Believe it or not, but the NFL regular season is already at its midpoint, and that means a much more defined picture of which teams are truly contenders, which ones have some tinkering to do to become one, and which should’ve never showed up in September.
Most of the blame for those who fall in the latter category belongs to the head coach leading the respective team, and that’s simply a part of the job. Tasked with figuring out how to overcome all manner of adversity to remain in contention during the regular season, some are simply better at it than most. That could be due to experience in the league, or simply because they have the talent to build and lead a roster of 53 men to the Promised Land, while others don’t appear cut out for what comes with sitting in the big chair.
And with that, let’s see who should be on red alert entering Week 9 and beyond — using the DEFCON military readiness scale to gauge the threat level to each coach’s job.
DEFCON 5: Safe … for now
12. Jason Garrett – Cowboys
As is usually the case with Garrett, he’s figured out a way to douse the blazing hot seat beneath him with ice water. The Cowboys were on a three-game slide in an all-important contract year for Garrett, but he galvanized the team in Week 7 and shredded the Philadelphia Eagles to ascend to a 4-3 record, both stopping the free fall and securing lone possession of the NFC East going into the second half of the season. Had Garrett lost to visiting Philly, calls for his head would’ve been loud enough to match the decibel level of a sonic boom, but his guile leads to more solid footing, and likely for the rest of the season.
And by, along with , it’s clear Garrett is all-in on making sure he lands a contract extension in 2020. The last thing on the Cowboys mind now is sending him packing, and he can thank the Eagles for slicing the tires on that U-Haul.
11. Mike Tomlin – Steelers
Like Garrett, it seemed like the writing was on the wall as of late for Tomlin. After all, the Steelers were 1-4 to start the year and despite having signed a one-year extension in July that secures him through the 2021 season, the rumor mill surrounding Tomlin began to reach fever pitch. He’s since rattled off two consecutive wins to move to 3-4 on the season, and that’s a much more respectable look when considering he’s without Ben Roethlisberger, leaving Tomlin to hope Mason Rudolph can save the day. To Tomlin’s credit, the victory in Week 8 may have been over the winless Dolphins, but Miami capitalized on Rudolph’s mistakes early and jumped out to a 14-0 lead — threatening to upset Pittsburgh and sending Tomlin’s name deeper into hot seat headlines.
Instead, Tomlin rallied the troops and dropped 27 unanswered points on the Dolphins to avoid being the laughingstock of the entire NFL, and getting the Steelers to within a game of .500 in the process. They’re not far behind the first-place Ravens, whom they barely lost to in overtime in Week 5, and the fact there’s still time and a chance to steal the AFC North is why Tomlin is safe from harm.
10. Kliff Kingsbury – Cardinals
Count Kingsbury in as a guy who’s turned his fortunes around in 2019, and the level of difficulty for him has been sky-high when considering he’s a first-time NFL coach leading a Cardinals team that has a rookie quarterback in Kyler Murray, and no true wide receiver threat outside of the timeless wonder that is Larry Fitzgerald. The hype surrounding what Kingsbury would bring to the league offensively hit a patch of ice early and continues to struggle freeing itself, with the Cardinals ranking 20th in overall yardage per game (342.9) and 22nd in points scored weekly (21.2). Following an opening day tie and three losses that followed, it looked like Arizona made a mistake by placing their bet on Kingsbury.
While the jury is still out on the decision, things have improved in the desert with the Cardinals having won three of their last four games. That helps Kingsbury’s security in a league that isn’t nearly as forgiving for first-year coaches as it is more experienced ones — see Garrett, for example — but his mettle and talent will truly be tested when he battles the undefeated 49ers twice in the next three games. , or at least Kingsbury better hope it does.
DEFCON 4: Danger is present
9. Matt Nagy – Bears
This isn’t supposed to be happening in Chicago in 2019, but here we are discussing the reality of Nagy’s poor decision-making that’s put the Bears in a problematic spot going forward. Easily capable of being the most dominant defense in the NFL, as it was a season ago, the Bears can’t get out of their own way — mostly due to the ineptitude of the offense. Look no further than the inconsistent and underwhelming play of former second-overall pick Mitch Trubisky, who has a 3-3 record in the six games he’s played this season, while having thrown for only 1,092 yards and five touchdowns to three interceptions.
Granted, it wasn’t Nagy who opted to draft Trubisky — seeing as the former arrived one year after the latter — but his insistence on attaching his fate to the struggling quarterback has both threatened the Bears season and his job going forward. There was no move made to acquire help at the position ahead of the trade deadline (), leaving them to hope Trubisky can find a way to stack wins in an unforgiving second half schedule. If things get worse in Chicago, Nagy could find himself in big trouble soon.
