It's that time of the year again, when NFL football returns and all is right with the sports world -- COVID-19 complications aside. But it also means it's time for several head coaches to prove their worth to their respective teams, because not all 32 enter this coming season with a ton of job security. Some are closer to the executioner's ax than others and, as such, just need a minor level up to keep their job.
Others, however, are sitting on the hottest of hot seats and can't afford to have anything other than a dynamic season. So, whose job as an NFL head coach is already in jeopardy? And who's close to it as September gets underway?
Well, since you asked:
Chilled ... but not ice-cold
10. Kliff Kingsbury
You can argue Kingsbury shouldn't be on any list of hot seat candidates, and you'd be justified in doing so. After all, he's proven he can win games as a first-time NFL head coach -- something Urban Meyer is trying to achieve in Jacksonville -- and the continued development of quarterback Kyler Murray is another feather in his cap. That said, it feels more and more like the success of the Cardinals offense boils down to Murray making eye-popping plays after the initial call breaks down, be it due to lack of protection up front or simply a not-great play call.
Additionally, it can't be ignored that Kingsbury doesn't have a winning season in three tries, with his best being an 8-8 finish to the 2020 season that saw the Cardinals miss the playoffs -- losses to teams like the Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, Washington Football Team and the injury-ravaged San Francisco 49ers helping to torpedo their postseason hopes. If the Cardinals don't take the division in 2021 or, at a minimum, make it to the playoffs, you'll look back and understand why Kingsbury is on this list, even if just barely at the moment.
9. Brian Flores
You have to love Flores if you're in the Dolphins' locker room and front office, and they do, because he went came to Miami and got things turned around (or so it seems). It was a rough 5-11 start to his coaching career in South Florida, but he bounced back in Year 2 with a 10-6 finish despite unsettled play at the quarterback position. With Ryan Fitzpatrick now gone, it's the Tua Tagovailoa show, and this is where the rubber begins to truly meet the road for Flores. For if Tagovailoa doesn't begin showing more consistent positive signs of being a franchise QB, it's Flores who'll feel the brunt of the organization's disappointment. That is unless they actually do stun the NFL and -- having zero guarantees he'll be allowed to take the field anytime soon.
Kudos to Flores and the Dolphins for working things out with All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard -- something that could only help the outcome of the 2021 season -- but it's what Tagovailoa does or doesn't do that'll have the biggest impact on Flores' future. After all, Tagovailoa was his draft pick, and any regression in the coming season (for the QB and/or team as a whole) will create uncomfortable conversations in the Dolphins' front office.
8. Mike Zimmer
Even more beloved in his city is Zimmer, and he's also the longest-tenured coach on this list. But for as great as the latter part of that sentence is, it also comes with a fairly reasonable question: where's the hardware? Zimmer is a great coach and an even better human being, but he's been with the Minnesota Vikings for seven seasons going into 2021 -- the team has made it as far as the conference championship (2017) -- but they've since missed the playoffs in two of their last three seasons and finished 2020 with a disappointing record of 7-9. What Zimmer is able to do going forward will be interesting and mostly tied to his defense -- once regularly in the top 10 but one that finished fourth-worst in the league in points allowed last season.
For a defensive-minded coach like Zimmer, that simply will not do, nor will the front office deem it acceptable. Nobody is carving his name into an NFL tombstone just yet, and Zimmer can easily moonwalk off of this list this coming season, but to pretend he's 100% safe in Minnesota isn't realistic.
7. Zac Taylor
You likely won't hear much about Taylor entering this season on the hot seat, mostly because the team's ownership has proven it will stick with a coach for years and years before finally waking up to what's going on. Taylor is hoping to avoid a long run in Cincinnati that's fueled primarily by being "the familiar evil." Instead, he wants it driven by winning games, and a lot of them. He better get to work then, because things won't get any easier in the brutally tough AFC North. Former first-overall pick Joe Burrow is back from a devastating season-ending knee injury suffered in 2020, and the club used their first pick in this year's draft on Ja'Marr Chase, but the latter is off to a curious start by way of dropped passes in August. Kudos to Taylor and the Bengals for making moves to strengthen their offensive line in free agency, because it'll go a long way in (maybe) helping Cinci string together some wins.
With Taylor entering Year 3, the turnaround the Bengals expected to happen after parting ways with Marvin Lewis simply hasn't yet. The club is 6-25-1 in its first two years under Taylor, finishing last in the division on both occasions and relying on a defense that's been near the bottom in points allowed. It's a pivotal year for Taylor, or at least it should be -- if team ownership is truly paying attention.
6. Mike McCarthy
The Cowboys would have you believe McCarthy's rear end isn't heating up, and they're right, at least at the moment in which this article is being written. Make no mistake about it, though: if the Cowboys flounder again in 2021, McCarthy better show up to work wearing ice packs in his jeans. The truth of the matter is this: owner Jerry Jones and Co. are all forgiving McCarthy for the disappointing 6-10 season because COVID-19 derailed the offseason and injuries to star players, including two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott, ravaged the roster. Well, Prescott is now 100% healthy, as is starting tight end Blake Jarwin and offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin (La'el Collins is dealing with stingers but is expected to play in Week 1). Add in another year of development from wideout CeeDee Lamb, and the offense is set to do a ton of damage.
The bigger concern is the defense -- one that was franchise-worst in several categories in 2020 thanks to the now-fired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. But while Dan Quinn looks like he'll hit the ground running in 2021, the decision to choose Nolan in the first place is a massive black eye to McCarthy's decision-making, and one that won't go away just by throwing a bag of peas on it. There are no excuses for McCarthy this coming season, and he'll see the aforementioned forgiveness vanish if he doesn't deliver at least a playoff win.
