The arithmetic is unrelenting. Since 1989, NFL teams have hired on average 6.5 new head coaches a year, and there have been a staggering 82 coaching changes made in the league from 2000-on. Only one team, the Philadelphia Eagles, has completely sat out the frenzy in that department, having brought a young and promising Andy Reid to town in 1999.
This season, including elevated interim head coaches in Dallas and Minnesota, there were eight new coaches in the NFL, and that number is likely to be matched or nearly so once again in 2012. That's roughly half the league's 32 teams swapping out the man in the headset in the span of 12 to 13 months. Already in the past month, three teams have dismissed head coaches -- Jacksonville, Miami and Kansas City -- and are preparing to hire replacements.
Is it any wonder that Black Monday in the NFL -- the day after the regular season concludes -- has become something of a national death watch? With the clocking ticking toward the start of firing/hiring season, here's a team-by-team breakdown of what we think we know, with a look at the names and resumes of some potential coaching candidates:
The Rams' top choice on the coaching front is an obvious one, but probably not the one you're thinking of. You can discount the Jon Gruden chatter. That doesn't pass the sniff test. The ex-Bucs head coach is making it known that he'll stay at ESPN for another year, and even a ridiculous offer from a team desperate to make a headline splash with its hire (Miami, we're looking in your direction) isn't expected to be enough to coax him back to the sideline. Besides, competing against the likes of Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan twice a year in the AFC East, without a clear-cut answer at quarterback, isn't thought to be Gruden's idea of a party.
That's why all signs point to the Rams targeting ex-Titans head coach Jeff Fisher first and foremost. For starters, Fisher, the onetime L.A. Rams defensive coordinator and USC defensive back, has been represented for years by veteran agent Marvin Demoff, the father of Rams football operations chief, Kevin Demoff. There's a comfort zone between the younger Demoff and Fisher, and Demoff is the guy Kroenke relies on most for the day-to-day contact to the club. His say will carry considerable weight.
With Gruden and Bill Cowher both showing every indication of staying in the TV analyst role again in 2012, Fisher and his .538 career winning percentage (147-126) and 17 years of head coaching experience is actually the big fish in this year's pond. Fisher is smart, has plenty of money in the bank, and knows that in today's NFL coaching, you have to have a quality quarterback or you're just marking time until you're fired.
Fisher looks at the Rams and sees a team with Sam Bradford at quarterback, plenty of cap room in the coming two years (as much as an estimated $40 million) and either the first or second overall pick in the 2012, which could be shopped to a QB-desperate team and used as fodder to replenish other needier areas of the roster. He also likely finds Kroenke's reputation as a patient, non-meddling owner who gives his team sufficient resources fairly attractive as well. So what's not to like?
Both the Chargers and Dolphins are expected to come after Fisher as well, but St. Louis shouldn't worry about losing him to Miami (see earlier reference to QB issues, AFC East, etc...) The Chargers could be a different story. Life in SoCal could be very attractive to Fisher, and so could Philip Rivers at quarterback, with a relatively hands-off owner in Dean Spanos. The wild-card factor could be whether or not the Chargers retain general manager A.J. Smith and how he and Fisher fit together. Sources in St. Louis seem to think Smith likely survives in San Diego, and that might make the Rams Fisher's more likely destination, with Devaney perhaps remaining in his post in that scenario.
And it might be working, because while no one seems to know for sure who the Chargers will wind up with as head coach (although Fisher is sure to be high on their list), more than one club's top front office executive on Wednesday told me they're starting to think Smith might hang on in San Diego and live to fight (literally) another day.
Pioli will then have made his own locker room very happy with the retention of the popular Crennel, who he likes and greatly respects, but also will have put in a place a succession plan with the arrival of McDaniels, who could use another couple seasons to let the radioactivity from his failed Denver head coaching tenure die down. Crennel is 64, and gives Pioli a trusted short-term coaching option. McDaniels is 35, and gives Pioli a trusted long-term coaching option.
Both men are known quantities by Pioli, who will absolutely gravitate to the familiar in this hire, knowing he has to get it right in order to protect his own job security in light of the failed Todd Haley experiment in his first hiring decision. In McDaniels, there's the added bonus of having him work once again with Chiefs starting quarterback Matt Cassel, who he developed in New England. If McDaniels can get Cassel's game cleaned up, then the Chiefs aren't in the market for another starting quarterback option, other than maybe retaining Kyle Orton as Plan B. And McDaniels even worked with Orton in Denver and started 6-0 in 2009 with him under center.
With Crennel's great work with the K.C. defense, McDaniels overseeing the Chiefs offense, and Pioli having both stability and potential on hand, he'd be positioned about as well as he could have dreamed of being in the team's post-Haley era. As I said, this probably makes so much sense it can't possibly happen. But I'm willing to be wrong about my lack of faith. At least until Kansas City hires Kirk Ferentz away from the University of Iowa.
