Black Monday Primer: A definitive guide to 2014 coaching carousel
The coaching carousel spawns a more frenzied swirl of media reports, speculation and rumors every year, and the firing/hiring season that is about to commence in the NFL will be no exception. Black Monday -- the day after the league's regular season concludes -- will again be busy, with a projected six to nine teams expected to be in the market for a new head coach.
The landscape on the general manager front looks considerably less volatile than last year, when seven new GMs were hired or eventually elevated, but there are still a handful of situations to handicap and keep track of in the front offices around the NFL. With so much activity on tap, here's an around-the-league encapsulation of what we think we know about the changes that are about to unfold. League general managers, personnel executives, team sources and agents were contacted and interviewed in an attempt to anticipate the moves coming in the next few weeks.
• Washington -- There's no real drama left in D.C. That all exploded in spectacular fashion in mid-December, when it became clear that Mike Shanahan didn't really care to coach for Daniel Snyder any more and started making it known both in word and deed. Shanahan wants out and it doesn't matter how long it takes him to clean out his office, he'll get it done (was it just a laptop and a stapler?). After they figure out the terms of the divorce, Snyder will be searching for the seventh full-time coach of his 15-year ownership.
I suppose given Snyder's track record for chasing a headline name with his coaching hires, you have to put Jon Gruden on Washington's wish list. But Gruden isn't going to be the next Redskins coach to end things badly with Snyder. He's happy and wealthy enough in TV for now, and it is said that only the ideal situation will lure him back to coaching. Rest assured, the Redskins will never be considered anyone's idea of perfection.
Most league sources I talked to expect Penn State's Bill O'Brien to be on the radar of every team in need of a coach, as long as that team doesn't mind paying big money to its sideline boss. O'Brien reportedly has a $6.48 million NFL-team buyout in his Penn State contract, and would then command a sizable salary on top of that. Money has never been a restrictor plate for Snyder, but O'Brien should have more than one option, and he likely won't view the Redskins as giving him his best possible chance at success. Houston or Dallas seem far more attractive in that regard.
Washington could wind up hiring a Gruden: Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden -- Jon's younger brother -- whose tenure with the Bengals not-too-coincidentally coincided with the franchise's first-ever run of three consecutive playoff berths. Washington might prioritize a quarterback-friendly hire given Robert Griffin III's setback of a second season in the NFL, and Gruden is viewed as the man who deserves most of the credit for Andy Dalton's early success in Cincinnati.
But the real issue in Washington is tightening things up on defense, and that's where top-tier defensive coordinators like Cincinnati's Mike Zimmer, Cleveland's Ray Horton, San Francisco's Vic Fangio, Carolina's Sean McDermott or Arizona's Todd Bowles could emerge as possibilities. Snyder would have to go against stereotype to make such a hire, because none of those candidates come with the sizzle and big-name splash that he typically prefers. But what better way for Snyder to convince everyone that he has indeed learned from his mistakes, and is searching for the best possible coach, regardless of his Q rating?
For instance, a hire like Fangio might not move the needle much with fans and the media, but he's a straight-shooter who is well-liked by players, has earned respect for his X's and O's acumen and his defensive mindset would help in a division where the Eagles and Cowboys offenses currently set the tempo. According to some observers, a defensive-oriented coach for the Redskins might also be better equipped to handle the unique situation in Washington regarding Snyder's relationship with his quarterback, Griffin, which was the source of some of the tension between Shanahan and the owner.
As for Redskins general manager Bruce Allen, most sources seem to think he'll survive the coming shakeup in Washington, although perhaps in a different title with slightly different responsibilities, depending on the head coaching hire. Shanahan had control of personnel decisions, and it'll be interesting to see if Snyder follows that model once again or opts for a more traditional GM-head coach setup, with dual lines of authority.
• Minnesota -- Leslie Frazier had his last-place team playing hard down the stretch in classic job-saving mode, but Sunday's 42-14 meltdown at Cincinnati didn't help his cause one bit, with the Vikings falling to 4-10-1 in advance of this week's regular-season finale and Metrodome farewell against visiting Detroit. The consensus of the sources I talked to is that the well-respected Frazier will be fired, but there is said to be less than 100 percent certainty within the organization regarding the decision. All seem to concede that Minnesota playing the next two seasons outdoors in a college stadium (at the University of Minnesota) while it awaits the opening of its own new venue in 2016 complicates the search for a new coach, and that could impact Frazier's status.
