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NFL coaches with the most to prove down the stretch of the 2023 season

Two head coaches, three offensive coordinators and one defensive coordinator have already been fired, but as the NFL season enters its final full month, the scrutiny will only intensify for the coaches who face the greatest challenges. The following is not a list of coaches who are necessarily on the hot seat. Rather, this is a group with the most to prove in the final six weeks of the regular season, whether their jobs are likely to be in jeopardy or not.

Full disclosure: Frank Reich was going to be on this list, for having to prove he could develop an offense that would ease the pressure on rookie quarterback Bryce Young and help him to develop. That was before Panthers owner David Tepper fired him Monday morning, making Reich the second head coach fired so far this season, and the fifth head coach (including interims) formerly employed by Tepper, who bought the team just five years ago.

The reality is, every coach in the league has something to prove. Cleveland's Kevin Stefanski and Cincinnati's Zac Taylor have to navigate life without their starting quarterbacks in the NFL's most tightly-bunched division, for instance. But this group, more than their compatriots, will have the full glare of the spotlight cast on them in December.

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy watches during an NFL football game against the Washington Commanders, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023 in Landover, MD. The Commanders defeated the Cowboys, 26-6. (James D. Smith via AP)
Mike McCarthy
Dallas Cowboys

McCarthy only has something to prove in relation to the outsized expectations for the Dallas Cowboys. At 8-3, the Cowboys have the league’s top scoring offense and a top-five scoring defense. They are clearly very, very good again this season. But they also have yet to beat an opponent with a winning record. After the Thanksgiving Day rout of the Washington Commanders, owner Jerry Jones said he believes the team is “certainly capable of winning the whole thing.” The Cowboys face Seattle and Philadelphia in the next two weeks at home, where they have looked particularly unstoppable. That is an opportunity for McCarthy to prove his team belongs among the NFC’s elite. Even after that, he will be judged by how close he can get the Cowboys to capturing that elusive Super Bowl. 

Ron Rivera
Ron Rivera
Washington Commanders

Rivera’s job has been on the line since the season opened -- that’s what happens when new ownership arrives. After a 2-0 start that was brimming with the optimism of a fresh beginning, the Commanders have sagged, with the defense performing so poorly (even before Montez Sweat and Chase Young were traded) that defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was fired last week. Rivera was the adult in the room during the chaotic and dysfunctional final years of the Dan Snyder era, but his tasks now are to revive the defense (ranked dead last in points allowed) since taking it over from Del Rio, and to get the entire team to give full effort the rest of the way. 

New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh stands on the sideline during an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Kirk Irwin)
Robert Saleh
New York Jets

Even if Aaron Rodgers’ torn Achilles in the season opener ultimately gives everybody at the Jets a pass for the season, Saleh has some very big issues to address. Can he get his team, which has been prone to mental mistakes, to play with more discipline? Can he continue to hold the locker room together while the offense is a weekly display of dysfunction? Can he do anything to get the offense to be even marginally competent, despite the revolving door at quarterback and along the offensive line? And, most intriguingly, how will he manage Rodgers’ aggressive push to return to action this season, particularly with it becoming increasingly unlikely there will be anything left to play for in the final few games, even if Rodgers is medically cleared to return? 

Sean McDermott thumbnail
Sean McDermott
Buffalo Bills

McDermott fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey in mid-November (the players on offense, particularly Josh Allen, responded with their best performances of the season), just months after defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier left the team. The Bills have lost three of their last four games, including Sunday's crushing overtime loss to the Eagles, and, with Kansas City coming up after the Week 13 bye, they are in real danger of missing the playoffs. McDermott's task is obvious: steady the defense, which was once the team's calling card, but which is injury-riddled and struggling to hold up. Against the Eagles, the defense allowed five scoring drives in six Eagles possessions in the second half and overtime, coughing up 30 points. And McDermott must also figure out why the Bills seem to be just a play or two from winning. They are 2-6 in one-score games this season. 

