With the 2015 regular season coming to an end, which coaches and GMs will get their walking papers? The Browns got things started a day early on Sunday by parting ways with Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer, but there are surely more to come.
Read on for updates, reactions and analysis as the firings of Black Monday roll in.
Buccaneers fire Lovie Smith
• Tale of tape: Smith lasted just two years in Tampa Bay, following up a dismal 2–14 season with a 6–10 mark in 2015. The Buccaneers were a surprise wild-card contender for much of the year, reaching 5–5 in late November and again in early December before fading with four straight losses.
• What went wrong: There always seems to be one firing that catches everyone off guard, and this certainly qualifies. A lot less went wrong in 2015 than in 2014, which is why this comes as such a surprise.
Smith seemed a much more likely candidate to get the boot following his first Bucs year, which produced just two wins and a handful of horrid losses—a 56–14 blowout in Atlanta; a 48–17 home loss to Baltimore. But Tampa Bay nabbed Jameis Winston with the No. 1 pick and made significant improvements this season, including in its record.
In fact, just Monday Smith said that the Buccaneers “should” make the postseason in 2016.
“We were 6–6. That was progress to get in position, and things looked pretty bright for us,” Smith said. “We weren't quite ready to take that next step then. But we’ll make the corrections, the moves that we have to make in order to finish the 2016 season.”
Much like was the case with Mike Pettine in Cleveland, the argument to remove Smith could have started on defense. That side of the ball was Smith’s expertise coming in, but Tampa Bay struggled to grasp his complex system last season and continued to go through the motions at times in Year 2. During the season-ending four-game skid, the Buccaneers surrendered 29.8 points per game, although the offense’s eight combined turnovers certainly contributed to the elevated number.
Speculation did immediately turn to the possibility that Tampa Bay removed Smith so it could promote offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who reportedly was being eyed at least by the Eagles for their head coaching vacancy.
Former Bucs GM and current ESPN analyst Mark Domenik tweeted the following immediately after news of Smith's firing broke: “With Lovie Smith fired I would expect Dirk Koetter to be named head coach within the week. They still will interview a few other candidates.”
Still, the move comes across as hasty for a team clearly in a rebuild. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David even expressed his frustration with the decision, also via Twitter: “This is stupid, we can't even have a consistent coach, 3 coaches in 5 yrs,” he wrote as part of an extended rant.
Also of note here: both Smith and Tennessee's Ken Whisenhunt failed to make it beyond the 2015 season, despite their respective teams taking high-profile QBs early in last year's draft. The general consensus headed into the pre-season, especially in Whisenhunt's case, was that a rookie franchise quarterback might help buy the coach some time.
Smith seemed to have survived where Whisenhunt did not. The Buccaneers changed all that in a heartbeat.
• Possible replacements: Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Koetter, Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia
• Ideal hire: Breaking the rules here, but the ideal scenario was to keep Smith. Let's be honest here: Lavonte David isn't wrong. Raheem Morris flopped and Greg Schiano was an abject failure for the Bucs. Smith appeared to have this thing back on track again after an extended struggle, so the switch away from him must mean either a) the front office has unrealistic expectations for this season, or b) the Buccaneers are hellbent on keeping Koetter in the fold.
The former would signal an egregious miscalculation. The latter puts a lot of faith in a 56-year-old longtime offensive coordinator, whose last head coaching experience came at Arizona State (2001-06). Should the Buccaneers do move Koetter up the ladder, it’s a calculated gamble. If it doesn't work out, they’ll have tossed Smith aside for nothing and likely will be back in a similar spot two or three years from now.
Tom Coughlin steps down as Giants’ coach
• Tale of the tape: Only Bill Belichick and Marvin Lewis have longer head coach tenures with their current teams than did Coughlin, who took the Giants’ job in 2004. He won nine games and qualified for the playoffs in 2005, en route to 102 career regular-season wins with New York. Coughlin also delivered two Super Bowls (2007 and ’11), but the Giants have missed the playoffs four straight years since that second title.
• What went wrong: Maybe Coughlin’s approach grew a little stale after a decade—an eternity in NFL coaching circles these days. Maybe embattled GM Jerry Reese set up Coughlin to fail over the past two years by allowing the Giants’ defense to evaporate into nothingness. A little from column A and a little from column B paints the most complete picture.
Off 7–9 and 6–10 marks in 2013 and ’14, respectively, Coughlin entered this year likely knowing he needed to bounce back in order to hold onto his job. He finished 6–10 again, with a 3–7 mark outside the NFC East.
