Coaching seat beginning to warm up

Dennis Erickson and Mike Martz are among the NFL coaches who find themselves on the hot seat.

Originally Published: December 22, 2004
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

In the college ranks, 21 Division I-A coaching changes have already occurred and 19 jobs have been filled. That's an unusually high number.

The NFL has been consistent. Since 1992, the NFL has averaged seven coaching changes a year. In the NFL, the Hot Seat simmers the minute a coach gets hired. It's like clockwork. In 13 years, there have been 91 changes and two changes have already occurred this year when Butch Davis of the Browns and Dave Wannstedt of the Dolphins stepped down.

But times might be changing the NFL. Coaches' salaries have sky-rocketed. The price of firing a coach, replacing assistants and finding a new head coach requires almost a $10 million recommitment from the owner. The question circulating around the NFL is whether the price of firing a coach will slow down the process and make the seats a little cooler.

No one knows. Firing a coach now requires a summit. Owners, general managers and coaches have to meet to discuss the future. The days of the bloodbaths on the Monday following the regular season might be slowing down. Firings and changes might start to trickle out a week, two weeks or maybe even a month or two after the season.

Thanks to its success, the NFL has become big business, and the salaries and guarantees of the head coaches have become the golden parachutes. Plus, the NFL has been making so many changes, it's becoming harder and harder to identify the new coaching stars who are ready to come in.

Former Giants coach Jim Fassel should land something. Nick Saban is leaving the LSU campus to take over control of the Miami Dolphins. Among the hot assistant coaches are Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress, Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders, Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

Because of the cost of the firings, you get the feeling there might be fewer than seven changes this year. Two are already in the books. Usually there is a surprise or two.

How hot are this year's seats? Let's study.

Asbestos hot

Erickson
Erickson
Dennis Erickson, San Francisco 49ers: Erickson didn't get a fair shake. General manager Terry Donahue purged his salary cap and left $29 million of dead money. That left Erickson with the league's lowest payroll, one of the youngest, cheapest group of quarterbacks and virtually no chance of doing much better than the 2-13 season the 49ers have put together to date. Lots of interesting things are brewing in the 49ers organization. Owner John York is taking a lot of heat for not spending much but the cap problems really didn't give him much of a chance to spend even if he wanted to. York faces the toughest decision of all. He knows fans around the Bay Area want a sign of the franchise's commitment. A stadium deal is in the works. York and Donahue want changes on Erickson's staff, but if Erickson won't make the changes, will York be willing to pay off the $7.5 million remaining on Erickson's deal? Even though Donahue just signed a lucrative contract extension, it's not out of the question for him to be on the hot seat, too. It will all come down to the organizational meetings during the next week or two, but the seats are hot. Burning hot.

Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville Jaguars: This might be the strangest one of all, but it's the team, not the coach, that is on the hot seat. Del Rio has already established himself as one of the bright young coaches in the league. In two years, he turned a cap-strapped franchise into a playoff contender. His players play hard for him. He has a good defensive concept and he's building a good offense for the future. Here is where the franchise is on the hot seat. LSU is interested in Del Rio, whose family has ties to the school. Even though Del Rio has done nothing to promote the idea, he could be a finalist for a job he's never even considered. His salary next year for the Jaguars is $1.3 million. LSU could easily double it. The Jags can't afford to lose him, so they might have to kick in a contract extension the organization didn't consider entering the season. Wayne Weaver is in a tough position. They couldn't sell out last week's game against the Texans even though it could have put the team in position to get closer to the playoffs. Del Rio is a sales pitch for next year's season ticket base. It's one of the rare times that the team is on the hot seat, and this one is burning.

Terry Robiskie, Cleveland Browns: Robiskie is coaching on an interim basis and this will be his final game. No surprise there. But owner Randy Lerner and president John Collins are on the hot seat for the way they are handling the search for a coach and general manager. What are they doing? Whatever they are doing, they are doing it too slow. The window for interviewing assistant coaches in the playoffs will come and pass by the time they hire a general manager. Sure, it's important to get the right general manager, but the Browns seem to have as many consultants working for them as they do bad offensive linemen. They need direction and they need it quickly. Butch Davis's departure gave them a head start at getting organized. The Browns need results and they need them now.

