The NFL’s most embattled head coaches have just one week left to state their cases. Dec. 30 will be the last day of employment for most of the playcallers who wind up fired.
This year’s Black Monday may be a slower day than usual. While last year’s preferred firing day claimed six head coaches, some of this season’s least promising sideline generals have already earned support from team ownership. The Jets will keep Adam Gase around for year two. Matt Patricia’s done enough in his 3-11-1 season to oversee a third year in Detroit. Even Doug Marrone, now free from Tom Coughlin’s tyranny, could get another chance to restore the Jaguars to “not bad” — though his Magic 8 ball suggests his future may be hazy.
Before we get to the list, let’s deviate from the way we’ve sorted these coaches in the past few weeks. Typically, “fireable” doesn’t mean a coach is necessarily going to be fired. It refers to how poorly those coaches performed in a given week and any recent trends working against them. For example, Frank Reich made last week’s list after the Colts allowed Drew Brees to have the most accurate game in NFL passing history. He’s not getting canned, but Reich’s team has failed to live up to its potential while coming off its fourth straight loss.
This time, in honor of the upcoming season finale, we’re looking at all-around resumes on top of what happened in Week 16. Let’s zero in on the five guys most likely to be looking for employment. That means coaches who probably deserve to be fired, but won’t (Gase, Patricia), escaped the final rankings. Secure coaches who brain farted their way to a loss on Sunday are safe as well ... until we come back to these rankings next fall.
So who’s on the chopping block after a trying 2019?
5. Dan Quinn, Falcons
On Friday morning, the Falcons announced that Quinn would be retained for 2020. But we’ll keep him on this list anyway, because the decision is still pretty surprising. Atlanta was 1-7 after Week 9, good enough to give Quinn the shortest odds of a midseason firing in the NFL. Since then, he’s gone 5-2, including wins over two of the NFC’s top teams (the Saints and 49ers). That hot streak added another victim Sunday when the Falcons dispatched a sputtering Jaguars squad.
It’s been a significant turnaround on both sides of the ball. The Falcons’ offense has become more efficient, while their defense has tightened up to create opportunities over the last seven weeks.
Dan Quinn’s start to 2019 vs. his finish
|Atlanta Falcons||Points for||Points allowed||Total yards||Turnovers||Yards allowed||Turnovers forced|
|Atlanta Falcons||Points for||Points allowed||Total yards||Turnovers||Yards allowed||Turnovers forced|
|Weeks 1-9, per game||20.6||31.3||385||1.9||380||0.5|
|Weeks 10-16, per game||26.9||18.1||374||1.3||333||1.9|
Quinn had three factors working in his favor; the recent surge that shows off his ability to adapt, the continuity that comes with standing by a five-year veteran at the helm, and a locker room that, per a former Falcons’ public relations executive, still listens to, believes in, and respects him.
On a plane back to LA and just wrote this. I’m gonna share it bc a couple years back @ZachKleinWSB did something similar and this is my 2019 version to everyone who’s followed me over the years. I’m sure I’m gonna get a lot of great comments but I hope it gives you perspective pic.twitter.com/iCJ1zT3Et9— Brian Cearns (@BKCearns) December 23, 2019
Quinn’s put in the work to keep his job, even if 2019 will be remembers as a letdown for a talent roster. What he’s done has been good enough to keep him around for at least another season.
4. Doug Marrone, Jaguars
Will Marrone be held accountable for his team’s continued collapse from 2017’s lofty perch? Or will Tom Coughlin’s firing give him the leeway needed to earn another year in Jacksonville?
That’s the question owner Shad Khan will have to ask himself this week. Marrone got the Jags closer to the Super Bowl than all but one other coach in franchise history ... and that was Coughlin. The old-school disciplinarian oversaw a franchise that was responsible for one-quarter of the grievances filed by the NFL Players Association in the past year. He chased away talent like Jalen Ramsey (traded for two first-round picks) and had issues with Jaguars both former and current.
