Time to Turn it Round? 10 NFL Head Coaches in the Hot Seat (Part 1)

The season may only be a little over half-way done, but for coaches in the dreaded “hot seat” most will be uncomfortably aware of the fact that their season, and NFL coaching career, could end at any moment. Join us as we take a look at 10 head coaches in the hot seat, and ask if they have time to their season around.

Dishonourable Mentions.

Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Lovie Smith was supposed to be the guy to turn around a struggling Buccaneers franchise, and coming into the season, we were excited about what he would be able to do. We expected a quick turn around for this team, but as is often the case, a quick turn around was a little optimistic. After a 1-8 start to the season, with no signs of improvement on the horizon, Smith should in line for the axe. But, in truth, I think everyone in the Buccaneers organisation knew that their issues were more than skin deep, and a rebuilding would take more than one season. However disappointing the record, I doubt anyone in Tampa Bay is really surprised. I think Smith will have at least one more season to build the team in his image before he is truly in the hot seat, but it’s still not a promising start to his career in Tampa.

Tony Sparano, Oakland Raiders (Interim)—Sparano will not be the Oakland Raiders head coach come next season, which means he would definitely be on this list, if not for one small fact. He is an interim head coach. While in one sense he has lost the head coaches job—his 0-5 start as head coach blew his shot at keeping the full time—it’s hard to include a man on the list who really never had the job permanently anyway. Additionally, the Raiders woes have far more to do with mismanagement by the front office than it does with the coaching—GM Reggie McKenzie has failed thoroughly to give coaches the talent they need to succeed. McKenzie and Sparano will likely both be out of a job in Oakland come the new year, but we prefer to think of him as never getting past the (admittedly long) interview process, rather than actually losing the job.

10. Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams.

When Fisher chose St. Louis over Miami, it was seen as a big coup for the team. He was the hottest head coach on the market, and chose a team who had gone 2-14 the previous season. In his first year as head coach, Fisher improved the Rams win record significantly, going 7-8-1. This was seen as the starting point for this talented young team, but has proved to be their ceiling, under Fisher. In his second season, Fisher and the Rams could not improve their win total, and following a tough Week 10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, even reaching 7 wins in 2014 could be a tough ask for this team.

Their 3-6 record leaves them a long way from even a .500 record, hardly the dramatic improvement they were finally hoping Fisher would deliver.

Since taking over the Rams, Fisher has a 17-23-1 record, hardly the worst in this group, but he finds himself in a division which contains two teams that have been to the Super Bowl during Fishers tenure (49ers during the 2012-2013 season, and the 2013-2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks) not to mention the team with the best record in the NFL today (the 8-1 Arizona Cardinals). His team are not considered in the same league as these powerhouses, and this is simply not why Fisher was hired.

Of course, Fisher has his his excuses—for example, his starting QB has played a full season only once during his tenure—and likely has too much respect around the league not to get a little bit of extra grace—he is co-chair of the NFL competition committee, for example—but it is likely only these factors which have even kept Fisher around as long as he has been.

Unfortunately for the Rams, and for Fisher, the they just do not seem to be the right fit, which makes the fact that the Rams likely wont fire him yet all the more disappointing.

This is a team with a lot of potential, and Fisher is a coach which still has what it takes to make it in the NFL, but for whatever reason, he is not the right man to turn this franchise around, and he may be the biggest thing holding this team back.

Fisher has time to turn the season around—the Rams are still in with a chance, statistically speaking, of finishing 10-6, enough to at least have a chance at a wildcard spot—and will likely still be the head coach in 2015. Whether this is the best thing for either the team, or the player remains to be seen however.

9. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers.

It’s no secret that Tomlin has had success with the Steelers, including a memorable Super Bowl win. But this league is all about “what have you done for me lately?” When it comes to answering that question, Tomlin doesn’t have an easy answer.