“Obviously the past three years have not been what any of us expect, and as head coach, I accept the responsibility for those seasons,” Coughlin said in a statement Monday.
Coughlin, formerly the NFL’s oldest coach at age 69, seemed more ready than ever for his next chapter as this season progressed. He even had his entire family attend Sunday’s season finale vs. Philadelphia, a clear indication that—one way or another—his Giants days were finished.
This season certainly could have turned out in different fashion for the Giants, glaring roster flaws and all. Eight of their 10 losses came by a touchdown or less, including an OT setback against the Jets that all but ended the Giants’ playoff hopes. Close losses to Dallas and Atlanta at the season’s onset came with the help of some clock mismanagement, an issue that thrust Coughlin even more firmly onto the hot seat.
“He definitely has not failed,” Eli Manning said Monday, in an interview aired by the NFL Network. “I feel that we as players, we failed him by not playing to the level that we could.”
The defense faltered late in those defeats ... and at just about every key moment throughout the 2015 season. New York allowed 299 yards passing and 420 total yards per game, worst in the league in both categories. How much of that was on Coughlin? He deserved blame, of course, but most coaches would have been hard-pressed to generate much from the group Reese put together.
The Giants’ offense was more viewer friendly, thanks largely to the Manning-Odell Beckham Jr. connection. But Beckham’s 1,450-yard, 13-touchdown season will go down as little more than a footnote, clouded by his Week 16 suspension for an unruly performance against Josh Norman. Coughlin was criticized for not sitting Beckham during that game.
• Possible replacements: Teryl Austin, Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Brian Kelly, Ben McAdoo, Josh McDaniels, Sean Payton
• Ideal hire: McDaniels. Maybe “ideal” is the wrong word here, since there are unknowns about McDaniels that cannot be answered until he gets another shot. How has he matured as a coach since his failure in Denver? Can he succeed without Bill Belichick’s guiding hand? Regardless, he is almost certain to receive a second chance somewhere, and soon.
Spending time under Belichick will be seen as an overwhelming positive, for the most part. McDaniels also brings a proven offensive background, which should appeal to a 35-year-old Manning. (McDaniels is just 39 himself.) Heck, he might even consider keeping Ben McAdoo around as Manning’s offensive coordinator—that pairing has found great success together.
San Francisco 49ers fire Jim Tomsula
• Tale of tape: The 49ers posted a 5–11 record in Tomsula’s lone year as head coach.
• What went wrong: The writing was on the wall here from the beginning. CEO Jed York forced Jim Harbaugh out the door (it was called a “mutual” decision, but the truth was obvious), and with him went offensive coordinator Greg Roman (to Buffalo) and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (to Chicago)—the brain trust behind a franchise turnaround that led to three playoff berths and a Super Bowl appearance from 2011 to ’13.
The 49ers also saw an almost unprecedented number of key retirements last off-season: Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Justin Smith and Anthony Davis all stepped aside (though Davis has said he may return).
Rather than move forward by bringing in a proven coach, or even a rising assistant, York turned to Tomsula, the team’s D-line coach. His first press conference was a train wreck, and things never really improved from there.
Any improvements made by QB Colin Kaepernick under the Harbaugh regime quickly vanished, as well. Offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, in that role for the first time since a largely unsuccessful stint with San Diego (1999–2000), was in over his head all season. York said that it would be a priority to better utilize Kaepernick’s mobility, despite a commitment by the former staff to improve him as a pocket QB.
Kaepernick may have maxed out during the 2012 and '13 seasons anyway—he regressed last year, with Harbaugh and Roman around. But the Chryst/Tomsula combo put the finishing touches on it. Tomsula benched Kaepernick midway through the year, with the 49ers at 2–6.
“This was just a decision that I just felt like I wanted Colin to step back and breathe,” Tomsula said at the time. “Look at things through a different lens. Keep preparing, keep doing his thing, keep working, but just step back and take a look at things.”
Blaine Gabbert played well enough from there to potentially stay in the team’s plans for 2016. Still, Kaepernick’s implosion means San Francisco will head into the off-season sans a true starting QB.
Injuries added to the misery, especially at running back. Carlos Hyde, tabbed as Frank Gore’s replacement at running back, was on pace for more than 1,000 yards, but he played just seven games. Anquan Boldin, Antoine Bethea, Vernon Davis and other important veterans also missed time, further thinning the already depleted ranks.
