Ah, the life of an NFL coach. In what other profession would working 20 hours a day and sleeping four hours a night on a couch in the office be not quite good enough?
"Uh, Coach, I'm sorry that you sacrificed your marriage and the love of your youngest child for the organization, but 7-9 just ain't gonna get it done."
On the bright side, an NFL head coach has almost no chance of having his job outsourced to an operator in India, though most Microsoft technical service reps in New Dehli could probably do a better job of clock management than your average NFL coach. With that in mind, here are five coaches and five players who enter the 2004 season on the hot seat.
We begin with the coaches...
Has anyone ever gone from genius to stooge more rapidly? You wouldn't think a coach coming off a 12-4 season could be in jeopardy of losing his job, but the longer Mike Martz coaches the more he looks like an offensive coordinator.
What Martz did on the final drive of regulation against the Panthers in last year's playoffs was grounds for immediate termination. Seriously, he should have been relieved of duty on the spot, like a glassy-eyed officer on the battlefield gurgling baby talk as chaos descends around him.
If the last 15 yards of turf between victory and OT were San Juan Hill, this would have been Teddy Roosevelt bellowing to his Rough Riders, "We can't take it! Run for your lives!"
And, as Rams fans will point out, this was not an isolated incident of dereliction of duty. Martz has built an impressive resume of blinking in the breach, dating back to his decision to abandon Marshall Faulk in his Super Bowl XXXVI loss to the Patriots.
In a way, the sticky icky Ricky situation has provided some cover for Wannstedt and almost turned him into a sympathetic figure in Miami. Almost. But Dolphin fans simply don't want him coaching their team any more. And for good reason.
After his 40-56 stint with the Bears, Wannstedt has led the super-talented Dolphins to a very respectable 41-23 record in his four seasons with the Fish. But under Wannstedt a Dolphin season proceeds in much the same manner as the coach's moustache, starting out lustrous and promising before tapering off into a wispy disappointment. Wins in September are as prevalent as the hairs on his right upper lip, but come December they are as thin as the strands on his left upper lip.
The December low point came at Foxboro in the 2002 regular-season finale. The Dolphins managed to blow a late 11-point lead and a spot in the playoffs with some clock management that would make even Mike Martz wince.
The Dolphins will almost certainly finish third or fourth in the AFC East and Wannstedt's hot seat will quite likely become an ejection seat.
While Herm has elucidated us on the vagaries of pro football with wonky statements like, "You play to win the game," the Jets haven't won enough to keep him off the hot seat.
The star of the Miracle in the Meadowlands has now produced the Mediocrity in the Meadowlands as the Jets have ebbed from 10-6 to 9-7 to 6-10 in his three seasons. If this is Herm's idea of a five-year plan, he's got his chart upside down.
As Joe Walton, Bruce Coslet and Rich Kotite can attest, when things go bad in New York, they go really bad, really fast. If the Jets don't make the playoffs this year, expect Herm to be run out of the Meadowlands faster than you can say, "Pisarcik."
It will be interesting to see when all is said and done how many notches Bill Belichick has on his belt for all the AFC East coaches that will be fired during his reign.
How would you like to sitting on the hot seat in an increasingly restless city and have your job performance largely in the hands of Tommy Maddox? And at least Maddox has another career to fall back on, seeing as how losing some zip on your fastball doesn't really hurt your ability to sell insurance.
When the Steelers gave Cowher a two-year extension in July it had the feel of a classy organization expressing loyalty and reward for a body of work. But it sure didn't have that you're-the-man-to-lead-us-back-to-the-Super Bowl vibe.
Once regarded as the gutsiest coach in the league — that onside kick in the Super Bowl belongs in the Hall of Stones — in recent seasons Cowher has often presided over late-game collapses or completely heartless efforts by the Black and Gold. He would seem to be living proof that rah-rah can work only so long. It certainly hasn't helped the backsliding Plaxico Burress reach his limitless potential.
Yes, Cowher has led the Steelers to the playoffs eight times in his 12 seasons, but he has had as many 6-10 seasons in the last five years as playoff victories (two) and he's still got those three home losses in AFC title games hanging over his head. On the plus side for Cowher, it is pretty much inconceivable that he'll add to that dubious record as the Steelers figure to battle the Browns for the basement in the AFC North. It's also hard to imagine that Cowher will make it through to the end of his two-year extension.
Sure, it took a miracle play from the immortals Josh McCown and Nathan Poole, but you just can't lose to the Arizona Cardinals with the playoffs on the line and not take some of that desert heat with you into the following season.
Not only did the Vikings blow a three-game lead in the NFC North down the stretch, they did it despite a hugely favorable schedule. The Vikings push to the finish line was about as graceful as that Olympic marathoner who lost control of her bowels as she staggered to the finish line in the L.A. Coliseum in 1984.
