Those seasonal winds of change are getting ready to blow on the coaching staffs and front offices of the NFL, but from all indications, there isn’t going to be quite as much activity in the league’s firing/hiring season as we first anticipated. Believe it or not, Black Monday -- the day of bloodletting after the close of the NFL’s regular season -- might not be quite so bleak this year, with several undecided team owners showing signs that they are starting to lean toward a sense of patience and continuity in regard to their staffing.
Fancy that. With seven or eight coaching changes made in the NFL in each of the past four seasons, this year’s coaching carousel has a chance to feature the least amount of turnover since only three teams changed coaches in 2010. Look around the league as we approach Week 17 and you’ll see several teams where coaching or general manager changes were once projected, but now look much more unlikely:
Miami owner Stephen Ross has come out in recent days and assured the continued employment of both coach Joe Philbin and general manager Dennis Hickey. Washington’s uptick in performance the past two weeks has removed whatever doubt there might have been regarding coach Jay Gruden’s status for next season. The Giants are finishing strong offensively, with three consecutive victories, and that has buoyed the chances that New York will not feel forced to move on from either coach Tom Coughlin or GM Jerry Reese.
The signs point toward stability in Jacksonville with coach Gus Bradley getting a third season in that massive rebuilding job, and Carolina miraculously being in position to defend its NFC South title this Sunday in Atlanta probably means coach Ron Rivera survives into a fourth season in Charlotte. In Buffalo, though there’s the unpredictability of new ownership with Terry and Kim Pegula, head coach Doug Marrone is thought to have secured his job for next year by getting the Bills to the eight-win mark, their best record in 10 years. And in St. Louis, while the record is again last-place material at 6-9, Jeff Fisher’s club has posted several impressive upsets from midseason on, and has the makings of one of the league’s best defenses. In short, no changes are expected in St. Louis.
Who does that leave on the firing line? Glad you asked. It appears to be shaping up as a year that will include four or five changes among the head coaching ranks, with perhaps a similar number of moves, or slightly less, made at the general manager level.
After speaking with league executives, personnel men, team sources and agents, here’s an around-the-league encapsulation of what we think we know about the changes that are about to unfold.
Going, going, gone
• San Francisco -- This just in: 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh will be coaching the final game of his interesting four-year tenure in San Francisco when the Cardinals visit Levi’s Stadium on Sunday afternoon. And my biggest question is: Can Harbaugh continue to rock his now-familiar black-and-khaki combination no matter whose sideline he lands on in 2015? I’d say at Michigan no, and Oakland yes, because the Raiders would be so happy to hire him they’d let him wear a pink tutu if he so desired.
A few things I’m hearing in regard to where San Francisco may turn in the search for its next coach: With all the time the 49ers have had to contemplate life after Harbaugh, the thinking is owner Jed York and GM Trent Baalke already know exactly who they want to hire. Their coaching search will be short and sweet and is likely to produce a hire who is seen as someone Baalke can work with seamlessly and fairly well control. After the drama of the Harbaugh era, the 49ers are not looking for another big ego or ultra-demanding personality on the sideline.
Two names that make a lot of sense: Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who I’m told the 49ers front office has already spent a lot of time studying, and Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Both have been very successful in the NFC West, and thus would theoretically help San Francisco while also hopefully weakening one of the two rivals that finished above the 49ers in the division this season. That’s a double whammy San Francisco might like to inflict on either the Seahawks or Cardinals. Bowles is probably the “hot coordinator’’ most likely to get a head coaching job this offseason, after the superb job he did scotch-taping the depleted Arizona defense together this year.
If the priority is to fix the issues that have surfaced with franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick's game this season, the offensive-minded candidates who figure to get the first and longest looks include highly respected Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Indianapolis offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.
If management wants an internal candidate, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has long been considered the in-house favorite, but it’d be somewhat curious if the team elevated him over its successful defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who is very well liked in the locker room. Tight ends coach Eric Mangini is also a potentially viable choice, but I don’t think the former Jets’ and Browns’ head coach would be a well-received selection.
One wild-card candidate who could surface if the 49ers surprise us and seek a bigger name with a Super Bowl résumé: former Packers and Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren, who has the itch to coach again and has let it be known he wants back on the sideline. Holmgren would certainly not fit the lower profile-type coach Baalke is said to be seeking, but the former 49ers’ offensive coordinator does have Bay Area credibility galore, and he’d help diffuse some of the heat coming from a fan base that still doesn’t understand how the franchise could run off the coach who took the team to three consecutive NFC title games in his first three years on the job.
