As a coach, it helps to have a track record of success, and a Super Bowl ring or two. That's why guys like Tom Coughlin, Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin probably won't be fired, unless something screwy happens like a change in ownership.
Essentially, these guys are set up to coach as long as they'd like.
It also helps to come into a relatively stable situation, with an owner who knows that his job is to sign the checks and let the football guys make the football decisions. Similarly, this is one of the reasons why, even though they haven't won a Super Bowl, Jim and John Harbaugh are likely going to have more authority than your average coach.
When it comes to granting the benefit of the doubt, we've ranked all 32 NFL coaches in order of who gets the most leeway. It's important to note that these aren't necessarily coaching power rankings. Instead, it's a look at where coaches rank when it comes to how much latitude they enjoy from fans, media, players and owners, as well as the overall job security they have managed to accrue with their current employers.
Tom Coughlin, New York Giants: The only guy who might have more leeway than Belichick -- winning a pair of Super Bowls can buy you that sort of goodwill when it comes to a fan base that has a notoriously short memory. In fact, Coughlin can get away with things that would render other coaches guilty in the court of public opinion -- like having his starting quarterback throw for the end zone late in the fourth quarter, while his team was up by 28. (See Sunday's win over the Packers for more on that.)
Bill Belichick, Patriots: Like Coughlin, his three Super Bowls have given him carte blanche, particularly with his employers. His coaching style has been puzzled over -- including the fact that he's been raked over the coals for running up the score and leaving his starters in late in games -- but he remains consistent in his approach,which has brought a run of success that most teams and coaches would envy. While there's a yearly clamoring for him to draft more pass rushers and/or field-stretching wide receivers, "In Bill We Trust" remains the mantra.
John Harbaugh, Ravens: Has managed to keep the Ravens relevant, despite the fact that they have a rapidly aging defense and a quarterback that has apparently hit his ceiling. Respected among players, media and fans (even moreso by his players after a reported post-bye meeting with them produced some difficult moments), he's the sort of coach who -- barring some unforeseen incident -- could be in the job in Baltimore for the next 20 years if he so chooses.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers: Pittsburgh is as stable a franchise as they come, which provides Tomlin with more benefit of the doubt than most coaches, even if you go through a difficult season. He's also won a Super Bowl and a pair of AFC championships, which helps.
Jim Harbaugh, 49ers: The least-senior member of our exclusive club, there's no doubt that he's earned a place in this group in a remarkably short time. His fast start and early success have allowed him to gain the benefit of the doubt from fans, players and the media. It will be interesting to see what happens to his public approval rating in the wake of his decision to tie his wagon to Colin Kaepernick instead of Alex Smith (at least for the foreseeable future).
Mike McCarthy, Packers: Has a good working relationship with his star quarterback and GM, and already has one Super Bowl ring. The job is his for the losing.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Mike Shanahan, Redskins: Built a reservoir of goodwill when he was in Denver with the Broncos where he won a pair of titles, but has struggled at times to replace that magic while in D.C. He gets points for showing some understanding when it comes to working with a rookie quarterback -- instead of forcing his system on RGIII, he's allowed for a smooth transition for his excellent young quarterback by bringing many aspects of the same offense he ran as a collegian to the Redskins.
John Fox, Broncos: Looked like he was in danger of being minimized after Tim Tebow shocked the Broncos' braintrust with a late-season run (much to his relative surprise), but he's clearly back in control of the Broncos, who look like they could be dangerous this season. Appears to be on the same page personnel-wise with new boss John Elway and quarterback Peyton Manning. Unless something screwy happens, he should be in this job for the foreseeable future.
Gary Kubiak, Texans: Considered a coach on the hot seat the last few seasons, Kubiak has done a nice job taking Houston to the next level -- that is to say, likely one of two top seeds in the AFC. Now, he'll be measured by how far he gets his team in January. If he does make it to the final four, he will graduate to the next level.
