Teams looking ahead, coaches looking for work
Around the NFL, it is known as Black Monday, the day after the season ends, when coaches get fired.
Yet there are 12 teams thinking only about Super Sunday and how to get to the Super Bowl.
The playoffs begin next weekend with the wild-card round. Recent results indicate teams playing on the opening weekend of the postseason have a good chance of getting to the big game. It’s happened the last four seasons, with three of those clubs winning the championship.
“We’re in the same position as last year, where we had to win the last couple of games,” Ravens running back Willis McGahee said Monday. “Once we get in there, we know we can do damage, and now we’re in there.”
Baltimore will be in New England on Sunday, followed by defending NFC champion Arizona hosting Green Bay in a rematch of the season finale, won 33-7 by the wild-card Packers.
On Saturday, the playoffs begin with two more repeats of Week 17 contests: the wild-card New York Jets at Cincinnati, followed by Philadelphia at NFC East winner Dallas.
Those eight teams are searching for that special spark that can carry them into February.
In Washington and Buffalo, it’s coaching searches that have begun, although the Redskins probably won’t be looking for long. Mike Shanahan is an overwhelming favorite to get the job Jim Zorn officially lost on Monday.
Perry Fewell and his entire Bills coaching staff were told to start looking elsewhere for employment, too.
The same could happen in Oakland, where Tom Cable guided the Raiders to a 5-11 record that some considered overachieving. He will meet with owner Al Davis next week – and no one can predict what Davis will do.
As for Eric Mangini in Cleveland, well, Mike Holmgren, recently hired to run the Browns, has not yet decided who will coach the team in 2010.
The damage on the coaching front won’t be nearly as deep as last season, when 11 coaches who began 2008 did not make it into 2009. That doesn’t mean it’s any less painful for Zorn or Fewell.
Two of those coaching changes, with the Jets and Colts, worked out pretty well. Jim Caldwell, the designated successor when Tony Dungy retired, won his first 14 games before sparking endless debate by benching many starters in the second half against Rex Ryan’s Jets.
Ryan’s team took advantage, rallying to win in Indy, then routing the Bengals 37-0 on Sunday night to grab a playoff berth.
“Making the playoffs, it is special, there’s no question about it,” the outspoken, emotional Ryan said. “The way we did it, with the ups and downs we had during the season, it feels pretty good right now.”
Feeling even better are Caldwell and his Colts, plus the Saints, Chargers and Vikings, all with byes. And perhaps the most intriguing aspect of wild-card weekend is the coaching angle.
Just like John Harbaugh in Baltimore and Mike Smith in Atlanta a year ago, rookie coach Ryan has guided his team into the postseason. He’s joined by Harbaugh, whose Ravens went to the AFC title game last January, and such sideline heavyweights as Bill Belichick and Andy Reid.
In some ways, the more established coaches will be under the most pressure.
Belichick’s Patriots have displayed unusual inconsistency and will be without the league’s leading receiver, Wes Welker, injured in the final loss to Houston. New England already was in the playoffs, but Belichick chose to play his regulars for much of the game against the Texans, and Welker tore up his knee.
Reid’s Eagles were among the NFL’s hottest teams, surging from 5-4 to 11-4 and the top of the NFC East. Then they went flat at Dallas, lost 24-0, and showed so many holes it’s difficult to fathom them plugging it all up in six days.
“You get back to business and you do it in a very matter-of-fact way,” Reid said. “If you get caught up in all the what ifs and this and that, then you’re making a mistake. We don’t have time for that. It’s a hurried-up week and you have to get right back on the horse and figure out how to not get bucked off again.”