The internet is the primary driver for the 24/7/365 news cycle in sports. Like clockwork, many take up the “win now” and “what have you done for me lately” mantras amid this media feeding frenzy. NFL coaches lose bargaining power in this environment, with owners writing checks, general managers making hires, and franchise players signing $100 million contracts. If anything, the head coach is the fall guy and scapegoat for any season gone wrong.
For 2016–17, five NFL coaches will be on the proverbial hot seat at varying degrees. A select few teams will give their head coaches the benefit of the doubt. Those coaches know that anything thing less than a deep postseason run is a major disappointment. The two most embattled head NFL coaches, however, may not survive past the bye week.
5. Marvin Lewis
A sign of the times: Fans and experts regularly mention “Cincinnati” and “win now” in the same sentence. For years, the Bengals were notable for perennial losing, draft busts, extensive rap sheets, and ugly uniforms. In 2003, Cincinnati hired Marvin Lewis as their head coach, after a year when the team went a lowly 2-14. Before Cincinnati, Lewis commandeered the historically dominant 2000 Baltimore defense.
By 2005, Lewis pushed the Bengals atop the AFC North and into the playoffs, with Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson, and Carson Palmer all in their prime. In the wild-card round, Pittsburgh defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen went low against Palmer and blew out the quarterback’s ACL. Palmer did not return to form until 2013, when he signed with Arizona. The Bengals, without their presumed franchise quarterback, reloaded through the draft. They picked up Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, A.J. Green, Vontaze Burfict, Carlos Dunlap, and Andy Dalton in recent years. With this core group, the Cincinnati Bengals have made the playoffs for five straight years.
Last year, Pittsburgh offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert demanded a rematch against Cincinnati in the playoffs, “where they choke.” Gilbert got his wish. Pittsburgh lined up for the game-winning field goal, after the Bengals fumbled late and were flagged for unnecessary roughness. Both teams racked up nearly $100,000 in fines, with NFL coaches and players taking cheap shots on the field. Still, in taking the loss, it was Lewis who appeared to lose total control of the team.
Lewis is 0-7 in the playoffs, despite going 113-96-2 through 14 regular seasons in the NFL. (Lewis is the second longest-tenured coach in the NFL after Belichick). Like Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay before him, respectability may not be enough to help Lewis in Cincinnati. It was Jon Gruden who won Super Bowl XXXVII his first year in Tampa, largely with Dungy’s players. Lewis must win one playoff game to keep his job.
4. Jim Caldwell
Jim Caldwell, the robot, has become infamous for his expressionless, blank stare out on the football field. In Indianapolis, it became a running joke that Peyton Manning truly ran the team; the front office merely parked a catatonic Caldwell on the sidelines, like Weekend at Bernie’s. Caldwell, for his part, made one Super Bowl XLIV (31-17 loss to Saints) appearance in Indianapolis, before being fired in 2012. By 2014, Caldwell landed on his feet and accepted the head coach position for the Detroit Lions.
For his first season in Detroit, Caldwell went 11-5 and earned a wild-card berth. The Lions lost 20-24 to the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round after several questionable calls that still haunt Detroit fans today. At that point, fans assumed the Lions were on the rise, with a young quarterback playing pitch-and-catch to one of the best wide receivers in history. The 2015 Lions, however, regressed to 7-9, after losing Ndamukong Suh in free agency.
That offseason, Calvin Johnson took a page out of the Barry Sanders playbook and retired after battling a series of nagging injuries for most of his career. For 2016-17, the Lions are 1-2, after giving up a late, come-from-behind fourth-quarter drive at home to the Tennessee Titans. Fans expect the Lions to challenge the Packers atop the NFC North. Minnesota is decimated by injuries to both Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater; Chicago looks like one of the worst teams in the league.
The Lions, without Johnson, must finally show real imagination on the offensive side of the football this year (instead of Matthew Stafford simply chucking it downfield). Expect Stafford to panic early and often without his security blanket and throw a pick six, while a motionless Caldwell watches in front of a hostile crowd. Caldwell will be all but gone if these Lions fail to make the playoffs.
3. Chuck Pagano
The Indianapolis Colts took Andrew Luck out of Stanford with the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. This move came in conjunction with the heartfelt release of Peyton Manning, at a time when it was doubtful whether or not this franchise icon would ever throw a football again. Andrew Luck went 11-5 and make the Pro Bowl through his first three seasons as the starter. For this, the Colts rewarded Luck with a six-year, $140 million contract this offseason.
The Indianapolis Colts have hitched their wagon to Andrew Luck as the future of the franchise. Chuck Pagano and his coaching staff will be collateral damage, if the Colts do not emerge as perennial Super Bowl contenders with Luck at the controls. Last year, the Colts finished the regular season at 8-8 and out of the playoffs, with Luck missing nine games, out with various injuries to his shoulder, ankle, and mid-section. For Indianapolis, 2015–16 was a major disappointment, especially after the front office spent big bucks to bring in veterans Frank Gore and Andre Johnson.
