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.
Of course, there were similar whispers about Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego only a fortnight ago, and the Chargers responded with two straight wins that dramatically altered the perception of how the team and its coach are now regarded. So it's possible that the clubs where coaches are currently being so closely scrutinized could go from inept to improved, as the Chargers have done the past two weeks. Realistically, however, it isn't likely.
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.
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
On the subject of coaching rumors, don't buy into the increasingly loud rumbles that the currently unemployed Steve Spurrier has met, or will soon huddle, with Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga. A couple solid sources with insights into what is going on in Miami were adamant this week in debunking the Spurrier talk. Given the sources' track record of dependability, at least with us, we are taking them at their word. Fact is, Spurrier, who still has some financial ties to the Redskins, isn't in as big a hurry to jump back into the coaching ranks as some assume. Of course, as long as the specter of Spurrier is out there, his name is going to be linked by the rumor mill to every job that comes vacant. That said, it won't be surprising if he doesn't return to the sideline until the 2006 season. As for the Miami job, even with the disaster of this season, many coaches who are quietly keeping tabs on what is transpiring in South Florida still regard it as a very attractive position. What those coaches are most interested in, it should be noted, is just how Huizenga structures the football operation in what likely will be a wholesale remake.
With all the attention presently being afforded the running game -- and, justifiably so, since there have been 49 individual performances of 100 yards or more through five weeks -- the gaudy accuracy mark of NFL quarterbacks in 2004 has been somewhat overlooked. Passers are connecting at a record pace, 60.9 percent at this juncture of the season. At this point in 2003, quarterbacks had completed 59.2 percent of their attempts, and the marksmanship for the entire season was 58.8 percent. The highest completion mark ever came in 2002, when quarterbacks hit on 59.6 percent of their attempts, and that season represented the high-water mark of a steady, five-year stretch of league wide increases in accuracy. Those increases corresponded with a propensity of passing-game designs that featured mostly three- and five-step drops, and offenses that really emphasized getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand quickly. The bump to this juncture in the 2004 season is attributable, in large part, to the point of emphasis on the illegal contact rule. While officials haven't thrown nearly as many illegal contact flags as pundits predicted that they would, there is no denying the affect on secondaries. Noted one NFC quarterback: "It's not quite like a seven-on-seven drill but, yeah, coverages are softer in general." There are 12 quarterbacks with completion rates below 60 percent, but seven starters who enter this weekend above 65 percent. Chad Pennington of the New York Jets, hardly blessed with the strongest arm, is at an amazing 71.3 percent. Pennington, in fact, has now become the most accurate passer in league history over the first 25 starts of a career. Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, who entered the '04 season with a career completion rate of 57.0 percent, is at 68.1 percent in four games. Michael Vick of Atlanta, a career 52.2-percent passer coming into the season, is at 60.2 percent under the tutelage of coordinator Greg Knapp. And Daunte Culpepper, who completed a career-best 65 percent of his passes last year, has been the most accurate passer so far, completing 72.7 percent of his tosses.
San Diego quarterback Drew Brees, an unrestricted free agent after this season, has done a very nice job the past two weeks of not only resuscitating the Chargers, but also positioning himself nicely for the future. There are still teams, like Green Bay, which would love to acquire Brees before the league's trade deadline next Tuesday but that isn't going to happen. However, in a league where personnel people are always looking down the road, there could be a pretty substantial group of clubs ready to pursue Brees in free agency. The Packers, once again, could head the list of potential suitors. The last two weeks really are a credit to Brees who, with the Chargers at just 1-2, was only a couple bad series of being replaced by first-rounder Philip Rivers. There are a lot of quarterbacks, even veterans, who would have responded adversely to such pressure. Brees instead rallied the Chargers, got them into a nice spot for the present, and certainly set himself up for the future.
Amid the ongoing offensive morass in Washington, left tackle Chris Samuels appears to be moving back to his previous Pro Bowl status, following too subpar seasons in which he was beset by injuries and the flawed pass protection scheme of the last coaching staff. It's important for Samuels, from a leverage standpoint, to have a comeback season. With burdensome salary cap numbers in 2005 and 2006, the Redskins might have no recourse but to release Samuels if he does not rework/extend his contract. Samuels has rebuffed such overtures in recent years, most recently this summer, but needs to make sure there is a viable market for him if he forces the 'Skins to make him a free agent. With his performance through five games, Samuels, still only 26 years old despite being a five-year starter, he is well on his way to resurrecting himself and of ensuring a lively market for his services.
The new seven-year contract that Baltimore "franchise" cornerback Chris McAlister signed last Saturday definitely puts him in a rare compensation category for the position. The deal isn't quite as big as the contract Champ Bailey signed this spring after being traded to Denver (a deal that is looking pretty one-sided right now), but no one need stage any telethons for McAlister. The six-year veteran received an initial signing bonus of $10 million and will get a second-tier option bonus of $7.5 million. His base salaries are: $535,000 (for 2004), $965,000 (2005), $5.5 million (2006), $6.5 million (2007) and $8 million each (2008-2010). So much for all the offseason talk that Ravens management was wary of investing too heavily in McAlister because of some of his past off-field indiscretions.
