We're still six days away from a Monday designated for creating coaching openings, but the Philadelphia Eagles simply couldn't wait to move on from Chip Kelly.
Owner Jeffrey Lurie's decision to can Kelly before the end of the regular season officially began the NFL's annual game of coaching musical chairs. Last month, I wrote about why the Eagles might want to keep Kelly as a coach but remove his general manager responsibilities; it appears that Lurie did not find that option appealing, either.
It remains to be seen whether the Eagles will regret firing a coach who went 26-21 with two 10-win seasons in not-quite three years. Plenty of other coaches will come under the microscope over the next week with less to show for, and when Monday arrives, plenty more will join Kelly in the ranks of the unemployed. Seven coaches were pushed aside last offseason, and it would hardly be a surprise to see a similar number leave over the next seven days.
Of course, if your coach's name is on a list of candidates who are on the hot seat, it's usually pretty easy to come up with some sort of justification for firing him. It's a lot tougher to come up with reasons why a coach should keep his job, but sometimes, the best decision is to hold onto an embattled leader. Take Carolina, which was rumored to be firing Ron Rivera after a frustrating 2012 campaign. The Panthers kept Rivera, and after starting 0-2 in 2013, Rivera started going for it on fourth down and turned into Riverboat Ron. The Panthers have gone 33-13-1, winning three divisional titles, while Rivera is likely to win his second Coach of the Year award this offseason.
With that in mind, given that nobody knows anything about coaching, let's try to squeeze out another year for coaches in danger of getting fired this Monday. This list won't include Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley, since the Jaguars announced yesterday that they intend to keep Bradley on for a fourth season.
I didn't include any of the teams who are set to make the playoffs on the list, which may be too conservative; remember, last year there were no rumors regarding John Fox's future employment until the weekend of Denver's first playoff game. The Broncos lost, and Fox was canned shortly thereafter. Eliminating the playoff teams and most of the candidates who were hired last offseason, I count 14 coaches who could use a good defense lawyer right about now. Fortunately, I work pro bono. I'm not suggesting that I agree with these arguments, but my job here isn't to make the right choice; it's to save my clients' jobs.
Interim coaches have a terrible track record, but let's give these temporary employees another go:
Dan Campbell, Miami
The argument: From the moment he was named interim head coach, it was clear that Dan Campbell wanted to change Miami's culture and play a more physical, imposing style of football. The problem is that he was stuck with Joe Philbin's players and coaches, neither of whom fit the style he wanted to run. After some early success, the Dolphins struggled to run the football, while Cameron Wake's season-ending Achilles injury zapped the pass rush, which was supposed to be the strength of Miami's defense. Campbell fired both of his coordinators during the season, and he lost seven of his past nine games, with those two wins coming by a combined three points.
If the Dolphins thought Campbell was the right choice as their head coach of the future, they should give him the chance to move forward with a genuine shot at implementing his style. That means finding an offensive coordinator who can mold Miami's offense around a power-running attack and spending the few dollars Miami has left on bigger, stronger offensive linemen who can hold up at the line of scrimmage. A quarterback who passes Miko Grimes' muster wouldn't hurt, either.
Mike Mularkey, Tennessee
The argument: The most important thing the Titans can do right now is develop Marcus Mariota, and Mularkey has had some success working with young quarterbacks in the past, notably developing Matt Ryan into an instant success with the Falcons. Mularkey's 2-6 record as interim coach wasn't exactly impressive, but two of those losses came with Mariota on the sidelines for most or all of the contest. And with the Titans perpetually rumored to be up for sale, the last thing a new owner wants is to be stuck paying millions of dollars to get out of a long-term coaching contract. It might be better to keep Mularkey as the short-term option while the franchise remains in limbo.
An awkward group of head coaches with some prior success who flamed out in 2015. It wouldn't necessarily be a surprise to see any of these four coaches take the fall for their teams' disappointing seasons, but they really deserve another year.
