What else have we learned so far at the quarter mark of the season? Shaquill Barrett is the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner. Gardner Minshew is the early favorite for Rookie of the Year. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Saints have the best offensive lines. And a few surprises have emerged in the Coach of the Year race.
The end of September means the start of the autumn season. For NFL coaches, it’s the start of hot seat season, too.
Four weeks of the 2019 campaign has created a telling preview of what may come. The Patriots and Chiefs have risen to the top of the NFL landscape at 4-0. The Dolphins and Cardinals have unsurprisingly gone to the other end of the spectrum in winless starts. And while that was more or less predictable, a few unexpected developments have added new creases to the way this year’s coaching carousel may unfold.
Matt Patricia looked destined for the hot seat after a disappointing debut season and then a Week 1 come-from-ahead tie against the Cardinals that saw Arizona erase an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit. He’s since inspired confidence with upset wins over the Chargers and Eagles while pushing the Chiefs to their limit in a Week 4 loss. Any concerns about Kyle Shanahan have since been excised by a 3-0 start that has the 49ers as one of the league’s three remaining undefeated teams. Doug Marrone was 0-2 and staring down a pink slip (and Jalen Ramsey’s trade demand) until Gardner Minshew and Leonard Fournette brought the wins that temporarily smoothed things over in Jacksonville.
Meanwhile, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers are 1-3 and looking at a stretch of 14 games started by backup Mason Rudolph. Adam Gase’s first season with the Jets has been derailed by bad play and worse luck — namely, the kind that sidelines a quarterback with mononucleosis. No one’s really sure what Mike Vrabel’s Titans are capable of, but they’re on pace for a typically unremarkable 9-7 campaign (as is tradition).
With a quarter of the season more or less finished, a handful of coaches are in danger being let go before 2019 is finished. Here are the five who have the most to worry about after Week 4, in order of most concerning to least.
Jay Gruden, Washington
Gruden pulled his last playable card in Week 4, benching Case Keenum in favor of first-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Unfortunately for him, the former Ohio State star looked very much like an underprepared rookie against the Giants.
Haskins led his offense to as many points as he had interceptions thrown in a 24-3 loss to New York rookie quarterback Daniel Jones. As the Giants rekindled their postseason hopes by improving to 2-2, Washington fell to 0-4 and effectively watched its shot at contention slip even further out of reach.
That could spell the end for Gruden, who fell to 35-48-1 in five-plus seasons as the team’s head coach. He came into the season as the betting favorite to be the first man canned this fall, and a winless September only frayed the string of Damocles’ sword above his head.
Gruden’s been able to survive a career devoid of even a single 10-win season thanks to his ability to develop passing talent. He turned Kirk Cousins from a fourth-round backup into a Pro Bowler and got an Alex Smith-led team out to a 6-3 start last year before a catastrophic leg injury ended Smith’s season and sent Washington into a tailspin.
That bad luck extended his grace period to 2019, but more misfortune has befallen him since. Management refuses to extend left tackle Trent Williams’ contract, leading to a still-going holdout and the continued absence of the team’s best blocker. Starters like Brandon Scherff, Terry McLaurin, Derrius Guice, and Jordan Reed have all missed time due to injury. This all effectively shrank the team’s playoff chances to nothing. Gruden’s only real hope is to grow Haskins by leaps and bounds and make the case that his coaching was instrumental in the rookie quarterback reaching his potential.
There’s still time for that to happen — but owner Dan Snyder’s patience could run out before Haskins shows any real signs of development. No one in the NFL has a hotter seat than Gruden right now. Things are so desperate in the nation’s capital that it could be time for Colt McCoy to take his seat on the team’s carousel of sadness in Week 5. To be fair, that would save Haskins the embarrassment of having his lunch money stolen by the Patriots on Sunday.
Bill O’Brien, Texans
A 16-10 loss to the Panthers was an amalgamation of everything O’Brien’s struggled with in his Texans tenure and a CliffsNotes readthrough of Week 4’s dumbest mistakes. Houston couldn’t protect Deshaun Watson, failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities, burned a timeout with a misused replay challenge, and even added some baffling offensive playcalls to throw a can of hairspray onto the “Fire O’Brien” flames.
Bill O'Brien has Logged On pic.twitter.com/sXJwX24pDX— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) September 29, 2019
The Panthers came into their road showdown with the Texans having given up more than 23 points per game on average. Then they shut down a Houston offense led by one of the league’s most exciting young quarterbacks and a completely stacked receiving corps thanks in part to O’Brien’s inability to establish any kind of offensive rhythm. That’s something the franchise could write off if it were a blip on the radar. Instead, the former Penn State head coach and the Texans’ current de facto general manager has made it a trend.
