-2 mirage at midseason last year, the Lions are 1-8 in their last nine games, beating only sad-sack Kansas City last Dec. 23. Nothing Marinelli tries these days is working, and as a head coach, he's starting to look like a guy who makes an ideal position coach. The Lions got humiliated by the lowly Falcons 34-21 in Week 1, and then played one of their more bizarre games ever against Green Bay in their home opener. Down 21-0, they put on the greatest comeback in franchise history to take a 25-24 mid-fourth quarter lead. But they still wound up losing by 23, at 48-25. Wrap your Motor City mind around that one.
Let's face it, the M&M Boys era in Detroit just isn't working. It didn't work when team president/CEO Matt Millen hired head coach Marty Mornhinweg. It didn't work when Millen hired Steve Mariucci. It's not working in the third and what should be the final season of Marinelli. The Lions simply have to try another letter. M has only stood for mediocrity -- or worse. And it has all started, of course, with Millen, the man whose job security lo these many years will go down as the eighth wonder of the world.
• Pink slip potential: 65 percent.
5. Mike Nolan, San Francisco -- The 49ers (1-1) won a big one in overtime at division rival Seattle in Week 2, but Nolan has still been victorious just 17 times in his first 50 games in San Francisco, and the old .340 winning percentage will get you a spot on the hot seat every time. The 49ers haven't made the playoffs since Steve Mariucci's last season in 2002, and Nolan this offseason was given one more year to end that skid, or come darn close, in order to be invited back for a fifth season in 2009.
The 49ers should know their fate, and Nolan's, by the time they reach their Week 9 bye. That's because after this week's home game against winless Detroit, their schedule turns challenging. San Francisco is at New Orleans, home against New England and Philadelphia, at the Giants, and home against Seattle in Weeks 4-8. That spells a 3-5 first half to me, but we'll see how things shake out in the City by the Bay. One thing Nolan has going for him is the weakness of the NFC West this year, which is softer than ever.
If it weren't for the Raiders' total ineptitude right next door, the 49ers' fall from grace would really stand out. Once upon a time, San Francisco's fortunes rose or fell on the passing arms of Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia. By comparison, Nolan has pinned his coaching future on the talents of journeyman quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan. Gulp.
• Pink slip potential: 60 percent.
6. Herm Edwards, Kansas City -- The Chiefs are on a franchise-worst 11-game losing streak, and things have gotten so bad these days that they're losing to the Raiders by 15 points. At home. With Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell completing all of six passes. In fact, with reports swirling that Raiders coach Lane Kiffin would be fired after Sunday's game, and then that not being the case, it now appears that losing to the Chiefs has become grounds for dismissal. Quick, somebody tell rookie Falcons head coach Mike Smith it's win or else this week at home against K.C.
They might have had a great 2008 draft, but I look for the Chiefs to battle it out all season with the Rams (nice football state, Missouri) and maybe the Bengals for the distinction of being the NFL's worst team. They've got no quarterbacking, a disgruntled and unreliable lead running back in Larry "Me-first'' Johnson, and the look of a team that's in the deepest darkest stages of a years-long rebuilding program.
Edwards' fate is pretty clearly tied to the question of whether team owner Clark Hunt finally ends the tenure of long-time Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson, who has served in his capacity 20 seasons without delivering even a Super Bowl appearance. For that matter, Kansas City hasn't won a playoff game since 1993. If "King Carl'' survives yet again, so will Edwards. But if Hunt pulls the plug on Peterson, the new GM customarily gets to hire a head coach of his choosing. And that could end Edwards' three-year K.C. tenure.
• Pink slip potential: 60 percent.
7. Wade Phillips, Dallas -- Everyone knows the deal in Dallas this season. As Jerry Jones likes to say, it's "crystal clear.'' Phillips needs to win at least two playoff games, which could put the Cowboys into their first Super Bowl since January 1996, or it's offensive coordinator JasonGarrett's turn to run the show in 2009. Not that "run the show'' is really the phrase that comes to mind when we're talking about Phillips' style of head coaching in Dallas.
