Commentary

Here's who to watch when coaching carousel spins

In his weekly mailbag, John Clayton tackles questions on the Lions' woes, the Panthers' QB situation, Bill Cowher's future and more.

Originally Published: October 22, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The 49ers' Mike Nolan was the third head coach to fall in seven weeks. Such turnover is rare in the NFL because the season is short, and it's hard to orchestrate an in-season coaching change that can have a significant impact.

Although it's no surprise to see Mike Singletary land the 49ers' interim job -- he was a coach on the field when he was middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears -- it's surprising he becomes a head coach without defensive coordinator experience. That's not his fault. Nolan hired Greg Manusky instead of Singletary as defensive coordinator after he fired Billy Davis a couple of years ago. Singletary stayed and his loyalty was rewarded with this nine-game opportunity.

But if you think predicting games is tough in the NFL, try figuring out the future head-coaching market. What were the odds that Jim Zorn, Tony Sparano, Mike Smith and John Harbaugh would be the four new head coaches hired during this past offseason? Of the four, only the Falcons' Smith was a coordinator.

Fans constantly call for the firing of a coach without knowing who might be next in line. Naturally, it's better to go for a sure thing. Most of the top teams are coached by experienced leaders in their second or third tours of duty -- Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, Tom Coughlin of the Giants, Dick Jauron of the Bills, Mike Shanahan of the Broncos, Bill Belichick of the Patriots, Jon Gruden of the Bucs and Wade Phillips of the Cowboys.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spagnuolo
Evan Pinkus/Getty ImageSteve Spagnuolo figures to be a hot head-coaching candidate. Who else is on teams' radar?

Naturally, with as many as 10 possible coaching changes coming in the offseason, Bill Cowher and Brian Billick head the list of proven winners to join that elite list. The Raiders wouldn't be wrong in considering Jim Fassel or Dennis Green, other veteran winners.

So who are the young unknowns to watch?

It's easy to put Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo at the top of the list, but he's not an unknown. He was a hot candidate last year, and the only thing that might hold him back from getting a head-coaching job is another trip to the Super Bowl. Most teams looking for coaches don't like to wait that long.

There is a growing list of good, young offensive coaches. Jeremy Bates, son of longtime NFL defensive coordinator Jim Bates, is drawing great reviews for his play calling with the Broncos. Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is the likely successor to Phillips. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will receive some calls if he's ready to graduate from the Belichick school of coaching. First-year Bills offensive coordinator Turk Schonert and Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley might also draw some interest. Second-generation coaches such as Kyle Shanahan of the Texans and Brian Schottenheimer on the Jets are on the rise.

It's a little harder to find defensive names on the rise because many of the top coordinators have had their jobs for many years or have already received head-coaching opportunities. Ron Rivera of the Chargers, Leslie Frazier of the Vikings and Rex Ryan of the Ravens are considered the veteran prospects. Other young names might start to surface as the season progresses.

Figuring out who will fill future NFL head-coaching jobs is the biggest game in sports these days.

Let's dive into the mailbag:

From the inbox

Q: As a Lions fan, I thought things would be better with Matt Millen gone, but now Jon Kitna is on IR and Roy Williams was traded. Is there any hope for this season? Or should I expect more punishment and roster or even coaching changes?

Eric in Boise, Idaho

A: Don't expect any immediate coaching changes, but there is no hope for this season. The roster is old and needs a major retooling. The loss of Kitna hurts offensive continuity and the No. 32-ranked defense can't get any worse. No team goes winless in this league, so there will be a few wins to enjoy. The Lions got good value for Williams. You could turn into a Cowboys hater and hope they lose to get higher positioning in the first and third rounds of next year's draft. Wish I could offer you short-term hope, but I don't see it. At least the Red Wings' season has started.