8. Brian Flores – Dolphins
On one note, it appears the Dolphins are actually trying to avoid going 0-16 in Flores’ first year as NFL head coach. Then again, on yet another, they could simply be good at trying to appear they’re trying when really they aren’t. In their 27-14 loss to the Steelers, they flew out of the gate like a team determined to shed the rumors of them tanking, but then apparently remembered that’s exactly what they’re actually doing, and mailed it in the rest of the way to land at 0-7 on the season. In the meantime, they’ve traded away key pieces like Minkah Fitzpatrick — who helped their efforts to lose in Week 8 — and Kenyan Drake, and have now placed All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard on injured reserve with a knee injury that’s reportedly not extreme.
If Flores’ plan is to torpedo the season with the hopes of landing a windfall of premium draft picks to rebuild the Dolphins in his own image, he’s right on schedule. The problem is draft picks don’t always pan out, and rarely do they become superstars at the NFL level, which threatens Flores’ plan. He’s likely safe for 2019, assuming the front office in Miami is in on the joke, but he’s playing a risky game that could blow up in his face in the future — as the torpedo changes course and aims itself at the guy who launched it.
DEFCON 3: At the ready
7. Vic Fangio – Broncos
Things have gone from promising before the season, to worrisome at the outset, to an absolute tailspin with only eight regular season games left to play. Fangio was brought in this year to replace Vance Joseph, who himself was fired after a short stint as head coach, and the hiring came attached to a decision by John Elway to trade for Joe Flacco; and that was supposed to finally resolve the ongoing uncertainty at quarterback while providing a steady and fiery hand at the helm in Fangio. Instead, the Broncos are 2-6 and the usually stone-faced Flacco is publicly railing against the coaching staff’s decisions on the field, citing them as “being afraid to lose” when that’s mostly all the team has done this year.
Call it the timing of his comments, or an actual herniated disc in his neck — whichever suits you — but Brandon Allen in the immediate, and ultimately give rookie Drew Lock a chance once he returns from IR. As things continue to swirl out of control at Mile High, Fangio may now find himself out the door quicker than Joseph before him.with an ailment no one outside of Denver was aware of prior to now. The optics of the situation alone are disconcerting, but now Fangio will hang his hopes on backup
6. Pat Shurmur – Giants
OK, Mr. Shurmur, everyone is willing to admit Daniel Jones is at least better than initially believed, but the hype from his first couple of outings has now been placed in a medically-induced coma after seeing the Giants suffer as of late. The team is 2-6 on the season, and only one game ahead of the lowly Washington Redskins in the NFC East. Their two wins came against the Redskins and the Buccaneers — the two owning a combined record of 3-12 right now — and even the return of All-Pro running back Saquon Barkley hasn’t been enough to help Shurmur engineer a turnaround.
Three of their next four games are against the resurgent Cowboys, the angry Bears and the red-hot Packers, meaning things could get much worse before they get any better. Shurmur joined the Giants in 2018 and went 5-11 in his first season, making his combined record just 7-17, and despite making a QB change in Week 3. Jones was a spark that led to the two wins, but he’s thrown only seven touchdowns to five interceptions during the current four-game losing streak, and Barkley hasn’t rushed for more than 72 yards and a TD in the last two outings. Clearly there’s a lot wrong with the Giants, and Shurmur is atop that totem of issues.
5. Zac Taylor – Bengals
When you fire a coach with as much experience and tenure with a team as Marvin Lewis, you had better make sure the next guy is THE guy to take things to the next level. That’s what the Bengals were aiming for when they opted for a young replacement in Taylor, but their hopes for 2019 were met with a buzzsaw when a poor decision by Taylor and the coaching staff — namely giving the green light to practice on a poor field at the University of Dayton this summer — led to an ankle injury on A.J. Green that has sidelined him the first eight games. That robbed Andy Dalton of his top weapon and helped fuel his struggles en route to being benched (and on his birthday, no less) only three hours ahead of the NFL trade deadline, making it nearly impossible for him to find another home.
The 0-8 Bengals remain the only team outside of the hapless Dolphins who have yet to land a win, and their offense is the fourth-worst in the league, scoring an average of only 15.5 points per game. This isn’t what the Bengals envisioned when they gave Taylor the nod, hoping for a high-flying offense that could challenge for the AFC North crown. Taylor better clean things up, and quickly, or be a coaching casualty if the Bengals believe they’ve made a grave mistake.
4. Anthony Lynn – Chargers
The first domino has fallen in Los Angeles, withmidway through the season, wholly displeased with the team’s inability to put up points on a consistent basis. It’s a sign change may be afoot for Lynn himself if such changes weren’t/aren’t made, and rightfully so, considering he’s now in his third year with the Chargers and they’re moving in the wrong direction. Injuries have played a key part in their 3-5 start, yes, but that’s a part of the game each head coach is tasked with overcoming — admittedly Lynn having more pressure to do so than most, given who’s absent.
