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NFL hot seat: The head coaches fighting for their futures

By Nat Coombs

Published: 19:13, 25 November 2021

Nothing demonstrates the spirit of Thanksgiving more than widespread speculation surrounding a Head Coach and his job.

This year, it’s the turn of Chicago Bears’ Matt Nagy, who’s now firmly in the category of “not if, but when” he’ll be fired. With the Bears stumbling out of the playoff picture in another mediocre season, this week has been rife with chatter of his impending demise. Nagy’s is not so much a hot seat, as the charred embers of a fading fire after an all-nighter by the shores of Lake Michigan. Thanks for coming, Matt. See you next time.

It’s unlikely the Bears will pull the plug during the season though. It’s just not in the organisation’s nature, plus NFL teams rarely fire their head coaches midway through a campaign. Analyst Ben Isaacs, who guested on my podcast this week, explained this rationale. “It’s almost certain your replacement coach won’t be available until January so you can’t get the new one in until then anyway,” he said.

“Plus, if you fire your coach midseason, your interim coach might get hot, and you’re obligated to offer him a long-term contract even though you don’t think he’s the man to take the team forward.”

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External circumstances can facilitate change — the controversy surrounding ex-Raider head honcho Jon Gruden earlier this season for example — but if your biggest transgression is presiding over abject failure on the field, you’ll usually be given the rest of the year to be booed by fans and ignored by your locker room, stumbling listlessly into the dark void. Or, as it’s known in the trade, Black Monday.

The Monday after the final weekend of the regular season is the day that under-fire coaches dread. It’s typically when the guillotine comes down for those who’ve run out of time, and this year, as ever, there is no shortage of speculation around the league as to who may get the chop.

Nagy may be the only coach who is widely expected to go, but several others are ominously close to the precipice. The good news for most is there’s still time to save the situation — and their jobs — by putting a strong run together. It’s far better for a team that ends the season 7-10 to close off with a string of wins, than to start the year 6-3, be in the playoff race, and then capitulate in the second half. Finish strong, leave them wanting more, don’t forget to tip your waiter.

This is very much what Bryan Flores, the Dolphins Head Coach, pulled off in his first season in charge back in 2019. Having started the season 0-7, Miami ended up with a 5-4 run, including a major win over the Patriots, and Flores was the talk of the league going into the offseason. He was a young head coach trending upwards, with draft picks aplenty and optimism abounding, despite a weak 5-11 record. It was well founded praise too, as Miami rolled to a 10-6 record the following year, narrowly missing the playoffs.

This time around, things have been different, a season that began full of promise, but has flattered to deceive, with an offense that lacks identity, and a talented defense underperforming. Flores is a considered and impressive coach, who learnt under Bill Belichick and should be given room to rebound with the Dolphins, yet he’ll need to chalk up some wins over the next few weeks or the chatter will louden as to whether he’s the right man for the job. It’s symptomatic of our times that the expectation levels for immediate success often cloud perspective, and it would represent a mistake for Miami to jettison their young coach, but it could conceivably happen if they stumble to a 5-12 record.

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Another coach under pressure, but unrealistically so, is Robert Saleh. In his first year with the Jets, and without his second overall pick Zach Wilson for much of the season, New York have hit a three-game losing streak in a season where they’ve only managed two wins. It’s doubtful they’ll move on after just one season, but the team needs to play hard and chalk up a few more wins to make his retention a lock. More heavy defeats like the 54-13 reverse to New England or the 45-17 loss to the Bills may stoke up the haters, especially given Saleh’s primary focus is meant to be the defense.

Urban Meyer inherited a similar situation to Saleh in Jacksonville — a poor team with a first round rookie quarterback, though in Meyer’s case this was the phenom Trevor Lawrence. Whilst no-one seriously expected the Jags to be playoff contenders this season, the dysfunction and erratic return from Meyer, on and off the field, has caused many to speculate whether he’ll be one and done. His fine college pedigree, and the fact he’ll likely have no shortage of offers, could see him head back to a more comfortable existence. Given the potential and optimism the Jags experienced going into the season with the Meyer-Lawrence connection, this would be a shame, albeit entirely logical for all parties.

In Houston, David Culley has faced the most challenging of situations. A threadbare roster, an unsettled franchise quarterback looking for a move which subsequently collapsed under all manner of egregious allegations, and the pervading sense that he’s only (ever been) a caretaker coach. With all that in mind, he’s done an admirable job, with his team, for the most part, playing hard for the veteran co-ordinator, who’s taken his first top job this season at the age of 66.

The expectation will be that the Texans will look to reboot by appointing a vogueish, hot co-ordinator, or a hyped college coach, and you’d understand why. But much like certain teams that would do well to back their solid if unremarkable veteran quarterback for another year and strengthen in other areas, Houston should consider re-upping Culley for another season, to calm the chaos that abounds in Houston.

Joe Judge is coaching for his job in New York, as the Giants lurch to another losing season. If he can push to close to .500 it may be enough, but with doubts on quarterback Daniel Jones too, the ownership may look at this as time to re-up.

Arthur Smith has had a bumpy first season in Atlanta and is in a similar situation. Pull a Flores — solid end to his first year — and the positivity will abound. Slump to five or six more losses and it could be a nervy time for him.

Ron Rivera should be safe in Washington, given the injuries he’s had to deal with, but the Football Team have disappointed, and again, if they go on tilt between now and January, the perspective may change. A few weeks back, the mouth clowns as Iron Mike Carlson would brand them, were baying for the head of Kyle Shanahan. Now the 49ers are back in the playoff race, and mercifully the overreaction brigade have calmed. The same haters are suggesting the great Pete Carroll’s time could be up in Seattle. Similarly, this is nonsense, and he should be given time to reconstruct a new challenge.

Less straightforward is the Dan Campbell situation in Detroit. Like Culley, he has his team balling hard for him despite the obvious dearth of talent, and he’s a likeable character that should be allowed a few seasons to develop. It’s no coincidence that the most consistent franchises in the league — the Patriots, Saints, Ravens, Steelers and Seahawks — have the five longest-serving head coaches. And frankly, what were the Lions ownership expecting this year? But, inevitably, Campbell, who wasn’t a hipster darling co-ordinator (who tend to be given more time), could also be one and done. It’d be a mistake, as Detroit will hardly be the most enticing landing spot in the off season, and another year will tell us a significant amount about his ability to handle the job and shape an identity. Let’s hope he gets it.

Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.


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