At this time last year, few knew Michaele Salahi or Jim Caldwell.
Since then, Salahi has crashed the White House and Caldwell has crashed the coaching scene, becoming the first rookie head coach in NFL history to win his first 11 games.
Soon enough, other NFL owners will be wondering where they can get a coach like Caldwell. But during this holiday season, owners don't have time to go shopping. So to save them some time, we'll do it for them.
For those owners who cannot afford coaching jewels such as Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren or Bill Cowher, there are many top-rated assistant coaches who never have had the chance to be a head coach and would likely shine in such a role.
Here's a shopping list:
Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier: Had Denver not hired Josh McDaniels as its head coach, Frazier probably would have been its next choice. He is a mix of the men he has worked for, Mike Ditka and Tony Dungy, not to mention the man who succeeded Mike Tomlin as the Vikings' defensive coordinator.
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer: His players swear by him; their performance says even more about him. Interestingly, Zimmer's contract is up after this season. Cincinnati will want him back. But another team might want him even more.
Cardinals assistant head coach Russ Grimm: A few years ago, many thought Grimm was the favorite to land the Steelers job that went to Tomlin. Since then, Grimm has helped guide another team to the Super Bowl and soon might get another chance.
Bills interim head coach Perry Fewell: In two weeks, Fewell's team nearly upset the Jaguars, and did beat the Dolphins. The Bills are playing better, tougher football and shining a light on Fewell for Buffalo and any other interested team.
Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott: Even before he became the Eagles' defensive coordinator last summer, McDermott was on teams' head-coaching lists last season. He didn't wind up interviewing for any head-coaching jobs then; he will soon.
Cowboys assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Jason Garrett: Once the hottest coaching candidate in the league, Garrett has turned the up-and-down Cowboys offense into one of the league's better units. It now ranks fourth in total offense, sixth in rushing and 10th in passing.
Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson: Jackson's work is one of the key reasons Joe Flacco has developed as quickly and smoothly as he has. Teams have noticed before. They will again.
Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer: Staying in New York for another season afforded Schottenheimer the opportunity to learn more from a different coach, Rex Ryan. Now Schottenheimer has plenty of experience to draw upon for the day when he does become a head coach.
Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton: Teams love coaches from winning organizations, and Horton has learned all about the Steelers, and their ways, since 2004. A former NFL defensive back, the 49-year-old Horton has head-coaching qualities.
Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger: With Jeff Fisher having a defensive background, Heimerdinger has elevated the play of this offense and quarterback Vince Young. He also knows plenty about being a head coach; his college roommate at Eastern Illinois was Mike Shanahan.
And speaking of Eastern Illinois, that leads us into this week's 10 Spot:
Charleston, Ill., has become an unlikely source for the NFL's top offensive minds. Here's why: For years, former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan was considered the NFL's best playcaller. Now that he's out of the league, many consider Saints head coach Sean Payton to be the NFL's best playcaller, a notion he reinforced with Monday night's masterpiece over New England. And not far behind is Vikings head coach Brad Childress.
Interestingly and amazingly, each attended college at Eastern Illinois, which also produced quarterback Tony Romo and actor John Malkovich. Now, as Shanahan bides his time until he returns to the NFL next season, Payton and Childress have their teams on a collision course to meet in the NFC Championship Game. Each coach has made all the right moves. Each coach is enjoying his finest professional season. And each coach is going to turn Charleston, Ill., into a must-stop destination for reporters preparing postseason stories. And the bottom line is this: Oxford produces world-class scholars and Eastern Illinois produces top coaches.
