Breaking down the coaching openings

Now that his vampire lieutenants have alerted Al Davis the sun has set, and nudged the Oakland Raiders owner from his coffin long enough to fire Bill Callahan (the Raiders are expected to make an announcement Wednesday), the number of pink-slipped head coaches has risen to seven.

For a season that began with the notion that 2003 might produce few dismissals, since the pool of 32 head coaches had such short aggregate tenure with their incumbent franchises, seven seems like a big number. Fact is, it essentially equals the average number of head coaching changes over the past 20 seasons.

Dating to 1983, there have been 6.85 head coaching changes per year, and so the seven vacancies created in the past month is right in line with the norm. Only twice in the last 20 years, in fact, have there been fewer than five changes.

"What it means," said Jim Fassel, late of the New York Giants but suddenly the hottest commodity of all the coaches who have lost their jobs, "is that the job description, and the degree of security, hasn't changed a whole lot."

What it also means is that, assuming the guillotine has been stored away for this year, the 32 head coaches who begin the 2004 season will do so sporting an average tenure of just 2.8 seasons with their current franchises. There are myriad reasons for the short shelf-life of NFL head coaches in this era, not the least of which is the lofty expectation level and need for immediate gratification on the part of owners.

But factor into the equation as well the reality that many owners simply hire coaches who are not a good fit for their team. The recent rules that permit franchises to interview some potential candidates during the playoff bye week, the guidelines now dictating that teams legitimately interview minority candidates, should enhance the chances for owners to enter into a real courting process, and not just a race to the altar.

The savvy owners and general managers, under the new landscape, are those who take the time to fully examine their litany of candidates. As would be the case in a corporate interview, they should ask the tough questions and the ones often overlooked. Example: How will a head coach assemble his staff?

You think, in hindsight, Washington owner Daniel Snyder wishes he had grilled Steve Spurrier a tad harder on that issue? Isn't it imperative, for instance, if Lovie Smith or Romeo Crennel land a job, that the defensive coordinators in St. Louis and New England, respectively, have some insight into who they want to hire to run their offense? Who are the names on the list of potential assistants Tom Coughlin has arduously compiled during his one-year hiatus from the league?

"Let's be honest," said one NFC owner not looking for a new head coach. "This league is now a coach's league, no matter what the players think. It's imperative you get the right guy. You better get someone in concert with what you want, the right fit, or you're going to be one of those three-and-out teams that is hiring someone new every three years. The right fit is more critical than ever."

With that in mind, and with the second half of the league's firing and hiring cycle set to commence, here's a look at the current openings and who might fit best in each case:

Arizona Cardinals

  • Cap and free agency status: Even with a modest spending spree over the final month of the season, a stretch in which the Cardinals extended the contracts of a lot of mid-level veterans, Arizona is nearly $20 million under the projected 2004 salary cap. The club has only one pending unrestricted free agent of note, cornerback David Barrett, and he is coming off a pretty miserable season. With the possible exception of star-crossed kicker Billy Gramatica, there probably won't be any key veterans released.

  • Talent level: Not much with which a new coach can work and anyone accepting the job will have to go in with his eyes open. There won't be any quick fixes here, that's for sure. The players might be better than the four wins they achieved in 2003, but this assemblage isn't ready to challenge for a division title anytime soon. There are a few good, young players like offensive rookie of the year Anquan Boldin and cornerback Renaldo Hill, and some decent veterans, many of them on the offensive line. But it's fair to say, talent-wise, there is a legitimate reason Arizona has averaged fewer than five wins over the past four campaigns.

  • Who they should hire: In former head coaches Jim Fassel and Dennis Green and current defensive coordinators Jim Johnson (Philadelphia) and Romeo Crennel (New England), the Cardinals have actually assembled a pretty nice set of candidates. There are some college coaches who are quietly on the list as well. But this team needs a head coach whose name has some cache, who commands respect, a guy who knows the ropes. And that makes Green the best choice.

  • Who they will hire: Former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green.

    Atlanta Falcons

  • Cap and free agency status: At first glance, it would appear the Falcons are in modestly good shape, with $70.9 million committed to a spending limit projected to be in about the $79 million range. But cursory looks, in this case, can be deceiving. The club figures to create a lot of "dead money," cap room allotted to players no longer with the team, in the spring. Veterans like offensive tackle Bob Whitfield, cornerbacks Ray Buchanan and Tyrone Williams, and defensive lineman Travis Hall could all be released with time left on their contracts. It's not a mess in Atlanta, but it's not exactly cap Mecca, either.