• New York Jets -- Head coach Rex Ryan and embattled second-year general manager John Idzik were both almost assured of being fired after this season’s three-win disaster, but the news Monday that team owner Woody “Bullet Proof’’ Johnson is preparing to bring in former Houston and Washington general manager Charley Casserly as a hiring consultant seemingly guarantees a house-cleaning is on tap in Gotham. Idzik was hired two years under the agreement that he would retain Ryan as his head coach, and now he’ll never get the chance to handpick his own guy for that job. And that’s the way that story ends.
On the GM front first, that job was difficult to fill the last time it was vacant, after the firing of Mike Tannenbaum, and I don’t think the search will be any easier this time around for Johnson, who is not seen as someone candidates are eager to tie the future of their careers to. I expect the Jets to go hard after promising Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, especially since Casserly and DeCosta have history together dating to DeCosta’s days as a personnel intern in Washington. But DeCosta has been hesitant to leave Baltimore in the past, where he has been groomed as GM Ozzie Newsome’s eventual replacement, and I don’t see much changing on that front on behalf of the always chaotic Jets.
Former Bucs general manager turned ESPN analyst Mark Dominik could be in line for an interview in New York, but if there’s a coaching-GM tandem to keep on the radar screen it’s Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and Texans director of college scouting Mike Maccagnan. Kubiak, the former Houston head coach, was hired by Casserly as the Texans’ coach in 2006 and is known for his strong work with quarterbacks -- a skill that could come in handy for the Jets if they choose to continue the team’s Geno Smith era or start over at the game’s most pivotal position.
Two other candidates who likely will be on the Jets’ wish list include Seattle’s Quinn, who would continue the club’s bent toward head coaches with a defensive background (see Ryan, Herm Edwards, Al Groh, Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll, etc.), and New England’s McDaniels, a hire that would strike a blow against the Jets’ archrivals, those Beasts of the East to the North. I don’t think McDaniels would touch the job -- I know he wouldn’t get a thumbs-up from onetime would-be Jets head coach Bill Belichick -- but I suppose you never know. Once upon a time Eric Mangini made that trek from Foxboro to New Jersey, and look at how well that turned out. Never mind.
• Oakland -- Did you know on a clear day you can see Santa Clara from Oakland? Actually I have no idea if that’s true, but I’m guessing the Raiders hope Jim Harbaugh buys it, if only because it might help buttress their case to land the biggest fish in this year’s coaching market. Staying in the Bay Area and being in position to exact revenge on the 49ers might be the two best selling points Oakland has in wooing Harbaugh. I mean, other than the $8-million-plus per season compensation that he seems likely to require.
Most league sources I talked to believe it’s down to either Oakland or Michigan for Harbaugh, and while his preference is to stay in the NFL, the lure of Ann Arbor and being able to resurrect the struggling program at his alma mater might be too tempting an opportunity to say no to. If there’s a possession arrow at the moment, indications are it has begun to slightly point in the direction of the Wolverines. Remember, the Harbaugh family quotes Bo Schembechler on a near-daily basis, and considers the ex-Michigan coach in their own personal pantheon of heroes. To have Jim ascend to that throne would be close to a dream-come-true material.
Or as one source told me: “He can go there and be God, and never get fired. That’s a home he can live in and stay at. It’ll be like [Nick] Saban in Alabama. He’ll do whatever he wants there. I’d call that the logical place for him.’’
That said, Raiders owner Mark Davis has already swung and missed on Jon Gruden -- who said no thanks and signed a new extension with ESPN -- and he’ll throw his best sales job at Harbaugh in an effort to finally restore Oakland to the level of playoff contender. It just may work, if Harbaugh can’t overcome his hesitancy to go back to the college coaching ranks. With the promising Derek Carr at quarterback, a couple of productive drafts in a row, and some late-season progress made with three home wins, the Raiders have more to offer right now than they’ve had in quite some time.
If Harbaugh does say yes to the Raiders, it’s bad news for Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie, who will lose his job to the personnel man of Harbaugh’s choosing, perhaps ex-Browns GM Mike Lombardi or current Eagles personnel VP Tom Gamble. Both are believed to be on his short list for requested personnel chiefs if he stays in the NFL.