Minnesota's Adrian Peterson continually does the unimaginable and the unthinkable. But few numbers top his most recent statistical oddity. In his three NFL seasons, Peterson now has rushed for more than 1,000 yards six different times, including four this year. How is this possible? Just look at what he has done this season. Two Sundays ago against Seattle, on a third-quarter carry, Peterson rushed for 3 yards to reach 1,001 for the season. On his next carry early in the fourth quarter, Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney tackled Peterson for a 2-yard loss, dropping the Vikings running back to 999 yards on the season. On Peterson's next carry, he gained 1 yard to get back to 1,000 for the season. Then on his next carry, Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill tackled Peterson for a 1-yard loss, dropping him back to 999 to finish the game. Then, after heading into last Sunday's game versus Chicago with 999 yards, Peterson ran for 3 yards on his first carry, getting him to 1,002. On his next carry, Peterson was tackled for a 2-yard loss and on the next carry, which also happened to be a fumble, Chicago linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer tackled Peterson for a 3-yard loss, dropping him to 997 rushing yards for the season. On his next carry, Peterson gained 4 yards to go back over 1,000. And after a carry with no gain, Peterson reeled off a 15-yard gain to get him to 1,016 and a spot in which he no longer would have to worry about straddling the 1,000-yard mark. But think of the accomplishment. Peterson might be the first running back at any level to rush for 1,000 four times in one season.
For the first time, it's worth asking whether Peterson has fumbled the title of the NFL's best running back and Tennessee's Chris Johnson has recovered. This season, Peterson has fumbled six times, losing five. In 41 NFL games, Peterson has fumbled 19 times and lost 12. None of the fumbles has cost the Vikings this season. But come playoff time, Peterson cannot fumble and expect that wins will come as easily.
Meanwhile, while Peterson has dropped the ball, Johnson has exploded with it. Johnson has at least 125 rushing yards in six straight games, tying the NFL record that Earl Campbell set in 1980 and Eric Dickerson tied in 1984. This is now the company that Johnson keeps: Campbell, Dickerson and Peterson. But as Minnesota's Brett Favre said about Peterson in remarks that NFL Films recently captured when it miked the Vikings quarterback for the Nov. 15 game against the Lions: "They can't stop you. The only one who can stop you is you. I've been around a long time, and I ain't been around nobody like you."
At this time of the year, no team has been so beatable and unbelievable all at the same time. But that's what these 11-0 Indianapolis Colts are. They have joined the 1997 San Francisco 49ers, 2004 Philadelphia Eagles and 2007 New England Patriots as the only teams since 1990 to clinch their division by the 11th game of the season. But they also are the only team in NFL history that has won five straight games when trailing in the fourth quarter of each one. So if they can beat the resurgent Titans on Sunday at home, then there's no reason the Colts couldn't march through their last four games against Denver, at Jacksonville, against the New York Jets and at Buffalo to become 16-0. But it also wouldn't surprise anybody to see the Colts play their first postseason game at home, in the AFC divisional round, and fall behind again only to see if Peyton Manning could author yet another comeback. But first things first. A win Sunday will give the Colts their 21st straight regular-season win -- 21st! -- and tie them with the 2007 Patriots for the NFL record.
In late October, just before Titans coach Jeff Fisher introduced former Colts coach Tony Dungy at a charity rally at a time when his team was winless, he ripped off his button-down shirt and jacket and revealed a No. 18 Peyton Manning jersey. "I just wanted to feel like a winner," Fisher told the crowd gathered at Nashville's Lipscomb University for Rocketown, a local charity that serves youth in the middle Tennessee area. Well, now Fisher knows. Since starting 0-6 and wearing the Manning jersey, Fisher's team has not lost a game. It is the first NFL team to start 0-6, then win its next five games. And now the Titans are making a playoff push that takes them to Indianapolis for their biggest challenge of the season and the game of the week. If Fisher can help pull out another win -- and it's assumed he'll be wearing Titans garb, not a Manning jersey -- he will vault himself into the conversation with Caldwell, Payton, Childress and Marvin Lewis as candidates for the coach of the year. No coach with this many losses at this time of the season has probably gotten much consideration. But Fisher would start getting plenty with another win Sunday.
If the Colts are the team that doesn't lose during December, then Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is the player who doesn't lose in December. To date, as a starting quarterback in December, Rivers has a 14-0 record. This is what makes San Diego's November run even more impressive. Usually this team gets better as the season goes on and peaks in December. This time it hit its stride before December. In their past six wins, the Chargers have outscored their opponents by 105 points -- an average margin of victory of 17.5 points per game. Using two-back sets with fullbacks Mike Tolbert or Jacob Hester leading the way, or multiple-tight end sets with Antonio Gates and Brandon Manumaleuna on the wing, LaDainian Tomlinson has returned to being a goal-line force. Near the goal line, Tomlinson has gotten 26 touches and scored seven touchdowns. But Rivers is the key. He is one of the top deep ball throwers in the game, if not the very best. He is playing better than he ever has. Some teams go years, decades even, without a legitimate starting quarterback. Hard to imagine that, at one time, the Chargers' quarterbacks were Rivers and Drew Brees, San Diego's version of Green Bay's former duo of Aaron Rodgers and Favre.