At 6-4 the Steelers would seem to still have things largely in control, but look below the surface, and the cracks are impossible to miss.

Two of their four losses have come against the Tampa Bay Bucanneers and New York Jets, teams with only three wins combined—the Steelers are single handedly responsible for two-thirds of the total wins for these teams. Other losses have come at the hands of division rivals the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, and while the Steelers have split both of these series, in an AFC North division where all 4 teams are above .600, simply splitting divisional series does not appear to be enough.

What’s more, it is hard for Tomlin to take any real credit for several of those wins they have. Their two most recent wins are almost solely down to Ben Roethlisberger finally buying into offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system, which resulted in huge gains for this team. Tomlin is a defensively minded head coach, and this is where the teams biggest struggles have been.

Worse still, he is also seemingly aware that he isn’t getting the job done, regularly taking the blame for his teams struggles. In many ways, this is an admirable trait, and a prerequisite for any head coach—the buck ultimately stops with him. However this only helps a team if it comes alongside players taking accountability, and recently, that is something this Steelers team is lacking. His players seem perfectly willing to let Tomlin take the blame, and avoid admitting their own mistakes.

Ultimately, the Rooney family is loyal, and the fact that the Steelers are still in the hunt in spite of their struggles will buy Tomlin some time. However, whether he truly deserves this faith remains to be seen. And if the Steelers continue to falter against lowly opponents, the Rooney family’s patience may be tested to its limit.

8. Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans.

Ken Whisenhunt is a head coach with Super Bowl experience—in 2008 he narrowly missed out on winning a championship with an Arizona Cardinals team few considered as real contenders. That is likely what kept him around in Arizona as long as he did, and is likely what convinced the Tennessee Titans to give him another shot at the top job.

However, quickly teams are being forced to question if he is really a good head coach, or just a man who was in the right place, at the right time, with the right pieces surrounding him. While he is undoubtedly a great offensive mind, and solid play caller, whether he is the complete package is a bit of a question mark. Whether he has the ability to marry his play calling abilities with the responsibility of putting together a fully functioning team are still somewhat of an unknown.

He proved a poor judge of quarterback talent, drastically overpaying for and unproven Kevin Kolb, and then consistently failed to protect him with sub-par offensive line play.

He also frequently created unnecessary QB controversy changing his depth chart with alarming regularity—even in his NFC Championship year in Arizona, Matt Leinart, not Warner, began the preseason as starter.

Without Kurt Warner in Arizona, Whisenhunt struggled to find anyone to execute his preferred game plan, and failed to adjust his plans and schemes to match the players he had. A single minded approach to how an offense should work will only be successful if you have the players to execute it, and all players buy into this belief. In Tennessee, like his later years in Arizona, it does not appear the players have either the requisite skills or belief to execute this system.

Many of these other things continue to haunt him in Tennessee as well. Already three different QBs have taken the field under his watch, and his offensive line—which the team have invested heavily in improving—have failed to keep his QB of the week upright.

Sure, some of the changes have been forced by injury, but it’s hard to suggest that the two are not linked.

At 2-7, Whisenhunt should really be higher on this list, but team president Tommy Smith has already come out in support of his head coach. In an appearance on The Wake Up Zone on 104.5 in Nashville on Friday morning  Smith was asked if there is any scenario where he’d cut his losses with Whisenhunt, or GM Ruston Webster. In response, Smith did not hesitate “I can’t see that at all, no.”

However, we can think of at least one scenario where he may consider this, like if a proven head coach, with a winning record and even more recent Super Bowl experience were to become available—Jim Harbaugh for example. Speaking of which…

7. Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers.

Jim Harbaugh’s inclusion on this list is something of an anomaly. His record as a head coach in San Francisco is 41-15-1.