5. Matt Rhule
There's a theme developing here, and it's just how important a franchise QB is to the tenure of his head coach. Rhule walked into Charlotte with a lot of excitement surrounding him, but the shine is rapidly wearing off. He'll enter Year 2 coming off of a 5-11 finish that, at one point, included a five-game losing streak as the Panthers tried to figure out if Teddy Bridgewater was truly the answer at QB1 -- only to discover he wasn't. Without much time to waste in establishing himself as an NFL head coach, Rhule moved on from Bridgewater after only one year, then traded with the New York Jets to land Sam Darnold. The move puts pressure on Darnold to succeed, but more so on Rhule, because if Darnold plays poorly, it'll be Rhule looked at as someone unable to coach up quarterbacks at the NFL level, and two former-first round picks at that.
The Panthers need to see improvement on both their defensive and offensive fronts. If not, they'll continue to be pushed aside by Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who swept them last season, in a competitive NFC South that now features tight end Kyle Pitts and former Panthers running back Mike Davis in Atlanta. Ultimately, it's on Rhule to get everything to come together this season, or he'll likely get called to the principal's office in the offseason -- especially if the reason for failure puts Carolina back in the market for a QB1 for a third straight year.
4. Joe Judge
Arguably even less safe in the NFC East is Judge, and the organization isn't afraid to let you know it. Owner John Mara noted this offseason that "everyone is on the hot seat" in New York -- from Judge to general manager Dave Gettleman to himself. Including himself was cute and all from a PR standpoint, but we all know owners don't fire themselves; they fire everyone else. And considering the wild and whacky training camp the Giants had, one that included a rash of swift and unexpected retirements and at least one practice brawl, Judge isn't exactly off to a magnificent start in his second year as an NFL head coach. Like some others on this list, his fate is also tied to what happens at quarterback, because the Giants passed on taking one atop the 2021 NFL Draft due to their belief in Daniel Jones. If Jones doesn't start knocking socks off (and if the Giants can't protect him long enough to allow it), will it be the fault of Gettleman or Judge?
If it falls on Gettleman, you can believe he'll champion his own cause at the expense of Judge (ask Ben McAdoo), because it's always business and never personal. Gettleman could argue he had a terrific free agency and gave Judge the pieces, and Mara might see his point. However you slice it, if the Giants don't make noise in the division (and more), Judge better be ready for a tense conversation with an "impatient" Mara.
3. Matt Nagy
You won't find many who'll keep a straight face when calling Nagy a bad coach. It's because that's a joke of a statement, all things considered. But it often takes more than love to keep a marriage going, and things are getting a bit thin in the Windy City air. To be fair, however, Nagy did not draft Mitchell Trubisky, nor did he make a trade for Nick Foles. As such, you could argue he's simply playing the cards dealt to him, but that only goes so far in any potential argument to keep his job. Fact is, Bears fans are and have been restless for some time now, still reeling from the one-point playoff loss to the Eagles and a wildly disappointing effort in last season's wild card loss to the New Orleans Saints.
While Nagy has led the Bears to two playoff berths in his four-year tenure, both ended unceremoniously and in the first round, so simply making the playoffs in 2021 probably won't do much to keep him in Chicago. It's time they rattled off a playoff run of some sort, and if Nagy chooses to stick to Andy Dalton any longer than necessary (spoiler: It's not necessary at all) and stands firm on not unleashing Justin Fields just yet, it might end up being the nail in his coffin.
2. Vic Fangio
Much like the Giants, albeit to a much greater degree, the Broncos are unsettled at QB but passed on drafting one in the first round -- instead selecting cornerback Patrick Surtain II. It's unclear how much input Fangio had in that decision, but with the team having now traded for and named Teddy Bridgewater their starter, it means Drew Lock isn't the answer and the Broncos are hoping Bridgewater is. The problem is Bridgewater isn't the future of the franchise, but hey, Fangio just needs him to be one in 2021, so the brass can see he deserves to stick around. With Von Miller now back from a season-ending injury, and with the addition of Surtain and striking a long-term deal with safety Justin Simmons, there are no excuses for the defense not to be one of the best in the NFL.
If they aren't, and combined with potentially questionable QB play -- which then harkens back to their decision to take a CB (Surtain is phenomenal, but ... Justin Fields) -- all of the blame will fall right into Fangio's lap. Additionally, if the Broncos do sell the team, you're looking at new ownership with zero loyalty to an incumbent head coach who's 12-20 in his first two seasons and potentially even a new GM, who won't want to tie his career to a capsizing boat.
1. David Culley
If you're Culley, you're excited about finally be given the opportunity to lead an NFL team as its head coach. Contrarily, he also knows what he walked into, and that's a pressure-packed situation led by sexual abuse allegations against Deshaun Watson, which has Watson presumably not seeing the field for the Texans until further notice. And considering Watson wants to be traded anyway -- thanks to beef with the front office for hiring Nick Caserio and then Culley after Watson beat the drum for Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy -- it's on Culley to now turn Tyrod Taylor into a definitive QB1 and to improve the defense without future first-ballot Hall of Fame pass rusher J.J. Watt. It really is a crapshow in South Texas, and it would be two handfuls for a seasoned head coach, making it exponentially more difficult for a first-timer to step in, mop up and win a lot of games in short order.
In several months from now, there will be a new round of coaching candidates for NFL teams to consider, and Bieniemy will again be one of them. If Culley disappoints (and by disappoint, I mean if he can't pick up a derailing freight train and put it back on the tracks), you better believe Caserio isn't going to allow fingers to be pointed at the front office.
It's an unstable organization on the whole, so ditching a first-time coach in 2022 who maybe shouldn't have gotten the job over the other available candidates just feels right up the Texans' alley.