For starters, we take note of the premise that whatever works is always instantly emulated in the NFL. And then we remind you that all four of this season's four rookie head coaches have teams in legitimate playoff contention, with winning records and a combined mark of 30-18 entering Week 14. Will it be any wonder, then, if the NFL owners who go looking for a coach this offseason are trying to identify the next John Harbaugh, Tony Sparano, Jim Zorn or Mike Smith, men who landed jobs last year with little (Smith) or no (the other three) NFL experience at the coordinator level?
Adding to the perception that coordinating has become a non-essential part of a head coach's background is the success of Mike Tomlin and Eric Mangini -- both of whom were one-year coordinators before landing head coaching jobs -- and the recent struggles of respected coordinators such as Cam Cameron, Scott Linehan, Romeo Crennel, Brad Childress and Mike Nolan.
But with my third installment of this year's NFL coaching hot seat rankings (see the first two here and here) heating up to include an even dozen names as December dawns, there's enough potential openings in the headset crowd to defy any one particular hiring trend. Our goal in this case is to give you not only an up-to-the-minute reading of which current NFL head coaches are most vulnerable to pending unemployment, but to offer an early preview of the leading potential candidates to interview for and win those jobs.
First, a look at the likely head coaching prospects, roughly grouped from the most popular to the long-shots on the list. Following that will be a fresh temperature reading of the league's coaching hot seats....
• Bill Cowher -- If, as expected, he chooses to peel off his TV persona and end his two-year hiatus from the sideline, the former Steelers coach will essentially have his pick of the openings. Cleveland would roll out the red carpet for him, and Detroit could be an intriguing possibility as well.
• Steve Spagnuolo -- The Giants defensive coordinator will be in high demand for a second-consecutive offseason, especially if New York rides the wave all the way to another Super Bowl appearance. St. Louis is one team known to be in the market for a defensive-oriented head coach.
• Jim Schwartz -- After strong interviews last offseason in Washington, Miami and Atlanta, Schwartz is nearly assured of parlaying the success of Tennessee's defense into a No. 1 job this time around. He's smart, articulate, extremely well prepared, and his coaching pedigree includes having worked for both Bill Belichick and Jeff Fisher.
• Josh McDaniels -- The Patriots 32-year-old offensive coordinator has only enhanced his résumé this season, proving he can craft successful game plans with or without league MVP Tom Brady at quarterback. It might take just the right situation for McDaniels to leave Foxboro, but I could see the Chargers, led by Patriots-envying general manager A.J. Smith, being an enticing option.
• Jason Garrett -- No surprise here, but if the curtain falls on the Wade Phillips era in Dallas, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will toss the keys to Garrett, who he kept away from both Baltimore and Atlanta last offseason with just such a plan of succession in mind.
• Pete Carroll -- Nobody's predicting a return to the NFL, but if the USC coach was of a mind to get involved anywhere -- San Francisco, we're looking in your direction -- he'd get his phone call promptly returned. But he's likely not going anywhere. (NOTE: Two other high-profile college coaches who roughly fall into the same category are Florida's Urban Meyer and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops. There, we've done our due diligence and mentioned them).
• Marty Schottenheimer -- The word is he badly wants back in, and his first choice is Cleveland, where his long head-coaching career began in 1984. He might be the Browns' fallback plan if there's no Cowher in their future.
• Rex Ryan -- The Ravens veteran defensive coordinator nearly landed the Baltimore job last year, and then he subjugated his ego and stayed on staff to work, and work well, with Harbaugh. The Ravens' resurgence this season only makes his résumé that much stronger.
• Mike Mularkey -- As the Falcons' first-year offensive coordinator, Mularkey has quietly done one of the best coaching jobs in the NFL this season, putting rookie quarterback Matt Ryan into the position to win right away. He has also gotten the best from Atlanta's Michael Turner-led running game and an offensive line that few thought would achieve so much. His previous NFL head coaching experience in Buffalo won't hurt him a bit.
• Kirk Ferentz -- Here's a scenario I'm hearing from a league source: If Browns general manager Phil Savage manages to keep his job, which is far from a certainty, he'll go hard after Ferentz as Crennel's replacement. After 10 years as Iowa's head coach, Ferentz might finally consider the time is right for a return to the NFL. The Hawkeyes rebounded this year to 8-4 and knocked off undefeated Penn State in November.
• Jim Harbaugh -- Though his name surfaced in regards to Oakland's interest in him a few weeks back, the Stanford head coach doesn't have to settle for that losing proposition. Harbaugh, the ex-NFL quarterback, has name recognition, great motivational skills and he's known as a high-energy, positive individual. And the head coaching success of his brother, John, in Baltimore makes him even more attractive.
While the NFL could come calling, another possibility to keep an eye on is Notre Dame. Harbaugh is extremely popular in Indiana following his successful career with the Colts, and he's known as a great recruiter. Given Harbaugh's public rebuke of his alma mater, Michigan, last year, wouldn't that spice up the Irish-Wolverine rivalry?
• Mike Leach -- The Texas Tech head coach wouldn't be a fit for everyone. He's an offensive innovator in the Mike Martz-mold, but he's a bit of a loose cannon -- also a Martz-ian trait -- and that would scare off some teams. But it only takes one NFL owner who's intrigued enough to interview him, and then who knows? What if Leach wound up going from the Red Raiders to the Raiders?
• Raheem Morris -- Haven't heard of the Bucs defensive backs coach? You will. For one thing, he's thought to be a slam dunk to become Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator should Monte Kiffin join his son's staff at the University of Tennessee. But Morris is also thought of as the next Mike Tomlin, whom he worked under in Tampa Bay as recently as 2005. He's got a winning and magnetic personality, and though he's only 32 -- younger than Bucs veterans Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber -- his players rave about his fiery coaching style and his ability to motivate.
• DeWayne Walker -- Walker has spent the past three seasons as UCLA's defensive coordinator, but he's also got a wealth of NFL experience to draw from, having served as an assistant under a virtual who's who of coaches: Pete Carroll (at New England and USC), Bill Belichick (New England), Joe Gibbs (Washington), and Jim Fassel (Giants). His collegiate background includes coaching stints under Steve Mariucci (Cal) and LaVell Edwards (BYU), and he's thought of as one of the brighter young coaching minds in the game.
• Brian Kelly -- Though the second-year University of Cincinnati head coach isn't thought to be quite ready for the NFL, don't forget his name. You can bet the struggling Bengals won't, given that he's right under their nose. Kelly's a proven winner and after leading the lowly Bearcats to a Big East title, a 10-2 record, and a BCS Bowl (probably the Orange) this season. His name has surfaced in connection with head coaching jobs at Notre Dame, Washington and Tennessee. His lack of NFL experience hurts for now.
• Karl Dorrell -- The Dolphins receivers coach has five years of head coaching experience at UCLA (2003-07), but no NFL coordinating stops on his résumé. But as a well-thought of position coach within the league, he'd be the kind of insightful pick that some team owners have made in recent years. He served on Mike Shanahan's staff in Denver from 2000-2002, and was hired by Bill Parcells in Miami this year. That will get him noticed by those owners who do their homework.
• Todd Haley -- Thanks to Arizona's success, the Cardinals offensive coordinator has a little buzz surrounding his name these days. Haley gets some credit for the effectiveness of the Cardinals' Kurt Warner-led passing game, and he too benefits from representing a branch of the Parcells coaching tree, having served on The Tuna's Cowboys staff.
• Jim Fassel -- You can expect Fassel to take the Raiders job if Al Davis doesn't retain Tom Cable and can't find anyone else to say yes. Fassel will try to get involved in St. Louis as well, but as we noted earlier, the Rams are said to be inclined to go with a defensive-minded coach.
• Mike Tice -- Jacksonville's assistant head coach hasn't been helped by the Jaguars poor season, but he has one key supporter within the league: Parcells, who talks him up to anyone who asks. That could gain the ex-Vikings head coach an interview or two.
• Mike Holmgren -- I happen to believe that the Seattle head coach will follow through on his plan to take at least a one-year sabbatical from the NFL, but speculation surrounding his possible interest in the 49ers head coaching job was inevitable, given his history with the team and the area.
1. Rod Marinelli, Detroit -- No way, no how the Lions sell tickets for 2009 with Marinelli still around. Time to put Matt Millen's final coaching hire out of his misery. A historic 0-16 season wouldn't even require an explanation, just a firing and a press conference.