Jim Caldwell, Detroit
The argument: Caldwell took over for a perennially disappointing Lions team that had exactly one winning season in its previous 13 years and took them to the playoffs at 11-5. And sure, his future seemed dim when general manager Martin Mayhew and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi were fired midseason, leaving Caldwell looking like a dead man walking. It would have been easy to imagine the Lions quitting on Caldwell, but he has gone 5-2 after a 1-7 start, and don't forget one loss came on a dubious call in Seattle and another on a Hail Mary in a game in which the Lions should have finished off Green Bay. A change at offensive coordinator seems to have helped. At 17-14 over his two seasons in Detroit, Caldwell deserves a third season at the helm.
Jason Garrett, Dallas
The argument: Despite rampant rumors that Garrett was on the hot seat, Jerry Jones stuck with him through years of disappointing 8-8 seasons, many of which ended with the Cowboys losing the division at the end of December. The Cowboys finally broke through with a 12-4 season and a division title in 2013, solidifying Garrett's hold on the job, only for injuries to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant to wash away Dallas' chances of competing this year. If Garrett was good enough to hold onto his job before 2013, why should a year marred by injuries cost him his job now that he has proved he can win when his team stays healthy?
Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay
The argument: Smith's success isn't in Tampa Bay, but instead in Chicago, where a number of Bears fans wish they had never fired the guy who went 81-63 -- and to a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman at quarterback -- during his nine years at the helm. Smith's Buccaneers were far more competitive this year, going 6-9 after a DOA 2-14 season during Smith's debut. As the Bucs continue to develop Jameis Winston with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, Smith's defenses continue to deliver adequacy, as they're currently 17th in DVOA after finishing 18th a year ago. Without much in the way of talent after Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, that should be good enough for Smith to stick around for at least one more year as Winston presumably makes strides.
Mike McCoy, San Diego
The argument: The Chargers were another team ravaged by injuries this year. Their offensive line has been reduced to a glorified blocking sled, while the passing attack never seemed to recover after losing No. 1 wideout Keenan Allen. The Chargers averaged 23.9 points with Allen in the lineup, but since he went down in Week 8 with a lacerated kidney, they've mustered a mere 15.6 points per contest. While it wouldn't be a surprise to see the team fire defensive coordinator John Pagano, McCoy's relationship with Philip Rivers and his 18-14 start as a head coach should get him a fourth season, whether it be in San Diego or Los Angeles.
There are a number of coaches with impressive track records who are receiving serious criticism this offseason. Here's why they deserve to trade on their long-term success:
John Harbaugh, Baltimore
The argument: The last time the Ravens went 5-11, they fired Brian Billick and replaced him with Harbaugh. Nobody will argue that Baltimore's 2015 season has been among the most disappointing in all of football, but the obvious problem for Harbaugh's team has been a catastrophic stack of injuries. Nine of Baltimore's preseason starters are on injured reserve, including Joe Flacco, and since his injury, the Ravens have been forced to start three different quarterbacks. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Baltimore shake up Harbaugh's coaching staff, which is perennially subject to change, but it would be incredibly unfair to fire Harbaugh after one injury-riddled campaign that also included the loss of his previously healthy quarterback.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh
The argument: Steelers fans are a little restless after one of the more frustrating four-season stretches for Pittsburgh in recent memory. If the Steelers miss out on this year's playoffs, they will have made just one trip to the postseason in the past four years. They will have gone five years without winning a playoff game for the first time since the fading days of the Chuck Noll era, and with the Steelers dropping an easily winnable game against the Ravens to blow their playoff pole position, somebody has to take the fall.
Here's why we shouldn't listen to Steelers fans when it comes to coaching: Bruce Arians. In part driven by fan dissatisfaction, Pittsburgh ownership ran off Arians over concerns that his offense wasn't blue-collar enough for the Steelers. Arians has since become one of the most successful head coaches in all of football. The Steelers have issues, but many of them are driven by their terrible cap management, which forces Pittsburgh to run street free agents into meaningful snaps when their stars get injured. 2015 will also be Tomlin's ninth consecutive season without a losing record as a head coach; the Steelers would be hard-pressed to find anybody with an impressive enough track record to justify dumping their Super Bowl-winning coach.
Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis
The argument: Somebody has to go after Indianapolis's wildly disappointing 2015 season, but the loser of Indy's power struggle shouldn't be Chuck Pagano. Instead, it should be general manager Ryan Grigson, whose disastrous free-agent spending and ill-advised trades have left the Colts with little to show for four years of having Andrew Luck at a quarter of his market value. Despite a difficult season, the former Ravens defensive coordinator has his defense ranking a respectable 13th in defensive DVOA. He has also made the playoffs twice in three years (excluding the year he missed while undergoing leukemia treatment). With a better personnel department, Pagano and Luck should be able to team up for another division title in 2016.
Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
The argument: Late-game decision-making is a meaningful part of being a head coach, and it's impossible to argue that Coughlin was anything but derelict in his duties there this season. The Giants could very well be in the playoffs if they had held onto late leads against the Cowboys, Falcons, Patriots and Jets. It's also worth pointing out that Coughlin had his team, again riddled with injuries (which may not be his fault), in line to win the vast majority of their games this season. Big Blue doesn't need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. With some remedial game-management classes, the two-time Super Bowl-winning Coughlin could very well still be the best choice to coach these Giants in 2016.
Sean Payton, New Orleans
The argument: The Saints are in absolute cap hell after selling out for the likes of Jairus Byrd in recent years, and the most obvious way to get out will be parting ways with Drew Brees, who has a league-high $30 million cap hit coming next season. They could alternately clear out cap space by signing Brees to an extension, and given that Brees was still the league's fourth-best quarterback by QBR in 2015, it would hardly be unwarranted.
And if the Saints are going to stick with Brees, what good would it be to part ways with his long-time head coach? Payton may be partly responsible for New Orleans' cap issues given the team's roster construction, but that would be a reason for the Saints to cut back on his personnel duties as opposed to finding a new head coach. Why can the guy a bunch of other teams will want to hire the second he's available?
The last licks
Finally, there are the coaches who need serious redeeming. I'll have to call on some serious powers to get these guys off the hook. Did I say I'm pro bono?
Mike Pettine, Cleveland
The argument: The last thing the Browns need at this point is another rebuild. Since the franchise came back into existence in 1999, they've worked their way through seven permanent head coaches over 16 seasons, giving just two -- Butch Davis and Romeo Crennel -- more than two years at the helm. They are perennially changing coaches, coordinators and schemes, which leaves them dumping off the players from the last guy as they chase talent to fit their new approach.
They need stability, and while Mike Pettine hasn't been anything to write home about, he was able to build the league's second-best pass defense by DVOA last season. That same unit has struggled this year, but star cornerback Joe Haden has also missed 10 games. Pettine hasn't been able to corral Johnny Manziel, but it's unclear whether any coach could have pulled that off. More notably, it's also not a sure thing that Manziel will be back next year. The Browns should just retain their staff, part ways with Johnny Football and build around their quietly impressive running game while hoping Pettine can coax the defense back into its 2014 form. And then rebuild if it fails in 2016.
Jim Tomsula, San Francisco
The argument: Yes, Jim Tomsula has looked overwhelmed during his first full season as a head coach. He's no Jim Harbaugh. Even knowing that's the case, it's incredibly aggressive to get rid of any head coach after a bad debut season; there's a long list of Hall of Fame caliber head coaches who looked awful during their rookie campaigns, including Bill Belichick (6-10), Jimmy Johnson (1-15), and Bill Parcells (3-12-1). It's foolish to predict that Tomsula will end up in the ranks with those legends, but one year of data isn't enough to make a conclusion about any coach, let alone one who lost four would-be starters to retirement during the spring and is now overseeing an attempted Blaine Gabbert revival out of necessity.
Jeff Fisher, St. Louis
The argument: Hey, the Browns would kill for 8-8.