Thursday October 23rd, 2008

Five weeks ago, when I first visited the topic of NFL coaches already on the hot seat, it seemed way too early in the season to be tackling such firing line issues. Turns out it wasn't. Oakland's Lane Kiffin and St. Louis's Scott Linehan were let go after Week 4, and San Francisco's Mike Nolan got added to the casualty list this week, when the 2-5 49ers decided they had seen enough and elevated Mike Singletary to the role of interim head coach.

Not since 1976 have more coaches lost their jobs this early in the season. That year, four of the NFL's then 28 teams changed coaches in the season's opening seven games: Buffalo's Lou Saban and Detroit's Rick Forzano resigned, while Atlanta's Marion Campbell and the Giants' Bill Arnsparger were fired.

Historically speaking, replacing a head coach in midseason has changed little about the fortunes of that particular team in that particular year. Usually it has been a case of a bad team getting one coach fired, and playing just about as poorly for his replacement. But there are a few modest exceptions to the rule, as the Rams' Jim Haslett has been thus far, leading St. Louis to a 2-0 mark with upsets of Washington and Dallas after Linehan went 0-4.

In the era since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, the only instance I found where a team replaced its coach during the season and went on to make the playoffs comes with a major caveat: In 1978, the Rams fired George Allen two games into their four-game preseason, elevated Ray Malavasi to the top job, and proceeded to go 12-4 and win the NFC West.

But Gary Moeller went 4-3 and came within a Week 17 collapse against Chicago from taking the Lions to the playoffs in 2000 after Bobby Ross resigned. Don Coryell took over for Tommy Prothro after four games in San Diego in 1978, turning the team's 1-3 start into a 9-7 finish. And Raymond Berry fared decently in New England in 1984, going 4-4 in the second half after Ron Meyer lost his job for starting the year 5-3.

About the best-case scenario for a team that makes a midseason coaching correction is that by doing so it finds a good to great long-term solution by going the interim route. The way Jeff Fisher replaced Jack Pardee in Houston after 10 games in 1994. Or Cleveland's Marty Schottenheimer taking over for Sam Rutigliano after eight games in 1984. Or Wayne Fontes for Darryl Rogers after 11 games in Detroit in 1988, and Art Shell for Mike Shanahan with the Raiders early in 1989. Not to overlook the finds that were Coryell in San Diego and Berry in New England.

But for every Fisher, Coryell and Berry, there's a Hank Bullough, a Terry Robiskie, a Fred O'Connor and at least two Rick Venturi's -- interim coaches who were just there to hold down the fort and play out the schedule until an offseason coaching search could locate the team's new top man. That may or may not be the fate of Haslett in St. Louis, Tom Cable in Oakland, and Singletary in San Francisco. Only time, and the results of the regular season's final 10 weeks, will tell.

Now on to our up-to-the-minute rankings of the coaches on the hot seat:

1. Wade Phillips, Dallas -- I don't care how many "emphatically no's'' Jerry Jones issues when asked about Phillips' job security, no one's butt is roasting on a larger griddle than the Cowboys head coach's. At 4-3, Dallas has already matched last year's regular-season loss total, and given it was pretty much Super Bowl or bust for Phillips in 2008, it's not too difficult to discern where this one might be headed. Especially when you consider that Phillips' successor -- Jason Garrett -- has already been chosen and is on hand as offensive coordinator.

The way the Cowboys seemed to lay down for Phillips in St. Louis last Sunday is the most ominous sign of all. Even without injured starting quarterback Tony Romo, Dallas has too much talent to let anyone administer a beating like that. It looks like Phillips' easy-hand-on-the-wheel style is just not the right fit for this headline-loving Cowboys team.

Pink slip potential: 80 percent.

2. Rod Marinelli, Detroit -- At 0-6, with the schedule about to turn tougher and inexperienced backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky leading the offense, it's getting harder to see how Marinelli survives into a fourth season in Detroit. He keeps talking about the importance of going back to work and correcting the problems, but then the Lions go out and fall behind 21-0 every other game, rendering Marinelli without any explanation for his team's lack of competitiveness.

