At the midpoint of the season, with his team boasting a 7-1 record, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith seemed to be improving his odds of getting a contract extension. Since then, the team has gone 1-4 and talk of a new deal has dried up, placing the Bears on the list of teams that could be searching for a new coach in a matter of weeks.
Smith, who signed a two-year extension in 2011, has one year remaining on his current deal and is seeking to avoid having to work through a lame-duck year. But his team's current swoon has removed his leverage and placed a lame-duck year among the best-case scenarios. The Bears have shown no inclination to extend the deal, sources said, preferring to wait and see how the rest of the season unfolds. The fact that first-year general manager Phil Emery was empowered upon his hiring to evaluate the coaching staff is another ominous sign for Smith.
Emery has spent a good part of his scouting/executive career working under Bill Belichick disciplines Thomas Dimitroff (in Atlanta) and Scott Pioli (in Kansas City), and insider speculation is that Emery's next coaching hire could come from that family tree. New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien are among the prominent names who fall into that category and perhaps possess the kind of offensive pedigree required to finally get Chicago's offense to blossom. It is not known how McDaniels' previous fractious history with quarterback Jay Cutler in Denver -- friction that forced Cutler's trade from Denver to Chicago in 2009 -- would affect his potential candidacy. Bears special teams coach Dave Toub has received consideration for other head coaching jobs in the past and could be considered as well.
The Bears play their home finale on Sunday against the rival Packers, before finishing up on the road with winnable games against the Cardinals and Lions. Chicago is trying to avoid a second straight late-season swoon -- a 7-3 start in 2011 devolved into an injury-marred 8-8 finish that kept the team from the postseason.
Smith is 79-62 in nine seasons with Chicago, including three postseason appearances. Highlights of the Smith tenure include a Super Bowl appearance in 2006 and a run to the NFC Championship Game in 2010.
Smith is being represented in negotiations by his son, Matthew, after firing long-time agent Frank Bauer in 2011. Sources said Matthew Smith is being assisted by Gary O'Hagan, a distinguished coaching agent, in representing his father.
Haley could become top candidate for Cardinals
With the Arizona Cardinals losing nine straight games after a 4-0 start, including a historic 58-0 loss last week to rival Seattle, team officials are mulling possible changes for the offseason, sources said, with former Cardinals coordinator Todd Haley a top option to replace coach Ken Whisenhunt if a change is made.
Haley has shined in his first season as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator -- following his firing as Chiefs coach last year -- and his name continues to come up in internal discussions in Arizona, sources said. The Bidwill family remains big supporters of Haley, who served as offensive coordinator in 2007-08 and was play caller for Arizona's lone Super Bowl team. The Bidwills pushed for Haley to be back on Whisenhunt's staff after last season, facilitating a series of meetings between Whisenhunt and Haley, but Whisenhunt had already committed to coordinator Mike Miller calling plays and ended up retaining the staff favorite.
The Cardinals have been stout defensively under coordinator Ray Horton but have failed on the offensive side of the ball amid a revolving door at quarterback. While it would be out of character for the franchise to absorb a financial hit to make a coaching change (Whisenhunt is still owed $5.5 million, sources said), the move is possible given how poorly this season has gone. Arizona is 17-28 since 2009 and has not been a serious playoff contender since Kurt Warner's retirement after the '09 season.
Also, assistant general manager Steve Keim, who has a strong reputation around the league, could perhaps end up replacing long-time GM Rod Graves. Notably, Keim shares a strong relationship with Haley from Haley's previous time in Arizona.
At this point, it would be surprising to many if someone other than Haley ended up coaching the Cardinals should Whisenhunt's tenure there end.
Haley's possible departure from the Steelers could be part of a larger trend of OC turnover within the AFC North. The Ravens have already fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Bengals OC Jay Gruden is expected to be a top candidate for multiple head coaching vacancies and new ownership and management in Cleveland means the future of head coach Pat Shurmur and his staff is in doubt.
Ravens owner Bisciotti a factor in Cameron's exit
The timing of the firing of Ravens long-time offensive coordinator Cam Cameron shocked many players and coaches in Baltimore this week, sources said, but Cameron's job security had been an issue for years, with owner Steve Biscotti interested in other options in the past.
Following the 2010 season, Bisciotti and others in upper management supported bringing in a new coordinator, but quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn and consultant Al Saunders were let go instead, giving Cameron his wish of remaining the lone voice heard by quarterback Joe Flacco.
Coach John Harbaugh made the case for Cameron at that time and on other occasions, and the team's options have been limited due to Baltimore's perennially deep postseason runs. But with the offense inconsistent again this season and Flacco's production oscillating, Cameron was let go despite the Ravens (9-4) leading the AFC North.
Flacco's relationship with Cameron had been frayed since the firing of Zorn, a former NFL quarterback whom Flacco was close with, with Flacco at the time speaking publicly about his disapproval of the move. Flacco was not consulted about this week's change, sources said, but it was well known throughout the organization that he and Cameron were not particularly close. Flacco has developed a closer relationship with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who takes over for Cameron despite having never called plays.