  • Talent level: The presence of quarterback Michael Vick alone will make this a job many coaches will lust after and, with some fixes on the defensive side, a Falcons team just one season removed from the playoffs could rebound in 2004. One of the biggest, but least addressed, shortcomings, is a lack of size on both the offensive and defensive lines. The former staff believed quicker is better and, well, look where that philosophy landed that bunch. There is enough speed on offense, a good enough collection of skill players with which to win, but the No. 32-rated defense needs more than just a cosmetic spackle job.

  • Who they should hire: Despite the contention of owner Arthur Blank that he preferred someone who had previous head coach experience and "a track record of success," new general manager Rich McKay seems to have convinced him there is a pool of talented assistants worth considerable scrutiny. But the guy who could make an immediate hit, and get this team to the playoffs in 2004, is LSU coach Nick Saban. He may still be in the mix, but the pendulum for now is swinging the other way.

  • Who they will hire: St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith.

    Buffalo Bills

  • Cap and free agency status: In a two-year period, general manager Tom Donahoe, who rarely handled salary matters in his previous job, has gotten the Bills out of "salary cap jail," as he likes to call it. The Bills have about $66.3 million committed to the '04 cap and, compared to past seasons, are in good shape. Donahoe will have to deal with the contract of quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who is due a $6 million option payment late in the '04 season, but that will be worked out. Those who insist Bledsoe won't return next year are flat-out wrong. There is one premier unrestricted free agent, cornerback Antoine Winfield, and the Bills certainly want him back. Look for highly overrated left guard Ruben Brown, who seems to make the Pro Bowl every year on reputation but who bailed out on the team last weekend, to be dumped.

  • Talent level: Certainly a lot better than the team's inexplicable 6-10 finish. A lot of critics have ripped Donahoe for making sacrifices on offense to fix the defense, but those kinds of tradeoffs are part of the game. The defense, with key additions like linebacker Takeo Spikes, went from 15th in 2002 to No. 2 this season. Unfortunately, the offense scored the second fewest points in club history since adoption of the 16-game schedule. The theory is that you can "make do" with less on offense in the NFL, especially if you are creative, but coordinator Kevin Gilbride never bought into that. The Bills probably overestimated their offensive line talent, and Bledsoe looked slow and in decline, but the offense still should have been more productive. The unit needs a playmaker to align across from wideout Eric Moulds, and that will be a priority.

  • Who they should hire: Donahoe is performing his due diligence this week, looking at guys like Crennel, and this will be a process for him. Bottom line, though, is that he gambled in his first big hire on Gregg Williams, who had no previous experience as a head coach. This time around, the Bills need a proven commodity, and word is that Fassel and former Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin are near the top of the wish list.

  • Who they will hire: Former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin.

    Chicago Bears

  • Cap and free agency status: The Bears have approximately $66.5 million committed to the 2004 salary cap so, while not pinched, don't have an exorbitant amount to spend. General manager Jerry Angelo has been proactive in extending contracts for nucleus players like middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, wide receiver Marty Booker, safety Mike Brown and others the last couple years. As a result, there aren't a lot of unrestricted free agents who will soon go into the market. The team probably won't mind if defensive tackle Keith Traylor or wide receiver Dez White depart in free agency. Traylor is now a guy in decline. White has never realized his potential and seems to want a change of scenery anyway at this point in his career.

  • Talent level: Give credit to deposed head coach Dick Jauron for playing a lot of kids this season and developing a core group of youngsters for his eventual successor. The Bears had an excellent 2003 draft and, if they can follow up with one like it in 2004, could be back in the playoffs in a few years. The defense doesn't have a lot of "name" players, but a young linebacker corps and front four performers like emerging end Alex Brown make it a solid unit. Tailback Anthony Thomas rebounded from a poor 2002 to demonstrate he can be a perennial 1,000-yard rusher. The key will be the development of quarterback Rex Grossman, who started the last three games and won two of them.

  • Who they should hire: For months, people have been making the connection between Angelo and Saban, and the LSU coach probably is atop the short list. The perception is that the Bears won't open the coffers for the kind of deal, probably starting at $4 million per year, to lure the coach away from his sweet situation in Baton Rouge. But sources told ESPN.com this week that the Bears have indicated, through intermediaries, they will pay more for Saban than some people expect. Another name to watch is that of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, although he seems very comfortable in his current position.

  • Who they will hire: Former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel.