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches from the sidelines during an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Miami Gardens Fla. ( Tom DiPace via AP)
Bill Belichick
New England Patriots

The collapse of the Patriots, exemplified by the disastrous quarterback situation, has been stunning. Given his complete control over football operations, the glaring roster deficiencies and regression of Mac Jones fall on Belichick, and that casts his future -- and the future direction of the franchise -- into serious question. Would Belichick even want to be around for the rebuild to come? What would be his plan, if so? And, moreover, what is the Krafts' plan for resurrecting the Patriots? Who do they want leading that rebuild? How will they structure their brain trust? There's plenty to prove in New England, and none of it has to do with the results in the next six weeks.

Todd Bowles
Todd Bowles
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dennis Allen
New Orleans Saints
Arthur Smith tn
Arthur Smith
Atlanta Falcons

With Frank Reich already out in Carolina, every other coach in the NFC South, in which each team is below .500, still has a lot to prove, and every one of them could be coaching for his job, too. The Bucs, at 4-7, are only one game back of the division lead, and Todd Bowles -- handed the unenviable task of overseeing the Bucs' transition to the post-Tom Brady era, as well as the salary-cap cleanup necessitated by that transition -- has to show he can get more consistent play, including by his defense, to keep the Bucs in the mix. The Saints' Dennis Allen has to figure out how to solve New Orleans' scoring woes -- the Saints were 0-for-5 in the red zone in Sunday's loss to the Falcons -- and how to steady quarterback Derek Carr, to avoid wasting a top-10 defense. In Atlanta, Arthur Smith's offense -- and his choice to ride with Desmond Ridder -- will determine if the Falcons, who currently lead the division, can hold on.

Los Angeles Chargers Brandon Staley coaches from the sideline during an NFL wild card playoff football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, in Jacksonville, Fla. Jacksonville won 31-30. (Aaron M. Sprecher via AP)
Brandon Staley
Los Angeles Chargers

Staley's defense, which has been among the league's worst this season, had perhaps its best game against the Ravens on Sunday, but the offense made too many mistakes. The playoffs may already be too far out of reach, but Staley has to show he can manage close games -- the Chargers have won just two of the seven one-score games they've played in. The Chargers have the reputation of being underachievers. That's a hard label to shake for a coach, but a few victories, in close games, with the defense playing well, would go a long way. 

Las Vegas Raiders linebackers coach Antonio Pierce reacts during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, September 11, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Ben Liebenberg via AP)
Antonio Pierce
Las Vegas Raiders

Pierce got the nod as the interim head coach when the Raiders fired Josh McDaniels. His mission was to steady the team -- they are 2-2 under Pierce -- and to keep them in the wild-card mix in the AFC. After the Raiders blew a 14-0 lead over the Chiefs on Sunday to lose 31-17, the playoffs may be slipping away. Still, there are some very specific things Pierce has to prove when the Raiders emerge from their Week 13 bye if he is to keep alive his hopes to become the full-time head coach. Most significantly: How will he deal with adversity? Cutting Marcus Peters, whose effort sometimes seemed to flag, on Monday was one indication, but Pierce also needs to address an offense that goes cold in the second half and a defense that was gashed repeatedly by the Chiefs after halftime. Players have clearly responded to Pierce; now he has to prove he actually has to chops to steer the team through choppy waters. 

Matt Eberflus
Chicago Bears

What does Eberflus have to prove? That he can win more games like the Bears won against the Vikings on Monday Night Football. The Bears have won just seven times with Eberflus as the head coach, and that was the Bears’ first victory over an NFC North rival in Eberflus’ two seasons. Just as important, it was a close game, and the Bears have also previously struggled in those. Eberflus’ defense has been playing well -- the run defense is the best in the league; the Bears have eight takeaways over the last two games; and the pass rush has improved since Montez Sweat’s arrival at the trade deadline -- which was especially obvious in their dominance over the Vikings. Justin Fields is being evaluated, and his performance Monday -- when he created magical plays and also made mistakes -- will give the Bears plenty to think about in the offseason. But Eberflus can prove he is up to the job no matter who the quarterback is if the Bears, and especially the defense, can string together more wins like this down the stretch. 

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