But where do the Raiders go if Harbaugh spurns them? It’s not out of the question that Davis will turn back to the tandem of interim head coach Tony Sparano and McKenzie in the short term, knowing Oakland still has no stadium answers and might be attempting a relocation to the Los Angeles market as soon as 2016. That option might make as much sense as any if Davis can’t land a game-changing headline name. Sparano did have the team improving down the stretch and has some vocal support from his locker room. He wouldn’t cost much to sign as the fulltime coach, and with the Raiders still paying off the fired Dennis Allen, money could be one of the deciding factors if Harbaugh isn’t coming.
If there’s a previous NFL head coach with a chance to surface in Oakland, Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio makes some sense. He has ties in the area, and the Broncos’ defense, at least before Monday night’s meltdown in Cincinnati, has played exceptionally well this season. Del Rio is an experienced and proven commodity who won 70 games in his almost nine-season tenure in Jacksonville, and that’s nothing to sneeze at in a place like Oakland. The Jaguars have won exactly 11 games since Del Rio was fired with five games remaining in 2011, so his work there is looking better and better all the time.
On very shaky ground
• Chicago -- The Bears have been a disaster on the field and a soap opera off it this season, and that’s a combination that can rarely be survived. It’s almost hard to keep track of who has thrown whom under the bus at this point. But while it looks likely that head coach Marc Trestman won’t see a third season in the Windy City, few sources believe his firing is a 100 percent eventuality. At least not yet. Bears GM Phil Emery is believed to be in big trouble himself, with Trestman’s hiring and that Jay Cutler mega-extension on his record, but he is said to still retain the confidence of Bears president Ted Phillips. If the usually patient Bears grant Emery another season, it’s not out of the question he might be loyal enough to impart the same last-chance leniency to his head coach.
The problem is, Bears fans are in an uproar and want sweeping change. If you let Emery stay and fire Trestman, you’re letting the GM who made the mistake on the coach hire the next coach. That’s not going to be easy to sell to the natives. It’s a combustible environment in Chicago, and the idea of keeping things completely status quo and expecting different results in 2015 seems ludicrous.
Jim Harbaugh, of course, was a first-round pick of the Bears in 1985 and played quarterback for Mike Ditka. He would check a ton of boxes for what ails Chicago, including leadership in the locker room, a potential quarterback guru for Cutler and a wildly popular hire to feed to the fans and the media. But nobody seems to think Harbaugh wants to head back to the Bears, so their attention is likely to be unrequited. If he’s going to live and work in a cold-weather state, chances are Harbaugh is bound for Michigan and cult-like status with the Wolverines.
If Trestman leaves and Harbaugh isn’t an option, you could make a case for soon-to-be-ex-Jets-head-coach Rex Ryan in Chicago. The Bears’ defense has become completely toothless the past two seasons, and Ryan’s father, Buddy, was the successful and iconic defensive coordinator of those beloved Super Bowl-winning ’85 Bears (just as he was with the ’68 Jets, come to think of it). Ryan would be a hit with the fans and has the bravado and bluster that Chicagoans love. After Emery chose Trestman over eventual Cardinals coach Bruce Arians two years ago, going with Ryan would be something of a make-up move for that blunder. But saddling Ryan with a team with quarterback issues would be all-too-familiar, and almost cruel. Would Ryan pick Chicago over an easy-money TV gig? The answer to that question is not known, and may not matter in the long run.
I could see Gase surfacing in a Chicago coaching search as well. He briefly worked with Cutler on McDaniels’ staff in early 2009, but that didn’t go too well. Still, having the Peyton Manning seal of approval will probably carry a lot of weight, given the Bears’ current quarterback predicament. And lastly, don’t forget about Mike Shanahan, the only coach seemingly to ever have a great relationship with Cutler, after drafting him for Denver out of Vanderbilt in 2006. Shanahan says he’s open to coaching again in the right situation, and who would be shocked if Chicago turned to him out of desperation with Cutler’s regression and high-salaried status?
• Atlanta -- The Falcons’ situation didn’t look complicated for much of this season, but now it’s a little tricky. With Atlanta capable of winning the NFC South at 7-9 if it beats the visiting 6-8-1 Panthers on Sunday, is Falcons head coach Mike Smith safe if he delivers a playoff berth, no matter if it makes his club the best team in the worst division in NFL history? Or will it take more than just another one-and-done playoff trip -- something the Falcons unfortunately know plenty about -- to bring Smith back in 2015?
