NFL coaches were falling like leaves on a chilly autumn afternoon yesterday. Five more hit the unemployment line, boosting the number of vacant jobs to seven.
Besides the five teams that handed out pink slips, the two other clubs looking for coaches are the Cleveland Browns expansion team and the San Diego Chargers, who fired Kevin Gilbride during the season and then saw interim coach June Jones depart for a college job at the University of Hawaii.
An eighth team will likely be looking for a coach after the playoffs because Mike Holmgren is expected to leave Green Bay for a club that will make him a coach/general manager.
The four coaches fired besides Ted Marchibroda of the Ravens were Ray Rhodes of Philadelphia, Dom Capers of Carolina, Dave Wannstedt of Chicago and Dennis Erickson of Seattle.
Only the firing of Wann- stedt was a mild surprise. Owner Mike McCaskey had been one of his strongest supporters and personnel chief Mark Hatley predicted recently that Wannstedt would be back.
But a 4-12 record in Wannstedt's sixth season and irate fan reaction were enough to persuade McCaskey to fire him with two years left on his contract.
McCaskey all but admitted that the fans forced his hand. "It hurts to see empty seats, people who already paid for those seats choosing not to show up," he said.
Assuming that Holmgren leaves Green Bay, only seven teams will start next season with coaches hired before the start of the 1996 season. One of those, Norv Turner of Washington, could be in trouble once the Redskins' ownership situation is settled.
Marty Schottenheimer, hired by Kansas City in 1989, is the only coach hired by his current team before the start of the decade. Holmgren, Bill Cowher of Pittsburgh and Dennis Green of Minnesota, all hired in 1992, are next in seniority.
The rapid turnover is a sign of the times. The days are long gone when a Chuck Noll could survive winning 12 games in his first three years while building a Steelers team that would win four Super Bowls. Noll coached 23 years in Pittsburgh.
Then there's Tom Landry, who won just 18 games in his first five years with the expansion Cowboys and took six years to reach .500 before going on to a 29-year, Hall of Fame career in Dallas.
In this era of permanent seat licenses, luxury boxes, club seats and multimillion-dollar contracts, there's no time to rebuild.
Coaches not only have to win now, they have to keep keep winning. Capers was Coach of the Year in 1996, when he took expansion Carolina to the NFC championship game in his second year.
He lasted only two more years with the Panthers and was out after losing 21 of his last 32 games.
Owner Jerry Richardson, who predicted the team would win a Super Bowl within 10 years when he was awarded a franchise in 1993, said, "It was a trend that was not going in the right direction."
Echoing Marchibroda's words, Capers said, "I'm not proud of the record this year. But I know I can walk out of this stadium today with my head held up."
In Seattle, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, one of the nation's richest men, spent $38 million in signing bonuses the last two vTC years, but the team finished 8-8 both seasons, and Erickson was pushed out the door.
In Philadelphia, owner Jeff Lurie admitted that Rhodes, the NFL's Coach of the Year in 1995, wasn't helped by the fact that he had to work with four GMs with varying titles and authority.
"Looking back on it, to me, that was my fault. I don't want to let it happen again," said Lurie, who has hired Tom Modrak as the GM to turn the 3-13 team around.
Jimmy Johnson, the Miami Dolphins coach who had Wann- stedt on his staff in Dallas, said, "I think it's disgusting. Some of the better coaches in the NFL got fired today. I know we're highly paid, but it's a shame when coaches' jobs are dependent on injuries, skyboxes, people in the stands and officiating calls. It doesn't give me a good feeling about our profession when I see things like I saw this morning."
The problem with all the turnover is that it's difficult for teams to find top-rated candidates because the pool of potential coaches is so depleted.
Holmgren and George Seifert, the former San Francisco coach, are the only candidates who've proven they can win Super Bowls. The rest of the teams will have to gamble on assistant coaches, failed former head coaches or prospects from the college ranks.
This could lead to teams looking more seriously at minority candidates. Rhodes' firing leaves the league with just two black head coaches -- Minnesota's Green and Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy.
Since most of the top candidates are in the playoffs -- Seifert and Oakland's Willie Shaw are major two exceptions -- clubs will have to wait to contact them until their teams finish their seasons.
The one exception is Cleveland, which got an exemption because it is an expansion team. The Browns interviewed Minnesota's Brian Billick yesterday and will interview Denver's Gary Kubiak today. Billick and Kubiak could wind up being the opposing offensive coordinators in the Super Bowl.
If the past is any indication, most of the coaches hired for next season figure to be looking for new jobs in about three years -- if they get that long. Gilbride didn't even last two years in San Diego.
Including expansion Cleveland, there are seven coaching jobs available in the NFL, with more possible in the days and weeks ahead:
Team ...... Fired
Ravens .... Ted Marchibroda
Bears ..... Dave Wannstedt
Eagles .... Ray Rhodes
Panthers .. Dom Capers
Seahawks .. Dennis Erickson
Team ...... Resigned
Chargers .. June Jones*
Team ...... On way out?
49ers ..... Steve Mariucci
Packers ... Mike Holmgren
Redskins .. Norv Turner
*-Interim coach for Kevin Gilbride, who was fired Oct. 13.
Pub Date: 12/29/98