It's only the midway point, but for several NFL teams, the die seems to be cast: This is a lost season.
People constantly ask me, How do you handle a team in this dire situation? But the situations these teams find themselves in, although similar in record, are as diverse as the ways they got to this point.
It's been a rough couple months for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-6) and Tennessee Titans (2-6), but these two situations are manageable for the respective coaches. Lovie Smith and Ken Whisenhunt, both in Year 1 with their respective teams, know that their No. 1 job is to find out if they have a quarterback to build around, or whether that will be the first item of business in the offseason. This type of year might be tough on some coaches, but each of these guys can stand up in front of his team and honestly say, "Look, one thing I do know is that I am going to be here next year. The question is, are you? Play hard and show me that you should stay on this team." Coaches in this position have the glue you need to hold a team together through tough times.
St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher probably falls into this category, as well, even though he is in Year 3, and with a 16-22-1 record (including 2-5 this fall), his future isn't quite as secure. Gus Bradley and the 1-7 Jacksonville Jaguars are likely in the same situation, except they have their building-block QB and can ride that momentum of "We are laying the groundwork for our future success."
Compare that to Tony Sparano in Oakland. The Raiders have already fired one head coach this season (Dennis Allen). The chances that they keep Sparano beyond this interim term are slim to none -- and slim just left town. Sparano has the unenviable task of trying to keep a group motivated when the players know he won't be the one to hold them accountable beyond this season. Sparano will have to reach each player individually and try to tap into whatever professionalism each has. The players probably like Sparano, but the idea that players will play hard for some coaches and not for others is a myth. Players play hard for themselves and their teammates.
Mike Smith (2-6 in Year 7 with the Atlanta Falcons) and Rex Ryan (1-7 in Year 6 with the New York Jets) are in similar situations. Their future might be unknown and people can speculate all they want, but the fact is that both coaches are well-liked by their players and owners. As I said before, though, players don't play for coaches; they play for themselves and their teammates. These coaches have to find some hook to make their players believe their fortunes are going to turn around. There is one key difference with these two examples, though: Mike Smith has his franchise quarterback in place, while Rex Ryan is currently on the second highly drafted QB of his tenure. Matt Ryan can help hold Smith's team together with his creditability and ability. Rex Ryan does not have this luxury. When asked after Sunday's game who he'll start at quarterback in Week 9, Ryan provided a simple response: "I have no idea." (UPDATE:Ryan announced Monday that Michael Vick will get the nod over Geno Smith.)
This brings us to the toughest coaching job in the league right now. Marc Trestman's Chicago Bears (3-5) are in a free fall and, after a 28-point loss in New England, showing no signs of hitting the safety net. Trestman has his QB, if for no other reason than the fact that the franchise just handed Jay Cutler $54 million guaranteed. The coach has, arguably, the best offensive personnel in the game, excepting the quarterback position. (Dallas and Denver fans might rightfully argue with this, and they have good QBs, too.) Trestman has to show he has a plan to turn this around, all the while knowing he might not have the QB to do it.
No matter what the situation, each of these coaches will voice the same general sentiment in the coming days: "We just have to focus on one game at a time, beginning now. We want to be 1-0 at the end of this week." However naive this might sound, it is exactly the right way to approach it. The outside world will want to engage in what ifs, but your job as a coach is to not let your players, at least outwardly, give in to that temptation.