Opinion: Bengals’ Lewis heads list of coaches on hot seat
Del Rio, Coughlin, Fisher, Gruden also under pressure to produce
By Steve Silverman
Updated: 2:42 p.m. ET July 3, 2007
Few coaches have ever been in better position than Tony Dungy or Lovie Smith. The two friends led the Colts and Bears, respectively, into the Super Bowl and the game was a memorable moment for them and the coaching community.
No matter what happens in 2007, both should be safe for at least one more year on the NFL sidelines.
But there are many others who will begin the season on a much shorter leash. Five have to produce winning seasons or they will almost certainly be gone, and five other coaches also have concerns going into the new season.
Marvin Lewis, Bengals
It looked so promising for Lewis after the 2005 season. The Bengals had won the AFC North (
), tossing aside years of losing and jokes from talk-show hosts to become one of the most explosive teams in the league. But when Carson Palmer was lost with a severe knee injury in the Bengals’ wild-card playoff loss to the Steelers(
), the franchise went into reverse. Not only did the team struggle in 2006 with an 8-8 record, the Bengals became the poster boys for commissioner Roger Goodell’s zero-tolerance policy for criminal behavior. The Bengals have had 10 players run afoul of the law since Jan. 1, 2006, and Lewis will bear the responsibility for turning the situation around. Not only do the Bengals have to return to the playoffs, but they have to change their off-the-field behavior and show that they can become solid citizens. It might not be Lewis’s fault, but the head coach is the symbol of the franchise, and owner Mike Brown never has shown the inclination to take the pressure off of his top lieutenant.
Jack Del Rio, Jaguars
A couple of years ago, Del Rio looked like a can’t-miss head coach who might find himself the subject of a Hollywood feature film. Not only had he helped turn the Jacksonville locker room into a joyous one following the Draconian reign of Tom Coughlin, he helped build one of the most physical and punishing defenses in the league. Playing in the same division with Indianapolis, Del Rio’s team relished playing the Colts and matching them punch for punch. With John Henderson and Marcus Stroud anchoring the middle of the defensive line, the Jaguars had a dominating identity. However, the offense has stalled regularly even though they have a strong-armed quarterback in Byron Leftwich and a two-headed running attack in Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor. Nevertheless, the Jaguars offense is not even mediocre. This is probably Del Rio’s last chance to show some consistency.
Jeff Fisher, Titans
Owner Bud Adams had all but ridden Fisher out on a rail last season, but a funny thing happened when No. 1 draft choice Vince Young started to play. The lowly Titans began winning, and Fisher held on to his job. With a superstar in training like Young, the Titans should have used the offseason to build around him and become the team that nobody wants to face this season. However, this has been the offseason of “Pacman” Jones and other tribulations. They are unproven at the other skill positions, and the Titans are lacking in the trenches. Despite the presence of this magical quarterback, it’s doubtful that Don Shula or the ghost of Vince Lombardi could win with this team. Look for Adams to make Fisher the scapegoat.
Tom Coughlin, Giants
Few coaches in the 30 years have been more difficult to work for than Coughlin. Star running back Tiki Barber was criticized for retiring while he still had gas in the tank, but a boss like Coughlin made the decision easy for him. Picture the teacher that screamed at everyone in his class and multiply it by 10. Then you have the working conditions imposed by Coughlin. Mildly creative on offense, he is too overbearing. His demands that players do it his way at all costs weigh on the Giants, and that’s why they suffer after the midway point of the season. Barring a miracle, the Giants endure their last season under Coughlin and make a big push for Bill Cowher.
Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay
The Super Bowl championship that the Bucs won following the 2002 season has faded deep into the memory bank, and the team has been underachieving since then. Gruden’s public image is that of an intense, driven competitor who will do anything to get an edge on his opponent. He does work hard, but he rarely finds the edge anymore. The offense has not hit the heights he had hoped, and the defense has lost much of its power. If Jeff Garcia doesn’t turn out to be a steadying influence at quarterback, there is little chance the Bucs will be any more than a .500 team this season. It’s difficult to see the Glazer family keeping him around any longer than this season.
Brian Billick of the Ravens, Romeo Crennel of the Browns, Herman Edwards of the Chiefs, Brad Childress of Minnesota and new Cowboys coach Wade Phillips also will be under the microscope this season. Billick was on the hot seat a year ago, but the Ravens’ division title gave him a reprieve. Ravens fans are still waiting for Billick to show his magic offensive touch with the team.
Crennel does not have much to work with, but he is in his third year on the job, and his bosses in Cleveland want to see progress after 6-10 and 4-12 seasons. It looks like it will take rookie Brady Quinn quite a long time to be ready, so it’s hard to find improvement when Charlie Frye is the starting quarterback.
Edwards is an established coach who was successful with the Jets despite an overwhelming lack of talent. He’s probably a better coach now, but GM Carl Peterson is a demanding boss who wants results and will not hesitate to change leaders if he doesn’t like what he sees.
Through the first six games of the 2006 season, Childress appeared to have the 4-2 Vikings on track for a winning season. But he lost control of his team and the Vikings had no direction. The insecure Childress has the bulk of the decision-making power in the organization, but a double-digit loss season will force owner Zygi Wilf into action.
There’s little doubt that the Cowboys will enjoy the working conditions Phillips gives them after being under the thumb of Bill Parcells. A quick start is likely, but Phillips never has been more than an average strategist, and his players instinctively learn how to take advantage of his “friendly” attitude. If the Cowboys don’t have the kind of season that Jerry Jones is expecting — a division title and at least one postseason win — Phillips may be one-and-done in Dallas.
Steve Silverman writes regularly for MSNBC.com and is a freelance writer based in Chicago.