Commentary

Labor clues in coaching moves

If owners decide not to seek out big names, expect unrest on CBA front

Originally Published: December 1, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Were this a normal year, 10 or 11 coaches would be on hot seats.

This isn't a normal year because of the possibility of a lockout in March, so it's hard to judge the temperature on those hot seats. One thing is for sure: How owners handle coaching issues will tip off whether the NFL will get a collective bargaining agreement with players before March or if they are resigned to having a lengthy labor fight.

Minnesota, Dallas, Carolina, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Denver, Houston, Oakland, Cleveland and Miami head the list of franchises with coaching uncertainty. An attractive list of candidates is forming, with names such as Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, John Fox, Marvin Lewis, Brian Billick and maybe Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh among the possibilities.

But owners aren't going to lock in high-price, high-profile coaches if they have labor uncertainty. If talks between owners and players break down over the next month, you might see the Cowboys stay with Jason Garrett and the Vikings stay with Leslie Frazier. Texans owner Bob McNair could stay with Gary Kubiak by hiring Wade Phillips to coordinate the team's defense. If other owners don't make changes or choose to hire low-priced assistants as head coaches, expect a long labor battle.

I'm still optimistic a labor deal will get done, but timing is everything with how this relates to what happens on the head-coaching market.

From the inbox

Q: True or false: You don't beat the Colts, you beat Peyton Manning. Since I'm assuming you answered true, how can he not go down as the greatest player of all time. I hate how people draw onto championships as why he is not the greatest. The man changed the game to what it is today, and I cannot see why anyone can argue against him being the greatest.

Nick in San Marcos, Texas

A: What you say could still prove out to be true, but the NFL, like all sports, rewards the ultimate winner. Although Manning is one of the best I've ever seen, I can't give him the nod over Tom Brady because Brady has three Super Bowl rings to Manning's one. The story still has more chapters. Remember how John Elway defined his Hall of Fame career with two Super Bowl rings in his final two years? Manning is going to be around until he's 40 or so. This is much like the debate during the 1980s and 1990s between Joe Montana and Dan Marino. Marino was a better thrower but Montana had the Super Bowl rings, so Montana won that debate.

Q: Why can't Jerry Jones walk away and hire real people to run the show and still count the cash he rakes in? Will it ever sink into this man that he isn't the right GM for this franchise?

Chad in Broken Arrow, Okla.

A: If you're a Cowboys fan, you'll just have to accept that Jones won't change. He believes in how he runs the franchise. He wants to be involved in picking the players. Eventually, once the team goes into the hands of his son, Stephen, maybe there will be a re-evaluation. You could figure Jones is rooting for Jason Garrett to be his coach next season, but expect him to keep his eyes open for an experienced, winning coach while Garrett proves himself. Jones runs his franchise like Al Davis runs his in Oakland -- in control of every facet.

Q: If the Bears' offense finally got going scoring between 25 and 35 ppg, would the combination of that and the team's defense be enough to finish strong and possibly get a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NFC?

Dan in Winston-Salem, N.C.

A: If the Bears beat out the Packers for the NFC North title, they'll get the No. 2 seed. The No. 1 seed is going to Atlanta or New Orleans in the NFC South. The Falcons are 7-2 in nondivisional games with only one remaining -- at Seattle. If they win that one and go 4-2 at worst in NFC South games, they will finish at 12-4. They could end up with 13 wins. Even though the Bears' games against the Patriots and Jets are at Soldier Field, you figure there will be a split there. Plus, it's going to be hard for the Bears to win in Green Bay. Eleven wins will get them in either as the No. 2 seed or the No. 6 spot behind New Orleans.

Q: Just wondering why teams and players make such a big deal of the three-hour difference between the East and West Coasts. In other sports, like soccer here in the UK, teams play at different times from week to week, sometimes within three days of each other. How come NFL players find it so hard to adjust?

Mark in Oxford, UK

A: Maybe it shouldn't be a big deal, but it is. The facts go with the results. Pro football players are creatures of habit. They follow a regimented schedule. The impact is more on West Coast teams going east to play 1 p.m. starts. The body clock is at 10 a.m. and West Coast players tend to get off to a slow start. Understand, it's not easy to win on the road. If something is off, such as the body clock, then the task of winning on the road is tougher.

Q: Everyone who hadn't heard of Arian Foster before this year certainly knows his name now. But if it weren't for the injury to Ben Tate in the preseason, he could still be an unknown . Do you think Tate and Foster share carries next year? Or one of them gets traded?

Daniel in Lafayette, Ind.

A: Foster has shown enough that he will be the main back in Houston. Tate's only chance for playing time is to beat out Steve Slaton to be the backup. Foster would have been a second-round pick were it not for questions about his character coming out of college. The Texans sensed they had a good one when Foster ran wild at the end of last season. If Tate shows anything, maybe he can get five to 10 carries a game. Foster can consistently produce when he gets 20 or more carries a game.

Q: I have to know your take on the 49ers this season. Their defense was supposed to be stout and generate turnovers while the offense under a revamped and rejuvenated Alex Smith was going to thrive. With so many talented skill players on this team and the relatively easy strength of schedule, is it safe to say that it comes down to poor coaching?

Paul in Mechanicsville, Va.

A: You have to put this on Mike Singletary and his staff. This team has underachieved all season. The offense never really got started. The defense has been OK but not as dominant as expected. That's why you would have to think there might be a coaching change after the season.

Q: I was seriously concerned when my Saints completely ignored their defensive front seven in last year's draft. I thought it was their biggest weakness. Now their defense is playing great. At times, it has looked very strong against the run. How did this happen? Did the extra year in Gregg Williams' system do the trick or was it a matter of some players like Remi Ayodele just improving in the offseason?

Will in New Orleans

A: A second year in any system should promote improvement. I think it helped to get Alex Brown from the Chicago Bears. Sedrick Ellis continues to develop as a big force in the middle of the defensive line. Plus, the line has stayed healthy this year. Williams is building his style of defense and the system is working. He's always done well with defensive lines. The Saints and their fans are the beneficiary.

Q: I don't hear a lot of people talking about this, but I really believe some league owners wanted this uncapped year. They have been able to dump bad contracts, front load new contracts and generally fix their cap situations. Except for the Redskins, I guess. It's funny how before the season started, all we heard was there will be no football next year. Now all the reports I'm seeing are making it clear there's been a ton of movement toward a new CBA. Any thoughts on the owners purposely tanking negotiations with the NFLPA just to get to this uncapped year?

Mike in Chicago

A: There is no question several owners wanted to clean up their salary cap with an uncapped year, but the move to go to an uncapped year was to get a more favorable CBA for the owners. In 2006, they conceded a lot to the players to keep the salary cap. They knew they were going to have to form a tough plan to get some concessions from the players. I do think the league and the players will get a deal before March and avert a lockout. There's too much money to be lost if they screw around with a lockout and then come back with an 18-game schedule. The old model wasn't working for the owners, so they had to do something to fix it.

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