Three NFL head coaches were fired during the regular season last season. And this year, with a handful of teams in the middle of extraordinarily disappointing seasons, that number definitely could be matched.
November might be a little early for front offices to deliver their head coach a pink slip, but it’s certainly not too early to dig a hole so deep they cannot recover. So even if these coaches aren’t actually fired in November, their team’s performance during that month will almost certainly seal their fate.
The last head coach to be fired in the middle of the season was Chip Kelly. Philadelphia let him go amidst both another underwhelming season and rumors of his return to college. The San Francisco 49ers quickly locked him up, but roughly one year later, his offense is one of the worst in football and with several major programs (LSU, Texas, maybe even his old program, Oregon) potentially interested, Kelly might not want to hang around San Francisco.
Despite how bad the 49ers offense has been (last in yards per game), general manager Trent Baalke isn’t likely to fire Kelly in the next few weeks, even if their six-game losing streak pushes near double digits. And considering the 49ers have the New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots and somewhat resurgent Miami Dolphins on the schedule in November, Kelly might be staring at a 1-10 record when calls start coming in from programs who want to get an early jump on recruiting and putting together a staff. Rather than be fired for a second time in two seasons, he might simply walk away, not unlike Bobby Petrino did in 2007.
Should Kelly leave, it won’t exactly surprise anyone or dash 49ers fans’ hopes of a playoff berth. In Indianapolis, that’s not the case. The Colts are considered a perennial playoff team. Yet, for a second straight season, Indianapolis is mired in mediocrity and as much as people want to blame Ryan Grigson, firing a GM midseason won’t redirect the franchise’s fortunes. If anyone will be the immediate fall guy, it’s going to be coach Chuck Pagano.
Extending Pagano for another season in January was a surprise and owner Jim Irsay recently expressed “full confidence” in his head coach, but facing a second straight playoff absence could change Irsay’s mind. A November that features three very difficult games, including a trip to Green Bay and a Thanksgiving evening matchup pitting their bad defense against Pittsburgh and most likely Ben Roethlisberger, could push the owner’s patience to the brink.
And as much as Pagano is and will always be a scapegoat for the Colts defense’s bottom-five rankings in points and yardage allowed, it’s the offensive woes that might force Irsay’s hand. Pagano may be a defensive-minded coach, but his assistants on the other side of the ball have produced poor results over the last two seasons. They’ve broken the 100-yard rushing mark just once this season and worse yet, they’ve actually gotten worse at protecting Andrew Luck: the Colts have surrendered a league-high 25 sacks through seven games.
Wasting the prime years of a franchise quarterback that just signed a $139.5 million contract by going 11-14 since the start of 2015 can and should get anyone fired. And if Irsay thinks new blood can spark a December run — when the club plays three road games in a 19-day period — it might be in the cards.
One of the reasons the Colts have such high expectations every year is the considerable weakness of the AFC South. Tennessee has been rebuilding for roughly five years ,and the Houston Texans resemble a rudderless ship more than a contender. But the real doormat of the division is the Jacksonville Jaguars, who (along with the Cleveland Browns) have the worst record in the NFL since the start of the 2013 season.
And that falls on head coach Gus Bradley. Aside from quarterback Blake Bortles’ surprising regression and boasting the worst running game in the AFC, the failings of the defense have crippled the Jaguars’ hopes of resurrection. Including this season, the unit has never finished higher than 26th in points allowed, and the Jaguars are last in the NFL with 5 turnovers. For a disciple of Pete Carroll and his suffocating Seahawks defense, Bradley has done very little to warrant a fifth year in Jacksonville. And since four of their next five games are on the road, Bradley’s Jaguars could soon find themselves hopelessly out of a divisional race that very well could be won by a team that doesn’t post a winning record.
Debating the merits of firing a head coach midseason versus waiting until after Week 17 is pointless. For whatever reason — better assessment of talent, auditioning of assistants, showing the fans wholesale changes are on the horizon — management and ownership routinely do it. This year won’t be any different and these three head coaches are closest to that chopping block.