With the 2015 season starting in just a few days, let's take a look around the league and examine which head coaches may not be back in that position next year. No, the season hasn't started yet, but it's really never too early to put the watch out for something that happens to about one-fourth of the coaching fraternity during and after every season.
Last season, Mike Smith, Doug Marrone, John Fox, Rex Ryan, Marc Trestman, Tony Sparano and Jim Harbaugh lost their jobs as NFL head coaches, thanks to less-than-ideal results. Who's up next in 2015?
Here are seven coaches who should probably think about leasing instead of owning in the near future.
Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins
It's all on Gruden now—the not-so-carefully engineered move to shove Robert Griffin III out of the equation and push Kirk Cousins to the forefront is now complete. Though Griffin helped the process along with his spotty play and alleged inability to understand Gruden's program, going all in with a quarterback like Cousins—he of the limited arm strength, issues with turnovers in bunches and general inconsistency—is a potentially fatal move, especially when the offensive line, receiver corps and defense all have question marks.
Gruden took a 3–13 team and moved it up to... well, 4–12, and there isn't much to indicate that his personal coaching genius will move the Redskins any closer to the top of the NFC East. If the 'Skins hold onto Griffin all season and are stuck with that onerous $16 million injury-guaranteed fifth-year option in 2015, and the team's no further up the ladder than it is now, letting Gruden go would seem to be the easy and smart move.
Heat Index: Pre-heated, incendiary and rising
Mike Pettine, Cleveland Browns
Pettine came in and immediately improved Cleveland's pass defense with his coverage concepts, and the addition of Washington DT Danny Shelton in the draft should do a lot to shore up the Browns' porous run defense. With the further addition of Florida State blocker Cameron Erving, this offensive line is one of the best in the NFL. That may be enough to overcome the franchise's obvious problem it's suffered since its rebirth in 1999—the lack of a franchise quarterback. It's not for lack of trying, but Johnny Manziel will have to strip his gears and start over if he ever wants to be a problem for NFL defenses, and veteran Josh McCown is a pure journeyman.
The Browns started out 6–3 last season before everything fell apart and they finished 7–9. Another collapse like that, and Pettine could very well be gone. He's a stand-up guy and a very good coach, but Cleveland's front office won't win any points for stability.
Heat index: 350 degrees and rising
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
Word was that owner Jerry Richardson, a capricious man at the best of times, was set to fire Rivera after a 7–9 record in the 2012 season. But a follow-up year at 12–4, and a just-barely NFC South title at 7-8-1 last season saved Rivera's job. Whether he's built any equity in those two seasons is something we shall soon see. General manager Dave Gettleman is still digging out of the roster holes he inherited from Marty Hurney, and Gettleman has started a few of his own—especially in the receiver corps and along the offensive line.
Carolina should have a good defense once again, which is Rivera's wheelhouse, but losing top receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the year puts an already thin offensive depth chart into further depression. Anything but another division crown would probably put Rivera back on the bubble.
Heat index: 350 degrees and rising
Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans
It's not all his fault. The personnel moves made by former GM Mike Reinfeldt and current GM Ruston Webster leave the Titans with the smallest batch of top-level talent you'll see on any NFL roster. Outside of defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, it's hard to point at any one player on this team and think, "Yeah... he's in line for multiple Pro Bowls." Maybe Marcus Mariota will start to change that in 2015 and beyond, but there will be some growing pains in the NFL for the former Oregon star.
It's possible that Whisenhunt, who was hired to be a quarterback guru based on his history in Pittsburgh and Arizona, won't have the time to take Mariota to that exalted plane. Certainly, he'll need to put up a better record than the 2–14 mark the Titans put up in 2014. Again, it's not all Whisenhunt's fault, but coaches fall as innocent bystanders all the time.
Heat Index: Warm, but with a white-hot future
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
You'd think Lewis would have a safer landing spot; after all, he took the Bengals, who were a perpetual joke in the 1990s, and transformed them back into a franchise worthy of respect. But owner Mike Brown made it clear what he expects when he decided to renew Lewis's contract through the 2015 season—a one-year extension for the man who's had that job since 2003.
Lewis' 0–6 mark in the postseason has become an issue, and solving it in 2015 may be the only way he stays on. Tying one's future to Andy Dalton's playoff performances is a stressful way to live, but that's why coaching is a tough gig.
Heat index: Slightly toasty and rising quickly
Jim Tomsula, San Francisco 49ers
If Tomsula wants to know how this is going to go, he could ask Dave Campo. A former Cowboys defensive assistant, he rose to the head coach role when ownership was tired of difficult coaches, and wanted a guy who would go along to get along. Campo posted three straight 5–11 records from 2000 through '02, blindsided by superstar retirements and bad drafts as he was. Campo is a good coach, always has been, but not the guy to fight Father time. And here's Tomsula, in the passenger's seat of what looks to be the NFL's version of the Titanic, with two-thirds of the roster that came within a few plays of three straight Super Bowls gone, just trying to bail water.
He's a guy who appreciates his position, and he's an eternal optimist—two things that will serve him well under the watch of a CEO in Jed York who is definitely biting off more than he can chew in a football sense, and a general manager in Trent Baalke whose last few drafts have been inconsistent, to put it kindly. A 5–11 record would probably keep Tomsula in that chair for another season or two, but a complete bottom-out in 2015 may necessitate a fall guy... and that won't be York or Baalke. Not for a while.
Heat index: Cool for now, but could go nuclear at any time
Gus Bradley, Jacksonville Jaguars
The former Seahawks defensive coordinator has amassed a 7–25 record in his two seasons as Jacksonville's head coach, and though ownership and the front office will be patient with Bradley—they believe he's the man to lead them out of the doldrums and it was understood that Bradley was inheriting a ridiculously depleted roster—another season without some development in the win-loss columns could add some heat.
Of course, the main point of focus will be quarterback Blake Bortles, who was shoved into a starting role in his rookie season when most in the organization wanted 2014 to be a learning year for him. It doesn't help that Florida pass-rusher Dante Fowler, Jr., the team's first-round pick this season, is out for the entire year with a torn ACL. Bradley would do well to kick the wins up to six or seven this season, even with a roster still in flux.
Heat Index: Cool for now, but with a white-hot future