Said one league source: "Good luck getting a guy in there. That's not an inviting situation, playing outdoors two years in a temporary setting, in a college setting. That won't attract a lot of people, being in that kind of limbo."
There was a recent report that the Vikings had reached out to gauge O'Brien's interest, but few expect Minnesota to pay enough to win that expected bidding war. It's more likely the Vikings turn to one of the many coordinator candidates, or perhaps pursue a former NFL head coach like San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or Lovie Smith, both of whom have Super Bowl trips on their resumes.
On the general manager front, there is every indication that Rick Spielman is secure and retains the confidence of owner Zygi Wilf. While a coaching search looks likely, the front office is expected to remain status quo.
• Oakland -- None of the arrows are pointing up for second-year head coach Dennis Allen. The Raiders are headed for their second consecutive 4-12 season under him, and their second-half collapse will prove to be his undoing. While owner Mark Davis has tried to be patient with his young coach, there's just not enough progress or promise to earn Allen a third season. Even with the salary-cap limitations and the injuries that Oakland had to deal with, Allen has not acquitted himself well and shown enough growth and maturation on the job to give general manager Reggie McKenzie the necessary ammunition to retain him.
As for where the Raiders turn next on the coaching front, does anyone ever really know what Oakland is thinking? This much I'm certain of: Jon Gruden is not returning to save the day in the East Bay, no matter what Rich Gannon might intimate. Maybe the Raiders go after Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, or another like-minded offensive coach such as New Orleans offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, but Oakland clearly is not the perfect situation that will coax Jon Gruden out of the booth and back onto the sideline.
The Raiders have never been afraid of hiring young coaches, but I wonder if Allen's struggles will influence them to seek someone with a little more head-coaching experience, such as Whisenhunt, who helped rebuild quarterback Philip Rivers' game in San Diego this season. Some believe Allen, then 39, simply got his first head coaching gig too early on in his career and would have benefitted from serving more than one year at the coordinator level (he served as Denver's defensive coordinator in 2011).
General manager Reggie McKenzie is thought to be safe, and this will be a very important second coaching hire for him as a first-time GM. He'll need to get this one right, or he may never have the luxury of a third.
• Tennessee -- Mike Munchak is clearly in trouble, but the Titans coaching situation remains fluid heading into Week 17, because if Tennessee beats visiting Houston this week to finish 7-9, it might be just enough of a closing argument to save his job. A 7-9, second-place finish after a 3-1 start this season does not sound impressive, but there are some extenuating circumstances in Nashville. For one, new team president/CEO Tommy Smith, who took control when his father-in-law, Bud Adams, died in October, has no track record to gauge. He may not want to clean house just months after assuming the job, and be seen as moving too dramatically too soon.
Then again, Munchak's situation demands some kind of quick decision, because he's entering the final year of his contract in 2014, so Tennessee either has to fire him, or give him at least a short extension, thereby taking the lame-duck season scenario off the table. There appears to be at least a chance Munchak might jump before he's pushed, because one media report earlier this week had him surfacing as the favorite to succeed Penn State's Bill O'Brien, should the Nittany Lions second-year coach leave for the NFL. Munchak, a Penn State alum, has denied the report.
It might come down to who Tennessee thinks it can get to replace Munchak, and if it's a big enough upgrade to justify canning someone who has been in the organization more than 30 years and is widely respected. But ultimately, Munchak's 21-25 career record, including 5-12 in the AFC South, has left him very vulnerable to dismissal. At least Munchak didn't lose twice to Jacksonville this season, with the Titans winning at the Jaguars last Sunday. Houston's Gary Kubiak saw his Texans beaten twice by Jacksonville, and lost his job the next day.
General manager Ruston Webster is not thought to be in danger of getting caught up in any top-level organizational changes, and would be seen as someone valuable to the lightly-experienced Smith in the event of Tennessee conducting a coaching search.
• Detroit -- Gone are the Lions' playoff chances, and alas, the consensus is that soon enough, so will be head coach Jim Schwartz. Detroit will never get a better chance to win the NFC North than it received this season, and the Lions still went down in a flaming heap of self-destruction, losing five out of six after a 6-3 start.