Several players said privately they felt Cameron was rigid and not receptive to their feedback, and there is a sense among players that Caldwell might be more receptive to their input. The team might return to more of the up-tempo, no-huddle approach on display early in the season, a system with which Flacco has a comfort level.
By making the move now, the Ravens -- who made no long-term commitment to Caldwell as coordinator -- are also better positioned to add a high-profile coordinator this offseason, even if they were to advance deep into the playoffs. Some in the organization believe Chargers coach Norv Turner, a virtual certainty to be let go at season's end, would be a great fit with Flacco. Turner comes from the Don Coryell tree (which also produced Cameron), with the quarterback not needing to learn a new system and language, etc. Turner will be highly coveted, however. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, an accomplished offensive coordinator who was Biscotti's top choice to replace Brian Billick in 2008 (Garrett turned the job down), could be let go as well. Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt is highly thought of as well, and could be let go, while Hue Jackson and Chris Palmer could be lower-profile options.
Bisciotti badly wants to win a Super Bowl, and league sources expect the Ravens to be aggressive in seeking a replacement for Cameron. Flacco's rookie contract expires this season, and he will be franchised if a long-term deal can't be reached, sources said. Getting Flacco, a former first-round pick, to perform at an elite level is paramount if the organization -- which has at least one playoff victory each of Flacco and Harbaugh's four seasons together -- wishes to advance past the AFC Championship Game.
Baltimore is on the cusp of a fifth straight playoff appearance under Harbaugh. But with its defense aging, ailing and slipping in its production, the need for a better offensive output is acute, particularly away from home, where Flacco and his unit have been prone to deep funks.
Colts hoping to keep Arians but expect him to get head coaching consideration
Interim head coach Bruce Arians has received universal acclaim for his incredible work in getting the young Colts to the cusp of the playoffs, all while Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano has been away from the team amid his brave fight with leukemia. The team wants nothing more than to retain Arians as its offensive coordinator, where he has worked so well with rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, but the organization knows Arians is likely to have more attractive options to explore.
League sources expect Arians to get strong consideration for the expected head coaching vacancy in San Diego, where Norv Turner is virtually assured of being let go at season's end. Arians has a strong relationship with Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano, Chuck's brother, and San Diego's brass might be inclined to keep Pagano and other members of the staff as it has been impressed with how the Chargers' defense and special teams have performed. Getting quarterback Philip Rivers and the offense back on track is the main chore, and Arians has a history of working well with quarterbacks, including Luck, Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning.
The 60-year-old Arians mulled retirement last offseason after it was clear he would not be returning to the Steelers but has always harbored hopes of being an NFL head coach according to those close to him. At this stage of his career, this might be Arians' best shot.
For now, Arians is focused solely on getting the Colts to the postseason and handing over the best team possible to Pagano, who could be back on the sideline by Week 17. But Arians will have some big decisions to make this offseason.
Staying with Luck, and a team with which he has developed an indelible bond in the wake of Pagano's illness, will be a strong pull on Arians. But with as many as 10 jobs possibly opening, it would be surprising if Arians doesn't interview for at least a few of those vacancies.
Redskins anticipated all week RG3 would not play
With starting quarterback Robert Griffin III nursing a knee sprain, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan went to great lengths to create mystery as to who would be under center for Sunday's key game at Cleveland. But team sources said it was fairly clear all week that Griffin could not play. Furthermore, Griffin had told friends he did not think there was any way he could play this week and hoped to do more in practice next week.
Griffin was heavily limited in practice all week, sources said, and did his most activity during the brief window when the media was allowed to watch drills, effectively being shut down afterwards. He suffered a grade 1 sprain after taking a crushing hit in last week's victory over Baltimore. And while the injury is not considered long-term, the possibility of playing this week was always remote.
Energy was spent getting fellow rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins up to speed, with every expectation that he would start this game. Veteran Rex Grossman was in line to serve as backup, with Griffin's status to even dress for the game in doubt.
Griffin has absorbed several big blows during his rookie season, playing in an option-heavy system that subjects him to shots while also learning to protect himself by sliding and running out of bounds. Griffin suffered a concussion earlier this season, and there are some concerns about how his relatively slight frame will hold up to the punishment that comes with the option, in particular.
Griffin (2,902 passing yards, 18 TD, 4 INT) is having one of the more historic rookie quarterbacking seasons in league history and has been one of the highest-rated passers in the league (104.2) while also making eye-popping plays on the run (748 rushing yards, 6 rushing TD). The Redskins' turnaround this season after three straight losing seasons is due in no small part to his efforts, and the team hopes to have him back for potentially critical matchups with the Eagles and Cowboys over the season's final two weeks.
