Owners usually willing to ride out the storm
While owners generally don't make in-season changes, a couple of coaches could be fired before season's end.
Not until the completion of Sunday afternoon's early games does the NFL schedule officially pass the one-third mark and so, when discussing head coaches perceived to be already squirming on the hot seat, the subject matter seems terribly premature.
That is especially true given the recent history of in-season head coach dismissals, where the collective rationale of NFL owners now seems to be that such moves are inconsequential in terms of immediately reversing the fortunes of a struggling franchise. Better to ride out the storm, play out the hand no matter how anemic, and then make the switch in the offseason, most owners now seem to have concluded.
Just look at the recent track record: The last coach dismissed during a season was Dan Reeves in Atlanta last year, and he was actually asked to stay onboard for the final three games, but chose to leave when owner Arthur Blank apprised him he would not be back in 2004. Jim Fassel of the New York Giants received similar notice from ownership in 2003, but opted to finish out the schedule. Over the past six years, there have been just eight in-season changes, and only 10, in fact, in the past decade.
Not since Bruce Coslet resigned from the Cincinnati Bengals in 2000, after only three games, has a head coach lost his job in the first half of a season.
So the odds are, several head coaches and general managers agreed when surveyed this week, that there won't be any in-season regime changes. But as noted last week in this space, the odds might not precisely mirror the reality of the situation in a few NFL precincts. There are a few Dead Men Walking in the league coaching fraternity at present. Just how much longer they are permitted to continue ambling through the schedule remains to be seen. In a few cases, keep an eye on some teams' bye weeks, because they could end up being bye-bye weeks.
Certainly there have been rumblings and rumors, innuendo and insights, suggesting the plug could be pulled during the season on embattled head coaches like Dave Wannstedt in Miami, Jim Haslett in New Orleans and Cleveland's Butch Davis.
In Miami, owner Wayne Huizenga visited the Dolphins complex last week, talked football with Wannstedt, but left no tacit indication of the wholesale housecleaning that is to come. As cited here last week, there is always the possibility Wannstedt will force the issue at some time, and end up departing early, as did Reeves in 2003, if the Dolphins owner tells him he won't be back for the 2005 season.
Truth be told, such a scenario might be the NFL equivalent of a mercy killing, since Wannstedt is too good a guy to continue suffering through the current mess. Wannstedt is keenly aware that his record could be tarnished by the events of '04 and might impact his ability to land a job (like at the University of Pittsburgh) in 2005. Don't discount the possibility that, if Huizenga opens the door, Wannstedt, who has two seasons remaining on his contract, won't bolt through it.
Wannstedt could continue cashing paychecks, hustle off to his Naples, Fla., retreat, and re-charge his flagging batteries. There have been suggestions that the two-year extension Wannstedt signed early in the offseason is not guaranteed and is, instead, a team-held option. Sources insisted to ESPN.com this week those stories are incorrect.
Similarly erroneous is the notion that New Orleans owner Tom Benson huddled with Haslett on Monday to voice to the coach his displeasure with the Saints' characteristically underachieving performance. True, the owner was in the building, but didn't meet with his head coach. That said, the public acknowledgements by general manager Mickey Loomis, that the Saints could well face changes if their play doesn't improve, were fairly ominous.
Haslett is a terrific guy, a coach players publicly endorse, but their deeds too often fall well shy of their words. Outsiders typically assess that there is "something missing" from the Saints, a team that has more talent than any franchise in its division, but which seems to lack character. If the situation doesn't improve, the "something missing" could be Haslett. That would be too bad, because while flawed in some areas, Haslett is largely a solid coach.
In a season when defensive coordinators are blitzing from everywhere, safeties Tony Dixon of Dallas and Rodney Harrison of New England each has three sacks through four games. While neither man is apt to maintain his current 12-sack pace, both should challenge the unofficial NFL mark for sacks (7) by a defensive back. In fact, there have only been 14 defensive backs who notched as many as five sacks in a season, and just five who tallied six or more sacks. Here is the list of defensive backs with six or more sacks:
Player -- No. -- Year
Dave Duerson -- 7 -- '86
LeRoy Butler -- 6½ -- '96
Rodney Harrison -- 6 -- '00
Carnell Lake -- 6 -- '97
Rod Woodson -- 6 -- '92
Stat of the Week
Stat of the Weak
For all the hype that typically surrounds him, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has yet to throw for 300 yards in a game this season. In fact, Vick has yet posted a 200-yard passing game. His five starts have produced passing yardage of 163, 179, 115, 148 and 196 yards.
The Last Word
The latter isn't true at all. The former, even at $3 million-plus annually, won't be a sufficient enough reason to retain Davis if the Browns don't start winning.
Even with Wannstedt, Haslett and Davis under fire, though, canning them before the conclusion of this season probably would not be a panacea for what ails their respective franchises. History has indicated, and rather stridently, that there are few snap turnarounds when a coaching change is made during the season.
There have been 54 in-season coaching changes since 1970, the year of the merger, and precious few have signaled a change of fortune. Just 10 of the 54 "replacement" coaches realized winning records, and that includes four who coached three games or less, like Wade Phillips, who took over for Reeves last December and shepherded the Falcons to a 2-1 finish, or Fred Bruney, who was 1-0 with Philadelphia in 1985.
Of the 26 replacement coaches who inherited a team with at least a half-season remaining on the schedule, just five turned in winning marks. The cumulative record for the 54 replacement head coaches since 1970 is a meager 110-242-1, a microscopic winning percentage of .313. Another key point: Only 23 of the replacement head coaches were around for the start of the next season. Most were truly "interim" coaches, guys who took over the helms of sinking ships either out of loyalty or the hope the assignment might become permanent, but who were tossed overboard at the end of the season anyway.
It is, for sure, a thankless job. And sometimes a source of derision. Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi was 2-17 in two separate stints as a stand-in head coach. In 1989, Jim Hanifan took over in Atlanta, after the resignation of Marion Campbell, only after club officials lied to him and convinced him the team's record for its final four games would not count on his NFL résumé. Longtime league assistant Hank Bullough once allowed he had just two words, "Good luck," for any interim head coach after he went 2-10 with a Buffalo Bills team he inherited as a replacement for Kay Stephenson in 1985.
Maybe the owners anxious to make an in-season coaching change for 2004, and with their fingers poised on the eject button, will heed those words.
And, then again, maybe they won't.
Around the league
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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