There are only 32 NFL head coaching jobs, and people scratch and claw for years just to get a shot at one.
But Sunday’s Patriots-Chargers game in Foxborough features two head coaches who probably wouldn’t mind getting fired soon.
This season has been torturous for Bill Belichick and Brandon Staley. The 2-9 Patriots and 4-7 Chargers are two of the biggest disappointments in the NFL. For both coaches, it’s likely a matter of “when,” not “if,” they get fired.
But it hasn’t happened yet for either. Meaning week after week their job status is a main topic during game broadcasts, and week after week they have to appear in front of cameras and microphones and take a beating for their underachieving teams.
When a reporter asked Staley after one overtime loss how his team was handling it, Staley snapped.
“We just lost a game in overtime, Jeff. So how do you think the mood is?”
That was in Week 2.
Now it’s Week 13, and Staley is still employed. After each painful loss, Staley looks like he’s going to pop a vein in his forehead, knowing that his job is slipping away.
The headlines called him “feisty” three weeks ago after a loss to the Lions.
They said Staley “lost his cool” two weeks ago after a loss to the Packers dropped the Chargers to 4-6. Staley was “defensive” the next day about not giving up defensive play-calling. He got “testy” on Monday when asked why first-round receiver Quentin Johnston wasn’t available more in last week’s loss to the Ravens.
“It was a rib injury, OK? Your ribs affect how you breathe, OK?” Staley said. “It’s not because of a lack of confidence. It’s not because of any other part of your imagination.”
Staley went 9-8 and 10-7 his first two seasons but was lucky to keep his job after last year’s playoff meltdown, a wild-card loss to the Jaguars in which the Chargers blew a 27-0 lead.
The Chargers on paper should be a contender. They are loaded with expensive veteran talent, between a $250 million contract for star quarterback Justin Herbert, and big deals for Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, Derwin James, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Austin Ekeler. They also have spent first-round picks in recent years on Johnston and two offensive linemen.
But this season has been a disaster for Staley, with the Chargers starting 0-2 and unable to find their footing as the season has progressed. They enter Sunday on a three-game losing streak, and are last in the AFC West and 13th out of 16 teams in the conference.
The biggest indictment against Staley has been the defense, which ranks 32nd in total yards, 24th in points allowed, and hasn’t forced a turnover in three straight games. Staley’s defense has not ranked higher than 20th in points or yards in his three seasons, which is a tough sell for a coach whose background is as a defensive coordinator.
“You guys act like we’ve never played good defense,” Staley sniped at reporters after a loss to the Packers. “You act like we haven’t made any improvements.”
The Chargers have not fired a coach during the season since 1998, allowing their last five coaches to finish out their final season. But if the Chargers lose Sunday to the woeful Patriots and drop to 4-8, Chargers owner Dean Spanos would probably be doing Staley a favor by firing him instead of making him slog through the final five games.
There’s also a popular thought around New England that Robert Kraft would never fire Bill Belichick during the season because it wouldn’t be classy, and because Belichick has earned the right to finish out the season.
Belichick also said this past week he “absolutely” still enjoys coaching. “I’m excited about the challenge, the opportunity, and what we have to do to win each week. So, I’ll keep working as hard as I can to help our team.”
But keeping Belichick to the bitter end of this season is arguably more damaging for the coach.
He can’t be excited about finishing his Patriots career with a legacy-staining record, possibly as bad as 2-15. He can’t be excited to stand in front of national cameras and microphones each Sunday and get bombarded with questions about his poorly constructed team. He can’t be excited that with every embarrassing loss, the chorus grows louder that he was just a product of Tom Brady.
And as ugly as it has been in recent losses to the Commanders, Colts, and Giants, it’s about to get much uglier for Belichick and the Patriots.
The NFL on Thursday spared them one week of national embarrassment by flexing the Week 15 Chiefs-Patriots game from ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” to a Sunday 1 p.m. regional game.
But the Patriots will be featured in a standalone, national TV game Thursday night against Pittsburgh, and again on Christmas Eve against Denver. The Patriots are so bad, and the games will be so noncompetitive, that for three hours, the coast-to-coast telecast will be dominated by talk of Belichick getting fired, and everything he has done wrong to accelerate the downfall of the Patriots’ dynasty.
That point was driven home by Amazon Prime during Thursday’s night’s Cowboys-Seahawks game. A graphic promoting this coming week’s game featured T.J. Watt for the Steelers and Belichick for the Patriots, since the Patriots don’t have any identifiable players.
The Patriots likely aren’t going to fire Belichick now, because the Krafts want to be able to trade Belichick to his next destination instead of letting him leave for nothing. But firing Belichick wouldn’t be a sign of disrespect — rather, it would be a show of mercy and deference for a coach who helped bring six Lombardi Trophies to Foxborough. A mutual parting of ways now, with an agreement to figure everything out after the season ends, would at least spare Belichick the humiliation he is about to face.
Staley and Belichick surely know that they are on the verge of getting fired. The humane thing would be doing it sooner rather than later.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.