This is just a very bad Lions team, and that's saying a lot by Detroit's dismal standards. They're ranked 27th in points (16.2 per game), 27th in total yards (265.0), 30th in rushing (77.7), and 22nd in passing (187.3). And the defense is even worse: last in points allowed (31.2), last in yards (418.7), and 31st in both rushing (167.5) and passing (251.2). While the Lions ownership might like and respect Marinelli's coaching skills, something's not working. And having already given in to fan unhappiness in dismissing general manager Matt Millen, it's tough to see how the Ford family can continue to sell anyone on Marinelli in 2009.

Pink slip potential: 75 percent.

3. Brad Childress, Minnesota -- The 3-4 Vikings are on their bye week, and that means Childress has nine more games to make the case that he deserves to keep his job. By my math, he needs to go either 7-2 or make the playoffs at 9-7 (which requires a 6-3 finish) to get it done. While the Vikings are just a game behind first-place Chicago and Green Bay (both 4-3), they've lost to both teams on the road and have yet to show any consistency -- let alone dominance -- on either side of the ball.

Minnesota's special teams play has been a weekly debacle, and its Jared Allen-led defense has to be rated a disappointment thus far. With preseason expectations that were lofty based on their big offseason acquisitions, the Vikings have a fan base that has officially grown restless for a change on the sideline. Minnesota returns after its bye to play home games against Houston and Green Bay. Childress better win both to get to 5-4, or the pressure on him will build exponentially.

Pink slip potential: 70 percent.

4. Herm Edwards, Kansas City -- Edwards returns to the Meadowlands this week to lead the Chiefs against the Jets, and could you blame him if he wonders why he ever tried to get out of New York? He didn't win all the time when he was the Jets head coach, but he didn't suffer through any 1-14 skids either -- which is what Kansas City happens to be since the eighth game of 2007. The Chiefs have scored an NFL-low 75 points, their quarterback position has been declared a disaster site and their young defense has regressed after showing promise last year.

And we haven't even mentioned the Larry Johnson fiasco. As I've written before, Edwards' fate would seem tied to Carl Peterson's. If team owner Clark Hunt finally lowers the boom on K.C.'s long-time general manager, then Edwards is almost certainly out too. If Peterson survives, Edwards is likely to stick around as well. None of which will sit well with Chiefs fans.

Pink slip potential: 60 percent.

5. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati -- At 0-2, Lewis was at No. 3 on my hot seat rankings, with a 75 percent chance to get the axe at some point. But I've dropped him down into a slight more secure slot because there have been some extenuating circumstances involved in Cincinnati's plummet to 0-7. Like Carson Palmer's balky elbow, and all the Chad Johnson and Chris Henry distractions at receiver. And now Lewis has lost top rookie linebacker Keith Rivers for the season with a broken jaw.

The truth is, with new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer making the most of what he has to work with, the Bengals defense has played pretty well most of the time and kept the team in games. It's the offense that needs fixing, and here's one suggestion that might get Palmer's game back in shape: What if Lewis were to hire current UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow, and re-unite the former USC coordinator with Palmer, who won the Heisman under Chow? Getting Palmer healthy and playing like a top five quarterback again is job one in Cincy, and that project should buy Lewis another season.

Pink slip potential: 40 percent.

6. Eric Mangini, New York Jets -- Mangini was No. 10 on our last list, so he's a riser at No. 6. After their huge offseason (and preseason) shopping spree, and getting the break of Tom Brady being lost for the year, New York is only a middling 3-3, a game behind second-place New England and two games back of first-place Buffalo. That overtime loss at Oakland last Sunday might just be a real killer to their playoff hopes in the long run, because upcoming games against Buffalo, New England, Tennessee and Denver loom.

The Jets don't seem to know who they are as a football team just yet, and Brett Favre's transition has been a bit of rollercoaster ride. Other than that explosive first half at home against Arizona in Week 4, the Jets have yet to put together much in the way of consistent quality performances.

Pink slip potential: 30 percent.

7. Romeo Crennel, Cleveland -- The Browns just don't have a good vibe surrounding them this season, and that wasn't supposed to be the story in Cleveland this year, was it? It looks like everything's going to be a struggle for Crennel's team, and stuff like the Kellen Winslow controversy only detracts and distracts the Browns from their ultimate goals. My feeling is that Crennel's job is relatively safe this year -- barring a complete meltdown from here on out -- but the reality is that 2-4 Cleveland is closer to last-place Cincinnati (0-7) than it is to first-place Pittsburgh (5-1).

Pink slip potential: 20 percent.

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