In recent seasons, December has treated the Cowboys worse than Eagles fans. The Cowboys have blown first-place leads in each of the past three Decembers. The fade route has become the familiar route at this time of year in Dallas. Cowboys fans probably have heard this before, but this December could be different. Really. Just look at Dallas' production in its previous game against a tough Oakland defense. With Romo moving around the pocket more than he has recently, wide receiver Miles Austin had receptions of 49, 27 and 20 yards. Running back Marion Barber had a 42-yard catch and a 32-yard run. Running back Tashard Choice had a 66-yard run. Running back Felix Jones had a 46-yard run. Dallas averaged 10.3 yards per pass play. It was a glimpse of what the Cowboys are capable of doing. Now they go up against a Giants defense that has faded the way Dallas normally does in December. The Giants aren't playing up to their name. Usually, they're the ones to knock down and knock out their opponents. Now the Cowboys have the chance to do it to them.
Here's the upside for the Steelers and their fans. This past Sunday night in Baltimore, for the first time in nine games, the Steelers did not allow some type of return for a touchdown. Unfortunately for the Steelers, they lost their third straight game, which inspired Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin to declare, in one of the quotes of the year: "We will not go gently. We will unleash hell here in December." Whoa. Those are some fighting words, which reverberated around the NFL, but especially in Oakland and Cleveland, the next teams that are scheduled to play the Steelers. But it is all Pittsburgh can do now: fight back. It knows its season is on the line. The Steelers are 6-5, something not entirely unfamiliar to them. In 2005, Pittsburgh was 7-5 before it stormed through December and January, all the way to a championship. The Steelers will get quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back. They will get safety Troy Polamalu back in time for one final playoff push. And once they do, Tomlin plans on having his team's opponents pay for the Steelers' recent slump.
Somewhere along the way, what was expected to be a run-happy 49ers team has turned into a pass-happy team. Quarterback Alex Smith has demonstrated better passing skills than San Francisco's former starter, Shaun Hill. Tight end Vernon Davis has turned into an adept and dangerous pass-catcher. And rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree has added a new, formerly missing element to the 49ers' offense. Just check out what 49ers coach Mike Singletary answered to the question of who have become his offense's leaders. "Well, Vernon [Davis] would be the No. 1 guy, Alex a close second," Singletary said. "Even the young kid, as much as I hate to say it -- Crabtree. I keep telling him he needs to be quiet, but he's getting there. Good kid. Those guys are leading the pack." And now they have led San Francisco back into playoff contention, with a winnable game Sunday at Seattle before what is shaping up to be a pivotal Monday night game Dec. 14 against Arizona.
Now we know why the Rams had no interest in trading running back Steven Jackson to any teams that called before the trade deadline. In this lost and forgettable Rams season, Jackson is the one player worthy of a St. Louis salute. He is running remarkably hard and playing as if the season still matters. In Week 12, despite back spasms that left him questionable up until kickoff, Jackson rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for 27 more yards. All together this season, Jackson has piled up 1,378 total yards -- 1,120 on the ground, 258 through the air -- and is likely to top his personal-best single season of 2006, when he had 1,528 total yards. The Rams have plenty of work to do this offseason. But along with Minnesota's Peterson and Tennessee's Johnson, they have one of top three running backs in the game
The Schef's Specialties
Game of the week: Tennessee at Indianapolis: If Tennessee wins this one, and the unlikely comeback continues, a wild-card spot comes into clear focus.
Player of the week: Bears RB Matt Forte: With only one 100-yard game this season, a mere 543 yards rushing, and only three touchdowns, Forte is due for the type of game he hasn't had in 2009.
Upset of the week: Giants over Cowboys: The Giants are due to get their ground game on track, and the Cowboys know what the calendar now says.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.