Of tailbacks and torts, part one: David Cornwell, the attorney attempting to secure an audience for bizarro man Ricky Williams with NFL officials, is a brilliant legal mind and somewhat cozy with league power brokers. But if Cornwell actually accomplishes what he claimed he will -- getting the erstwhile tailback and purple-hazed runner back into the league this season -- it may well be his greatest victory. It would also open up, some agents have suggested to us, a real can of worms for the league. To reinstate Williams this season would mean the league went against its own policies and made an exception for a Pro Bowl-caliber player. And if the NFL does so, it will be flooded by calls from agents whose clients did not receive similar treatment, and by attorneys seeking retroactive legal recourse.
Of tailbacks and torts, part deux: A number of media brethren have suggested in the past two weeks that Ravens tailback Jamal Lewis didn't get off with just the slap on the wrist from the NFL that some of us feel he did. Their rationale is that the drug case in which Lewis pleaded guilty occurred in the summer of 2000, before the tailback signed his first NFL contract, and before the league had some purview. But there is precedent for the NFL to sanction players even before they sign a contract. In fact, every year at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, there are a few players who enter the first phase of the substance abuse program when they test positive for controlled substances or banned supplements. And those cases occur months before a player is drafted, long before any contract proposals. So, to all the Lewis apologists: Stop the whining.
Speaking of whining, enough, please, from Jerry Rice. No one can ever deny Rice's lofty perch in the history of the league. The premier wide receiver, maybe the best player period in the NFL's annals. But not even the brilliance of Rice can stop the inexorable passage of time. And at age 42, it's time for Rice to understand the end is near, instead of engaging in public discussions about next season. Jerry stayed at the dance a tune or two too long. Hey, it happens, even with lesser athletes. But it's time for Rice to exit with the dignity he has demonstrated in his celebrated career.
Perhaps the most widely-discussed player in NFL circles this week was a guy who isn't even in the league yet. And, who depending on his draft leanings, might not be until the '06 season. The big buzz was about University of California quarterback Aaron Rogers, who completed 23 passes in a row in a loss to Southern California, and who many pro scouts now feel is the top potential quarterback prospect in the '05 draft. Rogers would have to be an early-entry in the '05 lottery and there have been no indications, either way, about his plans.
In the previous six seasons Marvin Harrison has been paired up with quarterback Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis wide receiver averaged 34.2 catches, 492.2 yards and 4.5 touchdown catches in the first five games. His numbers through five games this season: 29 catches, 296 yards and three scores. A decline from past years, sure, but hardly a drop precipitous enough to believe Harrison, even at age 32, is starting to slide. Yet that's what some folks in Indy, even a few of whom are drawing paychecks from the Colts, are rumoring. Part of the whispers are just a function of contract posturing -- Harrison can be a free agent at season's end and the Colts and his representatives have held very preliminary talks -- but even in that light are dastardly. Funny thing but, in past years, the suggestions were that the Colts needed to develop a complementary receiver to take some of Harrison's workland. Now that Indianapolis has done that, with both Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley playing magnificently, people think Harrison is slowing down a bit.
Cornerbacks who have faced Isaac Bruce of the Rams this season contend the 11th-year veteran, who turns 32 next month, is quicker in and out of cuts than he has been the past couple of years. Certainly the numbers indicate that might be the case. Bruce is second in the NFL in catches (38) and receiving yards (526) and is taking full advantage of the attention secondaries have paid to Torry Holt, who most observers felt had surpassed him the last few seasons. "I'm not saying his speed was down the last few years, (because) that would be ridiculous given the numbers he put up, but he looks really explosive now," said Seattle cornerback Bobby Taylor.
Despite all the offseason rhetoric about how the league's emphasis on calling illegal contact violations in the secondary would make for a flag daze, that hasn't been the case. Through the first five weeks, 74 games, there were just 44 illegal contact calls, with 28 penalties accepted. Only three defensive backs -- cornerbacks Quentin Jammer of San Diego, New England's Ty Law and Arizona's David Macklin -- have been nabbed more than once. Jammer has three calls against him and Law and Macklin have two each.
Punts: The Atlanta defensive staff is thrilled by the progress made by fifth-round defensive tackle Chad Lavalais. The former LSU standout has contributed nicely, especially against the run, and he is logging considerable playing time on first and second downs. That allows the Falcons to rest tackles Rod Coleman (four sacks) and Ed Jasper, who the coaches definitely want on the field on third down. … Biggest problem for the Washington passing game, according to a couple Redskins players, is the reliance on "max" protection. Because the design emphasizes protecting Mark Brunell, the Redskins typically are running two-man routes, and that is easy for just about any secondary to cover. … Wide receiver Jake Schifino, released by Tennessee last week, is getting plenty of attention. At 208 pounds, and clocked at 4.38, Schifino figures to be back in the league pretty soon. But first he has to get past the hamstring problems that have plagued his short career, and which were ultimately the reason coach Jeff Fisher gave up on him. … Look for the Jaguars, suddenly susceptible against the run, to continue to play some three-man fronts. … The Jets will be without both starting guards, Brandon Moore and Pete Kendall, for their game against San Francisco this weekend. This is the week that coach Herm Edwards has vowed to get backup tailback LaMont Jordan on the field to spell Curtis Martin.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.