The 49ers started 1–0 with an upset of Minnesota, then lost their next two (at Pittsburgh and Arizona) by a combined count of 90–25. Any little hope left for the season was gone by then.
The truth is, though, that Tomsula never stood a chance.
• Possible replacements: Vic Fangio, Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Josh McDaniels, Sean McDermott, Matt Patricia, Sean Payton.
• Ideal hire: David Shaw, Stanford. There is absolutely no guarantee that Shaw would be able to replicate Harbaugh’s success in making the Stanford-to-NFL jump. But he has done outstanding work since taking over as the Cardinal head coach—a 54–14 record, two Rose Bowl wins and three Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors.
He is the most NFL-ready of any college coach, by most accounts. His schemes and game planning certainly are there, as is his calm, consistent demeanor. While teams have kicked the tires on Shaw’s pro desires before, this could be the off-season that sees him make the leap. It feels almost inevitable that he will do so at some point. If the 49ers want to reestablish stability, this is the move.
Cleveland Browns fire Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer
• Tale of the tape: Pettine posted a 10–22 record over two seasons, including 3–13 this year; Farmer was promoted from assistant GM to GM prior to the start of that tenure.
• What went wrong: What went right? The Browns’ three wins this season came against the Titans, Ravens and 49ers, all of whom will hold top-10 draft picks. Arguably, the high point of the season was a 26–23 overtime loss to the then-undefeated Broncos.
There were issues all over the roster and on up through the front office, but Pettine’s inability to coax anything out of Cleveland’s defense led to his undoing as much as anything else. He spent five years as a defensive coordinator before arriving in Cleveland—four with the Jets and one in Buffalo.
“Mike brings exactly what we think we need for our organization,” owner Jimmy Haslam said when announcing Pettine’s hire. “He’s smart, he’s innovative, he’s demanding, he’s tough. He brings what we consider to be a blue-collar work ethic to the Cleveland Browns organization. I think he will be a perfect fit for our team and our fans.”
That dream never came to pass. Even after drafting defensive tackle Danny Shelton and signing a handful of high-profile free agents, like cornerback Tramon Williams, the Browns never were able to put it together defensively. They entered Week 17 ranked 29th in points allowed and dead last against the run.
And then there was the Johnny Manziel issue.
Pettine was handed the talented but enigmatic QB ahead of the 2014 season. Manziel then sat behind Brian Hoyer for much of the year, as the Browns raced out to a surprising 7–4 start. But they dropped their final five games before this year’s slump—that’s a 3–18 close to Pettine’s Cleveland career, if you’re keeping score.
Worse yet, Pettine never could get the Manziel issue under control. An injury to Josh McCown opened the door for Manziel to start, but injuries and off-field shenanigans clouded things. Even Sunday, after what turned out to be his final game as the Cleveland coach, Pettine had to answer questions regarding whether or not Manziel (out with a concussion) had spent Saturday evening in Las Vegas.
“I’m not going to be that defensive coach that says, ‘Listen, we’re going to win it on defense and we’re going to run, and we don’t need to have a great quarterback,” Pettine said at that same introductory press conference in January of 2014. “To win in this league you have to have a great quarterback and that’s something we’re going to put our full focus and attention on.”
The next regime will face the same tasks the Browns never solved under Pettine, be it because of coaching or front-office decisions. There is ample evidence the latter is to blame—uh, Dwayne Bowe, anyone?
The team as a whole regressed terribly from Thanksgiving of last year on through this Sunday, paving the way for yet another change.
• Possible replacements: Adam Gase, Chip Kelly, Teryl Austin, Doug Marrone, Hue Jackson.
Get ready to hear those names (plus a couple of others) a lot in the coming days, as they are among the most likely candidates for a number of jobs. How high are the Browns willing to shoot? They’re still paying Rob Chudzinski and Pettine, who were let go before their contracts expired.
Also, how many coaches are willing to come to Cleveland? The 2014 Browns seemed to be on the right track, but the questions up the ladder within the organization could make for a tough sell. Obviously, there is not a lot of job security here.
• Ideal hire: Gase. Again, this might be an answer for several teams. But if the Browns do have any hope of maxing out Manziel’s ability, Gase‘s talented offensive mind would come in handy. He has spent several years under John Fox and at 37 now is viewed as one of the coaching ranks’ rising stars. Gase nearly took the 49ers’ job last year.
It sort of goes against conventional wisdom to hire an offensive-minded coach when a team’s defense is a major issue, but getting the offense humming consistently would fix a lot of what ails Cleveland. Gase could round out the staff with a heavy defensive influence.
