With five games remaining in the 2010 NFL season, it's getting to the inevitable point where the seats begin to really heat up for a host of head coaches.
After struggling mightily with teams that were widely expected to be heavyweight contenders in Dallas and Minnesota, Wade Phillips and Brad Childress, respectively, have already been sent packing, leaving top assistants Jason Garrett and Leslie Frazier to pick up the pieces and make cases for permanent residence next season in the volatile NFL head-coaching community.
Just how volatile has that community become?
"Dallas and Minnesota, of course, have already made moves, and then you've got shaky situations in Carolina, Cincy, Jacksonville, Oakland and San Francisco," said one league insider/personnel evaluator. "And in light of Spygate II, maybe Denver and also Cleveland could be looking at making moves.
"If the Bears fall apart down the stretch, Lovie (Smith) may not be safe, either, with (chairman of the board) George McCaskey now at the helm to evaluate that situation. Houston and Miami have regressed, too. And something could give in Tennessee. If you look at who Tampa has beat with that NFC West-heavy schedule, I'm not convinced (Raheem) Morris is entirely safe, either. If anything, he has come off like a jackass this year.
"Hell, as always, it's a third of the league in danger."
Beginning with this "Way We Hear It" lead item, Pro Football Weekly will be tackling the head-coaching topic in depth in the coming weeks. Considering that both Garrett and Frazier have begun their auditions for head-coaching jobs in 2011, a logical angle to lead off with is the current NFL assistant coaches who we hear have the best shot at becoming head coaches next season.
Having compiled an impressive 2-1 record in place of Phillips, we hear the likelihood of Garrett remaining the head coach in "Big D" grows stronger by the moment.
Some of the league insiders we talked to this past week, believe Cowboys owner Jerry Jones should have pulled the plug on Phillips much sooner than he did.
"Going back the last 20 years, has there ever been a Wade Phillips defense that was not predictable? Jerry Jones waited too long to make changes," one general manager told PFW. "That (the NFC East) is such a competitive division, it might not have mattered at all.
"But at least Garrett gives you a fighting chance. The roster is talented. That was never the issue. It was accountability and respect that were lacking. They respect Garrett."
Added another NFL personnel executive, "It's Jason Garrett's job to lose right now. You can see what a difference he has made. It was not an easy job to inherit, but he made a lot of changes right away that have paid off. If the Cowboys don't keep him, someone else is going to hire him. He's shown he is ready. He's done a terrific job with (Jon) Kitna, and there are too many teams with quarterback issues."
Most league insiders are equally high on Frazier, who replaced Childress after the Vikings were outscored 58-16 in losses to the Packers and Bears.
Often compared to Tony Dungy, Frazier has been on the head-coaching radar screen for a while, having previously been considered by the Rams and Broncos, among other teams, despite the fact he has never been a head coach at a major college program or in the pros.
For what it's worth, Frazier definitely has a staunch supporter in Vikings QB Brett Favre, whom Frazier wasted no time declaring his undisputed starter under center for the remainder of the season.
"What you see is what you get with Leslie," said Favre, echoing the opinion of most league observers regarding Frazier, who couldn't have received better training from Dungy in Indianapolis and, before that, the late Jim Johnson in Philadelphia. "He has a background of winning Super Bowls as a player and coach, and he knows what it takes to win in the NFL. He can relate to players, having been in their shoes himself, and will prepare the team well."
Frazier prepared his team well enough in his head-coaching debut Sunday to register a 17-13 victory over the Redskins that snapped Minnesota's nine-game losing streak on the road. Favre handed his fellow Mississippi native a game ball after Frazier allowed him to have more input in the offense.
"Leslie Frazier is a guy you want to play for," a general manager told PFW. "He is a players' coach. He's not going to badger or browbeat you like the last guy. He's got the respect of the players. He understands X's and O's. If the Vikings show a new heartbeat, it's hard to believe he won't stick around.
"There are not many coaches out there with a better pedigree, and they are still on the hook for Chilly's contract. Les will get everyone on the same page and let guys do their jobs."