Following suspension, Mendenhall and Tomlin mended fences
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall has had a lost season, as his recovery from injury to start the season, a benching for two games and most recently a suspension for Sunday's crucial game against Dallas contributing to the former first-round pick's nightmare year.
Mendenhall was suspended due to his reaction after being made inactive for Week 14's game against the Chargers. After learning of the status, Mendenhall decided to leave the stadium and head home, which he later acknowledged privately was a mistake. Coach Mike Tomlin subsequently suspended him for Week 15, and the men met shortly thereafter to discuss the matter, their first meaningful dialogue in nearly two weeks, team sources said. Both Mendenhall and Tomlin expressed regrets about how some things were handled, a clearing of the air that has made Mendenhall feel better about his place on the team as well.
The Steelers expect Mendenhall to be a factor in the final two weeks and potentially the playoffs, as the 7-6 team tries to hold onto a playoff spot. It will be imperative for Mendenhall to get some playing time as well, to show teams that he can be healthy and effective as he heads into free agency. Landing a big extension from the Steelers might be difficult under these circumstances, although the market for him might be soft as well, which could contribute to him remaining in Pittsburgh.
Mendenhall returned well ahead of schedule from knee surgery, but then injured his Achilles, lost his tenuous grip on his starting spot and began to feel a disconnect between himself and the team, sources said. Mendenhall is in the final year of his rookie deal and plays a position, running back, that has been systematically devalued in free agency in recent years. He was demoted to third team two weeks ago but was not informed of that by coaches, sources said, instead hearing it from teammates. He had no real contact with Tomlin that week, when he was deactivated for the game, nor the following week, before the two "hugged it out."
The two-time 1,000-yard rusher and No. 23 overall pick in the 2008 draft has just 113 yards on 34 carries (3.3 average) with no rushing touchdowns in four appearances this season.
Receiver Mike Wallace has also experienced a lost season heading into free agency, and team officials believe Wallace is likely to be elsewhere in 2013. The team is unlikely to franchise him and the $10 million-$11 million per year Wallace is seeking is more likely to come from another team, as the Steelers have been unwilling to compensate him at that level and that is not expected to change this offseason. Wallace has 59 catches for a team-high 728 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Wallace logged seven catches for 112 yards and two TDs in last week's loss to the Chargers, breaking a streak of four consecutive games in which he was held under 50 yards.
Payton reinstatement issue could lead to legal showdown; Williams eyes reinstatement of his own
Though commissioner Roger Goodell has spoken of possible consideration for the early reinstatement of suspended Saints coach Sean Payton, sources said there has been no contact whatsoever between Payton and the league office about the matter. Also, according to league sources, the Saints have let it be known they would have strong opposition to any move to bring back Payton before the previously stipulated date (after the Super Bowl), as his reinstatement would increase the likelihood of other teams trying to sign him. Payton's status for 2013 remains in question, thanks in part to a contract extension previously voided by Goodell.
The Saints want as much time as possible to negotiate a new deal with him, sources said. Should Payton not be eligible to return until mid- or late February, the chances of him going elsewhere would be more remote. If the Saints and Payton cannot agree on a new deal, then Goodell might find himself in the uncomfortable position of having to rule on whether Payton's contract should "toll" for 2013, binding him to the Saints, or allow him to become a coaching free agent. If Goodell does not bind Payton to the Saints contractually in 2013, the Saints would consider legal options. If he does bind Payton to the Saints, Payton could consider a lawsuit himself.
Meanwhile, former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is interested in asking Goodell to have his reinstatement meeting held before the end of the regular season, league sources said, and could initiate a formal request in that regard shortly. If Goodell does not meet with Williams until after the Super Bowl, as presently scheduled, the opportunity to land positions on defensive staffs will have essentially closed, with most coaching rosters in place by then and the hiring season largely complete.
Additionally, sources maintained that some of the players involved in the Bountygate case -- suspended players, as well as former Vikings defensive lineman Jimmy Kennedy -- continue to mull their legal options. Some have considered defamation suits similar to the one that the suspended Jonathan Vilma filed against Goodell, and several players believe their cases against the league have been enhanced by Paul Tagliabue's ruling to void the players' suspensions. That move potentially discounts some of the evidence the NFL alleged against the players in question, and seems to absolve the players of blame in some instances.
Wisconsin eyeing Jaguars DC Tucker
Though Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said early last week he was not interested in the head coaching vacancy at the University of Wisconsin, sources said the program has continued to pursue Tucker and he is a top target for the opening. Tucker has a very close relationship with athletic director Barry Alvarez, his college coach, and was willing to meet with school officials in Jacksonville this week, sources said. The former Badgers defensive back has strong support from boosters in the area according to sources.
Tucker, who served as Jags interim head coach this week while Mike Mularkey was hospitalized, is thought of highly by owner Shahid Khan and was a finalist for the Jaguars'head coaching vacancy last year. Tucker turned down other options to stay with the Jags last offseason. Should the team make changes at general manager and head coach as many expect, he could garner consideration for the head job there.