By the time December and the final quarter of the NFL's regular season arrives, one of the league's annual exercises begins in earnest -- the coaching hot seat watch. In a bit of an oddity, for the second year in a row there have been no head coaches fired in mid- or late-season, at least so far. But that kind of stability will never last once we hit January, even though last year's flurry of eight coaching changes is not going to be duplicated this time around. A quarter of the league's coaches simply can't get canned every season. Even NFL owners are not that impatient.
In anticipation of firing-hiring season, here's our latest coaching hot seat update, with information gleaned on Monday from sources around the NFL regarding the vulnerability factor of the men in the headset crowd. Keep in mind, a month is forever in the NFL. If we did this list in early November, it would have been led by the likes of supposed dead-men-walking Greg Schiano of Tampa Bay and Joe Philbin of Miami, while the Jets' Rex Ryan looked like a likely survivor and an underdog Coach of the Year candidate.
But none of those trend lines have really held in recent weeks, and our list has different leaders in this unwanted and unwelcomed clubhouse at the moment. Here's what we think we know up to the moment, rating the hot-seat candidates from hottest to coolest:
Gary Kubiak, Houston
Texans owner Bob McNair is known to be a very patient man, which is how Kubiak made it into his sixth season in Houston before registering the team's inaugural trip to the playoffs in 2011. But with the bottom dropping out on the Texans in spectacular fashion this year -- 10 consecutive losses after a 2-0 start -- there's virtually no chance Kubiak will return in 2014. His firing is seen as a near fait accompli at this point by those in the know in Houston.
The Texans' season-long quarterback issues have only underlined the fact that Kubiak's time with the Texans is up. Quarterbacking is Kubiak's presumed position of expertise, but the gruesome Matt Schaub flame-out this year was the fulcrum on which the Texans' season turned. A Schaub pick-six is an apt symbol of a Houston season that simply went in the wrong direction. There's too much talent on hand for the Texans to regress to this degree, and Kubiak's inability to staunch his team's bleeding once it began was a damning indictment.
In reality, despite the team's 2-0 start this year, Kubiak's situation began its downward spiral exactly one year ago right now. Houston opened 2012 at a gaudy 11-1 and looked like a near-certain No. 1 seed in the AFC. But the Texans finished 1-3, slipped to the No. 3 seed and wound up losing big at New England in the divisional round. Since Week 14 of last season, the Texans have won just four of 18 games, nose-diving precipitously from a potential top seed to the current holder of the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft. There's always a price to be paid for that dramatic a fall.
Leslie Frazier, Minnesota
The final month of the season could still play a big role in deciding Frazier's fate, but the overview is Minnesota's 3-8-1 record has left him in a very precarious position after last year's surprise 10-6 wild-card playoff berth. Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and his family like and respect Frazier immensely, and feel a legitimate sense of loyalty to him. Frazier also has players who love his leadership style.
But the team's flip-flopping at quarterback has made a muddle of the game's most pivotal position, and no one on the outside understands why Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman invested $2 million in renting Josh Freeman for 12 weeks, and then left him on the bench. Come to think of it, no one on the inside understands that one either. Freeman clearly wasn't the answer Minnesota thought he was and the Vikings realized it only after that disaster against the Giants on Monday Night Football.
On the plus side, the Vikings have played much better in the past four weeks, beating Washington and Chicago at home and managing a tie in Green Bay. But that 2-1-1 spurt won't be enough to save Frazier's job if Minnesota doesn't close the season strong. And that looks like it'll be a difficult task, given the Vikings' final four games are all against teams that would make the playoffs if the postseason began today: at Baltimore, Philadelphia, at Cincinnati, Detroit. Something like a 4-11-1 record probably isn't going to cut it, and may well mean the Vikings will have a new head coach after they bid farewell to the Metrodome and prepare to move into the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium as their two-year temporary home.