And what of general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s fate? Most observers seem to think he’s close to owner Arthur Blank and will survive a second consecutive disappointing season in Atlanta, but there’s no consensus on that front and some still believe he’s vulnerable. There’s been plenty of talk this season that the Falcons front office is a tense, volatile place to work, with something less than complete teamwork being exhibited. Blank could be angry enough to clean house, especially since he feels the pressure of negative fan reaction with a new $1.4 billion stadium under construction and some early cost overruns to the tune of $400 million.
“There have been some fireworks there this year,’’ one league source said. “You’ve got people paddling in a lot of different directions in Atlanta.’’
Unless Atlanta stages a deep playoff run -- which seems wholly unlikely in a stacked NFC field -- the well-liked and successful Smith is probably going to be out of a job at some point soon. Dimitroff is a respected general manager and Blank probably isn’t ready to sever that relationship. I would put McDaniels and Gase near the top of the Atlanta coaching search and leave them there, especially if former Patriots top personnel man Scott Pioli continues as the Falcons assistant general manager. With quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones on the roster, the Falcons will own one of the most attractive openings on the coaching market.
What else we’re hearing as Black Monday looms ...
• New York Giants -- As the Giants continued what became a seven-game losing streak, Tom Coughlin’s job security looked worse by the minute. But now that New York has won three in a row to get to 6-9, and showed signs of offensive prowess with rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. emerging as a clear-cut star, Coughlin will likely be given another chance in 2015 to break the franchise’s three-year playoff drought. Probably. The caveat is that Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch will meet to discuss the state of the team a day or two after the season ends. Until that confab occurs, nothing is set in stone.
General manager Jerry Reese is thought to be safe as well, and with Eli Manning again playing like a franchise quarterback, chances are the Giants will keep things status quo and frame 2015 as a win-or-else type of season. The hope is that a second year under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, and an NFC East that is still devoid of a dominant team, will do the trick.
• Carolina -- As strange as the season has been in Carolina -- a 2-0 start, a 1-8-1 middle, and a 3-0 finish so far -- you can’t rule anything out in terms of potential fallout. But the reality is the Panthers had no business contending for a second straight NFC South title this year, but here they are. If they win at Atlanta, they’ll have a home playoff game in the postseason’s first round, and that will be an improbable enough victory for a team that has endured a series of setbacks, challenges and obstacles this year.
If the Panthers don’t go to the playoffs and finish a dismal 6-9-1, head coach Ron Rivera may have to sweat out a few days of limbo and a year-end-review meeting with owner Jerry Richardson, who may make him squirm a bit in dissecting what went wrong. But I think Rivera has done enough to warrant further employment, and getting his players to finish strong with three December victories after sinking to 3-8-1 speaks well for him.
• Buffalo -- Even with a disappointing loss at Oakland on Sunday, which might cost the Bills (8-7) a shot at their first winning season since 2004, head coach Doug Marrone has made progress this year and is not thought to be in danger of losing his job. But new ownership does tend to make changes upon assuming control, and Buffalo’s Terry Pegula had something of a reputation for shaking up the NHL Sabres’ front office fairly often.
Most sources I spoke with think Pegula will give Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley a full season of evaluation and learn more about the entire organization before contemplating any top-level moves. But there are those who believe Whaley could be vulnerable to be replaced this offseason, with the team’s overdrafting of quarterback EJ Manuel in 2013 and the steep cost of the first-round deal for receiver Sammy Watkins in a receiver-rich 2014 draft hurting Whaley’s cause dramatically. The Bills gave up their 2015 first-round pick to move up five spots and select Watkins, who has had a strong rookie season. But they could have stayed put and taken Odell Beckham Jr. or other standout rookie receivers, while retaining their No. 1 pick next season.
• Washington -- While Jay Gruden won’t fall victim to the one-and-done treatment that the likes of Marty Schottenheimer received in Washington in 2001, the bigger question in D.C. is if the team will consider conducting a search for a top-level personnel executive to bring into the fold to work with team president/general manager Bruce Allen.
Some believe that move would give Gruden the best possible chance to succeed, adding a talented personnel evaluator to the mix, helping upgrade Washington’s front office and adding another strong voice in the room.