NFL Hot Seat Coaches (& Their Replacements)

min read
Andrew Doughty Jul 22, 2021, 9.11 PM

In introducing Vic Fangio as the Denver Broncos’ head coach in January 2019, general manager and executive VP of football operations John Elway called the 60-year-old longtime NFL assistant an “old-school, fundamentals-first” head coach. 

Two years later, now only holding the title of president of football operations, will Elway and a real general manager, George Paton, use old-school patience in determining the fate of Fangio after 12 total wins in two seasons? 

In 16 seasons as a player in Denver, Elway had three head coaches, one of whom – Dan Reeves – arrived two years before Elway and one of whom – Mike Shanahan – departed 10 years after Elway. From 1981-2008, the Broncos had three coaches.

Fangio is the team’s fifth head coach since Shanahan was fired. His four predecessors coached an average of 34.5 games, three of whom were fired: John Fox after 46 games, Vance Joseph after 32 games, and Josh McDaniels after 28 games. 

With his return in 2021, which NFL Network’s James Palmer reported was determined long before the end of a five-win season, Fangio can become the Broncos’ longest-tenured head coach since Shanahan if he coaches at least 15 games. 

“No offseason with a new OC and surrounded by rookies and young players was going to be rough and it was,” Palmer tweeted in late December. “But blowing everything up again wasn't the plan. Next year improvements need to be seen across the board from the top on down.”

While neither Elway nor Paton have publicly – or privately to the public’s knowledge – issued a win-total or playoff-berth ultimatum to Fangio, it appears another sub-.500 season will make his first head-coaching opportunity a brief one. 

If Fangio is fired, whom might the Broncos hire?

As noted for the college football hot seat, any real hot-seat conversation must be followed by a replacement conversation that includes the suggestion of a realistic replacement. If you’re gonna fire a guy, you gotta hire a guy.

Eric Bienemy is that guy. The Broncos could be an appealing destination and fit for the former Colorado Buffaloes’ running back and assistant coach who’s been passed over for several openings in the last three years.

Here are other coaches who might be on the NFL hot seat entering 2021: 

David Culley - Houston Texans

Wide receivers coach David Culley of the Philadelphia Eagles laughs before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Lincoln Financial Field on August 11, 2011, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles won 13-6. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty Images)
(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty Images)

Ray Rhodes, Cam Cameron, Mike Mularkey, Jim Tomsula, Freddie Kitchens … David Culley?

Rarely does widespread bewilderment lead to coaching success for the individual behind the bewilderment. And while it’s not fair for Culley to be coaching for his job in 2021, that’s the reality of a bizarre hire leading a miserable team.

Eradicating the stench of the Bill O’Brien oligarchy will take years. And as ownership and new general manager Nick Caserio are repeatedly pounded with that stench throughout the 2021 season, it’s fair to wonder if a journeyman positional coach is the right guy for long-haul player development.

If Culley is unfortunately fired after one season, Caserio could call an old friend, Brian Daboll. Daboll was the New England Patriots’ tight ends coach from 2013-16, during which Caserio worked in the front office. And after his work as the Buffalo Bills’ offensive coordinator the last two years, Daboll is an attractive and potentially interested – after reportedly being a front-runner for the Los Angeles Chargers’ job last year – candidate.

Matt Nagy - Chicago Bears

Head coach Matt Nagy of the Chicago Bears looks on from the sidelines against the Green Bay Packers during the first quarter in the game at Soldier Field on January 03, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

Matt Nagy’s debut season in 2018 was an aberration, clearly. And for most of the last two years, as the Chicago Bears played 33 games of remarkably uninspiring football, we’ve been wondering how much time the former New York Dragons’ star bought himself with those 12 wins.

“I was impressed with both of them,” Bears’ chairman George McCaskey said while announcing the return of Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace in 2021. “The decisions we’re announcing today may not be the easiest or the most popular. But we believe they’re the best decisions for the Bears.”

Both Pace and Nagy have said they’re fortunate for another year – Pace’s seventh and Nagy’s fourth – and understand this is an opportunity to “prove them right.” While we don’t know what’s expected of the pair in 2021, it appears they’re a package deal, one that relies upon the future of Justin Fields.

