Rex Ryan (left) and Jason Garrett in 2011, when prospects were brighter for both men. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Change is an absolute in the NFL, and for teams in need of major change, the replacement of a head coach is often the first shot fired. While other coaches may be looking over their shoulders for various reasons in 2012, here are the gentlemen we think have the most to be worried about if their teams underperform in the new season.
Rex Ryan, New York Jets
There are times when the evaluation of Ryan's NFL future reads more like a psych paper than like anything to do with football, but that's what happens when you coach the Jets. There are those who believe that Ryan should have been fired right after his decision to play Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter of his team's 24-21 overtime win against the New York Giants last Saturday, or that his decision to play a guy due $8.5 million in guaranteed money behind a fourth-string offensive line will be used as justification when he eventually is canned. Sanchez's appearance and subsequent injury are most likely the result of an impatience within the entire organization to prove that previous moves are not as franchise-killing as they seem, but if the Jets' 2013 is the disaster most people assume it will be, it's tough to imagine Ryan as the team's head coach in 2014. And few would be surprised if he ends up gone before then.
However, let's dial back on the notion that Ryan could be canned in the preseason -- even owner Woody Johnson and new general manager John Idzik have to understand that replacing your head coach with such short notice is a damaging and needless move. No NFL head coach has been fired in the preseason since George Allen was sent packing by Los Angeles Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom in 1978. Allen was a brilliant coach with a propensity for rubbing some people the wrong way. As the LA Times recalled in 1991, Allen "chewed out players for failing to properly clap chalkboard erasers and could be distracted from a blocking drill by the sight of crumpled paper cups strewn across the practice field."
Ryan has no such clean-freak issues, but one could say that he needs a bit more organizational acumen. The Jets he inherited in 2009 reflected his personality perfectly -- a skilled defense made even better by his presence, a tough running game and a rookie quarterback in Sanchez who took the "Just don't screw it up, kid," ethos to its logical conclusion. Now, with Sanchez overvalued and the roster negatively affected by a number of questionable decisions -- not to mention an ownership situation that had several general managers bailing on the notion of replacing Mike Tannenbaum when he was fired in January -- Ryan is left to redefine the franchise with a paradigm he does not understand. In the end, he's a brilliant defensive coach who is out of his depth when taking on a higher calling, and there's nothing wrong with that. The NFL would be a better place if Rex Ryan were calling the shots as a defensive coordinator again, and I'd bet Rex would be happier, too.
Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones opened the team's 2013 training camp by insisting that Garrett is not coaching for his job in his third full season of doing just that. One is always on the hot seat to a point in JerryWorld, especially when Mr. Jones chooses head coaches more inclined to bend to the owner's will. After a number of strange late-game decisions in 2012, Garrett was stripped of his play-calling duties (to what degree is arguable), and now offensive coordinator Bill Callahan is calling the shots there.
Garrett has minimal say in personnel decisions; those are handled for the most part by Jones and his son, Stephen. How have those decisions played out? The Cowboys are 128 -128 since the end of the 1997 season, and Jones is the primary reason -- he has cycled through five coaches since then, and only one (Bill Parcells) has been allowed to shop for the groceries. There were heavy rumors of a serious disconnect between the Joneses and the team's scouting department when the Cowboys traded down and selected Wisconsin offensive lineman Travis Frederick in the first round, and that's not an indictment of Frederick -- just a realization that it appears to be more of the same for the Cowboys.
Were he a more compelling name, or if he had a history that popped off the page a bit more, Garrett might take the money and run, but he won't -- he'll stay through the 2013 season, hope for the best, and most likely start looking at moving agencies if the 'Boys repeat the 8-8 record they've posted in each of the last two years.
Dennis Allen, Oakland Raiders
Put simply, the Raiders had nowhere to go but up when they hired Allen as their head coach after the 2011 season. A series of horrendous player contracts had GM Reggie McKenzie bailing out from a salary cap perspective from Day 1, and the depleted talent on the field insured that Allen would be working uphill. From that perspective, Oakland's 4-12 record seemed to be a reasonable accomplishment. McKenzie has preached the gospel of rebuilding over time, and that involves the kind of reconstruction that will test the patience of most in a league where worst-to-first stories are fairly common. McKenzie has said all the right things about believing in Allen's vision, but there may come a point when it isn't his choice.
Jim Schwartz, Detroit Lions
Schwartz is a sabermetrics geek with a degree in economics from Georgetown, and when you talk to him, it's pretty clear that you're dealing with a very intelligent individual. This, of course, makes the way in which his team plays even more confusing. While Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew (who has a J.D. from Georgetown Law) have made some very smart personnel choices since Schwartz was hired in 2009, a lack of discipline on the field has caused the team to underperform in an overall sense. That has to do with more than the obvious late hits, and fringe players getting in Tom Brady's face during preseason games. Schwartz inherited an 0-16 team and turned it into a playoff squad in three seasons, but last year's 4-12 campaign speaks to a schism between talent and results that generally has people looking at the coach.
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
Rivera makes this list for one simple reason -- he was almost swept out the door after the 2012 season, when the Panthers finished 7-9 and more was expected. Ex-general manager Marty Hurney didn't even make it out of October before he was fired by owner Jerry Richardson, but Rivera got a reprieve. He's always been a defensive coach, and the Panthers' front seven looks very solid. But all eyes will be on quarterback Cam Newton in his third NFL season. Last year, Carolina got away from the run-first-to pass schemes that worked so well for Newton in his rookie campaign. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula may put Newton back on the good foot, but if that doesn't happen, it's easy to see new GM Dave Gettleman talking to Richardson about getting a head coach more attuned to what he wants.
Mike Munchak, Tennessee Titans
Munchak has been with the Titans/Houston Oilers organization since 1982, when the now Hall of Fame offensive lineman was taken eighth overall in that draft out of Penn State. He was on the offensive staff from 1994 through 2010, when he was given the nod to replace Jeff Fisher, who had been the league's longest-tenured head coach. Munchak will not be able to replicate Fisher's 16-season reign in that position if the Titans don't improve on last year's 6-10 mark. Owner Bud Adams is capricious at best -- Fisher's departure was tied in part to Adams' misguided insistence that Vince Young was his franchise quarterback -- and Munchak's fate is likely similarly tied to his ability to mine team-defining results from quarterback Jake Locker, who the Titans took in the first round of the 2011 draft. It would be a shame to see a guy get booted from a franchise he's been with since Van Halen was relevant, but when you're a head coach, things happen for all sorts of interesting reasons.
GALLERY: One and done NFL head coaches