Once again we are hearing the familiar demands to have certain coaches of losing teams removed from their position during the season. I have never been involved in a situation where a coach was let go in season and have never believed in firing a coach in season, and still don't.
The first thing you have to do as a general manager when evaluating the situation is examine why you are losing and if the players are still listening to the head coach.
You could be losing for a variety of reasons. Among those could be injuries to key players, who and where you have played teams during the beginning of the season. Specifically why you lost games, was it a bad break, and blown call by an official or a lucky play by the opponent? And most of all, do you have the talent to beat the opponents who beat you? It is a long season and many times teams will get off to a slow start for one or more of the variety of reasons I listed only to turn it around during the second half of the season and gain momentum into the following year. As long as the players are playing hard and listening to the coaches I would let the season play out.
A classic example of a coach being fired in the media was Tom Coughlin of the Giants in 2006. The media will live week-to-week along with the fans. A general manager and owner have to look at the big picture of the season as well as the past year(s) and what options are available in finding a new coach.
The Giants believed Coughlin was a good coach. At the end of the season, Coughlin sat down with Giants ownership and discussed what changes he felt were needed to improve the program. Some of those changes involved changing his coordinators. Every coach has this sit-down evaluation each year and decisions made there are often critical to the success or failure of the team in the next season or seasons to come.
Switching coaches in-season rarely works in the long run and often only gets the media off the back of the team for the rest of the season. If you believed in your head coach in the offseason when you constructed the team, then you should let him finish the season. Give him and his staff a chance to work their way out of the slow start.
The reason to be slow to make this decision other than the example of Coughlin is when you change a coach, you often end up changing your systems on offense and defense. That means you are going to have to mix up your personnel and that has salary cap ramifications.
Another reason to be cautious about making a move in-season is that by naming an interim coach, you may have eliminated that man from possibly staying on the staff as a coordinator. A new head coach rarely keeps the interim coach in a reduced capacity. You also are limiting who you can hire at that point because you can't take a coach from another NFL team or college.
However, there a couple of instances I would consider making an in-season change. One of them is if you realize it is not going to work with your head coach and you have his successor on staff.
Then to me, you go ahead and make the move and start on rebuilding your program but with the Rooney Rule, you would still have to interview a minority candidate at the end of the season, but at least you would have a feel for the man you think is your first choice.
However, the Rooney Rule could put you in an awkward position during those interviews when the other candidates ask you if they have the same shot at the job as the interim head coach who may have posted a good record or at least gotten the team playing significantly better. You do have to be careful if you do have success when evaluating the interim: What is the reason for the turnaround? Is it improved coaching, easier schedule, a healthier team or some other reason for the team's turnaround?
The other instance to make the change would be if you had a situation that Al Davis said he had in Oakland where he claimed his head coach was insubordinate or if you had total mutiny in the locker room. But you have to be careful with judging that because players are going to complain about things, and if they sense management is going to react to them that could set a bad precedent.
In the case of Mike Nolan, if the 49ers felt he deserved another year to see if he could improve the program after their offseason meetings, he should have been given the year to do it.