Detroit has talent and will be a pretty good situation for any new coach to inherit, but you'd assume the Lions will be looking for a no-nonsense coach who can instill a sense of order and discipline to a team beset by turnovers, penalties and blown fourth-quarter leads. They could do worse than booking an interview for Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer or Buffalo's Mike Pettine, or throwing a stupid number/salary offer at Penn State's Bill O'Brien.
You get a much more divided opinion when you ask around the league about Lions general manager Martin Mayhew. Many believe he'll survive any Black Monday purge, but others believe the Lions will blow up the whole operation and start over, after Schwartz missed the playoffs in four of his five seasons, with a 29-50 record heading into a Week 17 game at Minnesota. I think Mayhew remains in place, with Detroit always being known for its very patient ownership (see Millen, Matt).
• Dallas -- Jerry Jones repeatedly has said head coach Jason Garrett isn't coaching for his job as 2013 winds down, but nobody seems to be buying it. With or without Tony Romo in the lineup for this week's NFC East showdown against Philadelphia, it still looks like playoffs or bust for Garrett on the job front, with some NFL sources predicting that Dallas will never be able to fully recover from its epic Week 15 meltdown at home against Green Bay.
"Despite everything Jerry has said, they're going to end up making a change," one league source said. "Jerry just bounces everywhere on the spectrum, depending on how he feels waking up that morning."
A loss at home to Philly, in the Cowboys' third consecutive Week 17 winner-take-all NFC East title game, and Dallas would be the very definition of insanity if it brings Garrett back in 2014. Same team, same results, same ending. Every year.
Where would Dallas turn in the post-Garrett era? One source I talked to said Jones would be wise to start with trying to lure O'Brien from Penn State. Make no mistake, O'Brien has made it clear to those around him he wants back into the NFL and he's ready to leave the Nittany Lions right now.
"He'd be a perfect fit in Dallas, because he's a strong enough personality to tell Romo and Jones what the plan was going to be, and to stand up to the pressures of that situation,'' the league source said. "He's respected and he won in a very tough situation at Penn State. He's been an offensive coordinator in the NFL, a position coach, he's called plays, he's recruited. He's got the right pedigree.''
I could also see the Cowboys kicking the tires on Jon Gruden, but if they get a firm no on that front, the two Bengals coordinators -- Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, the ex-Cowboys defensive coordinator -- could emerge as top-tier candidates in Dallas.
• New York Jets -- Coaxing seven (or eight) wins out of this offensively-challenged Jets team probably should earn Rex Ryan some Coach of the Year buzz, but I get why most of the league sources I talked to had him in the "Definitely Gone" category. There are two main reasons: General manager John Idzik was hired in early 2013 with the same understanding every other new GM has, meaning he'd eventually get to choose his own head coach. That's the way the league works.
Secondly, Ryan has had five years now to fix New York's issues on offense, and he hasn't gotten it done. He remains a brilliant defensive coach, but he's seen as having no idea what to do on offense, and that means the Jets could be moving on from Ryan in favor of an offensive-minded coach who can help quarterback Geno Smith develop.
I can't see Idzik being interested in extending Ryan's contract beyond 2014, and expecting Rex to endure a lame-duck season in New York has disaster written all over it. But you never know what Woody Johnson might decide. He likes Ryan, and could throw us all a curveball early next week in deciding his coach's fate. For now, the silence coming from Idzik and Johnson is a bit deafening. I couldn't find many observers who gave Ryan a chance of returning, even if the Jets win at Miami this week to scratch their way back to .500. But it wouldn't be completely stunning to see him retained, with a short contract extension.
• Tampa Bay -- The sense around the league is that head coach Greg Schiano makes it to 2014 in Tampa Bay. It wasn't a unanimous opinion by any stretch, but the feeling is he's done just enough to fend off his detractors and keep his job. It helped Schiano considerably with the Glazer family, the team's owners, that rookie quarterback Mike Glennon has played pretty well -- like the coach told them he would -- and that ex-Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman did nothing in Minnesota, after signing there in October.
The Bucs aren't that far away from playoff contention. They have enough talent to win with on defense, but they need more speed on offense and ability to stretch the field vertically in the passing game. That Tampa Bay's players didn't quit on Schiano during the Freeman saga and continued to play hard for him also bodes well. Clearly 2014 shapes up as a must-win season for the Bucs, but it would now register as a surprise if Schiano was out of work at some point next week.
