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Keep ’em or Can ’em?: Winding up the NFL coaching carousel

By Kevin York

As the NFL season begins its final stretch, an annual league tradition is simultaneously starting again – the rumor mill surrounding the fates of NFL head coaches. Every year at this time a debate ensues about what struggling franchises should do to try and reverse their fortunes for the next year and much nearly all of that debate focuses on the man leading these franchises onto the field every week, the head coach. So in the spirit of this yearly custom, I give you Keep ’em or Can ’em, an early look at what I think upper management and ownership should decide on the future of their respective team’s head coach. At least for next year.

AFC East
Buffalo Bills (Chan Gailey) – Can ’em
Gailey has compiled a 15-31 record in his three seasons in Buffalo, finishing in last place in the AFC East in his first two season and appearing destined for the cellar again. A coach with an offensive background, Gailey has struggled to make the Bills offensive consistent. While somewhat handcuffed by the long term signing of mediocre quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, I don’t think it gives Gailey a pass since he’s had talent around Fitzpatrick, especially at running back. Time for Chan to go.

Miami Dolphins (Joe Philbin) – Keep ’em
The former Packers offensive coordinator has put together a respectable first season with a winnable game left against Buffalo and potentially even at New England, if the Patriots happen to sit starters in preparation for the playoffs. Philbin deserves at least another year to see what he can do.

New England Patriots (Bill Belichik) – Keep ’em
Belichik put together another great season and has compiled a resume that allows him to essentially leave the Patriots on his own terms.

New York Jets (Rex Ryan)Can ’em
What a rollercoaster. The Jets limped through this season and although somehow had a shot to still make the playoffs until last week’s loss to Tennessee, sorely underperformed on the year. Ryan made some head scratching moves, such as not dressing healthy quarterback Greg McElroy the two weeks following his relief appearance to lead the Jets to a win over Arizona, then giving McElroy the nod over both starter Mark Sanchez and second stringer Tim Tebow against the Chargers in week 16. While Ryan isn’t as bad of a coach as some have made him out to be, I think it’s time for this struggling franchise to start over and rebuild. That means parting ways with Ryan as well as GM Mike Tannenbaum and a number of Jets veterans.

AFC North
Baltimore Ravens (John Harbaugh) – Keep ’em
Harbaugh and GM Ozzie Newsome have built the Ravens into one of the most consistent franchises in the league. While they could get younger on defense and need to take a close look at their future with quarterback Joe Flacco, those are personnel moves that Harbaugh and Newsome have proven to be more than capable of addressing. No reason to make a coaching change.

Cincinnati Bengals (Marvin Lewis) – Keep ’em
Lewis has put together a nice season with the Bengals, unexpectedly placing them in playoff contention. He’s done a good job with a fairly young team that has overachieved, all things considered. Stick with Lewis, he’s got this team on the right track in a tough, tough division.

Cleveland Browns (Pat Shurmur) – Keep ’em
Six weeks ago I would have said it’s time for Shurmur to go, but after winning five of their last nine, he seems to have altered the course of this team and pointed them in a positive direction. I would be willing to give him another season to see if he can build on what he’s started the latter half of this year.

Pittsburgh Steelers (Mike Tomlin) – Keep ’em
It’s been a tough, injury plagued year for the Steelers. Tomlin has done a nice job of keeping them in the playoff hunt despite these difficulties, although I think ultimately Pittsburgh will find themselves on the outside looking in. The Rooney’s have built one of the strongest franchises in the league by staying loyal to their head coaches, even in down years. No reason to buck that trend this year and I don’t think they’re even considering it. Keep Tomlin.

AFC South
Indianapolis Colts (Chuck Pagano) – Keep ’em
Although Pagano hasn’t been able to be as involved in the Colts everyday operations as every other coach on this list, he has had tremendous impact on that team. His battle with cancer was difficult for the team, and Pagano himself, to endure, but they did so remarkably. A lot of credit goes to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who should find himself with a head coaching job next year, but you can’t discredit what Pagano did for this team. He will be back next year and hopefully for years to come.

Jacksonville Jaguars (Mike Mularkey) – Keep ’em
Mularkey’s first season in Jacksonville has been nothing short of a disaster. Only two wins on the year so far and with one of their two remaining contests against New England, it seems that the Jaguars are destined for one of the top three picks in next year’s draft. I’m not one to give up on a coach after one year though, so I think Mularkey should be back next year so we can see if he can get some momentum going in the right direction.