Mike Munchak, Tennessee
It doesn't take a savvy reader of the tea leaves to realize the third-year Titans coach is in serious jeopardy of being relieved of his duties in another month or so. After last season's disappointing 6-10 record, Titans owner Bud Adams granted Munchak a one-year reprieve, invested heavily in offensive line upgrades and green-lighted the hiring of Gregg Williams in an attempt to fix the defensive issues. And when Tennessee opened this season 3-1 with strong play from third-year quarterback Jake Locker, the pieces looked like they were falling in place for the Titans.
And then things fell apart. Locker got hurt, and then hurt again, ending his season prematurely. Adams passed away in October, creating an ownership transition that gave team control to his son-in-law, Tommy Smith. And most importantly, the Titans floundered on the field, dropping six out of eight games, including a galling home-field loss to Jacksonville, which was 0-8 at the time. At 5-7, Tennessee is on the fringe of AFC wild-card contention, but this week's trip to Denver might serve to extinguish those flickering hopes for good.
The steady, soft-spoken Munchak is 20-24 in his three seasons on the job in Nashville, and it couldn't have been too comforting to him when Smith was quoted recently saying he wanted the Titans to be "a tough, hard-nosed football team,'' citing Tennessee's lack of identity and need to do "a lot of work.'' Barring an unforeseen late-season run that yields that second AFC wild-card berth -- which isn't happening -- Munchak is in all likelihood done, with Smith pursuing a new head coach who can bring a little more pizazz to the organization and hopefully energize a fan base that will have endured five consecutive non-playoff seasons. If he's a quarterback friendly coach who can aid Locker's development, all the better.
Rex Ryan, New York Jets
The Jets' whole season has been a roller-coaster ride to remember, but their current fortunes are plummeting with no reasonable expectation of reversing the descent in any meaningful way. Thus, Ryan has come full circle to a degree: He started the season as a foregone conclusion of a hot-seat candidate, saw his team overachieve at 5-4 with a rookie starting quarterback, and now is back on the endangered list as New York has slipped to 5-7 and looks anemic and borderline hopeless on offense.
The Jets raised eyebrows and expectations with those huge upsets of the Patriots and Saints at home in October, but they never really came back off their Week 10 bye, losing three in a row convincingly to the Bills, Ravens and Dolphins -- all of whom had losing records when they beat New York. With Geno Smith back at square one in terms of his quarterback development, the Ed Reed midseason signing doing little to bolster Ryan's credibility as personnel evaluator, and first-year general manager John Idzik no doubt still working under the assumption he will eventually get to hire the coach of his choosing, none of the signs look good for Ryan at the moment.
The reality is this: As adept as he is on the defensive side of the ball, Ryan has not been able to fix the team's ongoing offensive issues, especially at quarterback. Starting his Jets tenure with two consecutive trips to the AFC title game was very impressive, but New York is en route to its third consecutive non-playoff season and Ryan's best work with the Jets appears to be well in the past. If the losses continue to mount, the initial perception of Ryan's fate in 2013 will probably end up being the correct one all along.
Mike Shanahan, Washington
It has been a drama-filled 2013 in Washington -- starting with the team's first-round playoff game against Seattle in January -- and the forecast is for more drama to come. Sources close to the situation in D.C. say they don't think Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has made up his mind yet on whether he wants to bring Shanahan back in 2014, and things could still go either way. But the key sub-plot to watch may be offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the coach's son. I'm told that if the Redskins decide they want to part ways with Mike Shanahan with one year at $7 million left on his contract, they'll likely ask him to fire Kyle as OC, knowing he won't do it, but hoping he'll walk away from the fifth and final season of the deal.
That seems optimistic and way too easy of a conclusion, and I'm not sure why Mike Shanahan wouldn't call their bluff, make them fire him and collect his money. This is a guy who feels he got cheated out of some salary when he was fired by Oakland's Al Davis in the 1980s, and he's still not over it. So why would Shanahan play along with Snyder in this transparent end game?