Coaches fired before Week 17
Eagles fire Chip Kelly (on Dec. 29)
• Tale of the tape: Kelly's Eagles made the playoffs in his first year as head coach, taking the NFC East title with a 10–6 record. They finished 10–6 in 2014 as well, before regressing this season. Philadelphia was 6–9 when Kelly was fired; the team won in Week 17 against the Giants under interim coach Pat Shurmur.
• What went wrong: Kelly wanted, and was given, almost complete control over the franchise's personnel decisions ahead of this season. The power grab negated any work Kelly had done as coach over the 2013 and ’14 campaigns.
Kelly's off-season spent tweaking the roster—adding QB Sam Bradford, RB DeMarco Murray, LB Kiko Alonso and others; subtracting RB LeSean McCoy—came up empty. Bradford actually played better than he'll be given credit for, but the offense never fully clicked and the defense was a mess. Only the NFC East's mediocrity kept Philadelphia in the mix despite a 4–7 start.
• Possible replacements: Teryl Austin, Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Doug Marrone, Sean McDermott, Sean Payton, Doug Pederson, Duce Staley, Shurmur
• Ideal hire: Austin. It will be interesting to see how the chips fall for McDermott, Austin and the Patriots' Matt Patricia, the three current defensive coordinators believed to be most likely to land promotions. McDermott has history with the Eagles—he coached with the franchise from 1999–2010, serving as defensive coordinator for two seasons (2009–10) before being fired.
Austin, though, went through this process last season and reportedly impressed teams in interviews. He comes highly respected, both from his time in Baltimore and now in Detroit. Let him fix the Eagles' defense and find someone to help him with the offense. He's due for a shot.
Titans fire Ken Whisenhunt (on Nov. 3)
• Tale of the tape: As the Tennessee coach, Whisenhunt had a record of 1–6 this season, and 3–20 overall, when he was let go following Week 8. Mike Mularkey went on to win two of nine games as the interim coach.
• What went wrong: Well, the record speaks for itself. Take out Tennessee's Week 1 wins the past two seasons and Whisenhunt was a ghastly 1–20. Even with a roster in need of significant rebuilding, that's a tough sell in this league. Marcus Mariota's arrival also could not save Whisenhunt, despite Whisenhunt's reputation as a bit of a QB guru.
The Titans simply were not competitive, on either side of the ball—a reality that revealed itself even more clearly when they could not gain traction in a downtrodden AFC South race. Mariota is the key to this franchise's future, and Titans ownership understandably wants to ensure it has the right guy running the show.
• Possible replacements: Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Chip Kelly, Doug Marrone, Mularkey, Jim Schwartz, Kyle Shanahan
• Ideal hire: Gase. General manager Ruston Webster has been fired, so the Titans are going to have to get moving here if they want in on Chicago's offensive coordinator before he finds a gig elsewhere. But Gase would fit the bill of a coach who would work for Mariota, which is a must right now. He also steps outside the retread bubble Tennessee visited when hiring Whisenhunt, who was making his second stop as a head coach.
Dolphins fire Joe Philbin (on Oct. 5)
• Tale of the tape: Philbin was let go after a 1–3 start culminated a listless loss to the Jets in London. He finished 24–28 during three-plus seasons with Miami, failing to make the playoffs in any of those years. As the interim coach, Dan Campbell posted a 5–7 mark with the team.
• What went wrong: The Dolphins' high-priced defense, starring off-season score Ndamukong Suh, was an undisciplined, erratic wreck to start the year. Not surprisingly, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle was handed his walking papers shortly after Philbin.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor got the boot a few weeks later. He was unable to maintain QB Ryan Tannehill's progress this season, plus consistently ignored RB (and soon-to-be free agent) Lamar Miller.
Miami did get to 3–3, winning its first two games with Campbell at the helm. But a 1–4 stretch followed, sounding the closing bell on any playoff hopes.
• Possible replacements: Campbell, Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Josh McDaniels, Sean Payton, Nick Saban, Mike Shanahan, Teryl Austin
• Ideal hire: Jackson. Money won't be an issue for owner Stephen Ross, so that's why names like Payton and Saban are on the list, regardless of their current interest levels. In Jackson, though, the Dolphins would get a coach who could bring out the best (whatever that may be) in Ryan Tannehill and the offense—that ought to be a focus during this search. Jackson also should be able to draw some lessons from his brief prior head coaching gig, with the Raiders in 2011 (he went 8-8).