Hot seat, but cooling

Holmgren
Holmgren
Mike Holmgren, Seattle Seahawks: Holmgren locked up his third playoff trip in six years, and he has a chance to win his second division title during that stretch. That might not be enough for him to get to the final two years of his contract, but it should. If the Seahawks win a playoff game, his job is completely safe. Still, he has to wonder. The Seahawks have 16 free agents, including nine starters. Seven of those starters will be among the top three players in free agency at their positions. It's time for the Seahawks to judge where they are under Holmgren. If owner Paul Allen thinks things are moving in the right direction, he's going to have to pay more than $30 million in signing bonuses to lock up players such as Walter Jones, Shaun Alexander, Matt Hasselbeck, Ken Lucas and others. These organizational meetings might be the most interesting of all. Holmgren's a great coach. The offense, though inconsistent at times, has been in the top eight for the past three years. Odds favor Holmgren staying, but you never know.

Jim Haslett, New Orleans Saints: The recent three-game winning streak should kill thoughts about a coaching change, so Haslett appears to be safe. Owner Tom Benson pretty much assured him of that about a month ago. Some changes will occur along the coaching staff. If the Saints make the playoffs, though, Haslett could be canonized. Remember, the Saints have talent. They have been considered the most talented team in the NFC South for the past few years. Beating the Panthers on Sunday and making the playoffs would end those criticisms about December fades. A 4-0 finish would be exciting for the franchise. Haslett joked with reporters in New Orleans on Monday that a month ago reports had him fired. Well, he's back. And he should be back. The hot seat gets cooler every day.

Mike Martz, St. Louis Rams: Martz is keeping his seat hotter than needed. President John Shaw isn't going to fire Martz after the season. He likes the coach's imagination. The stadium is sold out. The offense is still exciting and good. No matter what you hear, Martz will be coaching the Rams next season. But the controversies are keeping his name in the news for things not related to Sunday's game against the Jets. Whatever happened between Kyle Turley and Martz has become a distraction. Turley hasn't been a Ram since going on injured reserve. His return is next year's worry, but whatever happened between the two has created a media feeding frenzy. That doesn't help Martz or Turley. Martz's criticism of the Edward Jones Dome turf is a stadium negotiation matter. Sure, he's sticking up for the health of his players. That's nice. But Martz needs to stay low and just win this last game.

Norv Turner, Oakland Raiders: Turner will probably be back as head coach next season, but Al Davis and job security don't exactly go together. Not when the team is 5-10. It's not out of Davis' nature to look around for a possible replacement. He's the only owner in the league willing to wait until February to hire a Super Bowl coach because he always has enough assistants under contract to fill a coaching staff. Davis isn't very fond of the Raiders defense, so there might be a change in coordinators there. Turner has to make sure Davis is happy enough with the direction of the Raiders rushing attack. Turner has always been a running back's best friend. The feature back in his offenses have usually had 1,200-to-1,600-yard seasons. Well, the backs failed this season. Turner might be back, but the offseason won't be completely comfortable.

Possible surprises

Parcells
Parcells
Bill Parcells, Dallas Cowboys: This is a stretch because Parcells is committed to next season and making Year 3 much like his first year with the Cowboys. Parcells' resolve is there, but owner Jerry Jones better make sure the coach is happy about the way the team acquires talent this offseason. The Cowboys misjudged last year's team and didn't do enough in the offseason to get better. They were short on cornerbacks. They made a mistake with defensive end Marcellus Wiley, at least in his first season. Parcells wants bigger linebackers and bigger defensive linemen. What he also needs to do is figure out how to get younger at quarterback. Drew Henson wasted his first season by not playing. Vinny Testaverde could come back to help, but what if he doesn't? Phil Simms seems to be happy in the broadcasting booth, so finding someone Parcells is comfortable with might be tough.

Dick Vermeil, Kansas City Chiefs: Everything you hear out of Kansas City is that Vermeil will be back next season. But you never know for sure. The recent winning streak gives Vermeil hope and optimism for next year. He's been in his office the past couple of weeks scribbling out plans for next season. He's motivated. What has to happen, though, is if there is a plan present to make the defense better for talent. Vermeil hired the right defensive coordinator in Gunther Cunningham, so that position is in place. And the defense has played better of late. The team just got a little old and a little slow with some of their highest-paid defensive players. The players like Vermeil and don't want him to leave. Maybe there is a one percent chance he would retire, but one percent in this league could become a possible surprise.

Mike Tice, Minnesota Vikings: Red McCombs's decision to exercise the final year of Tice's contract removed him from the hot seat to the possible surprise list. McCombs isn't one to just waste $1 million. Plus, Tice is a good coach. But if the Vikings lose to the Redskins, things could get emotional. The Vikings are set up to possibly lose a playoff spot in the final week for the second season in a row. The Vikings should win because the Redskins will be missing Clinton Portis, LaVar Arrington and others. Making the playoffs would make all things right in Minnesota. McCombs, though, is a little bit of a wild card.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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