Houston Texans (Gary Kubiak) – Keep ’em
Kubiak finally seemed to have a team that lived up to its ‘on paper’ potential this year. His teams have had a knack for coming up short, but both this year and last year, the Texans have been a top team in the league. Although they suffered difficult blowout losses to Green Bay and New England, Kubiak has done a nice job this year. He deserves another.

Tennessee Titans (Mike Munchak) – Keep ’em
It’s been a year of transition in Tennessee as Jake Locker has become the team’s starter and leader at quarterback. A 9-7 year in 2011 has been followed by a year in which the Titans only have five wins and have been plagued by inconsistency. As I said earlier, I don’t like to bail on coaches too early and I think Munchak deserves one more year; however, in a division that includes powerful Houston and quickly improving Indy, he’ll have the pressure on him next year to win.

AFC West
Denver Broncos (John Fox) – Keep ’em
I have a feeling the Carolina Panthers are wishing they kept Fox. He’s done quite nicely in his first two years in Denver and I think will be there for a while. Definite keep.

Kansas City Chiefs (Romeo Crennel) – Keep ’em
This was a hard one. Crennel has a short body of work with the Chiefs, having only coached three games last year, combined with his two wins in fourteen games this year. It’s been a tough season for Crennel off the field too, witnessing a player kill himself. Looking back at Crennel’s four years in Cleveland as head coach, he had his ups and downs. Two four win seasons, a ten win season and a six win year. Ultimately, I go back to my stance that coaches need some time and I think Crennel fits into that category. I would keep him another year.

Oakland Raiders (Dennis Allen) – Keep ’em
I know many fans in Oakland would like to see Allen gone, saying he hasn’t produced and they can’t even sense the direction the team is headed in. After Hue Jackson mortgaged the franchise to bring in an aging Carson Palmer, the team lost some depth draft, inhibiting rebuilding to a degree, and meaning it could potentially get worse before it gets better. That said, I do have faith in Reggie McKenzie leading the team as GM. Allen was chosen by McKenzie and that’s good enough for me to keep him another year. Raiders fans knew after the disastrous Hue Jackson period that the next couple years would be tough. Be patient.

San Diego Chargers (Norv Turner) – Can ’em
Turner hasn’t been as bad as many have inferred. In fact, I would place more blame for the Chargers downhill slide over the last several years on general manager AJ Smith. Some of the decisions Smith has made have been disastrous and rumors have floated out that many players won’t play in San Diego because of him. So I’d fire both Turner and Smith. Turner is a much better fit as an offensive coordinator. I think this will end his head coaching days.

NFC East
Dallas Cowboys (Jason Garrett) – Keep ’em
I feel like the Cowboys have underperformed throughout Garrett’s tenure with the team. That said, they’re in playoff contention right now. Garrett has the unenviable task of working for Jerry Jones, a man that think he’s a personnel guy, but who is most definitely not. All things considered, I would give Garrett a ‘C’ grade on his performance so far. Average. Much depends on how Dallas finishes the season in regards to Garrett’s future in Big D. I predict they’ll beat New Orleans then lose to Washington, which would put them at 9-7, a win better than last year. If that happens, and they don’t lose both games, I’d say keep Garrett for another year and then reevaluate.

New York Giants (Tom Coughlin)Keep ’em
The Giants may not make the playoffs this year, but Coughlin has cemented his status as one of the best in the business. Even if this turns out to be a down year, I would keep him.

Philadelphia Eagles (Andy Reid) – Can ’em
Sometimes teams need to just start over. It doesn’t always mean the coach is bad. Andy Reid is a good coach, but I think it’s time for a change of scenery, both for Reid and for the Philadelphia sideline. He will find himself in a new head coaching job very soon, if he wants one.

Washington Redskins (Mike Shanahan) – Keep ’em
A year ago at this time, I would’ve said Shanahn would find himself out of a job after the 2012 season. Then the Redskins pulled off a huge draft day deal to acquire Robert Griffin III and suddenly the ‘Skins are on the rise and Shanahan is safe. A good quarterback equates to job security for a head coach and I think Shanahan has found his job security for years to come.

NFC North
Chicago Bears (Lovie Smith) – Can ’em
This was the hardest decision on this list. In his nine years at the helm of the Bears, Smith has led Chicago to four winning seasons, three playoff births and a Super Bowl appearance. He’s also had three seasons with 7-9 or 8-8 records. The Bears may make the playoffs this year, but may have to win out to do so. While Smith has made the Bears consistently competitive, I think they need more than that. The Packers are tough and given their youth don’t appear ready to fall off the NFC North podium anytime soon. The Vikings seem to be a team on the rise (if they can find a quarterback) and the Lions have good weapons and should remain competitive (if they can establish some discipline). If the Bears want to make the jump, I think it’s time for a change. Ultimately, I also had to look at the Bears offense. It’s struggled throughout Smith’s time as head coach. Even this year, if you were to take Brandon Marshall out of the mix, that would be a disaster. I question Smith’s ability to identify a coach with the necessary talent to build an offense.

