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Updated Jan. 5, 2011 @ 2:32 a.m. ET
Just a few hours before Week 17 got under way, the NFL's head-coaching dominoes had already begun toppling. A week ago, the Niners couldn't wait any longer to put Mike Singletary out of his misery after his team was officially eliminated from the playoffs. Five days later, confirming what had been considered a given for some time now, the Panthers officially gave longtime head coach John Fox his notice on New Year's Eve.
The next day, published reports out of Minnesota and Dallas painted a pretty picture for the Vikings' Leslie Frazier and the Cowboys' Jason Garrett, respectively, suggesting both interim coaches were closing in on long-term head-coach promotions that we hear do indeed appear to be done deals. And the Vikings made it official on Monday, naming Frazier as the eighth head coach in franchise history.
Meanwhile, barring a really poor showing against the Redskins in the Giants' season finale, PFW's leaguewide sources were not putting much stock in the rumor that Tom Coughlin could be in trouble, despite his team's disturbing unraveling down the stretch. In fact, shortly after the game, which the Giants won 17-14 to finish 10-6 but nevertheless failing to make the playoff cut, team owner John Mara confirmed that Coughlin would return next season.
While it's possible the dominoes could begin toppling as Monday wears on in a "Black Monday" of major proportions — with as many as 10-12 teams ultimately deciding to go with new head coaches — the numerous league insiders we've consulted this past week believe that there will be a more gradual turn of events at the head-coaching level.
A key extenuating factor, we hear, is the league's uncertain labor situation, with the very real possibility that a long-term lockout could result in teams being shut down until next September, thus giving any potential new head coaches precious little time to get their programs properly implemented.
"If you see six coaching openings (this) week, there won't be a lockout," one high-ranking league insider told PFW. "If everyone holds tight, it (a lockout) could be coming. And with all the CBA uncertainty, young, ego-less, strong football minds will be in demand."
Added another well-connected league observer: "I think the type of hires made will be more revealing than the sheer number of openings. I think the young, up-and-coming coordinators will be more highly in demand than ever."
What follows is a quick rundown on all the teams with uncertain head-coaching situations, presented in alphabetical order.
CAROLINA — The Panthers announced Friday what everybody already knew for months. Carolina was an NFL-worst 2-14. We hear GM Marty Hurney will be spared, despite some of the speculation surrounding his job, and that owner Jerry Richardson's top choice is Cardinals assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm.
"The coaching staff was awful, and their luck was bad on the injury front," said one NFL exec of the Panthers. " (QB Jimmy) Clausen has a chance, but the Panthers are the only team in the division without a bona fide quarterback, and it will be very difficult for them to pass (on) one. (Stanford's Andrew) Luck is a bona fide passer."
CINCINNATI — Marvin Lewis' contract has expired, and his team experienced a steep decline, dropping 10 in a row at one point. Lewis really wants an indoor practice facility, which is something frugal owner Mike Brown would rather not hear about. The Bengals failed to sell out the last four home games. In eight seasons, Lewis has never won a playoff game. On Tuesday, the Bengals signed Lewis to a new contract.
CLEVELAND — As expected, Eric Mangini became the first "Black Monday" victim. Cleveland finished 2-6 after a very impressive upset of New England. The Browns were only 3-9 in games decided by 10 points or fewer. There is a feeling team president Mike Holmgren might be feeling the head-coaching itch again. At the very least, we hear he definitely plans on having more input with the offense and plans on opening up with Colt McCoy at the helm.
"The question is whether Holmgren puts the coaching hat back on or hires another (agent) Bob LaMonte coach like John Fox or Jon Gruden,"Every indication is that Mangini is out," a league insider told PFW before the regular season ended. "LaMonte has a lot of influence on what they do, and he has too many good coaches out of work."
Our sources believe Fox will land in Cleveland in some capacity, and Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who quarterbacked for Holmgren in high school, is also strongly in play. He could follow Browns GM Tom Heckert to Cleveland, branching off from a strong Eagles coaching tree and allowing Brad Childress to reunite with Reid.
DENVER — The one thing we know is that Broncos legend John Elway will be a major player on the football side moving forward, with an official announcement expected in the next 48 hours. In addition, look for Elway to cut the cord with general manager Brian Xanders and make a strong push for Jim Harbaugh as the head coach, considering the job Harbaugh has done at Stanford, where Elway went to college.
"Elway is taking over and will pick his own football man," a Broncos insider told PFW. "Josh McDaniels the coach was not the problem in Denver. The problem was Josh McDaniels the GM. He simply did not have enough support. Brian Xanders does his best work with contracts. He's not a proven evaluator. (Falcons president) Rich McKay had such a strong relationship with Arthur Blank that he stayed on in a different capacity, and Xanders came from Atlanta. He could be moved to an administrative role handling contracts, but there's a greater chance he's out."