Short takes

E-mailer Murray wonders why there aren't more coffin corner kicks. To be honest, I think the current group of punters does a pretty good job of directional kicking. The Giants' Jeff Feagles, a 21-year vet, has stayed in this league because of his fine directional kicking. I think special teams coaches want to keep the ball in bounds more so they have a chance to get the returner to make a turnover inside his 20. ... An e-mailer in Phoenix asks whether the Broncos should blitz more and whether that would help their defense. Not now. Cornerback Champ Bailey is out at least four weeks with a groin injury, so the Broncos will lose their ability to play man-to-man. They can blitz to put pressure on the quarterback without him, but they won't have enough coverage to stop the receivers. ... Scott from Slidell, La., wanted me to get word to Merril Hoge that he shouldn't have advised people to stay away from Drew Brees heading into the Raiders game. As Scott notes, Brees is having an MVP season. Here goes: MERRIL, SCOTT WANTS SOME LOVE FOR BREES. I hope that makes you feel better, Scott. ... Dustin in Bowling Green wants to know which Titans quarterback to support -- Kerry Collins or Vince Young. Dustin, stick by both. Despite his immaturity, Young eventually will get a chance to start again, and remember, he was a winner before he was hurt and lost his starting job. Collins is doing a nice job, but an injury or some defenses might eventually catch up to him. Be happy that Jeff Fisher has handled this well enough for Young to come back. ... Evan in Philadelphia hopes Mike McCarthy stops shuffling players along the Packers' offensive line. I think McCarthy is hoping to stop as well. Getting a healthy Scott Wells back is one of the keys. The Packers' guard situation has been pretty steady the past couple of weeks, which might be why they finally are getting the running game going. ... E-mailer Steve wonders what will happen at quarterback in Cleveland if Derek Anderson takes the Browns to the playoffs. It's inevitable that Brady Quinn will get the starting job despite Anderson's strong arm. I think Anderson will be traded after this season or next.

Q: John, I am a Carolina Panthers fan and have been since their entrance into the NFL in 1995. Anyway, my question is regarding their QB situation. Jake Delhomme has been solid and probably has a few years left, but he is obviously not the long-term answer. Do you see the Panthers drafting a franchise QB in the near future, which is something they haven't done since drafting Kerry Collins?

Gary

A: The Panthers need a break to get that quarterback. They had their eyes on Matt Ryan in the draft. Had Ryan fallen below the top five, the Panthers would have been on the phone trying to make a trade. As we've seen in recent years, few teams at the top of the draft are willing to pay the price for top quarterbacks. Many are fearful of failure, which is why Aaron Rodgers and Brady Quinn fell so low. For the Panthers to get that quarterback of the future, they can't reach, but they can't be shy if the right one falls to them. This year's success will make it tough. I thought the Panthers would be a playoff team as long as Delhomme was healthy and so far they are proving me right. They also gave away next year's first-round pick to get OT Jeff Otah. Ryan was the guy, but the Falcons realized it, too. Unfortunately, the search for the next quarterback is on hold. The Panthers do think they have a Tony Romo-like find in Matt Moore, so they will have to develop him in the meantime.

Q: Since the projected AFC powers are stumbling -- Pats, Colts and Chargers -- why didn't the Jags offer some early-round picks to get a proven WR?

From Cohiba in Rio De Janiero

A: It's takes two to make a trade, and the only receiver who had a chance to be traded was Roy Williams, who went to the Cowboys. Really, he was destined for either the Cowboys or Eagles and no one else. With only five Pro Bowl receivers developed in this league since the 2002 draft, receiver trade value is at a premium, and consequently, no one wants to give up a good receiver. If the Jags can be accused of anything wrong, it's that they have dipped too much into the flawed receiver pool. They've used high draft choices. They've tried free-agent signings. They've considered trades. The problem is too many underclassmen receivers are taking too long to learn routes and become successful. At least they've tried.

Q: John, why haven't the Vikings incorporated some version of the Wildcat into their offense? Chester Taylor is clearly not getting enough touches this year. Heck, even more split-back formations with both Taylor and Adrian Peterson would great. The Vikings need to be less predictable on offense and use their talent.

E-mailer in St. Paul, Minn.

A: Why be tricky when there is no need? I would have no doubt Peterson would be unbelievable out of the Wildcat formation, but it might hold him back to some degree. Peterson is averaging 97.7 yards a game running behind one of the best lines in football. He's having success against defenses that stack eight and nine defenders at the line of scrimmage. Maybe the Vikings can try a Wildcat formation if Peterson and Taylor hit a one- or two-game slump. The last thing coach Brad Childress needs to do is get tricky with a running game that works as well as any in football.