Detroit Lions (Jim Schwartz) – Keep ’em
This was actually a narrow decision to keep Schwartz over can him. The Lions have talent. Their biggest problem right now is team discipline and I question if Schwartz can fix that. It almost seems that his personality feeds into the discipline problems. Since his hiring, the Lions have developed a reputation for being a dirty team. I would give Schwartz one year to fix this and if he can’t, show him the door. This is a job that good coaches would now jump at.

Green Bay Packers (Mike McCarthy) – Keep ’em
McCarthy continues to build on the success he’s instilled into Green Bay. No reason to change direction now.

Minnesota Vikings (Leslie Frazier) – Keep ’em
After a slow start to the Frazier era in Minnesota, I now think Frazier has the team headed in the right direction. Yes, they may not yet have a long term solution at quarterback, but many of the other pieces are in place and Frazier has done a nice job in spite of not having a top tier quarterback.

NFC South
Atlanta Falcons (Mike Smith) – Keep ’em
No question here. I think Mike Smith is one of the top coaches in the game right now.

Carolina Panthers (Ron Rivera) – Keep ’em
I originally wrote this post saying the Panthers should be fired, putting up a good argument as to why. As I thought about it more and stared at what I wrote, I thought I was a little too harsh on Rivera. The Panthers are bad, but those problems extend far beyond Rivera to the GM and even to the owner. Rivera is stuck with Cam Newton as his quarterback, a player who has clearly struggled this year and likely will continue to. Great fantasy player, but not a guy I’d want on my real team. I would give Rivera one more year to show more progress, but I’m skeptical he’ll be able to with Newton under center.

New Orleans Saints (Sean Payton, Aaron Kromer, Joe Vitt) – Keep ’em
Tough year for the Saints, one in which I’m not even sure who to call the coach. I guess it was Joe Vitt, but he will definitely not return in that capacity next year. Instead, Sean Payton will return, and Vitt will go back to his role as linebackers coach. Payton should most definitely return to this team. He’s sorely needed.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Greg Schiano) – Keep ’em
I really like what Schiano has done in his first season in Tampa, except for that odd move to not allow an opposing team to simply down the ball when ahead to run out the clock. Even that strange decision was part of a larger culture change he’s brought to the Buccaneers though. This is a team on the rise.

NFC West
Arizona Cardinals (Ken Whisenhunt) – Can ’em
Time to start over. Whisenhunt has had a difficult time building on the success the Cardinals had in 2008 and 2009 when they reached the playoffs (and Super Bowl in 2008). He followed those seasons with win totals of five and eight the next two years and currently has five this season. The Cardinals suffered through a nine game losing streak in the middle of this season. I question Whisenhunt’s ability to identify quarterback talent and develop young talent. His high points with Arizona came with veteran Kurt Warner starting. Following that he’s made a number of mistakes in bringing new quarterbacks in and also developing new, young ones. He may be better suited for a team with an established veteran. If we look at chances for quarterback improvement next year, I don’t see a lot of veteran choices out there. The best option is probably Kirk Cousins, Washington’s backup, but he’s young and would need a good coaching staff to continue working to develop him. I think Whisenhunt’s a good coach who may find himself with another head coaching job in the future, but I don’t see this team improving much next year with him.

Saint Louis Rams (Jeff Fisher) – Keep ’em
I really like what Fisher has done this season. He’s turned the Rams around and they are primed for success in the future. Two wins over division power San Francisco (yes, I’m counting that tie as a win for the Rams) is a good starting point.

San Francisco 49ers (Jim Harbaugh) – Keep ’em
Those in San Francisco know I’m pretty critical of Harbaugh, but he’s a good head coach and has changed that organization.

Seattle Seahawks (Pete Carroll) – Keep ’em
I never thought we’d see this kind of success from Carroll. To be quite honest, I thought Seattle was going to serve as a temporary stop for him as he waited out NCAA sanctions against him until he went back to the college game free from any NCAA-imposed baggage. His performance has surprised me and I now think we’ll be seeing him on the Seahawks sideline for some time.

By Kevin York
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevin_york