• Pink slip potential:99 percent.
2. Jim Haslett, St. Louis -- After those hopeful first two wins over Washington and Dallas when he took over for Scott Linehan, Haslett's Rams have laid down and died like dogs, dropping six straight. Most of them in the ugly blowout fashion. Look for the Rams to try and land a high-profile defensive coordinator like Spagnuolo, Schwartz or Rex Ryan.
• Pink slip potential:95 percent.
3. Romeo Crennel, Cleveland -- League sources I talk to say it's 50-50 that Browns owner Randy Lerner blows up the whole thing and starts over in Cleveland with a new general manager and a new head coach. But those odds are on both Savage and Crennel to be fired together. When you ask around regarding just Crennel, it approaches a foregone conclusion that he's gone.
• Pink slip potential:90 percent.
4. Wade Phillips, Dallas -- To be sure, the Cowboys' season-saving three-game winning streak has lightened the pressure on Phillips -- for now. But it's still all about playoff success, or bust, in Dallas this season. Since the Cowboys are going to have to go the wild-card route -- if they go to the playoffs at all -- that makes it a very difficult road to ride.
• Pink slip potential:75 percent.
5. Herm Edwards, Kansas City -- That win at Oakland on Sunday was only Kansas City's second in its past 21 games, and there's not many coaches who could survive a 2-19 run in the NFL. But Edwards could be one of them, if -- and it's a big if -- Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson returns. I just don't know how owner Clark Hunt sells another season of Peterson and Edwards to the frustrated fans of Kansas City.
• Pink slip potential:55 percent.
6. Mike Singletary, San Francisco -- If the 49ers could split their last four games, after winning Sunday at Buffalo, that late-season momentum might be enough to turn the tide in favor of Singletary getting the interim tag removed from his title. It's a fluid situation, but after a shaky start, Singletary has a shot to survive.
• Pink slip potential:55 percent.
7. Norv Turner, San Diego -- I really don't believe that Chargers general manager Smith wants to fire Turner, who led San Diego to those two long-awaited playoff victories last January. But he might find himself forced to make a move if the wheels continue to come off for the Chargers in the season's final month. As we said above, New England offensive coordinator McDaniels might be an intriguing option.
• Pink slip potential:50 percent.
8. Tom Cable, Oakland -- The Raiders could easily fire Cable, of course, but the question in Oakland is who does Davis get to take the job at that point? Cable could stick around, because Davis is said to see a bit of young John Madden in him, and he has had the Raiders playing hard in recent weeks. For Davis, that win at Denver alone is worth considering Cable for the full-time gig.
• Pink slip potential:50 percent.
9. Gary Kubiak, Houston -- Texans owner Bob McNair has always struck me as a reasonable and largely patient man, and that's probably going to work in Kubiak's favor regarding a fourth season in Houston. Also, don't underestimate the importance of the Texans' big home win over Jacksonville in their first Monday Night Football game. An egg-laying in that one could have really doomed Kubiak.
• Pink slip potential:35 percent.
10. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati -- If Lewis was coaching anywhere else, his team's 1-10-1 record this season would be a death sentence. But he's working for an owner in Mike Brown who holds his nose at the thought of paying off a coach to disappear. Brown, who still owes Lewis at least $8 million over the next two years, came out this week and praised Lewis for doing "an incredibly good job'' this season.
• Pink slip potential:30 percent.
11. Brad Childress, Minnesota -- The Vikings and Childress don't have any reason to get comfortable just yet, but they are 7-5 and in sole possession of first place in the NFC North. A 9-7 record and a division title is probably what it's going to take to make Childress entirely safe. The Vikings have to win at Detroit this week, then get one more W out of the tough final three weeks: At Arizona, then home against Atlanta and the Giants. Fortunately for Minnesota, the Cardinals and Giants will probably have already clinched.
• Pink slip potential:30 percent.
12. Andy Reid, Philadelphia -- It's not out of the question that a change is in the offing in Philly, but my gut tells me that that Eagles management will give Reid the benefit of the doubt in this, his third non-playoff season in four years. But with three games remaining in the rugged NFC East, the story could still take a downward spiral for the Eagles in December.
• Pink slip potential:25 percent.