This limited what Marrone could do as a head coach, but Jacksonville’s issues go beyond mismanagement at the top. This year’s team has only been marginally more efficient through the air than it was in 2018 when Blake Bortles was playing his way out of Florida. Leonard Fournette’s stellar start to the season (791 yards, 4.9 yards per carry in his first eight games) has ground down to mediocrity without the threat of a high-impact passing game (361 yards, 3.5 YPC in the seven games since). A defense that had been a top-10 staple now ranks 29th in defensive efficiency, per DVOA.
Khan was mum on Marrone’s future after Week 15. That non-endorsement gave way to reports he’d be retained for one last go-round to see what he can do free of Coughlin’s influence.
From @NFLGameDay: There is a "good chance" #Jaguars coach Doug Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell return in 2020 following the firing of EVP Tom Coughlin, sources say... and Tony Khan could take on an increased role. pic.twitter.com/85Jw7YE4MX— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 22, 2019
Those fortunes shifted in the lead-up to his 2019 finale. The regular season’s final Saturday brought reports of Marrone’s imminent firing. That led Khan’s spokesman to deny those rumors hours later.
Statement from Jim Woodcock, #Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s spokesman: "Reports that Doug Marrone will be dismissed after Sunday’s game are 100 percent incorrect. Owner Shad Khan will meet with his football staff, which includes coaching and personnel, midweek next week.”— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 28, 2019
Marrone led the Jaguars within one quarter of Super Bowl 52. That bought him a redo after a disappointing 2018. Now he may get one more if Coughlin truly is the scapegoat he’s made out to be.
3. Pat Shurmur, Giants
Shurmur got what he needed from Daniel Jones Sunday: a historical five-touchdown performance and a win over Washington. Under his guidance, Saquon Barkley had the best day of his career and one of the most productive games of 2019 (279 total yards). So why is Shurmur back on the list despite a two-game winning streak?
a) it came against Washington and
b) the Giants’ issues outside of their inconsistent offense may be too much for him to overcome.
New York gave up a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, allowing Case Keenum to go 99 yards on Washington’s final drive of regulation to tie the game at 35. While Jones was able to rectify that problem by leading his team to a game-winning touchdown, Week 16 failed to dispel the fatal flaws that could lead to Shurmur’s ousting after two years.
The Giants let Keenum and Dwayne Haskins — who left the game with an ankle injury — throw for three touchdowns and nearly eight yards per pass (a 125.1 passer rating). That undermanned defense has given up more points than all but three other teams. It also ranks 29th when it comes to opponent passing efficiency.
That’s all led to a 4-11 record lowlighted by a nine-game losing streak in the middle of the season. New York’s only wins have come against 3-12 Washington (twice), the 4-11 Dolphins, and the 7-8 Buccaneers.
On the plus side, Shurmur’s built camaraderie within the Giants’ locker room — he’s even got Jones and Eli Manning partying together in the dorkiest way possible — and appears to be every bit a players’ coach.
Shurmur on the Giants night of flip cup celebrations: “they’re grown men and they look after each other and they were celebrating a victory, they should have invited me!” *laughs*— Madelyn Burke (@MadelynBurke) December 23, 2019
Though the team’s dream of adding Chase Young to its pass rush probably died with Week 16’s win, defensive help is still likely on the way. If the Giants believe they can patch up the blocking and secondary issues that have plagued them, Shurmur may get one more chance to prove he can turn Jones into a legitimate franchise quarterback.
Of course, owner John Mara could just look at his 9-22 record over the past two seasons and decide to gamble on a different quarterback whisperer instead.
2. Freddie Kitchens, Browns
Cleveland had the ball and a 6-0 lead at the two-minute warning in the second quarter against the Ravens. Kitchens found a way to turn that into a 14-6 halftime deficit.