    New York Giants

  • Cap and free agency status: In a stranglehold situation, only about $3 million under the projected 2004 cap, and general manager Ernie Accorsi may have to go through what has become an annual restructuring ritual to create some cap wiggle room. There are a few notable unrestricted free agent candidates. Among them: defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and linebackers Dhani Jones and Brandon Short. It appears defensive tackle Keith Hamilton will retire, and one has to wonder how long Accorsi will hang on to former No. 1 tailback Ron Dayne, who was inactive for all 16 games in 2003.

  • Talent level: In training camp, the New York starting units looked as solid as any in the league, but then the Giants were beset by injuries. Management feels that, even with the spate of infirmities, the team underachieved in a big way. But there are big holes on the offensive line and at least one impact starter has to be imported through free agency to bring immediate aid there. The front four needs some revamping, but there are a few intriguing youngsters there who might be willing to step up, and the Giants need corners Will Allen and Will Peterson to return to good health. There are plenty of playmakers on the offensive side and, while the Giants need to address their quarterback situation for the long-term future, Kerry Collins still has productive years left.

  • Who they should hire: Club officials interviewed Coughlin even before Fassel left his job, and that was a good move. Coughlin turned down the chance to coach the Giants in 1993, and he is an attractive candidate. New York could use the kind of discipline he brings. Look for Crennel to be a big factor in this coaching derby. He is much respected within the organization, and the feeling leaguewide is that he is ready to move up.

  • Who they will hire: New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

    Oakland Raiders

  • Cap and free agency status: Hard to believe but the Raiders, who are always over the cap and two years ago had to whittle away about $40 million of excess, are actually roughly $3 million under the spending limit. By Oakland standards, this will be a tame offseason for senior assistant Bruce Allen, who every year has to rework 15-20 contracts just to get the Raiders into cap compliance. There figures to be, no matter who is hired as coach, a major purge of geezers this spring. The most notable veterans eligible for unrestricted free agency include cornerback Charles Woodson, safety Anthony Dorsett Jr., offensive tackle Matt Stinchcomb and defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield. But that's just the beginning, since offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy will retire and some other codgers, maybe even Jerry Rice, will be jettisoned.

  • Talent level: Obviously, the season-ending injury to quarterback Rich Gannon scuttled the year, but the Raiders were in deep trouble long before that. Besides Jerry Porter, there is no young wide receiver who scares anyone. Woodson and Phillip Buchanon comprise a terrific young corner tandem, but that's hardly enough to carry a defense that is woefully undermanned upfront. There are a few young players of promise, but most of them didn't get on the field much in 2003 so are difficult to legitimately evaluate.

  • Who they should hire: It's time for Al Davis to quit hiring first-time head coaches, guys who will be beholden to him, and whom he can bully. He and Green have danced a mating dance for years, never consummated the marriage, and probably won't this time, either. But Green would love to have this job, has studied the roster closely, and feels he can win quickly with some of the young kids.

  • Who they will hire: Dallas offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon or former University of Washington coach Rick Neuheisel.

    Washington Redskins

  • Cap and free agency status: With the cap relief they carved out by signing linebacker LaVar Arrington to an extension last week, the Redskins are approximately $8 million under the cap. That number could shrink, given that Washington typically has a few big deferred payouts to make to veterans. Clearly, the biggest priority is re-signing corner Champ Bailey, who can be an unrestricted free agent. If he doesn't sign a new deal, the Redskins will use the "franchise" tag to limit his mobility, but would also consider a trade for high-round draft picks. There are some middle-level veterans who will be unrestricted but none are essential to the club's near- or long-term future.

  • Talent level: When you talk to general managers around the league, they will criticize the Redskins ownership and management, but rarely does anyone insist the team's personnel is severely lacking. Most evaluators feel quarterback Patrick Ramsey can be a fringe Pro Bowl player, and every team in the NFL would love to have Laveranues Coles. Despite problems with the blocking scheme this year, offensive tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen are top-notch, as is right guard Randy Thomas. The Redskins need an every-down back and some interior line help on the defensive front.

  • Who they should hire: Those reports linking the Redskins to a number of college coaches, like Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin) or Mack Brown (Texas), are way off-base. Just because those coaches are tight with Redskins vice president Vinny Cerrato doesn't mean they are on the Washington wish list. The Redskins want a veteran coach, covet Fassel, and he would be a good fit. In fact, hours after the Tuesday resignation of Steve Spurrier, the club was attempting desperately to reach Fassel.

  • Who they will hire: Seattle defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.