The end of the regular season is turning-point time for NFL owners.
Now is when the men at the top of organizations must decide whether to drastically change course and fire the head coach.
Three places where owners need to show discretion are Miami, Houston and New York. Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, Texans coach Gary Kubiak and Giants coach Tom Coughlin all should keep their jobs, regardless of whether their teams come to an ugly ending today.
Sparano is taking heat because his team is stuck in the middle of the pack, went 1-7 at home, has new ownership, and Sparano's godfather, Bill Parcells, has left the organization. But Sparano is the same guy who took the Dolphins from 1-15 to a playoff berth just three seasons ago. The problem is quarterback Chad Henne has proven over the past two years he's not the answer. Parcells and General Manager Jeff Ireland built a solid team. Their big mistake, which has become evident in hindsight, was taking left tackle Jake Long No. 1 overall in 2008 instead of QB Matt Ryan. Long will be super for another 10 years, but a Ryan is much harder to find. That's not Sparano's fault.
Indications are Ross won't pull the trigger on Sparano, presuming Miami avoids a blowout in New England. Hopefully, Ross will resist the temptation to energize an apathetic South Florida fan base by making a knee-jerk coaching change. Miami has a lot of pieces in place. It needs better quarterback play.
Coughlin has the No. 3-ranked offense and the No. 6-ranked defense. The coaching staff is solid. He just won the Super Bowl in 2007. His job security probably would not be questioned if he wasn't in the Big Apple. The Giants don't need to create the inevitable collateral damage -- shuttling a bunch of the old regime's guys out the door -- that comes with a coaching change.
Kubiak is on the hottest seat and probably can't afford a run-for-the-bus finish against Jacksonville today. Kubiak has proven he's a great offensive coach. The Texans have been in the top five in offense three straight years. It's the defense that annually underachieves, and that's no doubt partly the head coach's fault. He fired his first defensive coordinator (Richard Smith) and his second (Frank Bush) will have to go if Kubiak stays. Bush never had run an NFL defense before Kubiak promoted him in 2008. Speculation has Wade Phillips taking over the defense if Kubiak stays.
But that's only part of the problem. Ownership helped foul up the Texans' secondary by letting cornerback Dunta Robinson leave in free agency. They essentially stood pat in free agency in the offseason. They signed linebacker DeMeco Ryans to an extension but didn't add other reinforcements. That was a business decision. Ryans has been hurt all year, and the rest of the linebacking corps has been banged up. Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, the 10th overall pick in 2007, has underachieved. Texans fans are fighting mad. But it would be a shame to lose Kubiak's offensive ability.
On the flip side, Eric Mangini has shown some progress with some quality wins in Cleveland. But Mangini does not fit with team president Mike Holmgren. The Browns would be better off making a change and putting Holmgren's hand-picked man, an offensive coach, in charge.
>Cookie's best wishes
Bills great Cookie Gilchrist is recuperating from surgery on throat cancer and is hopeful of a recovery.
Gilchrist, 75, sounded in great spirits this week. He's in an assisted living facility in Pittsburgh.
"I was just operated on [on] the 10th of December," Gilchrist said. "The doctors felt good about how it went. I feel very good about it. We'll see what happens.
"I want to wish all the Buffalo Bills fans a happy new year," Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist overcame throat cancer in 2007 but was again diagnosed with it this year. A tumor that was positioned against his carotid artery was removed. Gilchrist said the tumor had not spread, and he expects to have another surgery in the coming month. Gilchrist thinks he can overcome the illness again.
"I'm a vegetarian, and the doctors told me that helped me a lot," Gilchrist said. "I'm a proponent of the fact you are what you eat. You want to live? Change your diet."
Philadelphia's Jason Peters was voted to his fourth straight Pro Bowl last week. Peters, the former Bill, wasn't very good for the first five games. But it turned out he was playing with a torn meniscus in his knee. He had surgery on the knee and missed two games. He came back and played at a Pro Bowl level for the next seven games. Peters wasn't great Tuesday night against Minnesota. So he had seven games at all-star level this season. He only gave up two sacks all season, by unofficial count. Carolina's Jordan Gross joined Peters as a Pro Bowl starter. Green Bay's Chad Clifton was the third tackle picked. Bottom line: Peters did enough this year to show he remains a star left tackle.
Another would-be Bills offensive tackle, Green Bay's Bryan Bulaga, has started 11 games at right tackle. He has allowed six sacks, which is too many. But he has been OK overall. He's a better pass blocker than run blocker. He hasn't sustained blocks well enough in the run game. He's competitive. He has not been overmatched. He arguably was the Pack's fourth-best lineman this season. There remains plenty of doubt about whether he ever can be a good left tackle (which is the reason the Bills did not draft him). Bulaga, the 23rd overall pick, only spent three years at Iowa, so it's reasonable to expect he's only going to get better.
Running back Dominic Rhodes is one of those hard-working veterans who knows how to play the game. He leads by example. He gets the most out of his ability. That was evident at Bills training camp. Rhodes wound up getting cut because of the presence of both Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. He sat out all of 2009. He turned to the United Football League this year and led that minor league in rushing with 547 yards. The Colts signed him out of desperation in early December, and he produced 98 rushing yards in the key win over Oakland last Sunday. That came as no surprise for anyone who saw Rhodes' act at St. John Fisher College.
>Who's the boss?
Washington running back Clinton Portis this week said the season-long war between coach Mike Shanahan and defensive tackle Al Haynesworth eventually will pay dividends for the team. Portis, no doubt, is motivated to try to keep his job with the 'Skins.
"A lot of close games we lost, and you got Albert Haynesworth making one play in that game that coulda easily turned," Portis said. "When you go and sacrifice a guy such as an Albert Haynesworth to prove like, 'OK. This is my team, I'm in control,' sacrifice a guy you know can help you win -- it's get with the program or get out."
* Browns fans know exactly how the Bills' fans feel about being under the thumb of a divisional nemesis. Cleveland has lost 13 of its last 14 to Pittsburgh and 26 of the last 30 to the Steelers, dating to 1994. Let's see: Tom Brady is 33 and says he wants to play to 40. That would be a maximum of 14 more games against the Bills for "Captain America."
* Here's two more reasons why Pro Bowl appearances are only a small part of a player's resume for the Hall of Fame. New England guard Logan Mankins and Giants center Shaun O'Hara both were voted to the Pro Bowl. Mankins has played only eight games. O'Hara has played only six this season.
* Matt Ryan can tie Dan Marino today for most wins by a QB in his first three seasons (33).