Still, the Chargers want to see a turnaround and they want it yesterday, for a team that went 12-4 last season and entered this year as a major threat to challenge the likes of the Chiefs and Patriots. This isn’t the first time Lynn’s Chargers have started 3-5, having also done so in his first season with the club in 2017 before pulling it together to finish 9-7 and second place in the division. They didn’t make the playoffs that year, though, which makes for an ominous tone to this year’s mirrored beginning. There’s not many more seasons left in an uber-competitive and verbose Philip Rivers, and you can bet he’ll have say in if Lynn sticks around beyond 2019 if the Chargers continue to flounder.
DEFCON 2: Mobilize the forces
3. Freddie Kitchens – Browns
Let’s be clear here: the Browns have one of the most loaded teams on both sides of the ball the NFL has seen in a long time. The hype surrounding them ahead of the season seemed justified, considering they made an impressive array of moves headlined by the blockbuster trade to land Odell Beckham, Jr., teaming him up with former first-round pick Baker Mayfield and former LSU teammate Jarvis Landry — not to mention the dynamic ability of Nick Chubb in the backfield. On the other side of the ball, Myles Garrett was set to lead a defensive front that also now includes Olivier Vernon, but sitting at 2-5 on the year, the Browns haven’t been able to stop anyone from scoring and Mayfield has been one of the worst at the QB position in 2019.
An impressive win over the Ravens on the road aside, Kitchens hasn’t been able to rein in the horse in his first season. Protection issues still exist in front of Mayfield, yes, but the play-calling hasn’t exactly done much to help solve that issue. All told, there is simply too much talent on the Browns roster for them to find themselves beached like a whale that lost its way, but that’s precisely the situation they find themselves in. General manager John Dorsey has put together quite a roster, but Kitchens can’t find a recipe for success, and it’s doubtful he’ll be given as many chances as Hue Jackson to figure out the ingredients.
2. Adam Gase – Jets
Spoiler alert: The Jets are still the Jets.
The highlight of their season was defeating the Cowboys and heating up the seat beneath Garrett, but that feels like forever ago after the Patriots had Sam Darnold “seeing ghosts” en route to losing two straight games and falling to a record of 1-6. To make matters worse, they’ve decided to trade away defensive end Leonard Williams to the Giants and proceeded to alienate both Le’Veon Bell and Jamal Adams, the latter two having been the topic of possible trade discussions ahead of the NFL deadline. for their decision to take calls on him, citing a conversation he had with the front office wherein he told them he wanted to stay put and was assured they wouldn’t move him. Several conversations with the Cowboys and Ravens later, they nearly did it anyway, but neither wanted to pay the high price to land Adams.
For Gase’s part, he claims he knew nothing of either potential trade and if he’s being truthful, it means the Jets front office has him in the dark on key matters that could directly impact his future with the club — having signed on in 2019 as the replacement for Todd Bowles. Nothing about the Jets is working right now, be it in the front office or on the field, with continued rumors also alleging Gase never wanted to pay Bell big money to be a Jet in the first place. The situation for the other New York team is messier than their MetLife Stadium roommate, and it’s hard to fathom Gase being allowed to stick around much longer — assuming he even wants to.
DEFCON 1: Fire [him]
1. Dan Quinn – Falcons
The Falcons should’ve already canned Quinn like old sardines by now, but apparently owner Arthur Blank isn’t afraid of the smell emanating from his organization. Outside of scraping past the Eagles with a 24-20 victory that might not have been had Nelson Agholor not dropped a potential walk-off touchdown pass, the Birds are sitting at 1-7 on the season and their game film gets worse by the week. From focus issues to sloppy execution to poor offensive play-calling to Quinn’s unwillingness to relinquish his grip on a defensive scheme that allows a mind-numbing 31.2 points per game — second-most in the NFL — it’s past time Blank stop seeking reasons to stand by his man.
In the event Blank needs more reason to fire Quinn, he’ll likely get them soon, and in abundance. The second half of the Falcons schedule includes two games against the Saints with Drew Brees returned, two games against the talented Panthers (possibly with Cam Newton returned), a game against the undefeated 49ers and two contests against a Buccaneers team that might have nothing more to play for other than simply attempting to rout a division rival. And then there are the Jaguars, who are still very much in contention for the AFC South crown, and who may have Nick Foles back in the driver’s seat by the time Week 16 rolls around.
It’s shaping up to be the worst season in Falcons history since going 3-13 in 1996, and you’d be hard-pressed to figure out where they’d get two more wins in 2019. Sooner or later, Quinn’s goose is cooked, and Blank should stop bothering trying to pluck it first.