Definitive guide to Black Monday and the 2012 coaching carousel
With three coaches already fired, another handful could fall on Black Monday
Don't buy Jon Gruden-Rams rumors, Jeff Fisher is a more realistic possibility
Ex-Packers coach Mike Sherman could be a surprise candidate this offseason
The arithmetic is unrelenting. Since 1989, NFL teams have hired on average 6.5 new head coaches a year, and there have been a staggering 82 coaching changes made in the league from 2000-on. Only one team, the Philadelphia Eagles, has completely sat out the frenzy in that department, having brought a young and promising Andy Reid to town in 1999.
This season, including elevated interim head coaches in Dallas and Minnesota, there were eight new coaches in the NFL, and that number is likely to be matched or nearly so once again in 2012. That's roughly half the league's 32 teams swapping out the man in the headset in the span of 12 to 13 months. Already in the past month, three teams have dismissed head coaches -- Jacksonville, Miami and Kansas City -- and are preparing to hire replacements.
Is it any wonder that Black Monday in the NFL -- the day after the regular season concludes -- has become something of a national death watch? With the clocking ticking toward the start of firing/hiring season, here's a team-by-team breakdown of what we think we know, with a look at the names and resumes of some potential coaching candidates:
St. Louis -- Sources in St. Louis say the fate of Rams' third-year head coach Steve Spagnuolo has yet to be definitively sealed by team owner Stan Kroenke, but with a 10-37 career record with one game remaining, you won't find anyone, anywhere who likes Spags' chances to return for year four. Rams general manager Billy Devaney is also considered a likely goner, but at least one league source I spoke with Wednesday gives him a chance to survive in his job depending upon whom the team hires as head coach. Kroenke isn't known as "Silent Stan'' for nothing, and he doesn't tip his hand. But there's a decent chance both Spagnuolo and Devaney are asked to turn in their key cards sometime early next week.
The Rams' top choice on the coaching front is an obvious one, but probably not the one you're thinking of. You can discount the Jon Gruden chatter. That doesn't pass the sniff test. The ex-Bucs head coach is making it known that he'll stay at ESPN for another year, and even a ridiculous offer from a team desperate to make a headline splash with its hire (Miami, we're looking in your direction) isn't expected to be enough to coax him back to the sideline. Besides, competing against the likes of Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan twice a year in the AFC East, without a clear-cut answer at quarterback, isn't thought to be Gruden's idea of a party.
That's why all signs point to the Rams targeting ex-Titans head coach Jeff Fisher first and foremost. For starters, Fisher, the onetime L.A. Rams defensive coordinator and USC defensive back, has been represented for years by veteran agent Marvin Demoff, the father of Rams football operations chief, Kevin Demoff. There's a comfort zone between the younger Demoff and Fisher, and Demoff is the guy Kroenke relies on most for the day-to-day contact to the club. His say will carry considerable weight.
With Gruden and Bill Cowher both showing every indication of staying in the TV analyst role again in 2012, Fisher and his .538 career winning percentage (147-126) and 17 years of head coaching experience is actually the big fish in this year's pond. Fisher is smart, has plenty of money in the bank, and knows that in today's NFL coaching, you have to have a quality quarterback or you're just marking time until you're fired.
Fisher looks at the Rams and sees a team with Sam Bradford at quarterback, plenty of cap room in the coming two years (as much as an estimated $40 million) and either the first or second overall pick in the 2012, which could be shopped to a QB-desperate team and used as fodder to replenish other needier areas of the roster. He also likely finds Kroenke's reputation as a patient, non-meddling owner who gives his team sufficient resources fairly attractive as well. So what's not to like?
Both the Chargers and Dolphins are expected to come after Fisher as well, but St. Louis shouldn't worry about losing him to Miami (see earlier reference to QB issues, AFC East, etc...) The Chargers could be a different story. Life in SoCal could be very attractive to Fisher, and so could Philip Rivers at quarterback, with a relatively hands-off owner in Dean Spanos. The wild-card factor could be whether or not the Chargers retain general manager A.J. Smith and how he and Fisher fit together. Sources in St. Louis seem to think Smith likely survives in San Diego, and that might make the Rams Fisher's more likely destination, with Devaney perhaps remaining in his post in that scenario.
San Diego -- The big question in Charger-land is not whether or not Norv Turner will be retained -- he's thought to be a dead man walking -- but whether Smith returns and helps pick the next head coach, or is part of the purge as well. The San Diego Union-Tribune report earlier this week that had Smith and Gruden being a package deal that gets delivered to the Rams is not being taken too seriously around the league. It was viewed by sources I talked to as a somewhat transparent attempt to create leverage for Smith in San Diego, with the rumor believed to have originated in San Diego.
And it might be working, because while no one seems to know for sure who the Chargers will wind up with as head coach (although Fisher is sure to be high on their list), more than one club's top front office executive on Wednesday told me they're starting to think Smith might hang on in San Diego and live to fight (literally) another day.
Kansas City -- The Chiefs' coaching scenario seems the most tidy of all, and of course, the NFL is rarely tidy, so it probably can't happen the way we're envisioning. But here goes: Win or lose Sunday at Denver for Romeo Crennel (although a win and a 2-1 interim head coaching record makes the rationale a much easier sell), there's a pretty good shot he gets elevated to the full-time gig. League sources then expect Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli to go out and hire Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to the same post in Kansas City, with the expectation that McDaniels will be let go when Spagnuolo is canned.
Pioli will then have made his own locker room very happy with the retention of the popular Crennel, who he likes and greatly respects, but also will have put in a place a succession plan with the arrival of McDaniels, who could use another couple seasons to let the radioactivity from his failed Denver head coaching tenure die down. Crennel is 64, and gives Pioli a trusted short-term coaching option. McDaniels is 35, and gives Pioli a trusted long-term coaching option.
Both men are known quantities by Pioli, who will absolutely gravitate to the familiar in this hire, knowing he has to get it right in order to protect his own job security in light of the failed Todd Haley experiment in his first hiring decision. In McDaniels, there's the added bonus of having him work once again with Chiefs starting quarterback Matt Cassel, who he developed in New England. If McDaniels can get Cassel's game cleaned up, then the Chiefs aren't in the market for another starting quarterback option, other than maybe retaining Kyle Orton as Plan B. And McDaniels even worked with Orton in Denver and started 6-0 in 2009 with him under center.
With Crennel's great work with the K.C. defense, McDaniels overseeing the Chiefs offense, and Pioli having both stability and potential on hand, he'd be positioned about as well as he could have dreamed of being in the team's post-Haley era. As I said, this probably makes so much sense it can't possibly happen. But I'm willing to be wrong about my lack of faith. At least until Kansas City hires Kirk Ferentz away from the University of Iowa.
Tampa Bay -- The Bucs and Raheem Morris are going to part ways, of that I'm convinced. Tampa Bay's youthful third-year head coach has taken a smoldering situation and turned it into a raging fire in recent weeks, sounding immature, defensive and not up to the pressures and task of being the face of the organization. Oh, and did we mention that his football team is likely to lose its final 10 games this season, many of them in wholly non-competive fashion?
Like Pioli in Kansas City, Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik knows this is a critical hire for him, even though he was paired with Morris and jointly elevated in early 2009 by the Glazer family, without having any real authority until the move was made. His scope will be very broad in terms of his coaching search, with a few parameters: I believe the Bucs have to look for an offensive-minded coach, given the crucial stage of development/regression that franchise quarterback Josh Freeman is in after his disappointing 2011 season.
Secondly, while I don't think Tampa Bay will go after any headline names, I don't think they'll be looking for an inexpensive option or a novice in terms of head coaching, unless a coordinator-level candidate blows them away in the interview process and has success written all over him. With Jon Gruden's contract finally off the books, the Bucs can spend quite a bit more on their next head coach than they did on Morris. And if at all possible, prior head coaching experience, and a proven and successful plan for how to approach everything from practice schedules to play-calling will be prioritized.
Here are a few names that fit the bill as I read the Bucs' situation: Ex-Packers head coach Mike Sherman, who recently was let go by Texas A&M after five seasons as head coach, but went 59-43 (.578) in Green Bay from 2000-2006, winning three division titles and going to the playoffs four times in six seasons. Sherman will get interviews for NFL coaching jobs this year, count on it. And in retrospect, especially in this year's field of candidates, his track record and reputation for developing quarterbacks looks pretty darn impressive.
Another possibility in Tampa Bay is Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who not only knows the NFC South well, but who started his NFL coaching career in Tampa Bay on Sam Wyche's staff in the early '90s. Mularkey spent two years as Buffalo's head coach in 2004-05, went 14-18 with a 9-7 season in 2004 (the Bills' only winning record since 1999), and resigned that gig, without being fired. He has not hurt his resume any by working in Atlanta with quarterback Matt Ryan.
On the coordinator front, if the Bucs go that route, two names will surface: Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and Bengals first-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. I'm convinced Gruden, brother of Jon, will get some nibbles/interviews this season after he banged the table for the drafting of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati last April, then watched the ex-TCU passer make him look brilliant as a rookie. But in reality, I don't think the Glazer family and the Gruden family exchange holiday cards, so that particular reunion isn't going to happen.
As for Schottenheimer, he might be getting pillaged about now in the New York media, but there are those in the league who believe he'll be a successful head coach some day soon, and see him as having made the most of the limited talents and game of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez about as well as anyone possibly could have these past three years. Consider him a viable outside candidate to watch in Tampa Bay.