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It's that time of year. The glory of the leaves changing colors. The crackle of bonfires. The smell of coaching blood.

With less than half the season expired, there are nine coaches on the endangered species list, at least four in serious trouble.

Most obvious among the vulnerable is David Shula in Cincinnati where general manager Mike Brown, normally an apostle of coaching stability, is now hinting that Shula may not last the season.

In Atlanta, there is sympathy with June Jones because of the mutiny of quarterback Jeff George, but not too much sympathy. Jones received a two-year contract extension this season and the Falcons signed Cornelius Bennett of the Bills to a $5 million contract. Yet the team is 0-6 and you can do that for a lot cheaper than $5 million.

The Falcons drew 35,401 to the Georgia Dome for their 10-point loss to Houston last week. That's half the building's capacity. Fans and ownership have grown increasingly unhappy with Jones' run-and-shoot offense, an idea whose time has come and gone. Buddy Ryan may have been correct when he dubbed it "chuck 'n duck."

In St. Louis, former University of Oregon coach Rich Brooks is in over his head with the Rams.

General manager Steve Ortmayer can be blamed for the Lawrence Phillips debacle. In order to move up in the draft to select Nebraska's most famous outlaw, the Cards dealt defensive tackle Sean Gilbert to Washington, where he has become a candidate for NFC defensive player of the year. To make room for Phillips, the Rams traded Jerome Bettis to Pittsburgh, where he has become the pinwheel of an awesome power attack. Phillips, meanwhile, is just another guy on a 1-5 team.

Whether Ortmayer had the final responsibility, it's hard to believe the coach wouldn't have a large say in such shenanigans.

Brooks himself is responsible for one of the strangest ever promotions of a rookie quarterback to the starting lineup. Brooks sent Tony Banks in against the 49ers with the Rams backed up on their own 1 and the game scoreless. San Francisco promptly sacked Banks for a safety.

The sheen is wearing off the prophecy that Dave Wannstedt of Chicago would be the next wonder coach. After Wannstedt made his reputation as Jimmy Johnson's defensive coordinator with the Cowboys, he turned down the Giants to take the Bears job.

His first team allowed 15 points a game. His second gave up 20, his third 24. This one is allowing 21.7 points per game during Wannstedt's worst start, 2-5. But that number is deceptive. The Bears allowed Dallas just three points in the emotional Monday night opener and then allowed Washington just 10 in a close loss.

In three of the Bears' last four games, Detroit scored 35, Green Bay 37 and New Orleans 27, all losses. Remember that the Bears, at Wannstedt's urging, paid one of the highest free-agent prices for Bryan Cox, who is becoming just as erratic in Chicago as he was in Miami.

In Oakland, Mike White took some pressure off himself by winning his last two after opening 1-4. Nevertheless, Monday night's game in San Diego could be critical to his future.

Jim Mora of New Orleans, dead in the water just a few weeks ago, was revived through victories against Jacksonville and the Bears. With the Jets' Rich Kotite, it's not a matter of if but when. Minnesota is 5-2 under Dennis Green, but his job is in jeopardy not over football but sex scandals.

Dan Reeves of the Giants is a long shot to survive into 1997, but at least he isn't whining about the front office again, which probably would have spurred an in-season firing.

Beebe wasn't fine in Carolina

When ex-Bill Don Beebe gained 220 yards receiving in Green Bay's overtime victory against San Francisco on Monday night, it was 68 yards more than he gained all last year as a Carolina Panther.

Modell backs Testaverde

Two weeks ago, when Atlanta was trying to peddle Jeff George before the NFL trading deadline, Ravens owner Art Modell squelched rumors of a George-to-Baltimore trade.

"In no way, shape or form are we doing anything with our quarterback situation," Modell said.

The Ravens were in no position to do anything about George, even if they wanted to. Their salary cap includes $5.24 million in payments to players no longer with the team, most notably wide receiver Andre Rison.

What Modell was doing was blowing smoke in the direction of quarterback Vinny Testaverde.

"It was important for me to tell Vinny that," Modell said. "We feel that Testaverde will lead us to many glorious victories."

So far, the part about "glorious victories" is a reach. But since Modell's smoke, Vinny did have a two-touchdown day in defeating the Saints and a three-TD game in the close loss to Indianapolis.

'D' is key to Skins' turnaround

When Curtis Martin scored two touchdowns for New England last week, it was just the second time this season the 5-1 Washington Redskins had surrendered more than one TD in a game. The first was the opening loss to Philadelphia, when the Eagles scored two.

Last season, Washington gave up nearly three touchdowns a game, which may explain this year's turnaround. The trade for Gilbert and free agency signings in the last two seasons that brought linebackers Ken Harvey of the Cardinals and Marvcus Patton of the Bills, along with safety Stanley Richard of the Chargers to steady the Skins' youngsters, made the difference.

Wisniewski living up to billing

When the Bills were polled in The Buffalo News football preview edition in late August, they voted Oakland guard Steve Wisniewski as the NFL's dirtiest player. Since then, Wisniewski has been fined three times for a total of $65,000 for dirty play.

Pete finds ways to beat heat

Pete Metzelaars, the ex-Bills tight end, is still going strong at age 38 in Detroit. When he played the entire game during 88-degree heat in Tampa Bay recently, Lions' coach Wayne Fontes kept asking him "are you all right?"

"The only thing he could say," claims Fontes, "was 'AAGGGH!' "

1. Green Bay Packers (1) . . . Big win over Niners.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (2) . . . Oilers could ambush.

3. Denver Broncos (4) . . . Next two at home.

4. San Francisco 49ers (3) . . . Need return of Young.

5. Indianapolis Colts (6) . . . Pats will test them.

6. Washington Redskins (9) . . . Defense is real.

7. San Diego Chargers (8) . . . Need better running.

8. Dallas Cowboys (NR) . . . Irvin is back.

9. Miami Dolphins (NR) . . . Shocked the Bills.

10. Buffalo Bills (4) . . . Offense in ICU.