And the same goes for Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, who continues to be perceived as having a solid relationship with the Glazers, despite no playoff trips in his first five seasons heading up Tampa Bay's front office.
• Houston -- Everything is coming up No. 1 for the Texans. They were the first team (and only one thus far) to create a coaching vacancy when they fired Gary Kubiak after a Week 14 loss at Jacksonville. They're in line to earn the No. 1 pick in next spring's draft with one week remaining in the regular season. And they're seen as having the clear-cut plumb coaching job to offer this offseason, with a talented roster, an answer to their quarterback issues coming via the draft and a patient owner (Bob McNair) known for doing things the right way.
"Everyone wants that job," one league source told me. "Every coach out there wants to get in on that search.''
Ex-Bears head coach Lovie Smith has reportedly already interviewed for the job, and the Texas native has been considered a strong possibility for the position since the moment Kubiak exited. But don't award him the gig just yet. Penn State's O'Brien and San Diego's Whisenhunt could both offer Smith strong competition for the post, with one source telling me that O'Brien's toughness appeals to Houston, and another making the point that Texans general manager Rick Smith's familiarity with Whisenhunt is a plus for the ex-Cardinals head coach.
This will be McNair's hire to make, but Smith's job is safe and he'll have significant input in deciding on Kubiak's successor. Other candidates who might factor into Houston's search or warrant an interview are Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, the ex-Packers and Texas A&M coach, and current Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable, the former Raiders head coach who had done quality work with the Seahawks. In addition, current interim head coach Wade Phillips remains in the picture, although his winless record as the team's part-time head coach has weakened his bid.
• New York Giants -- The Giants will ask Tom Coughlin what he wants to do in 2014, and the choice will be his as to whether he wants to return to the team that so glaringly underachieved this season. Chances are great that he will come back, because no one who knows Coughlin thinks he has lost his fire or his desire to get things fixed in New York.
But the trickier part will be his contract status. Will New York ask Coughlin to coach in his lame-duck season as part of returning, putting off any decision on his long-term future until next year at this time? He'll be 68 next season, and locking him up past his 70th birthday is probably not New York's preference. The Giants don't have the luxury of being a rebuilding project and need to return to their winning ways next season, or change will be an inevitability at that point.
Either Coughlin decides to walk away after 10 mostly successful seasons in New York, or he comes back with no contract security past 2014, or 2015 at the most. Those seem to be the most plausible options. But two Super Bowl rings have bought him and general manager Jerry Reese that consideration, and rightfully so.
• Atlanta -- Even with this year's 4-11 disaster in Atlanta, Falcons coach Mike Smith is not in any jeopardy of losing his job. This year is viewed as the aberration, and does not obscure the five winning seasons, and four playoff trips, that preceded it, even by the relative standards of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL.
Maybe Falcons owner Arthur Blank wants to sit Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff down and dissect exactly what went wrong this year, and hear their plan for making sure a repeat doesn't occur in 2014. But Blank is not about to break up the most successful management tandem in franchise history, and Smith has more than enough capital in the bank to withstand his first losing season.
• Miami -- Dolphins second-year head coach Joe Philbin clearly maintained the trust and confidence of team owner Stephen Ross even throughout the depths of the team's Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito scandal. He's going nowhere, even if his Dolphins don't earn the franchise's first playoff trip since 2008 this coming weekend.
Whether or not general manager Jeff Ireland returns next season if the Dolphins miss the playoffs is a question that has different answers, depending on whom you talk to. A Miami Herald report earlier this month said Ireland has received assurances from Ross that his job is safe. But in talking with sources around the league, I heard everything from Ireland is done regardless of whether Miami makes the playoffs or not; he's safe; or he's hanging by a thread and it depends on the Dolphins' fate in Week 17. My sense is he's back next season, with Ross theorizing that Miami fought through plenty just to get itself into legitimate playoff contention in 2013.
At least two sources I spoke with who monitor the NFL general manager ranks closely told me they could see a scenario where no GM jobs open up this year, which would be a rarity. It also means several general managers would likely enter 2014 on the bubble and be facing a season on the hot seat.
"It has been really quiet out there this year in that regard," said one source. "Normally you're hearing a lot about the jobs that are about to come open, but not this year."