O’Brien’s tenure in Houston has been filled with “just good enough” performances that take advantage of a disheveled AFC South en route to disappointing January finishes. The Texans have been to the playoffs three times in the last four years but only have one win to show for it — and that came against a Derek Carr-less Raiders team. Houston is currently stuck in a four-way tie for first in the division and is in strong position to make another run at the crown. Unfortunately for O’Brien, just getting to the postseason may not be enough for a head coach whose ceiling has been capped at “good” but never “great” in his five-plus seasons in Texas.
Dan Quinn, Falcons
The Falcons should not be this bad. Atlanta is 1-3 and ranks just 26th in scoring offense despite boasting a former MVP at quarterback and one of the league’s most talented receiving groups. The defense has given up 20 points or more in each of its games even after extending stars Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones this offseason. The team has trailed by 21, 17, and 17 at halftime in its three defeats so far.
The blame in this demoralizing season has fallen on Quinn. The fifth-year coach is only 18-18 after his breakthrough 2016 season and his biggest asset — creating havoc plays in the middle of a stingy defense — has been absent in 2019. Owner Arthur Blank spent big this offseason to create a win-now environment, only to see his team sink to the bottom of the NFC South.
Fortunately for Quinn, a 1-3 start isn’t a burial in a conference where no team but the 49ers has really stepped up. The Saints lead the division at 3-1, but remain vulnerable with Drew Brees sidelined for roughly half the season due to a thumb injury. The Panthers and Buccaneers are both flawed products. While Atlanta’s upcoming schedule isn’t especially rosy — three of its next four games are against 2018 playoff teams — there’s still time for Quinn to prove Blank made the right investments last offseason.
The bad news for Quinn is that his team can barely go a week without shooting itself in the foot, and that reflects especially poorly on his coaching.
Mike Zimmer, Vikings
Kirk Cousins was supposed to be the keystone that held the rest of Minnesota’s powerful roster in place. Instead, he’s regressed in 1.25 seasons under Zimmer, leaving the Vikings stuck in limbo and turning up the heat under his head coach’s seat by a few degrees each week.
Minnesota has been unable to replicate the magic of its 13-3 2017. In the process, its quarterback play has stagnated despite an ostensible upgrade from Case Keenum to Cousins. That raises the question as to whether then-offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was more responsible for the team’s success than we knew at the time. The Vikings have been eager to answer it; they fired John DeFilippo during the 2018 season and replaced him with Kevin Stefanski at OC. The change hasn’t worked out so far. His unit ranks 18th in the league in scoring offense.
Zimmer’s biggest problem in Minnesota has been an inability to make adjustments mid-game based on what he’s seeing on the field. While this mostly applies to playcalling, it was on display Sunday when he burned a first-half timeout that effectively convinced the Bears to rethink a fourth-and-3 punt and go for it — and convert en route to a field goal — instead. Zimmer stopped the clock to avoid a flag for 12 men on the field, but he called timeout after it was clear Chicago was ready to take a delay of game penalty to create a little extra space for its punter.
That’s a small mistake that had repercussions in a game where defense ruled, and it was entirely avoidable with a little extra awareness. That’s a strong thesis statement for the Zimmer era in Minnesota, and that’s why he could be fired in 2019 if he can’t push an underachieving team to the postseason.
Ron Rivera, Panthers
Rivera’s fortunes have shifted the past two weeks as Kyle Allen and the Carolina defense have outperformed expectations. While two straight wins have given the Panthers new life in the topsy-turvy NFC, Riverboat Ron isn’t out of the woods yet.
Beating a winless Cardinals team and allowing the Texans to self-destruct in front of them weren’t exactly awe-inspiring victories. Games against the surging Jaguars and a Buccaneers team that already beat the Panthers at home will provide a greater barometer of whether Allen and Rivera are a potent pairing or a quiet cry for Cam Newton to return to full strength.
Should Carolina’s surge die down, Rivera may be in trouble. He had the league’s third-best odds to be fired after that 0-2 start. He’s been able to fend off pressure by dialing up winning seasons in odd-numbered years (he’s got playoff berths in ‘13, ‘15, and ‘17), but the years in-between have been unpleasant.
A second straight losing season could be enough to convince new owner David Tepper a change is in order. Tepper, who took over the team during the 2018 offseason, has given his head coach a relatively long leash rather than make wholesale changes upon his arrival. Another year of meaningless December games could be all he needs to see to install his own choice at the top of the team’s decision-making flowchart.