• It's rare that four coaches get fired before the season is over. The looming work stoppage could be seen as one reason why moves were made, with owners less likely to have made changes a year ago at a more uncertain time and more interested in finding out whether a capable successor exists on their current staffs to keep continuity. The greater reason was that no fired coach had the management style or leadership experience needed to captain an NFL team. Wade Philips was too laid-back; Brad Childress too territorial; Josh McDaniels too brash; and Mike Singletary too dictatorial. In Dallas, there was not enough confrontation. In Minnesota, Denver and San Francisco, there was too much of it, with Childress regularly at odds with Brett Favre, McDaniels unable to co-exist with former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and Singletary never learning the downside of undressing players publicly, going out after a sideline feud with Troy Smith that was reminiscent of the one with Vernon Davis that started his head-coaching career.
Much like the animated Herm Edwards, whom former Chiefs GM Carl Peterson annointed as a head coach without prior coordinator experience, Singletary did not have a keen understanding of football concepts or understand matchups the way a crafty coordinator does. When he hired Jimmy Raye to be the offensive coordinator in 2009, Singletary sought stability at the position, but Raye barely made it through a full season before his inefficiency and lack of creativity gave way to QB coach Mike Johnson and kept the offense in a state of flux.
The most stable, winningest franchises — New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — have enjoyed great stability on their staffs and have had an eye for developing coaches, scouts and executives, often looking to supplement their staffs whenever possible, as Andy Reid has done with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, DB coach Dick Jauron, former Browns GM Phil Savage and ex-Bears personnel director Bobby DePaul. The Steelers sought to keep offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and OL coach Russ Grimm in place when they hired Mike Tomlin, and did not lose their treasured Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Bill Belichick often cross-trains moldable, young minds as coaches and evaluators, as he did with current personnel chief Nick Caserio and McDaniels, placing a high premium on versatility. And it was not until this year in Peyton Manning's tenure that the Colts were without offensive coordinator Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd. Stability has been a consistent theme of every successful NFL operation, and the 49ers' organization has lacked that quality.
• Tom Brady and Michael Vick remain front-runners for the NFL's MVP award, but it has not stopped veteran pro scouts who think outside the box from arguing that Bears cannon-armed gunslinger Jay Cutler is hands down more deserving of the award for what he has had to overcome. He has played behind an offensive line that has given up more sacks (50) than any other and with a group of imprecise route runners, yet he still consistently places the ball perfectly while being under siege, much like he was at Vanderbilt against SEC competition.
If he were in Philadelphia or New England, the Eagles and Patriots could be every bit as good as they are now, but it would be difficult for either Brady or Vick to have survived in the pressure-cooking pocket from which Cutler operates. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz is brilliant finding ways to uncover his receivers, and Mike Tice has done a very commendable job with a marginally talented offensive line, but there is no way the Bears' offense would be clicking and capable of stacking points the way it did against New York if it were not for Cutler, pick-six to Dwight Lowery and all.
• Even if NFL owners are not bound for the playoffs, they would like to know that their teams are headed in the right direction, that there is tangible progress being made in the final quarter of the season and the leadership is in place to win in years to come. For the Lions, the arrow is clearly pointing up. Seven of their 10 losses came by a touchdown or less, and the last three games they have knocked off Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Miami, finally beginning to learn what it means to finish. With a downtrodden, adversity-stricken Vikings team headed to Detroit on another short week after their Sunday night matchup in Philadelphia was postponed until Tuesday, Jim Schwartz stands a good chance to finish the final quarter of the season with a 4-0 mark.
• In St. Louis, second-year head coach Steve Spagnuolo is further along than Schwartz in a weaker division and could clinch a playoff spot if the Rams can beat an injury-riddled Seattle squad that has dropped its last three and five of its last six. It won't be easy on the road, but with a rookie quarterback at the helm, it marks considerable progress and will leave the Rams without a top-10 draft selection for the first time in four years and stop a seven-year skid.
• More teams are headed the other way, including Miami, with back-to-back home losses to Detroit and Buffalo and a 1-7 home record that has owner Stephen Ross questioning whether the leadership walked out the door when Bill Parcells exited. Houston owner Bob McNair stood by Gary Kubiak a year ago and has a roster with enough talent to contend in a down year for the AFC South, but too many mistakes have shown up at critical times and have contributed to the Texans owning the NFL's longest current losing streak, which sits at four after a 24-23 loss to an unsettled Broncos franchise employing a rookie quarterback. Correctable coaching mistakes and the inability to fill key needs have contributed to the Texans' woes. Enough talent is in place for a big-name hire such as Bill Cowher to make an immediate impact and stabilize operations, and both franchises, backed by strong resources and desperate to become viable, could be competing for his services.
• The Giants gave up 500-plus yards for first time since 1980 — a week after allowing the Eagles to overcome a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit and getting knocked out of first place in the NFC East. Despite still having a chance to figure into the postseason tournament, Tom Coughlin needs to field a much more meticulous unit than the turnover-happy, sloppy-executing squad that has showed up the past two weeks for the Mara family to forget about one of the most disappointing two-game skids in franchise history.
• With Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens out of the lineup, the Bengals' offense got better, not worse. The Bengals would have been better served scaling back the playbook and allowing third-year WRs Chad Simpson and Andre Caldwell into the lineup earlier in the season. With Simpson coming from Coastal Carolina and Caldwell from an unconventional Florida offense, some extra time was needed to learn the nuances of an NFL offense, but both clearly have the talent to play at a high level in the NFL. Simpson could be the second coming of Miles Austin and should make it easier for Bengals GM Mike Brown to part ways with one, if not both, of his distracting, declining receivers.
• With Maurice Jones-Drew out the lineup, the Jaguars' offense struggled to get started against Washington, much like it did a week ago when he was clearly slowed by a nagging knee injury. Jones-Drew carries the offense and makes an average offensive line look good. The inability of ORT Jordan Black to man the edge in place of the injured Eben Britton has sorely cost the Jaguars.
• As he has throughout the season, Lions LB Ashlee Palmer made another high-impact, fumble-inducing hit on Davone Bess on Detroit's opening punt to set up a 3-0 lead. The Lions' aggressiveness, toughness and physicality has shown up heavily on defense and special teams. Year Three could be the charm for Jim Schwartz if he can find some more attitude on his offensive line.
• Because the Steelers have a better divisional record than the Ravens, they currently sit atop the AFC North — even though both teams have identical 11-4 records — and would be higher seated in the playoffs. But that is not to say Pittsburgh is the more feared opponent. No offensive coordinator likes to face a Dick LeBeau-led defense, but the Steelers' injury-riddled OT position cannot handle edge speed and could knock the Steelers out of contention early. The Ravens, who have hit their stride late in the season with the return of Ed Reed, are a more complete, formidable contender.