With only Washington and Buffalo making moves on the coaching front, Black Monday in the NFL passed far quieter than anticipated, and certainly was less eventful than last year's day-after-the-season-ends blood-letting.
But the lack of activity may wind up representing a lull before the storm, because the elephant in the room when it comes to this year's NFL coaching carousel remains the future of Wade Phillips in Dallas. Even if the paperwork has been drawn up, there's a reason Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hasn't offered his head coach a contract extension, and it has everything to do with that 12-year playoff-win drought Dallas is still working on.
Everything might be all hiccups and giggles in the Metroplex at the moment, with the Cowboys (11-5) having won three in a row and secured their second NFC East title in three years under Phillips, but everything could change should Dallas lose Saturday night to the same Eagles team it just beat 24-0 on Sunday. Need we remind you that Phillips has never won a playoff game as a head coach (0-4), and Barry Switzer was still on the sideline when the Cowboys last won in the postseason (in 1996's first round)?
Phillips is one Eagles' upset away from accomplishing the feat of coaching three NFL teams to playoff losses in three different decades, and if he's shown the door in Dallas next week, it could set off a high-profile scramble for one of the most coveted coaching jobs in the league.
As much as Washington is now free to openly continue its hot pursuit of ex-Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, it's not hard to imagine Shanahan stringing out the hiring dance with the Redskins this week until he discovers what unfolds with their arch rivals, the Cowboys. At the very least, Shanahan might just spark a bidding war that pits the deep pockets of Daniel Snyder against the equally deep pockets of his BFF, Jerry Jones. There are no losers in that scenario if your last name is Shanahan.
And what of Bill Cowher? Reports started swirling Monday that the ex-Steelers head coach may not love any of the limited opportunities on this year's carousel, prompting him to remain in TV for another season and try to return to the game in 2011. Cowher's top two choices of Carolina and Tampa Bay appear to be standing pat. But a vacancy in Dallas could certainly prompt Cowher to throw his Stetson in the ring.
And don't discount Tennessee's Jeff Fisher as a potential player in the Cowboys coaching sweepstakes. As one league observer noted to me Monday morning, Fisher could still emerge as a surprise entry, finding a way to end his 16-year tenure to pursue openings in either Dallas or Chicago, should they occur. Fisher, who played in Chicago and coached in Houston, could very well view the Cowboys and Bears as upgrades over his current gig with the Titans, where he has come close to wearing out his welcome over the years.
So don't judge the pace of this year's coaching carousel too quickly. It won't match last year's record 11-man hiring frenzy, but there could be plenty more movement -- including some big-name maneuvering -- than what occurred on an almost sleepy Black Monday.
• Predicting Al Davis's next move is always risky, but indications point to the Raiders owner lowering the boom on head coach Tom Cable at some point in the coming 10 days. Davis reportedly will meet with Cable and his coaching staff next week for his year-end wrap-up, and one source I talked to proposed a scenario in which Davis might even try to entice Cable to stay as a coordinator, serving under a new head coach.
That way Davis would at least give some nod to the importance of continuity in Oakland, and acknowledge that Cable is popular with his players, who have lobbied for him to be retained. By drawing out his decision on Cable into next week, Davis, perhaps, can buy himself some time to find a head coach Cable would consider working for.
The problem with that scenario is obvious: Davis wants to bring in an offensive-minded coach who can focus almost exclusively on salvaging the struggling career of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, and clearly Cable is not a fan of Russell's work. That became clear-cut last week when Cable was asked if Oakland would have made the playoffs with just decent quarterbacking this season, and Cable responded: "You know we would have.''
Though the Raiders record didn't improve this season, staying at 5-11 for a second consecutive year, Davis is aware that Oakland became more competitive than at any other point in its franchise-worst seven-year streak of 11-plus loss seasons. Davis doesn't want to lose the respectability that Cable earned with wins over Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Denver this season. But he's hell bent on proving himself right for drafting Russell first overall in 2007, and his next head coach is going to inherit Russell as his starter. No questions asked.
