Just three weeks remain in the NFL regular season, which means that the dreaded “Black Monday” is approaching—the first day after the end of Week 17, when a handful of head coaches lose their jobs every year.
The wheels already are spinning for several franchises that will miss the playoffs (and possibly one or two that make it). Any coach whose team falls short is presumed to be on the chopping block. Just ask Falcons coach Dan Quinn, whose owner had to come to his defense following a 38–0 loss Sunday.
“I've got complete confidence in Dan,” Arthur Blank told ESPN.com. “He’s going to be a great head coach for us for many years.”
It would not be the first time a quote went awry if Blank changed his mind in the near future, but Quinn does appear among the safer hot seat targets right now. What about everyone else?
With the season winding down and the playoffs rapidly approaching, here’s how I see the coaching carousel spinning:
Time to move on
Mike Mularkey, Tennessee Titans (interim)
Any chance Mularkey had at keeping the Tennessee job into 2016 may have vanished Sunday, as the Titans were thoroughly uncompetitive on both sides of the ball in a blowout loss to the Jets. A strong close this season would have made Mularkey’s case for him, but the best he can hope for now is 5–4 as Ken Whisenhunt’s replacement— and that would require three straight upsets of New England, Houston and Indianapolis. The more likely scenario is that Mularkey winds up 2–7 this season, with the Titans at 3–13 overall.
Mularkey has had two previous shots as a head coach, going 14–18 for the Bills (2004–05) and 2–14 for the Jaguars (’12). Marcus Mariota continues to show signs of being a special QB, so the Titans’ main goal this off-season should be finding a head coach with a scheme and philosophy to match.
Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions
Gone are any positive vibes built up last season, when the Lions finished 11–5 and nearly pulled off a win at Dallas in the playoffs. Caldwell already fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and multiple assistants this year, then owner Martha Ford canned GM Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand. New president Rod Wood told WJR, “I’m not a football guy,” so the decision on Detroit’s head coach will fall with Ford and the as-yet-unknown GM.
Is it possible that Caldwell could stick around? Sure. Ford seems to like his demeanor, for whatever that’s worth. Jim Bob Cooter has been an upgrade at offensive coordinator, too, and Teryl Austin is still a talented defensive coordinator.
But the red marks on Caldwell’s résumé are glaring ... and growing. Most damning of all—even more so than the 1–7 start—was his curious decision-making leading to Green Bay’s Hail Mary victory in Week 13. The Lions have regressed almost across the board in 2015.
Jim Tomsula, San Francisco 49ers
Tomsula found himself in an impossible situation, and the results have been about what was expected—the 47-year-old former defensive line coach often appears to be in over his head, almost to the point of being uncomfortable in his current role.
The 49ers botched everything about their coaching search last off-season, starting with owner Jed York forcing Jim Harbaugh out the door. The franchise had a shot to land Adam Gase as head coach, reportedly with Vic Fangio as his defensive coordinator. That fell through, and San Francisco instead settled on Tomsula, whose overmatched squad has limped to a 4–9 mark thus far.
Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams
Fisher helped oversee the Houston Oilers’ transition to Tennessee back between the 1996 and ’97 seasons, so with the Rams eyeing a move to Los Angeles, his experience could come in handy. Outside of that background, though, there is little reason for owner Stan Kroenke to retain Fisher’s services.
True, Fisher’s team has been held back again by the lack of a true No. 1 quarterback—Nick Foles certainly did not fit the bill, and GM Les Snead deserves any criticism fired his way for the $24 million contract extension he handed Foles after trading for him.
This is year four of Fisher’s Rams regime, though, and he is one loss away from clinching a fourth consecutive sub-.500 finish. The Rams have been inconsistent at best and downright putrid at worst with Fisher at the helm, dragged down by an unimaginative offense. The results have improved since Fisher replaced Steve Spagnuolo, but hardly as much as St. Louis hoped.
Mike Pettine, Cleveland Browns
One of the main reasons Cleveland has struggled so mightily since being reborn as a franchise in 1999 is that it has not maintained any stability. And while it’s true that canning Pettine would exacerbate that issue, the writing is very much on the wall.
Pettine admitted as recently as last week that there are fractures within the organization: “We have to be brutally honest with ourselves and brutally honest not just looking in the mirror but to other parts of the building as well because if you're going to be successful, your building has to be unified ...
“It's hard to be [unified] at this point. ... I can’t sit here and say, ‘Absolutely, we’re all on board, 100%.’”
In his second season as the Browns’ head coach, Pettine dug his feet in on the quarterback issue, refusing to budge from Josh McCown until forced. Perhaps worse yet, Pettine’s reputation as a defensive guru has paid no dividends for a team with the league’s 30th-ranked scoring defense.
Mike McCoy, San Diego Chargers
This is another call that would fly in the face of patience, but the Chargers have unraveled this season. Another rash of injuries obviously have hurt, yet McCoy has done little to show he can guide this team through adversity.
From the San Diego Union-Tribune's Kevin Acee, just prior to Thanksgiving: “McCoy can’t be the coach of the Chargers for more than three days in 2016. When the season ends in Denver on Jan. 3, he should be allowed to make the return flight and then be relieved of his duties.”
Like the Rams, the Chargers are facing the prospect of imminent relocation. Either way, McCoy’s presence would not generate any excitement headed into 2016. The Chargers have been by far the AFC West’s worst team this year, two seasons removed from McCoy’s debut and a wild-card spot.
Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts
At least one of Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson figures to lose his job in the coming weeks. Both could be shown the door should the Colts, preseason Super Bowl contenders in many eyes, fail to win the horrendous AFC South. (The division race could be more or less decided by next Sunday's Houston-Indianapolis showdown.)
Pagano is an extremely well-respected coach, who delivered three consecutive 11-win seasons (with Bruce Arians’s help in 2012) after landing the Indianapolis job. But the Colts could not get over the top during any of those years, and they are much further away now, with or without Andrew Luck in the lineup. Grigson's most high-profile moves of late—drafting Phillip Dorsett, signing Frank Gore and Andre Johnson—have not paid off yet.
His reported off-field clashes with Pagano mostly sealed a coming change of direction for the Colts. Pagano's future may boil down to Weeks 15 through 17 and, should he succeed there, the opening round of the playoffs.
Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
The conversation about Coughlin’s job has been going on for at least parts of the past three seasons. Coughlin and the Giants won the Super Bowl back in 2011, but have missed the playoffs each year since; they finished 7–9 in '13 and 6-10 in ’14.
The Giants are 5–7 now, still within striking distance in the NFC East despite being below average on most fronts. As usual, there is blame to go around here, which means GM Jerry Reese also could have to answer for New York’s shortcomings. Outside of Odell Beckham Jr. and Eli Manning, this is a nondescript roster.
As is the case with Pagano, however, Coughlin's window is slightly ajar. Should the Giants bypass the Eagles and Redskins to claim the NFC East, it would be much tougher to hand Coughlin his walking papers.
Dan Campbell, Miami Dolphins (interim)
In truth, the Dolphins probably should spend this off-season searching for a coaching upgrade—someone with more experience than Campbell, who just retired as a player in 2009 and had never ranked higher than a TE coach prior to being named interim.
Campbell has done a decent job stating his case, though. The Dolphins instantly responded to his promotion (as seems to happen often with an in-season firing) by winning two games in impressive fashion. They have not carried over all that momentum, but they are 4–5 with Campbell at the helm after Monday’s loss at home to the Giants.
Two or three more wins could put Campbell in position similar to Jason Garrett's back in 2010. Garrett stepped in as the Cowboys' interim that season and produced a 5–3 close, then was given the permanent job.
Give 'em more time
Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans
Let's not pretend this has gone exactly according to plan. It has not. The main detriment to Houston’s success has been shoddy QB play, which O’Brien was supposed to take care of after his hire last off-season.
He and general manager Rick Smith figure to get another shot at it once the 2015 campaign concludes, be it via the draft, free agency or a trade. For now, the Texans will try to nab the AFC South crown with Brian Hoyer (or T.J. Yates, if a concussed Hoyer cannot play) holding down the fort.
True, Houston might be in better shape had O’Brien not backpedaled so quickly on his decision to start Hoyer over Ryan Mallett. The latter went just 1–3 in starts this season, before Hoyer reclaimed the job for good. But the Texans are a long way from their 2–14 finish in 2013, an outcome that led to O’Brien’s hire. There has been enough good to continue the relationship.
John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
Does Harbaugh want to leave? No? Then there is no need to even make this a topic. The Ravens have been gutted by injuries and, prior to a blowout Week 14 setback vs. Seattle, had dropped eight games by an average of 4.25 points. Just chalk this up as an unfortunate season and move on. Harbaugh and GM Ozzie Newsome have proven time and again they can get it done.
Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles
This arguably should have been the stance even before Philadelphia knocked off New England and Buffalo in back-to-back weeks. Should the Eagles finish the job by winning the NFC East, Kelly’s spot should be secure, presuming he wants to be back in 2016.
That is the wild card in all this: Kelly’s desires. He wanted more personnel control with Philadelphia, so the Eagles gave it to him and he proceeded to restructure the roster in feverish fashion. How would he react if the higher-ups asked him to take a slight step back there? Or if another team, college or pro, came calling with a juicy offer?
For all the hand-wringing over Kelly’s Eagles career (some of it deserved), he is 26–19 overall, with one playoff berth and a shot at a second. The type of roster movement he created often does not settle in just one year. He needs time, if he wants to take it.
Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins
It's been a little clunky at times, as things often are with this franchise, but Gruden has a team that was 3–13 the year before his arrival within striking distance of the NFC East title. This is no all-time great roster either, from QB Kirk Cousins on down.
Replacing Gruden would be well within the Daniel Snyder playbook, especially if Washington drops two or three of its remaining games to fade in the division race. It would be a smarter play at this point to see how Year Three of the Gruden era turns out in 2016.
Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons
One year is not enough on which to judge an NFL head coach, barring some massive screw-up along the way. (Two years also usually is not enough, so keep that in mind with regards to Pettine above.)
The Falcons have done a terrible 180 since winning their first five and starting 6–1. There even have been rumors of the team “quitting” on Quinn, leading to the aforementioned comment from Arthur Blank supporting his head coach. The results make it obvious why the topic came up: Atlanta is coming undone at the seams, the demise paced by none other than QB Matt Ryan. Sunday’s humiliating loss to Carolina was particularly bad.
The reality, though, is that this was—and is—a flawed product, hence the 4–12 and 6–10 records the past two seasons. The surprising early win streak made a quick turnaround seem feasible, but this team’s talent probably falls somewhere between that unbeaten run and what’s gone on the past few weeks. Or, right about .500, which is close to where Atlanta should finish.