After watching Phillips play the role of his team's kindly court jester on HBO's Hard Knocks series in training camp, and then seeing him wear that confused, somewhat befuddled look of his on the Dallas sideline in Monday night's thriller against Philadelphia, I've come to the conclusion that the only real indication that he's the Cowboys head coach is his prime parking spot in the team complex lot.
I don't even think he's getting the audio piped into that headset they let him wear on the sideline. Maybe they gave it to him to put on so he wouldn't feel bad about Garrett making all the real in-game decisions. At best, he's getting Sirius Radio pumped in, so he can follow the game via the Cowboys network. Sure, Dallas is 2-0 and tied for first in the rugged NFC East. But nothing but January matters for the Cowboys this season, and everything until then is just prologue.
• Pink slip potential: 50 percent.
8. Brad Childress, Minnesota -- Just this week you could finally tell that ol' Major Dad woke up and smelled the coffee when it comes to the risk of pinning his entire Vikings tenure on the inconsistent quarterbacking of one Tarvaris Jackson. When a head coach goes from flatly stating that there will be no quarterback change in the moments after a galling loss on Sunday afternoon, to equivocating on the issue on Monday, to announcing a new starting quarterback on Wednesday, that's a sure sign that saving his job has just crossed his radar screen.
"You don't crown a guy king and then the king doesn't have any clothes on and you say, 'Hey, he's still the king,' '' Childress said, regarding Jackson's newly diminished job security.
Oh really now? That's a twist for Childress, who has been either fiercely committed or stubborn to a fault in regards to Jackson's development as the Vikings starter. But at 0-2, coming off an inexcusable loss to the crippled Colts in their home opener, with team owner Zygi Wilf having shelled out at least $60 million in contract guarantees this offseason to upgrade the roster, it was time for Childress to grow a little flexibility. Thus, you get 37-year-old Gus Frerotte starting at quarterback this week against visiting Carolina and the urgency of Jackson's development placed somewhere behind the urgency to win now.
Could the change at quarterback be directly linked to Wilf's public vote of confidence in his head coach on Tuesday? What do you think? Childress may be stubborn, but he's not dumb. He knows it's time to save his own job, or someone else might get the pleasure or problem of developing Jackson in 2009.
• Pink slip potential: 40 percent.
9. John Fox, Carolina -- My gut is that this is one head coach who will quickly work himself off this list as the season progresses, and the Panthers' plucky and promising 2-0 start is a great early step toward that reality. But the fact remains the Panthers have been an underachieving 15-17 non-playoff team the past two seasons after their memorable drive to the NFC title game in 2005, and there was at least some serious speculation last offseason over whether both Fox and Panthers general manager Marty Hurney would be retained.
But Fox has two years remaining on his contract after this one, paying him about $5 million annually, and with a return to the playoffs this season he should be in good position to entertain hopes for an extension at some point in 2009.
• Pink slip potential: 30 percent.
10. Eric Mangini, New York Jets -- There's a lot of potential for Mangini to disappear from this list at some point during the season as well. Let the Jets resemble the on-the-way up 10-6 wild-card qualifier they were in Mangini's rookie season of 2006, and no one will be talking about the coaching hot seat in New York. But let them finish anywhere in the neighborhood of last year's disappointing 4-12 record, especially after this offseason's costly roster upgrade, and the heat will undoubtedly start to build on the coach who was dubbed "Man-genius'' not all that long ago.
The dichotomy even applies early this season, because after a hopeful start with a Week 1 road win at Miami, the Jets missed an opportunity to deal a blow to their arch-rival Patriots -- playing sans Tom Brady -- in their home opener. This week brings another potential swing, with a Monday-night trip to San Diego, where the powerful Chargers are 0-2 and hopping mad about it.
• Pink slip potential: 25 percent.