This offseason, division rival Houston rolled the dice in signing Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million deal. Osweiler is tasked with managing the game for a team defense that ranked third in yards given up last season. So far, the Texans look decently sharp, going 2-1 this season. Osweiler, for his part, has completed 59.6% of his passes for 695 yards.
The Colts, on the other hand, sputtered to an 1-2 start, and are fielding the worst defense in football, with a lost unit that repeatedly botches assignments and misses tackles. The patchwork secondary features an aging Antonio Cromartie stepping in for an injured Vontae Davis, only to get torched week-to-week. Pagano, remember, was first brought in to Indianapolis to shore up the defense, after serving as the defensive coordinator in Baltimore between 2008 and 2011. Ironically, this time, it will be Pagano’s defense that gets the man fired.
2. Jeff Fisher
Jeff Fisher is now mocked as “Mr. 7-9,” after his offseason rant about refusing to put up with “7-9 #@$%^!” went viral. After 22 years as a head coach, Fisher has gone 171-157 through the regular season and 5-6 in the playoffs. Interestingly, Fisher teams in Houston, Tennessee, and St. Louis have finished out the regular season at either 7-9 or 8-8 nine separate times, which does not include him going 7-8-1 in 2012. At this point, many analysts are openly wondering how and why Fisher has lasted in the NFL for so long.
Ironically, the Rams have been an apparent sleeper team, for several years running, with the team closing out the regular season at 6-10, 7-9, or 7-8-1 between 2012 and 2015. For the Rams, talent is not the issue. The defensive line is the strength of the team, with both Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage. In 2015, the Rams took Todd Gurley with the 10th pick in the draft; the rookie immediately established himself as the best back in the league this side of Adrian Peterson. When clicking on all cylinders, the Rams own the Seattle Seahawks. They beat them four times out of their past five meetings.
The 2016–17 Rams, of course, relocated to Los Angeles, after 22 long years away from Southern California. To open up the season, they traveled up the 101 to Santa Clara, only to get blown out 28-0 by the 49ers on prime-time television. These Rams, however, somehow regrouped to win ugly at home against Seattle. The 9-3 score appeared as if a baseball game had played itself out at the Coliseum, with two out-of-sync teams combining for 192 yards in penalties.
The opposition is on to the Rams, in stacking the box and daring Case Keenum to throw over the top. This year, Gurley runs into a brick wall; he is averaging a meager 2.9 yards per carry. Fisher will be fired after Week 8 — heading into the bye week — if the inconsistent Rams regress back to being one of the worst teams in the league. At that point, LA will lose the thrill of having a pro football team.
1. Rex Ryan
The Buffalo Bills last made the playoffs in 1999 — the longest drought in professional football. ’99 was the year of the Music City Miracle, when Frank Wycheck took the kickoff, pirouetted, and fired a pass across the field to Kevin Dyson (The aforementioned Fisher coached the Tennessee Titans at the time). From there, Dyson was in the clear, and raced 75 yards up field for six to win the game. The Bills, before the Music City Miracle, were mostly known for “wide right” and losing four straight Super Bowls. Buffalo is now the most cursed city in sports, after LeBron James brought a title home to Cleveland after 52 long years.
Enter Rex Ryan, who came on in 2015 and immediately started taking verbal jabs at Belichick, continuing one of the most one-sided rivalries in all of sports. From there, the Bills negotiated a deal to trade middle linebacker Kiko Alonso straight up for LeSean McCoy. Ryan apparently had his guys to go “ground and pound,” with a swarming 3-4 defense setting up a ball-control offense. The 2015 Bills, however, closed out the regular season at 8-8.
In response, Ryan brought in Rob Ryan, his twin brother, right after Rob was fired from a New Orleans team that finished dead last in defense. Shortly thereafter, top defensive tackle Marcell Dareus failed the league’s substance abuse protocol. The league suspended him for the first four games of 2016, and he checked into rehab. Dareus going AWOL came on the back end of the enigmatic Percy Harvin suddenly retiring; a fat Karlos Williams being cut from camp; Sammy Watkins taking to social media to rip fans; and Mario Williams packing his bags for Miami after coming up with a mere five sacks and 15 tackles last season.
The wheels fell off the wagon in Buffalo. The 2016 Bills are now 1-2 and appear to have quit upon their lame-duck coach. McCoy is averaging a career low 4.7 yards per carry, with opposing defenses stacking the box and playing press coverage against Buffalo receivers. Tyrod Taylor was able to take advantage, airing out the football for 297 yards and three touchdowns against the Jets. Still, Buffalo showed offensive coordinator Greg Roman the door, despite the team putting up 31 points in the loss.
With Roman taking the fall, the spotlight now shines right on Ryan. Jim Kelly, legend, already demanded that the team clean house. At this rate, the Ryan brothers will likely leave by the Week 11 bye and never work in the NFL again. For Buffalo, former Kelly backup quarterback Frank Reich will be on line two and ready to accept his first head coaching job.