In one calamitous month-long stretch, the Vikings lost to the Giants, Chargers and Raiders, all of whom would finish at 4-12. This means that from Oct. 26 to November 16, Minnesota accounted for 25 percent of the season victory total of three different NFL teams. The Vikings then capped their improbable run by losing to yet another 4-12 team in their season finale. Four separate losses to teams with 4-12 records has got to be an NFL record.
He's felt the wrath of McCown and, if he doesn't make the playoffs this year, Mike Tice will no doubt feel the wrath of McCombs, owner Red, that is. (Though the prospective sale of the team may make Tice's departure imminent anyway.)
The truth is if you're an NFL head coach, you're either out of work or on the hot seat. And since the league does not guarantee the contracts of its players, the same is true for the men who strap on the pads every week.
Here are five players for whom 2004 is a prove-it proposition:
The return of the Tantrum. Keyshawn Johnson has whined himself onto the hot seat and with every 2-catches-for-19-yards performance he turns in this year, Jon Gruden will be further vindicated.
Keyshawn is a relic, a totem from a previous football generation where general managers had to choose between big guys and fast guys. Now it seems wide receivers are made in the lab, towering guys who can fly and catch everything thrown their way. Bigger, faster, stronger.
Though his mouth runs a 4.2, Key is considerably slower than that. He can't get any separation (except with a court order, but that's another story), yet thinks he's always open. He yacks and yacks about his ability, but gets almost no YAC because of his lack of speed.
And still it's all someone else's fault.
The assumption throughout New England is that the Patriots have substantially upgraded their running game and will ramble to another championship. (Driving past the Razor last week, I was actually giddy with anticipation.) True, Corey Dillon is not Antowain Smith. He hits the hole faster and harder and is tougher to bring down. He also has an ego commensurate with his considerable NFL achievements.
Dillon has to prove not only that his physical skills are not in decline after an injury-marred season, but that his attitude fits in with Belichick's philosophy after his bitter parting with the Bengals. Dillon is the new guy in a weekly poker game that has enjoyed near-perfect chemistry for years. Will he add to the mix, or will he be the guy who bums everybody out by talking too much when it's his turn to check or bet?
Raise your hand if Tiki Barber cost your fantasy team a playoff spot last year. Have you ever seen a running back so allergic to the end zone? The prospect of scoring a touchdown was so scary for this guy, he would get chills, break out in hives, and, of course, gack up the football.
Coming into training camp, Tiki was going to have to answer for last year under any circumstances. Was he a legit every-down back who was undone by a leaky o-line or a situational scatback with Ronnie Harmon-in-the-Rose-Bowl fumble-itis? And then some trimmed-down battering ram of a runner showed up in camp wearing Ron Dayne's uniform and the hot seat got a whole lot warmer.
If you were a Lions fan, and there must be one or two of you left, would you really be excited about acquiring a guy that the NFL's reigning genius let walk away? I mean, if you were Jack Nicholson at a Hollywood party in 1970 and Warren Beatty happily deferred on the leggy stewardess, wouldn't you be a little suspicious? What does The Pro know that I don't?
Well, Belichick knew this (and doubtless more):
1. An All-Pro on a championship team is at his maximum market value and Belichick is much more comfortable shopping at the Mike Vrabel/Roman Phifer discount emporium.
2. Woody was coming off an injury and big bucks have been known to lead to a down-tick in desire to work out and an up-tick in desire for cheeseburgers. Woody is reportedly came to camp 20 pounds overweight.
3. His absence was hardly noticed in the Super Bowl as his replacement Russ Hochstein made Kris Jenkins invisible and the Patriots ran up 32 points.
The man who sits on the eternal hot seat cleared some big hurdles last year in leading the Colts to the AFC Championship game and expectations have risen almost as precipitously as Manning's salary.
Manning's $98M contract was structured to keep the Colts competitive from a salary cap perspective for the next two seasons, but after that the big hits kick in. This is what is known as a window of opportunity. After next season, Manning's paycheck might become a major reason why he may not be surrounded by as much talent as he might like (see Alex Rodriguez, Texas Rangers).
Another concern for Manning and coach Tony Dungy is the post-Belichick-exposure factor. Remember, nobody could solve two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner until Belichick did. Then, equipped with just one game tape, the rest of the league figured Warner out. Now Belichick may have done his Jonas Salk thing again and inoculated the rest of the league against Manning-to-Harrison by disguising his Cover 4 as a Cover 2 or vice-versa or whatever magic mojo he cooked up in his giant brain that led to Manning completing as many passes to Ty Law (three) as to Marvin Harrison.
Manning has had seven months to study that game tape. What's he learned? We'll find out when the 2004 season opens Sept. 9th in Foxboro.