Though Charlie Weis might be Davis's stretch candidate, Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride continues to be the name most likely to surface in Oakland if Cable is fired. There's little question Gilbride is eager for another head coaching opportunity after his short, failed stint in San Diego in the late '90s. Former Giants head coach Jim Fassel also has been a near perennial candidate in Oakland -- meaning every two years or so. (See Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell and Lane Kiffin).
• If this is one of those rare years when the incumbents on the bubble seem to get the jump-ball to go their way, retaining their head coaching jobs for another year, it may have something to do with how little positive impact the coaching class of 2009 wound up making.
Of this season's 11 new full-time head coaches, only two led their teams to the playoffs: The Colts' Jim Caldwell and the Jets' Rex Ryan. Taking nothing away from Caldwell's work, he inherited a playoff team, and he kept the train moving superbly in Indianapolis. Ryan's team in New York started fast, and ended strongly, but when you add it all up, the Jets were 9-7 for a second consecutive year.
Last season that finish wasn't good enough for an AFC playoff berth, and it got Eric Mangini fired. This year, Ryan looks like the hero for winning five out of his last six games and returning the Jets to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Of the 11 teams that had new head coaches this season, six improved, but all of those by just a game or two: The Colts went from 12-4 to 14-2; Kansas City, 2-14 to 4-12; Detroit, 0-16 to 2-14; Cleveland, 4-12 to 5-11; San Francisco, 7-9 to 8-8; and Seattle from 4-12 to 5-11.
Three teams saw no improvement: The Jets, although they made the playoffs; the Broncos, whose collapse to 8-8 matched last year's identically; and the Raiders, who turned in another 5-11 performance. Two teams got worse: St. Louis, which went from 2-14 to 1-15; and Tampa Bay, the biggest nose-diver, slid to 3-13 after going 9-7 last year.
In light of those dismal results, maybe keeping a John Fox in Carolina, a Gary Kubiak in Houston, a Mangini in Cleveland, a Lovie Smith in Chicago, or a Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay makes more sense than first appeared.
• Couldn't help but be amused by the Redskins on Monday, who felt the need to issue a statement from Snyder reminding us that new general manager Bruce Allen has "spent many hours examining the football operations'' in Washington. "Hours'' is about right. Allen only got to town three weeks ago. And let's be honest, how much evaluating of just fired Redskins head coach Jim Zorn did Allen really do? Zorn has been a dead man walking for at least two months now, ever since he lost his play-calling privileges at midseason, and Allen was hired primarily to further the team's pursuit of Shanahan, who he is expected to form a tandem with in Washington's remodeled front office.
Snyder's admission that "mistakes were made'' was also good for a laugh. It always sounds big to own up to blunders when you're in a position of leadership, but rather than an all-encompassing mea culpa, I'm guessing Redskins diehards would like more specifics of what Snyder has screwed up, starting with, oh, I don't know, the Charley Casserly firing in the summer of 1999?
• Quick hits: As I wrote in mid-November, Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger could emerge as a long-shot head coaching candidate, in reaction to the strong work he turned in this season helping resurrect Vince Young's career in Tennessee. If Buffalo is unsuccessful in landing any big-name head coach, Heimerdinger's offensive background and his experience working with quarterbacks might be tailor-made for Buffalo's greatest needs.... If Zorn gets back into NFL coaching right away, I'm sure he'll have a landing spot somewhere in Cleveland, where Mike Holmgren, his old boss in Seattle, is now running the show..... Holmgren keeping Mangini is starting to feel like a better than 50-50 bet to me. It buys Holmgren time and options. If he wants to try and land Gruden in 2011, you keep Mangini for a year and see what the landscape looks like next year at this time. If you want to return to coaching yourself at some point in the future, something Holmgren refuses to rule out, the same scenario applies.