- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Matt Millen's firing of Steve Mariucci officially started a winter of discontent. After three head coaching changes in 2005, the NFL can expect a wild January of change.
While in-season moves are rare, offseason moves are frequent. There has been an average of seven coaching changes a year since the start of the salary cap era in 1992. Owners are impatient. Like fans, they ride the emotions of seasons. But the dynamics of firing coaches is starting to change a bit because of the complexities of the NFL.
The salary cap is one problem. New coaches want new players. Mike Nolan of the 49ers, Nick Saban of the Dolphins and Romeo Crennel of the Browns turned over an average of 24 players on their rosters, creating dead money on the cap for the departed. New coaches need more time.
Another problem for teams looking to change coaches is the current lack of replacements. The pool of assistants ready to take over head coaching jobs isn't strong. Are there enough potential replacements out there to replace all of the head coaches who get fired?
The increasingly high salaries of college coaches is also a factor. It's harder to lure coaches such as Kirk Ferentz and Bob Stoops away from the college game because they are already making big money. Notre Dame reacted to rumors that NFL teams could come after Charlie Weis by giving him a deal that will pay him more than $3 million per year.
Regardless, this figures to be an active offseason of change. After five changes in 2003, there were seven new coaches in 2004. In 1998, a four-change season was followed by nine job openings.
This figures to be a year in which somewhere between six and nine coaches get fired. Here's a look at some of the jobs that could be (or are) open:
Detroit: Steve Mariucci was fired after 43 games. He was 15-28. Interim coach Dick Jauron doesn't have much chance of keeping the job unless the team wins four of the next five games, which is unlikely. Heading into the season, Mariucci would have been considered a long shot to lose his job. Mariucci was the guy Matt Millen wanted all along; so much that he paid a $200,000 fine for hiring Mariucci without interviewing any minority candidates. Now, the organization has to take a different direction, and this will be tough. Millen wouldn't mind a disciplinarian to see if he can salvage the career of Joey Harrington. But it's harder to find offensive-minded disciplinarians. The Mike Holmgrens and Mike Shanahans of the world don't hit the streets too often. The fundamental problem in Detroit is personnel. The past four years, the Lions have used first-round picks on a quarterback (Harrington) who hasn't worked out and three receivers (Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams) who have had mixed results at best. That's a personnel issue. Mariucci couldn't resolve the problem. Good luck to the next guy.
Houston, Dom Capers (approval rating): Owner Bob McNair would love nothing better than to keep Dom Capers. He knows Capers is a good coach. But McNair doesn't just answer to himself. He has a minority ownership group to please, but most important, he needs to show the fans something. He realizes the fans won't buy Capers' return. To be four years into expansion and be worse than the first year just doesn't sell tickets. McNair quietly was hoping Capers would win four of his last six to give him a case to take before the fans and the board. Had the Texans finished with five or six wins, McNair could have said that with adjustments among the assistants, the Texans could move ahead to Year 5 and rebuild the team around David Carr. But at 1-10, that's not a sale he can make. The Texans probably will be looking to get things right quickly. Should Brian Billick or Mike Martz become available, they will move toward the top of his list because they could bring in the offensive structure to give Carr a chance to be a successful quarterback. After going with a defensive coach to start the franchise in Capers, the Texans will probably lean toward offense with their next move.
Kansas City, Dick Vermeil (approval rating): It's not that Vermeil has completely made up his mind about leaving. But he probably will retire if the Chiefs don't make the playoffs, and unfortunately, they're in an uphill battle to make the postseason. They trail the Broncos by two games in the AFC West and it's going to be hard to get to 11 wins to get a wild-card spot with five remaining games against winning teams. Team president Carl Peterson would love to have Vermeil stay as long as he wants. But Vermeil has said that if he can't get the job done, it's time for him to move aside. The roster is getting old, particularly on offense, where the line is aging and getting more brittle. Trent Green is 35. The Chiefs knew heading into this season that this could be their last run with this group of players. Vermeil has put the franchise in great shape. The structures on offense and defense are excellent. He wants offensive coordinator Al Saunders to be the next head coach, but that decision will be up to Peterson. If Peterson decides not to give the job to Saunders, Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator of the Redskins, will be on his list.
On Shaky Ground
• Minnesota, Mike Tice (approval rating): Tice is in the last year of his contract, so his future is determined by performance. A 1-4 start made life tough, but Tice is battling back. He added two consultants to the staff (Foge Fazio and Jerry Rhome), and now they are making a playoff run despite not having their best player, quarterback Daunte Culpepper. If the Vikings can get to nine or 10 wins, Tice might be able to keep his job. At 6-5, the Vikings don't have a particularly hard schedule. The only winning team they face before the final game against the Bears is the Steelers on Dec. 18. The Vikings have rallied around Brad Johnson. Tice has done a great job of keeping things positive despite the chaos of the infamous boat-party trip. If he can catch the Bears, he might stay with the Vikings. Another issue here is that the Vikings have a new owner in Zygi Wilf who might decide he wants to bring in his own coach. The Vikings have a good talent base and would be a nice stop for a head coach such as Martz or Billick if they get fired.
