Buffalo Bills head coach Mike Mularkey will be sweating out the final two games of the NFL regular season.
No decision has been made on Mularkey's fate heading into today's contest against the Cincinnati Bengals, sources within the team have told The News.
Numerous people within the organization think the coach has a shot to keep his job after this year because removing him would prompt a total house-cleaning. Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. knows major changes need to be made with his team, and he is prepared to make them. But there is hope within the team that Wilson will conclude starting over from scratch would precipitate an even longer rebuilding process than is necessary.
Nevertheless, Mularkey's future as head coach is in doubt because of the Bills' collapse this season and because of the fact Mularkey is going to lose the man who chose him for the job.
It's a foregone conclusion that President and General Manager Tom Donahoe is going to be fired at the end of the season. There is no way the Bills can fire Mularkey and keep Donahoe. Donahoe already has jettisoned one head coach. The Bills can not market the team next year with Donahoe at the top. It is apparent his relationship with Wilson has soured considerably. And even Donahoe has acknowledged to friends in recent weeks that he expects to be fired.
So Mularkey's position has become more tenuous in the wake of the team's five straight losses. It would help the head coach if his team put forth decent efforts today against the Bengals and next week against the New York Jets.
The players know everyone's jobs are on the line.
"You guys could come in here next year and see a whole lot of different faces," guard Chris Villarrial told reporters in the locker room. "I mean, you could see a whole different offensive line. We don't know what's going to happen. We could have a whole new coaching staff, everything. But we've just got to stick together a few more weeks, and hopefully we'll be around and just come back and prove ourselves next year."
Getting players to comment on the record about the coaches any more specifically than that is virtually impossible because they all are worried about job security.
There are a number of players on the team who privately say they don't like Mularkey or don't have much confidence in him.
However, a large number of players have told The News in the past two weeks that they don't have a problem with Mularkey and they don't think the team has quit on the coach.
"We believed we were going to beat Denver," said several players.
Mularkey seemed to push all the right buttons in his rookie season, as the Bills won six straight games down the stretch. He has had a good relationship with Wilson the past two years. But this season has proved to be a bigger challenge for the coach.
Mularkey and his staff have not been able to get the best production or the most enthusiastic cooperation from some of their most talented players -- in particular Sam Adams, Eric Moulds and Mike Williams. Mularkey could be more effectively selling Willis McGahee on the team's approach, too. Getting the most talented players to buy into the program was one of the great assets of former Bills coach Marv Levy. Mularkey has not been as flexible or as good of a salesman as Levy.
Owners generally like head coaches who can instill discipline. Mularkey has done that. While his suspension of Moulds was not popular, it sent a clear signal that the head coach is not to be crossed.
If Mularkey survives, it's apparent he's going to have to make changes in his coaching staff. His partnership with offensive coordinator Tom Clements is not working well. A league source told The News that Clements was not pleased to have control of play calling taken away or diminished. It's not likely that Clements will be back. There is some dysfunction on the defensive side, too. Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and secondary coach Steve Szabo were involved in a heated argument in the coaches' box during the Carolina game that fell well outside the realm of normal in-game conflict. It was indicative of tension between the two.
Gray is expected to be a candidate for one or more of the NFL head-coaching openings this January. Even if he doesn't get a head job, there's a good chance he will be pursued by a new head coach as a defensive coordinator. Mularkey gladly inherited Gray onto his staff. But the two do not have a history together, so it's likely they will be willing to part ways.
Mularkey's survival, of course, also will be affected by whoever replaces Donahoe. If assistant general manager Tom Modrak agreed to take over, which would be the easiest and most seamless move, that no doubt would help the coach. Modrak and Mularkey have a relationship.
So all this uncertainty is the backdrop for the Bills today, as they take the field against the heavily-favored Bengals.
Motivation has been a challenge for Mularkey and his staff because everyone in the organization is surprised and bitterly disappointed by the team's 4-10 record. None of the players saw this kind of season coming.
"We want to play these two games and go home," said one player.
Playing well and going home would benefit the head coach.