In his first three years as a head coach he has won the NFC West twice, and secured a wildcard spot on the third occasion. He has a 5-3 playoff record, and took his team to the Super Bowl in his second year in charge. Even at 5-4 in 2014 the team is hardly out of contention—they are just one game back on a wildcard spot as things stand, and their destiny is still largely their own hands, as they still have 2 games to play against their nearest rivals for the wildcard spot, the Seattle Seahawks.

So why is he on this list? Simply put, by all accounts, he has lost the locker room. His players no longer believe in him, and its easy to see why. Harbaugh has always been a marmite sort of head coach—you either love him, or hate him. He is loud, passionate and gregarious. He has a fiery temper, makes no attempt to hide his emotions when they flare up. And as a result, players can often feel his wrath, even when it isn’t their fault.

Players are reporting a lack of respect, as well as verbal and mental abuse, and while it’s easy to overlook when you’re winning, when those losses start to pile up, it can take a toll on even the most resilient team. Worse still, by many accounts, Harbaugh’s heart isn’t in the organisation any more either.

Players—as well some front office staff, including general manager Trent Baalke—blame Harbaugh for some of the teams losses, which is hard to disagree with. Harbaugh has not shown a penchant for smart play-calling and strategising when the team are playing with a lead this season, and while it is impossible not to pin some of the blame on poor decision making by Colin Kaepernick, it remains Harbaugh’s responsibility not to put him in those situations.

In addition, Harbaugh appears to have the opposite problem to Tomlin—taking no real responsibility for his part in losses, and regularly calling out players who are undeserving of all of the criticism.

By some accounts, the 49ers are planning to part ways with Harbaugh at the end of the season no matter what happens. According to Fox Sports reporter Jay Glazer, the 49ers wouldn’t have Harbaugh back “even if the 49ers lift the Lombardi Trophy”.

However, this sub-par season, combined with a number of high profile college football coaching gigs coming open could convince the 49ers and Harbaugh to expedite the process, and cut ties with each other that much sooner.

We expect that Harbaugh won’t commit himself to any college team just yet preferring to remain in the NFL, and the 49ers won’t simply cut the high profile coach without at least trying to shop him to another team first, however, stranger things have happened.

While there is plenty of time for the 49ers to turn around their season, and plenty of opportunities remaining for success for this team, Harbaugh is no longer playing for the 49ers. He is playing to impress whoever takes a shot at him next, which is important as they will likely have to trade away some picks to land him, and he is still hoping to be compensated like a Super Bowl winning coach.

6. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers.

What a difference a season makes. Last year, Rivera found himself in the hot seat early before turning his teams season around, and bagging himself a Coach of the Year award in the process. This year, after a relatively impressive start to the season, Rivera has been forced to watch as his season, and possibly career spins out of control.

The Panthers are a team who seemingly cannot get out of their own way. A loss to the high-flying Philadelphia Eagles tonight could effectively end their playoff dreams, which, at 3-5-1 already looks like a long shot.

Like Jeff Fisher, Rivera has his excuses all lined up—most of which are hard to argue against—but unlike Fisher, he does not appear to have the trust and support of the owners. Even before the start of the season, Rivera admitted that he was already in the hot seat, and his teams play through nine weeks has done nothing to alleviate that concern.

Rivera is not in quite such a bad place as some other coaches on this list—a Coach of the Year nod will buy you a little grace—but undoubtedly, things are not as good as they could be for Rivera or the Panthers.

Anything less than a .500 record would likely spell the end of Rivera’s Panthers career, and even this would be no guarantee or remaining with the team next season. That means Rivera needs to rally and get at least 5 more wins over the coming seven games to even reach this mediocre mark. Looking at their schedule, this is a tall order, and unless that starts tonight, he may well not even get seven more games in charge.

Rivera will undoubtedly get interviews with other teams if cut—the Rooney Rule will ensure that—and numerous teams may be willing to take a chance on a head coach only one season removed from a Coach of the Year worthy performance, but barring a miracle, his time in Carolina appears to be coming to an end.


The countdown continues: See Numbers 5-1 here.

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