• New Orleans, Jim Haslett (approval rating): Here's my question: Who would want this job other than Jim Haslett? The Saints are NFL orphans. Tom Benson clearly wants to move the team to San Antonio, while the NFL wants to give New Orleans hope that it could eventually keep the team if the Superdome gets repaired. The team has no budget for next season and has no idea where it will play. Benson should be begging Haslett to stay, but at 3-8, you never know. With all the questions surrounding this team, who would want to come in as a new coach? But the job could be open.
• Oakland, Norv Turner (approval rating): Norv Turner probably needs to get to 7-9 to keep his job. At 4-7, that is going to be a challenge. Al Davis made bold moves during the offseason. He brought in Randy Moss and LaMont Jordan on offense but the offensive production is only moderately better than a year ago. The team faces a decision on whether to keep Kerry Collins at quarterback, but that should be a no-brainer. In a tough market to find quarterbacks, how are the Raiders going to upgrade the quarterback position when they are drafting in the middle of the first round and their cap is tight? Collins probably stays. This probably isn't a job that will immediately open when the season ends. Davis is prone to let his coaches sweat during the offseason. He tends to sniff around available coaches at all-star games. Turner needs to make sure he doesn't get that 10th loss. It's not in Davis' nature to keep a coach who has back-to-back seasons of 10 or more losses.
• Baltimore, Brian Billick (approval rating): Billick is a strong figure in Baltimore, and he's a good coach. He's taken the team to the Super Bowl and won. He quickly moved the team back into the playoffs following a down year in 2002 after a huge salary-cap purge. Billlick's current status on the hot seat can be linked to the poor development of Kyle Boller. The Ravens used a future first-rounder to acquire the No. 19 pick in the 2003 draft to grab Boller and give Billick his quarterback of the future. But Boller isn't getting the job done. If he is fired, Billick won't be out of work long.
Politics, Politics, Politics.
• St. Louis, Mike Martz: Mike Martz is ready to return as the Rams head coach. But that probably won't happen until next season, if it happens at all. He's awaiting a clean bill of health following a heart infection, but chances are the doctor won't clear him for 18-hour work days until the end of the season. Martz is feeling good and ready to get back to work. But here's where politics could end up causing a job opening in St. Louis: Martz is entering the last year of his contract in 2006. He wants an extension. But Rams president John Shaw isn't ready to give him an extension. Plus, Martz wants major changes in the personnel office and Shaw might not be willing to do that. This won't be a firing as much as it would be a mutual separation. It's similar to a divorce proceeding. Shaw is one of the brightest people in the league. He knows Martz is a major talent in coaching. But he's also not willing to break loyalties to longtime employees who have worked through a very successful era for this franchise. Odds seem to favor a mutual separation.
• Green Bay, Mike Sherman (approval rating): Mike Sherman deserves to be back. Injuries and poor defensive talent set up the Packers for failure this year. That's no one's fault, though, and it's certainly not Sherman's. Sherman had a great playoff run for four years, winning three consecutive NFC North titles. It's hard to have a run longer than four or five years in today's NFL because of the salary cap, and things just caught up to the Packers. Now it's a time to review how to rebuild the team, but politics are involved in that decision. The Packers have a new general manager, Ted Thompson, who is a quality person. But he faces tough decisions. Brett Favre has all but said he's out if Sherman is out. But what if the Packers want to move on and give Aaron Rodgers a chance to show what he can do? Firing Sherman would open Favre's eyes to retirement or trade. Although, Thompson might not want to be the general manager who chased Favre out of town. Odds favor Sherman and Favre's returning. If they can lose enough games to draft Reggie Bush, suddenly things get a little more exciting in Green Bay during the winter.
• New York Jets, Herman Edwards (approval rating): The Herman Edwards-to-Kansas City story has played out. Edwards is staying. Edwards knew he had a chance to be the next coach of the Kansas City Chiefs if Dick Vermeil retired. But Edwards preferred staying with the Jets and rebuilding an aging offense. Edwards is a strong person. He's also a loyal person who comes from a military background. He believes in contracts and in fulfilling those contracts. His focus is on the Jets. Owner Woody Johnson knows that and has come out publicly and said Edwards will be back, and he will.
• Tennessee, Jeff Fisher (approval rating): Jeff Fisher enters the final year of his contract in 2006, although there is an option year in 2007. He wants to stay. Sure, Bud Adams, the owner, will meet with Fisher and general manager Floyd Reese after the season to see whether everything is working well. At 3-8, it's been a tough year. The salary cap purge was harder than expected. Fisher has had to start six rookies and the team hasn't won as many close games as they would have hoped. Fisher is one of the best coaching talents in the game. If his name hit the open market this offseason, it could start a bidding war. Fisher is also loyal and believes in a contract. He stays.
• Buffalo, Mike Mularkey (approval rating): The only way there is a change here is if Ralph Wilson, the owner, isn't happy with the personnel direction of the team and fires Tom Donahoe. Wilson likes head coach Mike Mularkey. The move from Drew Bledsoe to J.P. Losman didn't result in a playoff run, and that's disturbing to Wilson. Age is creeping in on defense. Although there might be thoughts of a change, both Mularkey and Donahoe will likely be back next season.
• Washington, Joe Gibbs (approval rating): This one is simple. The Redskins moved closer to the playoffs this year, and although Joe Gibbs could retire, he probably won't. Gibbs had fun this year. The Redskins made a pretty good run early, but they weren't good enough. He's in it for at least one more year.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
John Clayton looks at the NFL landscape and writes that there could be as many as nine head coaching changes this offseason.