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Owners give coaches longer leash

From Sunday night until Monday morning, five NFL coaching jobs opened up. That actually was a positive development.

Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco 49ers), Rex Ryan (New York Jets) and Mike Smith (Atlanta Falcons) ended nice runs with their franchises. Tony Sparano, who took over when Dennis Allen was fired after Oakland's 0-4 start, was told the Raiders were shopping for a new coach, but he could still be a candidate. Marc Trestman was fired after two seasons with the Chicago Bears.

I can't remember a more predictable day of coaching moves. Everyone knew all season Harbaugh was in his final year with the 49ers. Trestman was hired mainly on his reputation as a quarterbacks guru, and Jay Cutler's benching ended any doubts about whether the Bears would make a coaching change.

The restraint of owners who elected not to fire their coaches was good to see. Too many owners fire assistant coaches who had been promoted to head-coaching positions too quickly. From 2011 until the start of this year, there had been 29 changes.

That many changes drain the pool of qualified assistants as candidates for head-coaching positions. On average, four assistants a year have been promoted to run teams over the past four seasons.

Maybe owners are accepting the idea that firing the coach doesn't necessarily improve the team. Only one coach this year (Trestman) was rushed out the door early. While it's still hard to understand why Harbaugh is no longer in San Francisco, he, Ryan and Smith were given ample opportunity to have their runs as coaches.

With the increased importance of getting starters out of the draft and with free-agency home runs becoming harder to hit, owners need to view their franchises in four-year cycles. If the new coach and his general manager find 2-3 draft starters a year, they should have an improved roster by the third or fourth year. If they can re-sign those players, the cycle could grow to eight years.

Smith won 56 games during his first five years in Atlanta, but going 4-12 and 6-10 over the past two seasons pointed to the end of his run. Ryan won 28 games during his first three years to advance him into a second cycle. Going 18-30 during his final three years cost him his job. The players added to the Falcons and Jets after the first four years weren't as good as the ones they replaced, who had helped produce playoff runs.

Harbaugh was as successful as any coach in NFL history, going 44-19-1 in four seasons, but he wore out relationships and has moved on to Michigan.

Owners appear to be trending toward the hiring of experienced head coaches. That's why Jack Del Rio, Pat Shurmur, Ryan, Mike Shanahan and others could beat out some of the hot assistants for the head-coach openings.

Having seven and eight openings a year doesn't make sense. If the list stays at five, that's fair, and it offers some blue skies for the coaching fraternity.

From the inbox

Q: I'm very surprised and perplexed why Vic Fangio is not being considered for the head-coaching job of the 49ers (or any other team for that matter). He has coached one of the NFL's best units for a few years. What am I missing?

Andy in Los Angeles

A: You sound like a 49ers defensive player. They can't understand it either. I do think he will get consideration. Fangio did a great job with the 49ers' defense. It's one thing to inherit a top-10 defense, but what was so impressive this year is how he worked in young players. The big question is who he or any defensive coach interested in the 49ers job would hire as an offensive coordinator.

Q: Please tell me why the NFL does not institute a rule making it illegal to strike a ball carrier who is already in contact with the ground? At Lambeau Field on Sunday, Eddie Lacy was rolling on the ground in no danger of returning to his feet when he was violently struck (helmet to helmet, no less) by a Detroit defender and fumbled the ball. The referee made the correct call upon review, stating that the initial contact with a runner on the ground makes him immediately down by contact, and thus there can be no fumble. But if that is the rule, and has been forever, why can defenders pummel someone on the ground? Shouldn't they be forced to simply touch them to end the play?

Mario in Milwaukee

A: That might be asking too much. Defenders are taught to finish plays until they hear a whistle. If a back is heading to the ground, the defender is going to either land on him or wrap him up to complete the play. If the hit is too violent, then the defender is going to get a penalty and probably a fine. You can only take so many things away from defensive players. Over the past couple of years, defenders have had to change their targeting of ball carries to shoulder level or below. They have had to make sure they limit hits on defenseless receivers. Safety is important, but you can't make this a flag football game in which contact is limited.

Q: Is it out of the question to think that the Bears could trade Jay Cutler to the Bucs? It would reunite him with Lovie Smith and allow Tampa to trade down and send the No. 1 pick to someone who really wants Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston. It wouldn't be a long-term fix, but it would likely be better than the alternatives for the next year or two.

Dan in Orlando, Florida

A: I would think Smith wouldn't want Cutler. Remember, he got fired in part because his coordinators couldn't work well with Cutler. With the firings of Smith and Marc Trestman, Cutler is getting the reputation of being a coach killer. I can't see Smith risking his future and the future of the Bucs when he can get the best quarterback in this draft.

Q: Ndamukong Suh once again revealed his true character and made a cheap and dirty move stepping on Aaron Rodgers. But that leads me to my larger question. So many players have contract incentives, including for playoff performances. If it was going to potentially cost Player X big bucks if he missed a playoff game, and thus any associated incentives, I have to believe the NFL would be more inclined to be lenient so as to avoid a larger labor issue, no?

Sean P in Washington, D.C.

A: Suh won his appeal, which surprised me a little. Still, for players, there aren't many playoff incentives. They are paid by the game. Suh would have lost $784,375 if he was suspended from a regular-season game. Had the Lions lost to the Dallas because of Suh's absence, they might have slowed some of their efforts to re-sign him.

Q: With the Bengals-Panthers tie earlier this season distorting the playoff picture, when is the NFL going to seriously consider eliminating ties in the regular season? To me, it's a no-brainer decision that the NFL should have made years ago. I can understand implementing ties in preseason games, as most teams don't want to play an extra 15 minutes and risk injuries. If I were a fan attending a regular-season game that ended in a tie, I think I would feel somewhat cheated. With the recent changes to the overtime rules so that each team has at least one offensive possession unless the first team scores a touchdown, there's no reason as to why the NFL cannot simply abolish ties from the regular season.

Daryl in New Baltimore, Pennsylvania

A: My fear when the NFL adopted an additional possession in overtime was that there would be more ties. Fortunately, we are only getting one a year. The NFL will never go to the college system of overtime. The league likes sudden death. What they can't do is go more than one overtime in the regular season. That risks too many injuries. I was at the Carolina-Cincinnati game. All the players felt cheated without a result. Ties may work in soccer. They aren't very popular in the NFL. Let's hope there aren't many in the future.

Q: I can't understand the policy of playoff-bound teams playing meaningless Week 17 games in which they don't play some of their starters at all and have others only play one half. The coach should either decide they're playing to win and play their best players for the whole game or that they're resting players and avoiding injuries and not play any of them at all. But this policy of playing some starters and resting others is neither here nor there. You're not going to win because you don't have your best guys out there, but you're still playing starters who therefore aren't resting and can get injured. New England rested five starters and had Tom Brady play only the first half. What if Brady got hurt in the first half? Nate Solder still got injured, and of course the Patriots lost the game. A similar thing happened a few years ago with Wes Welker, and he missed the entire playoffs that year.

Binyamin in Haifa, Israel

A: The way the schedule worked out this year, the Patriots were the only team that had that option of resting starters. With a 46-man active roster, some starters have to be out there. I think the Patriots did OK with the way they handled it. They treated the game like a preseason game. If you rest 22 starters, though, you only have 21 active players to be starters after you subtract the kicker, punter and the long snapper. Brady probably wanted to get a little time on the field. He escaped injury-free.