By Steve Silverman
(CBS) The firing season will soon be at hand.
Lovie Smith may well be in the line of fire if the Bears don’t make the playoffs after their 7-1 start and their poor play in December over the past two seasons.
Smith is not going to be alone. Norv Turner in San Diego and Andy Reid in Philadelphia are two of the biggest names expected to get the gate. As many as 10 head coaches could be headed for the chopping block this season.
The only thing that will save head coaches from getting dismissed is the inability to find solid head coaching candidates. Many like to look to the old, familiar names like Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden, but of those three only Gruden really wants to get back to work.
There are a number of head coaching candidates that are rising through the ranks of NFL assistant head coaches – as well as at least one college head coach – who are going to shoot to the head of the class when the firings start on Monday.
Here are the five who figure to get the most attention.
Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati Bengals – Zimmer is probably this year’s standout candidate. He has turned the Bengals into a defensive juggernaut, which is fairly amazing considering their talent level. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is a bona fide All-Pro player, but Zimmer has been working with him steadily on his pass rush technique and getting him to become an intense contributor. The Bengals rank sixth overall in defense and ninth against the pass.
They Bengals have given up 13 points or fewer in five of their last six games as the defense led them to a playoff berth. It was the defense that pummeled Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in Week 16 to clinch the team’s spot in the postseason.
Zimmer has been very consistent for five years as the Bengals’ defensive coordinator and has one of the sharpest minds in the game. The 56-year-old from Peoria is moving into the prime of his coaching career and should get a big-time head coaching offer.
Chip Kelly, University of Oregon – Offensive innovation is the name of the game for Kelly. He is ready to push the envelope and he would need an owner who is not afraid to change the way the NFL does business. He gets the seal of approval from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. The Oregon coach taught Belichick many of the principles of his fast-paced, no-huddle attack and the Patriots have used many of them this season.
Kelly, 48, will build any team an explosive offense. He believes in his system and he is an excellent teacher who runs tight, organized practices that puts many of his peers to shame.
Perry Fewell, N.Y. Giants – The Giants’ Super Bowl triumph was a huge accomplishment for Fewell as the team’s defensive coordinator. He did not have the chance to capitalize off that victory a year ago since many of the coaching openings were filled by the time the Giants recorded their win over the Patriots.
Fewell, 50, has been bypassed before, but he is expected to be among the first rank of candidates this year. He excels at diagnosing a talented player’s greatest strength and then making those players better. Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is a Pro Bowl player this year and has become an excellent technician largely because of his development under Fewell.
In addition to his teaching skill, Fewell is extremely well-liked and should be able to inspire loyalty.
Kyle Shanahan, Washington — This is a name that has become more viable as the season has moved along. The Redskins are playing for the NFC East title and a playoff berth Sunday and very little was expected from this team at the start of the season.
The Redskins’ rise is largely on the shoulders of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and neither Shanahan, 32, nor his father Mike Shanahan, have screwed up his development.
How much credit can you give the younger Shanahan for RGIII’s development? Some, but RGIII’s talent level is remarkable. Shanahan did not shackle the young star. Shanahan also trusted rookie running back Alfred Morris and that was a huge find.
But one solid season does not a head coach make. Shanahan may not be ready just yet.
Ray Horton, Arizona – One of the most highly-respected assistants in the NFL. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt knows that Horton has given him a defense that can go a long way in the NFL, but when there is no offensive line and the quarterbacks have no mobility, you don’t have a chance to win in the NFL.
Horton, 52, has a magnetic personality to go along with great know-how on building a competent defense. He coached the Steelers’ defensive backs prior to coming to Arizona and has a very sharp mind.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.