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NFL's firing season hasn't started, but it will commence soon enough

With the underachieving, last-place Cowboys slipping to 1-5 and losing starting quarterback Tony Romo to a broken collarbone in their 41-35 prime-time loss to the visiting Giants on Monday night, Dallas's Wade Phillips might have just vaulted to the top spot on the list of NFL head coaches who won't be asked back in 2011.

That is, if he even makes it that long. After all, Phillips has a unique experience with the whole interim head coaching assignment, having served as one for two NFL teams -- the 1985 Saints and 2003 Falcons. While Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has repeatedly said there won't be any midseason coaching change in Dallas this year, Phillips' job security looks bleak from any vantage point. (Even the requisite website pleading with Jones to "Fire Wade Phillips'' has been started).

The Cowboys entered this year having amassed more regular-season wins than any other NFC team in the past three seasons (33-15), and seemingly the entire organization talked boldly of its intention to become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl on its own home field next February.

But with the season in tatters in Dallas, the final 10 games of the year might wind up being little more than a death watch for Phillips and his four-year tenure as Cowboys head coach. Especially if Romo is sidelined for the next six to eight weeks, as expected. Just last week, following his team's loss at Minnesota, Jones himself said: "We don't have a replacement for Tony [Romo]. I know we'll go as far as Tony will take us.''

After watching backup Jon Kitna struggle Monday night against the Giants, I'm guessing even Jones didn't know how right he was (and probably wishes for once he wasn't).

But Phillips is far from alone as Halloween approaches and the 2010 season starts to take a turn for the worse in various NFL venues. Joining him on anyone's short list of coaches who are now on the hot seat are names like:

Denver's Josh McDaniels (2-5 so far in 2010)San Francisco's Mike Singletary (1-6)San Diego's Norv Turner (2-5)Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio (3-4)Carolina's John Fox (1-5)Chicago's Lovie Smith (4-3).

To a slightly lesser degree, the heat is also on:

Cleveland's Eric Mangini (2-5)Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis (2-4)Houston's Gary Kubiak, should his 4-2 Texans again falter and fail to make the playoffs.

Seven weeks into the regular season, there have been no NFL head coaches fired, but history indicates that's likely to change. Only three times in the past dozen seasons (1998-2009) has there not been at least one midseason coaching dismissal, and between the post-merger years of 1970-1992, only twice did the league's entire head coaching contingent make it through a season unscathed.

The last time the NFL featured no in-season coaching changes was 2006, but after the close of that year, big names like Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher, Dennis Green, Nick Saban, Jim Mora and Art Shell left the league's head coaching ranks. Last year, Buffalo canned Dick Jauron nine games into the season, and in 2008, Oakland's Lane Kiffin and St. Louis's Scott Linehan were fired in Week 5, with San Francisco's Mike Nolan following them out the door in Week 8.

A few potentially meaningful caveats, however, are worth mentioning when assessing this year's hot-seat watch. Some league sources I talked to think this may be one of those rare years with no in-season coaching changes due to a confluence of factors. For starters, the league's looming labor situation has cast an air of uncertainty over the 2011 season and might deter some owners from making a coaching move in anticipation of next spring's lockout.

That sounds reasonable enough because most owners are clearly reticent to make sizable new financial commitments in light of the expiring collective bargaining agreement. But other league sources say they expect it'll be business as usual on the coaching front, with seven or eight jobs opening after the season concludes and those vacancies being filled well before a lockout would begin. With the NFL's 2011 draft coming in April, lockout or no lockout, coaching staffs and preparations for next season will have to be in place even if the offseason is atypical in most every other way.

While teams such as Dallas and San Francisco appear almost certain to hire new coaches for 2011, Phillips and Singletary might both survive until season's end because of a lack of viable interim coaching candidates on their own staff.

Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett holds the team's assistant head coaching title, but his play-calling and body of work has drawn plenty of criticism in the past year-plus, and Jones may be reluctant to hand him the reins long enough to establish any sort of candidacy for the full-time job.

In San Francisco, Singletary's staff has few likely interim choices, perhaps outside of 44-year-old defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. Ironically, Singletary fired his most experienced assistant, offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, 64, after a Week 3 loss at Kansas City. While that move might have bought Singletary some time, it also focused the blame and accountability for the 49ers">49ers' failures squarely on his shoulders.

One NFL source I spoke with Monday said he thought Singletary would survive until season's end because the team's ownership won't be eager to remove him and leave 29-year-old team president/CEO Jed York as the guy who takes all the bullets from the media and the franchise's frustrated fans for the rest of the season. It was York, you recall, who two weeks ago predicted the 0-5 49ers would still win the NFC West and make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. So there's probably good reason to try to keep him off center stage for the next two months-plus.

Speaking of center stage, in the case of both Singletary and McDaniels, this week's trip to London for the NFL's annual international series game at Wembley Stadium is probably a welcomed chance to leave the continent for a while. The 49ers and Broncos have been disaster stories thus far this season, and Denver's 59-14 home-field loss to division rival Oakland on Sunday prompted McDaniels to apologize to team owner Pat Bowlen, the organization and its fans. The Raiders' point total was the highest in the 51-season history of the franchise.

McDaniels is now 4-13 as the Broncos head coach since starting last year with that mirage-like 6-0 getaway, and Bowlen was said to be livid with the team's embarrassment before its home crowd. Bowlen took a sizable risk in firing Mike Shanahan and hiring the 32-year-old McDaniels in early 2009, and the former Patriots offensive coordinator has done nothing lately to disprove the notion that he wasn't near ready for the job he was given.

McDaniels' fate was thought to be tied to the development of 2010 first-round pick Tim Tebow, but now it's an open question as to whether the coach will even be around in Denver when a verdict is rendered on Tebow's viability as an NFL quarterback. The most intriguing question remaining for the Broncos this season is whether McDaniels will try to save his job and the team's season by inserting Tebow into the lineup ahead of starter Kyle Orton, who has cooled off but hardly been the primary problem in Denver thus far. Unless Tebow can play defense, or single-handedly rescue the team's woeful running game, the Broncos looked doomed to a rock-bottom experience this season.

If the Broncos do turn things over to a new head coach in 2011 or sooner, he'll inherit a roster that McDaniels has vastly transformed in his two years on the job. From trading off Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, to acquiring the personnel to install a 3-4 defense, McDaniels has the team he chose to build. That means Denver's next head coach would likely face starting over from scratch, and another rebuilding of the roster.

But even the prospect of another extensive overhaul doesn't offer job security these days for an NFL head coach. As one NFL source put it to me: "That doesn't buy you time as a head coach any more. It's too much of a win-now league for that. Owners will still blow it up and start over if things get bad enough.''

For now, with their combined 4-16 record this season, Phillips, Singletary and McDaniels are staring down the darkest days of their coaching tenures. The NFL's firing season hasn't started yet, but it will commence soon enough. And chances are, with their losing numbers, their names will be among the first called.

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