HOUSTON — Head coach Gary Kubiak entered Week 17 on a four-game losing streak, with the most recent loss to lowly Denver leaving a very sour taste in Houston. But the Texans made it official on Monday that he will return in 2011 (he is under contract through '12). Kubiak fired defensive coordinator Frank Bush and three other defensive assistants, amid rumors that (former Cowboys head coach) Wade Phillips will be hired as the new defensive coordinator.
While Kubiak has dodged a Black Monday bullet, league sources tell us GM Rick Smith could be on shaky ground.
"Rick Smith has two years left on his deal. I know Rick and he's a great guy. I hope he stays, but they've got to do a better job of plugging holes and fix that defense already," said one league exec familiar with the Texans' inner workings. "It's been a sieve as long as Kubiak has been there. The offense is not broken."
JACKSONVILLE — Another late-season collapse placed Jack Del Rio on the hot seat again. But he would be due a $10 million buyout if let go — a factor that led owner Wayne Weaver to decide Monday that Del Rio would be back in 2011.
"The issues run deeper than coaching in Jacksonville," a high-ranking personnel executive told PFW. "The big problem is the contract they gave him, and he still has (two more years). It's a lot to eat in a small market. No one could argue with the job (GM) Gene Smith has done. The question that has to be answered is: Will the owner be able to swallow the final years (of Del Rio's contract) or be able to settle on a buyout? If they could have settled last year, they would have."
The answer is that Weaver is not willing to swallow that kind of buyout, at least at this time.
MIAMI — Losing to Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo at home and going 1-7 at home could be a killer for Tony Sparano, who received high praise in 2008 for leading the Dolphins to a division title in his first season in Miami, one year after the team went 1-15. Sparano's fate appears to be on hold until owner Stephen Ross returns from a trip abroad.
"(GM Jeff) Ireland hit it off with the owner," a league insider told PFW. "The problem is, the guy the owner wants is (Bill) Cowher, and Cowher is going to want to bring in his own guy. That's (Steelers director of business and administration) Omar Khan. Ross has an open check to write. If he wants to make a move, he could, but he could give it one more year to play out with all the uncertainty (with the labor situation), before clearing it all out."
OAKLAND — Raiders owner Al Davis informed head coach Tom Cable on Jan. 4 that Davis would not exercise the $2.5 million option on Cable's contract, ending Cable's tenure in Oakland. Word is Davis might prefer what offensive coordinator Hue Jackson brings to the table, although the team said it had no immediate announcement regarding a successor to Cable.
SAN FRANCISCO — A full-court press for Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh is expected to be made by team owner Jed York and vice president of player personnel Trent Baalke, who on Jan. 4 was named the team's general manager with complete authority on football matters. If they can't land Harbaugh, we hear they might set their sights on Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, among others, as they seem to really admire the job the Falcons have done getting their act back together since winning big with their Mike Smith-Thomas Dimitroff parlay.
"Harbaugh would be a strong hire," said one team source. "He already is settled in the Bay (Area), has a track record of developing quarterbacks and switched to a 3-4 defense last season. It makes sense on so many levels. But as a rule, college coaches have not had a lot of success moving to the NFL. Try naming the last one who made the transition (successfully).
"You can't argue with the draft Baalke had. The talent is there to win, minus the quarterback. If they get the QB situation squared away, they win the division in a landslide the next 3-4 years. The biggest challenge they have is finding stability on offense. They have not had it since (Steve) Mariucci. I think they have to go with an offensive(-minded) head coach."
TENNESSEE — We finish our rundown with perhaps the most intriguing figure in this year's head-coaching mix, Jeff Fisher, who has been on the job for the Oilers/Titans the last 16 years, Fisher still has $6.5 million coming to him from owner Bud Adams, regardless of whether he stays or goes. The decision will be based on the future of enigmatic QB Vince Young, whom Fisher has definitely soured on but Adams thinks very highly of.
"Vince Young is like a son to the owner. He's not going anywhere," said one league insider. "I think Jeff has had enough dealing with both of them. They have a great staff — if I'm (GM) Mike Reinfeldt, I'd be taking a hard look at hiring from within and keeping those guys in place.
"The problem is, the hire has to come (from) outside the coordinator ranks. (Offensive coordinator Mike) Heimerdinger (was recently diagnosed with) cancer, and (defensive coordinator) Chuck Cecil is not ready. That leaves a guy like Mike Munchak."
One way or another, we hear a decision is expected soon.