If a third straight 8-8 season and non-encouraging signs of Fields’ development lead to a dual dismissal, conventional wisdom says the Bears will call Bienemy, Daboll, or Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator Joe Brady to pair with Fields. Or maybe they finally get Josh McDaniels out of New England.

Mike Tomlin - Pittsburgh Steelers

Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Mike Tomlin hasn’t won a playoff game since 2016, has won nine or fewer games in two of the last three seasons, hasn’t reached a Super Bowl since 2010, and is entering a 2021 season with arguably his worst roster in 14 years as head coach.

Tomlin might’ve saved his job with last year’s 11-0 start en route to a 12-win season and seventh AFC North title. The manner in which the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to win a 13th game – by allowing 28 first-quarter points in a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card Game – might’ve put him back on the hot seat for 2021.

While Tomlin remains young (49), capable of leading an on-the-fly rebuild, and is in the good graces of stability-obsessed ownership, repeated bouts of mediocrity and postseason failures are notable. And if team president Art Rooney II makes a coaching change, albeit unexpectedly, for the first time in 15 years, there are several names he could target, among them Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, a former Steelers’ backup quarterback who could leverage a Tom Brady-led offense into an opportunity.

Mike McCarthy - Dallas Cowboys

Head coach Mike McCarthy of the Dallas Cowboys looks on against the San Francisco 49ers during the first quarter at AT&T Stadium on December 20, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

This is simple: Mike McCarthy has a $40-million quarterback, bountiful talent at offensive skill positions, and an increasingly impatient owner desperate for their first Super Bowl in 26 years.

Reporting from insiders suggests McCarthy won’t be given an inexcusably long leash and waste Dak Prescott’s prime years as he did in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers, and Jones – and the Cowboys’ other stakeholders – won’t tolerate prolonged mediocrity as they did with Jason Garrett.

A blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 (+6.5 in NFL betting) could get the ball rolling. And if the Cowboys fail to make noise in a milquetoast division, McCarthy might be gone, which should prompt a full-court press for Lincoln Riley.

Mike Zimmer - Minnesota Vikings

Head coach Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings walks on the field before the game against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

Mike Zimmer and Minnesota Vikings’ general manager Rick Spielman spent part of the offseason overhauling a “bad defense,” the worst one Zimmer has “ever had,” as the Vikings’ head coach proclaimed after the unit allowed 52 points in a Week 16 loss to the New Orleans Saints. 

Zimmer and Spielman spent the rest of the offseason gushing over the overhaul, effectively raising expectations for a team with two playoff wins in seven seasons under Zimmer. 

While Spielman is widely regarded as one of the better executives in the NFL, Zimmer has more 10-win seasons (three) than his three predecessors combined, and ownership hasn’t hinted at mounting pressure, the inability to stack good seasons and, among other personnel shortcomings, build any semblance of a competent offensive line, can’t be ignored. 

If the Vikings whiff on the playoff for the third time in the last four years after touting improvements, might Mark and Zygi Wilf fire Zimmer?

If so, in replacing the seventh-longest-tenured head coach in the NFL, they might cast the net wide and consider Bienemy, et al., target midwesterner Matt Campbell, or roll the dice with a young assistant like New York Jets’ offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur or Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.

Zac Taylor - Cincinnati Bengals

Head coach Zac Taylor of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on during Mandatory Minicamp on June 15, 2021, in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

If Joe Burrow didn’t go down in Week 11, would the Cincinnati Bengals have finished with six wins instead of four? Maybe seven wins? 

Including the game against Washington in which Burrow exited in the third quarter with the season-ending ACL injury, the Bengals lost three games in which they allowed 20 or fewer points. Had they scored 21 or more in all three and finished 7-8-1 – a 350 percent increase in wins from 2019 – Taylor would’ve earned consideration for Coach of the Year.

That’s an aggressive, albeit reasonable scenario that puts Taylor in an awful spot entering his third season. If ownership believes the Bengals were a six- or seven-win team last year, are they expecting an eight- or nine-win team this year? 

It took three seasons of six, seven, and six wins – and zero playoff wins in 16 total seasons – for owner Mike Brown to fire Marvin Lewis, so it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be equally, or even half, as patient with Taylor. If he’s not, bet the farm on another swing at a young offensive coach or a college coach like Riley, Ryan Day, or Dan Mullen.

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About the Author

Andrew Doughty

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else.

Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else.