Like Pioli in Kansas City, Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik knows this is a critical hire for him, even though he was paired with Morris and jointly elevated in early 2009 by the Glazer family, without having any real authority until the move was made. His scope will be very broad in terms of his coaching search, with a few parameters: I believe the Bucs have to look for an offensive-minded coach, given the crucial stage of development/regression that franchise quarterback Josh Freeman is in after his disappointing 2011 season.
Secondly, while I don't think Tampa Bay will go after any headline names, I don't think they'll be looking for an inexpensive option or a novice in terms of head coaching, unless a coordinator-level candidate blows them away in the interview process and has success written all over him. With Jon Gruden's contract finally off the books, the Bucs can spend quite a bit more on their next head coach than they did on Morris. And if at all possible, prior head coaching experience, and a proven and successful plan for how to approach everything from practice schedules to play-calling will be prioritized.
Here are a few names that fit the bill as I read the Bucs' situation: Ex-Packers head coach Mike Sherman, who recently was let go by Texas A&M after five seasons as head coach, but went 59-43 (.578) in Green Bay from 2000-2006, winning three division titles and going to the playoffs four times in six seasons. Sherman will get interviews for NFL coaching jobs this year, count on it. And in retrospect, especially in this year's field of candidates, his track record and reputation for developing quarterbacks looks pretty darn impressive.
Another possibility in Tampa Bay is Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who not only knows the NFC South well, but who started his NFL coaching career in Tampa Bay on Sam Wyche's staff in the early '90s. Mularkey spent two years as Buffalo's head coach in 2004-05, went 14-18 with a 9-7 season in 2004 (the Bills' only winning record since 1999), and resigned that gig, without being fired. He has not hurt his resume any by working in Atlanta with quarterback Matt Ryan.
On the coordinator front, if the Bucs go that route, two names will surface: Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and Bengals first-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. I'm convinced Gruden, brother of Jon, will get some nibbles/interviews this season after he banged the table for the drafting of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati last April, then watched the ex-TCU passer make him look brilliant as a rookie. But in reality, I don't think the Glazer family and the Gruden family exchange holiday cards, so that particular reunion isn't going to happen.
As for Schottenheimer, he might be getting pillaged about now in the New York media, but there are those in the league who believe he'll be a successful head coach some day soon, and see him as having made the most of the limited talents and game of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez about as well as anyone possibly could have these past three years. Consider him a viable outside candidate to watch in Tampa Bay.
That likely puts the Dolphins hot on the trail of Fisher, who at least has some of the cache that owner Stephen Ross is seeking and might help generate a little buzz and ticket sales among Miami's dispirited and flagging fan base. On top of that, Fisher looks really cool in shades, which of course flies in SoFlo, even if he doesn't have to wear them all the time, a'la the departed Tony Sparano.
All kidding aside, I don't think Fisher really covets the Miami job, for the reasons I earlier referenced (quarterback issues, not a great draft slot to get a starter, and a tough division), not to mention the somewhat confusing role of ex-Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson in the Dolphins front office. What exactly will be King Carl's job description, if any, and how will the lines of authority be drawn between him, Ross and Ireland? Somebody's got some 'splainin' to do.
Boil it all down and the Dolphins might be putting all their coaching search eggs in a basket that's almost certain to get crushed once again. Unless a Super Bowl-winning coach like Brian Billick enters the equation as a Plan B option, the Dolphins might have to abandon their quest for a headline name and get real, meaing get into the second-tier market. I could foresee a scenario where Ireland lets Ross kick the tires on the big names, but then reminds him of last year's chasing-Jim-Harbaugh fiasco and guides the focus back on someone who actually wants to be Miami's head coach.
Schottenheimer's experience in the AFC East seems to make some sense for Miami, and I could see a scenario where Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan could make the Dolphins' radar screen as well. (Take that, Jets. The Ryan brothers in the same division. Wouldn't that be something?) Sherman is another possibility, given that he'd likely be willing to work under the confines of Miami's front office structure, and could help the team's endless quarterback search, which began the second Dan Marino retired.
I'm told by sources that Khan is quite aware of how much he doesn't know regarding the way the NFL works, and is going to lean almost entirely on general manager Gene Smith and former Jags owner Wayne Weaver for guidance and counsel. That means it's Smith's call to make, and he's known for his off-the-radar approach to making decisions (see the NFL draft).
Smith will do his due diligence, trying to find the next John Harbaugh, Mike Smith or Chuck Noll type -- meaning the little-known assistant who was an excellent head coach selection in waiting. One candidate he would be wise to keep in mind is Packers quarterback coach Tom Clements, a longtime NFL assistant who has done strong work on Mike McCarthy's staff in Green Bay since 2006. If Clements gets a job with a team in need of a quarterback, look for Packers backup Matt Flynn, a potential free agent in 2012, to perhaps follow him and serve as a potential starting option.