At 3-9, with reported tension between Shanahan and second-year quarterback Robert Griffin III still existing, I do think the odds of things deteriorating for Shanahan in Washington are pretty high. Especially if the fans stay away in droves from the Redskins' final two home games, which could push Snyder closer to making a change.
Judging from his past coaching hires -- many as they are -- Snyder's MO is to have someone in mind and lined up to go before he makes the final decision on his current coach. There's been some Jon Gruden buzz in Washington, probably because of Bruce Allen's presence as general manager, but sources say Gruden wouldn't leave ESPN for the temporary post that the Redskins job always turns into.
In the end, it's possible that Snyder could view this season as a lost cause due to the team's heavy-salary cap penalties incurred, and Griffin's knee rehabilitation, and give Shanahan a pass because of it. Maybe the $7 million he owes his head coach will in essence make the decision to bring Shanahan back for him. But if he does opt for that route, does he make Shanahan coach in a lame-duck situation next season, or would he be almost forced to add a year or two to the deal? See, I told you there's more drama to come in Washington.
Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay
I don't think Schiano is going anywhere this offseason, and that certainly rates as a remarkable and unlikely comeback from the dark days of October, when the "Fire Schiano'' billboards were everywhere in Tampa and the Josh Freeman fallout seemed to never end. If the Bucs tank in the final month of the season, all bets are off and the second-year head coach still might be shown the door. But I like his chances to survive into 2014, and for more reasons than team co-owner Joel Glazer coming out last week and issuing some strong words of support for Schiano in the midst of the team's recent three-game winning streak.
The surprisingly strong play of rookie quarterback Mike Glennon is the biggest and best reason to have faith in Schiano if you're the Glazers. Schiano has staked his credibility on Glennon, telling the team's ownership that he was going to be good, and he has been. That inspires hope that Freeman was the problem after all and their coach now has the quarterback with which to win. The lackluster loss at Carolina last Sunday was a setback for the Bucs' late-season mojo, but there's still time to recover from that and build momentum for 2014.
As for Schiano's much-discussed problems within his own locker room, it's pretty clear reports of the Bucs players being on the verge of a full-scale mutiny were significantly over-stated. Do they love Schiano's no-nonsense, regimented coaching style? Definitely not, at least not universally. But the Bucs have continued to play hard for him, and players will follow any coach who wins. That's the way the league works. Win enough and you can run your program by the book you wrote. Tampa Bay's three-game winning streak -- after that ugly 0-8 start -- won him some renewed credibility.
One last factor in Schiano's return? I don't see the Glazers as eager to pay off the rest of his contract, and his staff's, after just two years. Following the money is always good advice in the NFL.
Joe Philbin, Miami
With the Dolphins at 6-6 and just behind Baltimore in the race for the AFC's second wild-card slot, Philbin wouldn't even be on this list were it not for the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito saga that has roiled the franchise for weeks now. I think Philbin is in very good standing with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who has been effusive with his praise for his second-year head coach. (GM Jeff Ireland? Not so much.) But I'm including Philbin on the hot seat watch because of what still might come out in the league's investigation of the Martin-Incognito matter. Who knows what piece of evidence might still prove damaging, perhaps to the Dolphins coaching staff?
Other than that sticky situation, Philbin is seen as having done a reasonably good job with his team on the field, and the perception of the Dolphins league-wide is that they have quality young talent that's not far away from yielding a consistent winner. If there's a situation to keep tabs on in terms of Miami's coaching staff, it may center on offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and whether Philbin is convinced he's the right man for the job. Despite Sherman's strong relationship with starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, some sources question whether Sherman is getting the most out of the offensive personnel he has to work with.
Dennis Allen, Oakland
With the Raiders at 4-8 and headed for their 11th consecutive non-winning, non-playoff season, you can't leave Allen off the radar screen when it comes to his job status. Especially since owner Mark Davis now runs things in Oakland and might not view Allen as having made sufficient progress in his second season on the job (after a 4-12 rookie showing in 2012). Allen is 8-20 so far, a record that brings its share of heat.