Granted, some of that collapse was thanks to Lamar Jackson’s otherworldly play, but Kitchens did his offense few favors with too-cute playcalling and some regrettable clock management. His halfback pass on third-and-1 fooled nobody, and the fact it went for an 8-yard loss may have been the only thing that kept him from going for it on fourth down from his own 28.
Freddie Kitchens on the sequence at the end of the first half, throwing on third-and-10. (He also confirmed that the Hunt third-and-1 play the drive before was a halfback pass, and that they would’ve gone for it on fourth-and-short) pic.twitter.com/aiQ87JLdcm— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) December 22, 2019
The Ravens, out of timeouts, scored on the following drive. And they scored on the drive after that because three straight incompletions only ate up 18 seconds of game clock, effectively daring Jackson to burn them once more. It was another brutal gut-punch in a season full of them for the erstwhile AFC North favorites.
Confusing clock management is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Kitchens’ problems. The first-year head coach’s promotion was predicated on his ability to turn Cleveland’s turgid offense into one of the league’s most dangerous units. He made Baker Mayfield look like a borderline MVP candidate after taking over as interim offensive coordinator. Then he took that team and added All-Pros Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt (for half a season).
And the Browns have gone from ranking 12th in the league in weighed DVOA in 2018 to 23rd in 2019.
Beckham, still fiercely committed to the team that freed him from New York last spring, took notice — one week after Jarvis Landry had a similarly public discussion with his head coach over playcalling.
Kitchens is losing on the field and potentially losing in his own locker room. That all spells disaster for his hopes of returning for a year two. But maybe team owner John Dorsey will chalk this all up to rookie mistakes and give him the runway to learn from and fix those issues.
1. Jason Garrett, Cowboys
Garrett may have seen his last shot to keep his job march off the turf as the Eagles celebrated the 17-9 win that moved them to the top of the NFC East. The underachieving Cowboys, stuck in a feedback loop of botched calls and big, meaningless performances, dropped to 7-8 and out of the playoff picture.
That may signal the end of the Garrett era in Dallas. The 10-year veteran is staring down what could be only his second losing season as the Cowboys’ head coach, but the lingering sense he always could have done more will ultimately be his undoing. None of his teams embody that more than the 2019 edition.
Even though the Cowboys have all the talent of a contender, the combination of a tough schedule and a crippling inability to step up a big stage has dropped them to the periphery of the playoff race. By most metrics, Dallas should have clinched its division in a down year for the NFC East. It ranks first in the NFL in total yards, eighth in scoring, and eighth in yards allowed per play.
Advanced stats love the Cowboys. Not just DVOA. They're a top-ten team by DVOA, by @pfref SRS, by EPA. But the point of the game isn't to do well in advanced metrics. It's to win. And they didn't do that enough.— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) December 23, 2019
Instead, Jerry Jones’ team needs to beat Washington and hope the Giants upset the Eagles in Week 17 just to sneak into the postseason. Sunday’s loss in Philly dropped Garrett to 2-6 against teams with winning records in 2019.
Dak Prescott’s breakthrough season — he ranks among the NFL’s top five in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and QBR — is about to go to waste on the worst team, by record, of his career. A defense that got its best-case scenario in terms of injury (only Leighton Vander Esch has missed more than four games this season among the team’s starters) held the Saints, Patriots, and Eagles to 17 points or fewer this season and lost all three of those games. It hasn’t been all roses for that unit, which ranks 20th in defensive efficiency, per DVOA, but it still has given the ‘Boys several opportunities to win big games.
The gap between potential and production in Dallas is sizable. There’s one man who’ll shoulder the blame for that disparity, and it’s the same guy who has come under fire each time the Cowboys make an early playoff exit or struggle down the stretch. Garrett can still save his job by carrying Dallas to a surprising postseason run, though he’ll need the stars to align.
And if he does, all signs point to the Cowboys blowing it. That’s what they’ve done throughout 2019.