Four coaches already on hot seat
No matter the reason for slow starts, these coaches are feeling the heat
The start of this NFL season has given us plenty to talk about: high-scoring offenses, mesmerizing quarterback play, surprise teams showing up in places like Buffalo, Detroit and Oakland.
It's also given us ample reason to wonder how many head coaches are actually going to make it through the year. Normally, we'd wait until after the first half of the season passed to assess the fate of certain individuals. Given how this season is playing out, that might be far too late to determine the job security of some of these men.
That's the way it goes for NFL head coaches. One minute, you're the flavor of the month. The next, you're just another guy thinking about dusting off his résumé. The ironic thing about the men on this list is that all but one have known what it's like to lead a playoff team. Now they're just hoping to escape the hot seat they've sat on since this season began.
So here's a summary of the coaches whose jobs are in most danger, along with their chances of being around next season.
1. Tony Sparano, Miami: Sparano's future was in trouble the minute Dolphins owner Stephen Ross started sniffing around Jim Harbaugh at the end of last season. Even when Ross tried to publicly apologize for bungling his apparent attempt to replace Sparano -- Ross ultimately extended the head coach's contract through 2013 -- the damage already had been done. All Sparano could hope for was a strong season and considerable proof that he could elevate the Dolphins. What he's produced so far is a team that has yet to win a game.
The sad part for Sparano is that he's clearly been saddled with suspect personnel. Quarterback Chad Henne remains inconsistent. Running back Reggie Bush was supposed to re-energize his career in south Florida, and he's averaging a woeful 2.9 yards per carry. The offense has just five touchdowns on 13 trips inside the red zone, and the defense has fallen from sixth in the NFL last season to 30th so far in 2011. The good news for Sparano is that a team source recently told the Miami Herald that his job is safe at least until the end of the season.
Prediction: The Dolphins' players already are talking about trying to save Sparano's job, which is usually the kiss of death in such situations. The notion that Ross won't fire Sparano before season's end also doesn't hold much weight, either. Other embattled coaches have heard similar proclamations, only to find themselves unemployed early in their team's bye week. Once such person is Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who was fired by San Francisco midway through the 2008 season and could run the Dolphins on an interim basis if Ross decides to can Sparano. Given the strength of the Dolphins' remaining schedule, don't be surprised if that is exactly what happens.
2. Todd Haley, Kansas City: It seemed impossible 10 months ago that Haley would end up on this list. He was fresh off an AFC West title and had transformed a four-win team into a 10-victory squad. Today, he's constantly hearing whispers about how poor his relationship with general manager Scott Pioli has become -- so poor, in fact, that some think Haley might not last past the Chiefs' bye week on Oct. 16. It hasn't helped Haley that his team has been imploding since the minute the lockout ended.
As far as blame goes, Haley certainly deserves his share for running a soft training camp that was supposed to protect players but instead left them inadequately prepared for this season. He's also the guy who has yet to find an offensive coordinator who is both competent and capable of coexisting with the head coach. Aside from that, Haley is strapped to a team that is far less talented than last year's record revealed. Injuries to key starters (running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki) might partially explain Kansas City's 0-3 start, but a weak overall roster also has plenty to do with the team's being outscored 109-27 so far this season.
Prediction: It's hard to find anybody who doesn't think Haley is a dead man walking. The Chiefs haven't just regressed, they've made people wonder how last season's success happened in the first place. Add in the fact that Haley is in the third year of a four-year deal -- and that the Chiefs haven't even faced the hardest part of their schedule -- and you get the picture. Pioli probably already has a short list of successors in place.
3. Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville: Somebody please explain how this man still has this job. He hasn't been to the playoffs since 2007, and his overall record since then is just 21-30. He also has the strangest timing ever when it comes to roster moves, having dumped two former starting quarterbacks (Byron Leftwich in 2006, David Garrard this year) right before the regular season began.
Del Rio did make some concessions to appease owner Wayne Weaver during the offseason -- including giving up defensive play-calling duties -- but it appears this team doesn't respond to him anymore. The offense is averaging just 9.7 points per game, and that production doesn't figure to improve with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert now starting. More playmakers on both sides of the ball would help the cause. Since that isn't happening anytime soon, it's hard to think Del Rio has the ability to energize this team in his ninth season.
Prediction: Del Rio knows the score: Weaver told him to make the playoffs this season or to prepare for a pink slip come January. Even with the Indianapolis Colts struggling, it doesn't look like Del Rio can meet that challenge. The Jaguars are 1-2 and looking very much like the team that dropped its final three games last season after being in playoff contention. It's time for some new blood in those parts.
4. Gary Kubiak, Houston: Kubiak is on this list for the same reasons as Del Rio. It's hard to understand how he kept his job following last season's 6-10 record. Injuries and a horrid pass defense might be easy excuses, but time also is working against Kubiak here. He's in his sixth season with the Texans. They have yet to make a playoff appearance in that time.
The upside this year is that Indianapolis is handicapped without Peyton Manning and the Texans are the next-best team in the AFC South. A 2-1 start also should give local fans hope for a postseason spot. But here's the rub: The Texans have beaten two teams (Indianapolis and Miami) that have yet to win a game, and they just lost what could've been a defining game (against New Orleans). That defeat indicates this team still has plenty to prove about being a serious contender. Until the Texans show otherwise, their coach remains on the hot seat.
Prediction: It's hard to see Kubiak blowing this opportunity. The AFC South title has never been so winnable, and the Texans are good enough to not let it slip away. In other words, he's not going anywhere.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.