Another name I believe will surface in Jacksonville's search is that of ex-Raiders head coach Tom Cable, who did superb work this year in resurrecting the Seattle running game as the Seahawks first-year assistant head coach/offensive line coach. Cable's 8-8 in Oakland last year looks better all the time (he at least didn't mortgage the franchise's future in the draft) and his running game credentials would fit very nicely with a Jacksonville offense that is rightly built around its one true star, running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
Cable knows MJD and Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis from their days together at UCLA, where he was on staff at the time, and getting Lewis' game back to its pre-contract extension 2010 levels is one of the primary concerns in 2012. In addition, Cable may be able to bring Dolphins quarterbacks coach Karl Dorrell with him to Jacksonville to work on Gabbert's game. Dorrell did exemplary work with Matt Moore in Miami this season, helping the ex-Panthers starter revive his career. Dorrell was head coach at UCLA, and Cable served under him there. Both Jones-Drew and Lewis would likely applaud those moves.
Given the quarterback situation the Colts face next season, maybe Andrew Luck, maybe Peyton Manning, maybe both, I would be shocked senseless if Indy didn't opt for an offensive-minded head coach. The Colts also won't go for an outside-the-box candidate like Rob Ryan, because image is very important within the franchise and the Indianapolis market, and the Polians would sooner divulge detailed injury reports than turn into daredevils on the hiring front.
I could see a proven and solid commodity like Mike Sherman making a lot of sense in Indy. Maybe a Jay Gruden, a Mike Mularkey, or even a Brian Schottenheimer. But whoever it is, he'll have a passing game pedigree and hopefully be able to pick up the pieces of a disastrous 2011 in Colts-dom.
That said, I talked to one league source this week who maintains he won't be surprised if Coughlin walks away after this season, playoff trip or no playoff trip. Coughlin is 65, and the thought is that he has tired of coaching every year on the hot seat, with one-year extensions being given by the Giants to keep him out of a lame-duck situation. The source said he thinks Coughlin has had enough of that arrangement and will leave on his own terms after this season. I'm not convinced, however. I think Coughlin still loves coaching, wouldn't know what to do with himself without it, and might have to be dragged kicking and screaming from his corner office. My dollar says he's back in blue in 2012.
As for Dallas, Jason Garrett isn't going anywhere, no matter what happens against the Giants Sunday. Owner Jerry Jones is invested in his young head coach, and he's not about to pull the rip cord on him, thereby making his hiring look like a hasty mistake.
Then there's Washington. All indications point to Mike Shanahan returning for a third season, and I'm hearing no rumblings to convince me otherwise. Still, there's almost always one surprise coaching departure at some point every January (Jeff Fisher last year, Jon Gruden in 2009) and my instincts tell me not to put Shanahan in the 100 percent safe category just yet.
What if the Redskins get blown out in ugly fashion in Week 17 at Philadelphia, falling to 5-11, which is even worse than Shanny's 6-10 debut last year in D.C.? After this year's hopeful 3-1 start, that would really have to sting for owner Daniel Snyder. There's still no certainty the Redskins are in the position to draft a franchise quarterback in the first round next April, and what if Sndyer might ask the head coach to address any perceived shortcomings of his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan?
All I'm saying is at least keep an eye on Washington for the surprise factor. An 11-21 record in two seasons, combined with the quarterback issues and the Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth fiascos of 2010, shouldn't make the Shanahans too comfortable as we wind our way through the early days of firing season.
Here's what has jumped out at people in and outside of the league this year in terms of the available coaching talent pool: There's no there, there. It's a thin crop at the top, and there's certainly not the pipeline of hot coordinator talent lined up, ready to buy a suit and conduct the introductory press conference.
I heard plenty of reasons for that development this week. For one, a lot of head coaches who have talented offenses call their own plays these days, or at least get most of the credit for their team's success on that side of the ball. Thus the coordinator doesn't get a lot of the attention he otherwise would, and his name isn't thought of when jobs open. Such is the case with Sean Payton in New Orleans, Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, and Jim Harbaugh in San Franscisco.
Secondly, there's just not enough supply to keep up with the demand for new bodies in the NFL coaching ranks. The casualty lists have been too high for too long, and the turnover rates have resulted in this year being considered a down year for candidates.
"I've never seen such a dearth of candidates,'' a long-time league observer told me. "There have been so many firings for so long now that the body bags have started to stack up. It's getting harder to find quality candidates.''
The smartest teams on the hunt this year would be wise to not be too worried about the impact quality of the name they hire. Mike Smith's arrival drew shrugs in Atlanta in early 2008, as did John Harbaugh's in Baltimore that same month. Look wherever it takes, but the teams that find those kind of candidates are going to end up looking good for it.