What follows is a breakdown of five other current assistants who we hear have the best shot at possibly becoming head coaches next season, in no particular order:
Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan
Possessing the same brash but refreshing personality as his father, Buddy, and brother, Rex, who couldn't have a higher profile at the moment based on the job he is doing in the Big Apple with the Jets, Rob Ryan could be coveted by a number of teams.
Considered just as much a defensive guru as his sibling, Rob Ryan could possibly stay right where he's at, in Cleveland, and move up the ladder to replace Eric Mangini, whose job security has been considered tenuous all season.
"You look at Rob Ryan, and he's got the long hair running down his ass and he looks like he just stepped out of the pen (penitentiary) and he acts like it, too," said one GM. "He's not your typical mouthpiece. He speaks his mind. I didn't think that approach would work in New York with his brother, but so far, it has.
"It's a refreshing quality for the players. It's not easy to get 53 millionaires on the same page. You have to connect with your players. You say what you want about not looking the part. The one thing about that family: They know football. I'll be honest; I would never hire the guy. It's not our style. But I don't like playing the guy. He's hard to prepare for. You don't know what's coming."
Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera
Like Frazier, Rivera, who had previously successful stints with the Eagles as their LB coach and with the Bears as their defensive coordinator, has had his share of head-coaching interviews. While he was not considered ready by most people in the know when he first hit the head-coaching interview circuit after the Bears won the Super Bowl, his elevated acumen in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts has moved him near the front of the list of hot assistants.
"Rivera is a very likeable guy," said one league executive. "To me, his problem is that he is one of those guys who will never come across very well in an interview. But (if) you get him in a room with the guys and put a clicker in his hand and see him call a game, you'd be hard-pressed to find many better than him.
"To me, he picked up the most from that Jimmy Johnson tree (in Philadelphia). He's just never going to knock (an owner's) socks off in the interview process. It's not him. But he will outwork anyone and has strong convictions about his approach. That's why Lovie (Smith) let him go — they butted heads philosophically, and Lovie does not like confrontation."
Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell
After doing a very respectable job as the interim head coach in Buffalo last year, Fewell is currently upgrading his reputation with the impressive job he has done resurrecting a Giants defense that unraveled in such a disappointing fashion down the stretch last season. The consensus is that he has a great shot at following in the footsteps of former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who became the Rams' head coach last season.
"I like Perry (Fewell)," a GM said. "The Bears should never have let him get away. You don't let good players or coaches leave your building without a fight. It got away from the Bears after he left, and the Bills have not been as good defensively (since he left)."
Cardinals assistant head coach Russ Grimm
A four-time Super Bowl winner, Pro Bowler and All-Pro and a recent Hall of Fame inductee, Grimm remains a very underrated candidate for a head-coaching job next season despite the problems the Cardinals are having this year. Grimm was strongly considered before for head-coaching gigs in Chicago (2004) and Pittsburgh (2007).
"Everyone forgets. It was falling apart in Pittsburgh until Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt came aboard," a personnel executive said. "They saved Bill Cowher's job. The Rooney family did not want to lose those guys. Can you imagine if they were still there, with Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator, how strong they would be? It was a great plan. But they were too good to keep down, and a few years later they are playing each other in the Super Bowl? How great is that?
"Russ is like Andy Reid. He may not quite look the part, but the team that puts him in place is going to have a football coach for a long time."
Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer
Schottenheimer has overseen a resurgent Jets offense over the last couple of seasons and has been a key in developing Jets QB Mark Sanchez. The son of former NFL head coach Marty Schottenheimer certainly has the right bloodlines.
"What stands out about (Schottenheimer): He's a coach's son. He's been around the game all his life. He gets it," said one league personnel executive. "I'm not sure he is ready yet. There have been some calls he has made this year that I have really questioned. He was putting too much on Sanchez's plate early in the season.
"I think he's done a good job dialing it back. If we needed (a head coach), I'd have him on the short list. But I'd really have to get inside his head and figure out why he has made some calls."