Q: John, I'm a lifelong Eagles fan, and I saw your take last week on Andy Reid's play calling. I agree with your response, but I think the question was off target. Reid has balanced the offensive attack nicely. I do believe the Eagles are underperforming since their heartbreaking loss to Dallas. My question for you is, do you see a problem with the Eagles' offensive strategy in the last two to four minutes of a game when they have a chance to tie or win? I've seen this problem with Philly for years -- dating back through their playoff runs -- and it's frustrating. What do you think of the play calling under these circumstances, and is it ever going to change?

Mark in Kalamazoo, Mich.

A: Obviously, the Eagles struggle when they don't have Brian Westbrook in the lineup. Eventually, they have to realize they might not be able to count on Westbrook for 16 regular-season games. They need better answers when he's not on the field. Some of what you are talking about in the final minutes of games may be production from tight end. That's where L.J. Smith comes into play. Early in his career, Smith looked liked the perfect tight end for that offense. He was great in the red zone. He was a threat in the middle of the field. But injuries and inconsistency have limited him the past couple of years. Romo has Jason Witten. Peyton Manning has Dallas Clark. The list goes on and on. Too bad the Eagles couldn't get Tony Gonzalez. Remember, the play calling in those final minutes is often done at the line of scrimmage by the quarterback, so it's the talent and coverages that dictate the plays.

Q: John, with the Cowboys underachieving and on the brink of a tough stretch that will almost certainly bring more losses, is a Phillips firing inevitable? If so, doesn't Cowher make much more sense for a team lacking in discipline, fire, leadership, etc., than the talented but very laid back Jason Garrett?

Joe in Austin, Texas

A: Of course, Cowher makes sense. He's a winning coach and provides that fire. But I don't think Jerry Jones wants to go back to the Bill Parcells approach and lose some of his control of the football operations to get Cowher. He likes having a Wade Phillips or eventually a Jason Garrett because those guys will work with him in a shared front office of decision-making. Cowher is going to cost more than $8 million a year and want personnel power. Jones won't have any issues with the money, but he likes running the Cowboys his way and he has a winning track record. Cowher would be interested on a couple of fronts. He'd have a 3-4 defense in place, so he wouldn't have to change much personnel. He'd have a quarterback in Romo. He'd get his money. I just think Jones is going to do everything to make things work with Phillips.

Q: John, you've said teams with backup QBs see a drop-off of around 10 points per game. Do you think there is a clear shift in game plans to protect backup QBs?

Matt in Chicago

A: Coaches protect the backup with conservative strategies because the backups have limitations. That's why they are backups. The days of Joe Montana being backed up by a Hall of Famer such as Steve Young are done. I'll keep you updated as the season progresses, but the trend I noted last week continues. Starters average 27 points. Backups average 17 or 18 points. I'm not saying a backup can't evolve into an effective starter. Kyle Orton is doing that before your eyes in Chicago. If you open up the offense before the backup is ready, you get turnovers and mistakes.

Q: Hi John, I love your columns. I know he's not popular, but did you intentionally leave Brian Griese off your "backup QBs who have played well" list? Let's not forget Jeff Garcia was the starter in Week 1, and then Griese led the Bucs to three wins. Just thought it was worth noting.

David in Miami Beach, Fla.

A: No, Griese was on my list, and in many ways, he was exactly what I was talking about. I constantly use the Ted Marchibroda idea that a good backup -- and Griese is a good backup -- can win you three games, but if you play him in six, he will lose you three games, too. Griese's numbers trended downward in his third start. I thought staying with him instead of Garcia cost the Bucs against the Broncos in Week 5. Naturally, benching Griese after going 3-0 would've left Gruden open for criticism, so he had to stay with him. Garcia took the team to the playoffs last year. The Broncos' defense is vulnerable to any quarterback, yet Griese couldn't take advantage of it.

Q: John, in your last mailbag you said Bill Cowher is looking for a team next year that will pay him and has a quarterback. Do you think he would consider coaching Cincinnati? I can't think of a team that could be looking for a coach next year with a better quarterback than Carson Palmer. Also, a Cowher-versus-Steelers matchup twice a year would be must-see TV.

Chad in Indianapolis

A: Bengals owner Mike Brown will never pay a head coach $8 million a year. The son of Paul Brown is never going to pay top dollar for a coach. That's against his nature. He will pay anyone fairly, but he would rather put the top dollars into a quarterback like Palmer or a top defensive player. Plus, it's hard to envision Cowher coaching in the AFC North. He would be interested in a Palmer-like quarterback, but Brown's frugal nature will prevent that union.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer