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NFL: Seats hot for these head coaches

By
Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh walks the sidelines during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh walks the sidelines during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo

When John Madden was a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame a decade or so ago, I did some research on his record - he had the best winning percentage of any coach in modern history - and uncovered a little factoid that made that record look even better.

No less than 10 of Madden's contemporaries already were in the Hall of Fame before him, and he had a winning record against every one of them.

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Once Madden was enshrined, that made 11 Hall of Fame coaches in his era.

To followers of today's game, that is a staggering number.

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Bill Belichick, for sure, will be enshrined at Canton after he retires, but his contemporaries? A mostly faceless bunch of sideline autocrats. In an era when coaching is more important than ever because of the way free agency and the salary cap impact team rosters and turnover, sideline giants are more rare than ever.

What brings this to the forefront as training camps begin and teams start to prepare for the 2017 season is the sheer frustration of trying to identify coaches who might be on the hot seat.

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Almost all of them are, because outside of Belichick, there is really not a single coach in the league who has accumulated enough capital to assure continued employment beyond this season regardless of what happens in 2017. Now, that's not to say 31 coaches will be fired - that's ridiculous on its face - but few of them would really elicit a reaction of shock were a team to make a change.

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Now, obviously, the half-dozen teams that just hired a coach this year are most unlikely to reverse course, especially a team like San Francisco that gave six-year contracts to its new coach, Kyle Shanahan, and its new general manager, John Lynch. And we would all be stunned were Pittsburgh, which has had just three coaches in a half-century, to pull the plug on Mike Tomlin, or Carolina to get rid of two-time coach of the year Ron Rivera.

But even Baltimore's John Harbaugh, who won at least one playoff game (and won a Super Bowl) in six of his first seven seasons, can't be feeling real secure after missing the playoffs three of the last four years. And you have to wonder how long even an owner like Cincinnati's Mike Brown will employ a coach like Marvin Lewis, still looking for a single playoff victory after 14 seasons on the job.

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On average, about seven teams a year change coaches in the NFL, which means the six changes each of the last two years imply an unusual stability. Which could mean we are about due for the kind of bloodletting that followed the 2005 (10 changes) and 2008 (11) seasons. This also marked the first time in six years there were no "one-and-done" coaches, fired after their first year with a team.

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With the caveat that not a single coach dismissal, other than Belichick, would deserve the word "shocking" in a headline, here are the coaches who appear to be in the most jeopardy as training camps begin:

--John Fox, Chicago. He is one of just a half-dozen coaches, along with Bill Parcells, Don Shula, Dick Vermeil, Mike Holmgren and Dan Reeves, to coach two different franchises to the Super Bowl. But in this what-have-you-done lately world, Fox hasn't done much. In fact, his two-year record with the Bears (9-23) is considerably worse than his predecessor, Marc Trestman (13-19), who was fired after two years.

Conventional wisdom is that Fox bought some time when the Bears drafted a quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, with the second overall pick in the last draft, but the real question is why it took Fox and general manager Ryan Pace so long to sour on Jay Cutler? Quarterback aside, the Bears likely will have to show some serious improvement for Fox to be back for a fourth season in 2018. Chicago never has retained a coach after three straight losing seasons.

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--Hue Jackson, Cleveland. Strange situation here, because the Browns do not appear to have really addressed their problem at quarterback, and Jackson is supposed to be an offensive coach. Cleveland was 1-15 last year.

--Todd Bowles, New York Jets. In two seasons, Bowles has managed to keep the team near .500, but they're another team that will be treading water, at best, until they solve their quarterback problem.

--Bill O'Brien, Houston. The Texans finished first in the AFC South in two of O'Brien's three previous seasons, but still seem to be one of those mysterious teams that never really makes an impact. Will quarterback Deshaun Watson change that?

--Jay Gruden, Washington. His record is five games under .500 after three seasons and with a mercurial owner like Daniel Snyder, it's at least slightly surprising he still is hanging on.

--Mike Mularkey, Tennessee. You have to assume the Titans, after going 9-7 last year with rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, are looking for a big jump in this, Mularkey's third season.

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Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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