That said, sources say Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie believes Allen has matured as a head coach in Year 2, and the general consensus is Oakland exceeded expectations by starting the season 3-4, despite a meager level of talent. If Davis listens to and trusts McKenzie, Allen seems safe. There are also thought to be people who counsel Davis, John Madden among them, who are preaching patience to the Raiders owner, trying to convince him to take the long view in rebuilding an organization that was known for dysfunction under the latter stages of Al Davis' stewardship.
Jason Garrett, Dallas
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones two weeks ago came out and assured all interested parties that Garrett would be back as his head coach in 2014. Of course, with Dallas being Dallas, and Jerry being Jerry, that doesn't make Garrett 100 percent safe by any stretch of the imagination.
Garrett and the Cowboys have won two games since Jones' pronouncement, sit a season-high two games over .500 at 7-5, and have control of first place in the NFC East and a berth in the playoffs. Life is good.
But let Dallas do what Dallas has done all too often in recent years -- lose a Week 17 showdown, this time at home against Philadelphia, to miss the playoffs -- and let's see if Jones has the same complete conviction about the young coach he once viewed as the next Sean Payton. A fourth consecutive season without a playoff trip in Dallas undoubtedly would bring some serious consequence, and Garrett's demise would be the most logical.
Jim Schwartz, Detroit
The situation in Motown is very similar to the one in Dallas: Schwartz has to make the playoffs to assure himself a sixth season with the Lions. At the moment, all arrows are pointing up. Detroit is 7-5, in command of the NFC North and looks poised to win its division for the first time in 20 years. All that stands in the way is a winning December or a maybe even a break-even final month of the regular season.
But if the final four weeks don't follow that script, Schwartz could pay the price with his job. After all, the reality in Detroit is this: When will the Lions get a clearer path and a better opportunity to win the North than 2013, with the Packers, Bears and Vikings all experiencing horrible injury problems and/or ineffectiveness at the quarterback position? Detroit's Matthew Stafford is the division's only healthy starter and the Lions' 6-3 start gave them a leg up on the rest of the division.
So it's up to Schwartz to seal the deal and earn a second playoff berth in three seasons if he wants to remove any and all doubt about his job security. If the Lions falter down the stretch, Detroit ownership is unlikely to cut the head coach any slack. The Lions' issues with consistently disciplined play and their inability to put a few more wins away (see at Pittsburgh, home against Tampa Bay) could come back to bite Schwartz.
Mike Smith, Atlanta
I'm convinced after five consecutive winning seasons and four playoff trips from 2008 to '12, Smith is not in any danger of losing his job, despite this year's 3-9 unraveling in Atlanta. Falcons owner Arthur Blank has vouched for Smith's status, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff has declared that the well-respected Smith isn't going anywhere, no matter how disappointing this season has been in the wake of last year's trip to the NFC title game.
Case closed in my book, especially when you consider the Falcons came undone thanks in part to a string of early-season narrow defeats and injuries to key players (none bigger than to big-play receiver Julio Jones). But at least one source I've talked to within the league thinks Smith still could be a surprising dismissal if the Falcons don't finish the season on an upswing. There does always seem to be one major out-of-the-blue firing on the coaching front, but I'm not sensing Smith is that headline-to-come this year.
Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
Here's what two Super Bowl rings in the past seven seasons will do for a coach: Coughlin will stay with the Giants if he wants to stay with the Giants. He will go out on his terms, and he's not going to get fired by a New York ownership or front office that feels indebted to him for the work he has done in his 10-year tenure with the organization.
And make no mistake, Coughlin will be back on the Giants' sideline in 2014. He has made that abundantly clear, and he's not ready to ease into retirement. I'm not sure there's anything else he wants to do, or knows how to do. Coaching in the NFL is his life, and he's not of the mind to give it up.