Mike Smith, Falcons: He's had very good success over the last few regular seasons, but now -- like Kubiak in Houston -- he will likely be judged by what he team accomplishes in the postseason.
Jeff Fisher, Rams: He built an impressive resume while with the Titans -- and almost knocked off the Rams in the Super Bowl -- but his young and aggressive Rams are a work in progress. Clearly has a wide berth when it comes to rebuilding in St. Louis, as the ownership group has allowed him to take some gambles in free agency and the draft on some players with questionable backgrounds -- moves that other head coaches probably couldn't get away with.
Pete Carroll, Seahawks: Carroll has a whopping contract from his owner, the backing of the locker room and a rabid fan base. Now, all he has to do is string together back-to-back seasons over .500, and he should be able to validate all of their expectations.
Marvin Lewis, Bengals: When it comes to Lewis and the Bengals, all bets are off. Who knows? It's strange to consider that with all that Lewis and the Bengals have been through together, he's one of the longest-tenured coaches in the league, currently in his 11th season with Cincinnati. As a result of the ownerships hands-off philosophy, he probably gets more of the benefit of the doubt than he deserves, but his lack of postseason success is what has him at this spot on the list.
Lovie Smith, Bears: While his fortunes are attached to quarterback Jay Cutler and a defense that is dominant at times, he could start to feel the heat this season if the Bears don't make a postseason run.
Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals: Whisenhunt had a really good three-year run to start his career in Arizona (including a loss in Super Bowl XLIII to the Steelers), but since then, the Cards have struggled. It will be interesting to see what happens if Arizona fiishes with another sub-.500 record again this season.
Greg Schiano, Bucanneers: For a rookie coach, he's been granted a pretty wide berth when it comes to making over his franchise. And even though it's only been 11 games, it's clear things have turned around for the Bucs. If things continue to improve, look for his role to grow in Tampa Bay, and for him to gain more power as a result.
Jim Schwartz, Lions: Despite the fact that he got the Lions to the postseason in 2010, it's a key stretch for the former Belichick assistant, who appears to be in danger of losing a young team that could careen out of control of things don't get reeled in. He's facing a key offseason -- if that team doesn't get some quality veterans who can mature that locker room sooner rather than later, Schwartz could find himself out of a job.
Joe Philbin, Dolphins: Philbin doesn't have a collection of world-beaters, but after a brutal offseason where Miami was spurned by just about every veteran quarterback other than Shane Falco, he has them playing competitive football. If the Dolphins somehow finish about .500, Philbin will get more of the benefit of the doubt down the road -- that is, as long as his ownership remains patient with Miami's rebuilding process.
TEETERING ON THE BRINK
Leslie Frazier, Vikings: Probably deserves to be higher on this list because he's done well with a roster that's lacking in a few key areas and young in some other spots, but let's face it: If/when things do go south for Minnesota, Frazier is going to be the first guy to go.
Rex Ryan, New York Jets: Rex believes he'll be back next season, but there's a real school of thought that says the embarrassing Thanksgiving night loss to the Patriots will force owner Woody Johnson to make a change and jettison Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum. There remains a slim chance that even if Tannebaum does get fired, Ryan might have one year left to turn things around. But even after two AFC title games, things have regressed to a point where Ryan no longer gets much of the benefit of the doubt in New York.
Mike Munchak, Titans: It seems like another lifetime ago when the Titans had the stability that someone like Jeff Fisher brought to the job. Munchak is in the last year of his contract, and recently changed offensive coordinators in what might be a last ditch effort to save his season. Not a good sign.
Dennis Allen, Raiders: Like Lewis in Cincinnati, all bets are off when you're coaching the Raiders. (The uncertainty is the only reason he's not lower.) Allen could take this team to the postseason and still get fired.
Chan Gailey, Bills: The only reason he's here and not in the final group is that he's already received the public backing of his GM. Now, if the owner fired the GM, it would be another matter altogether.
SHOULDN'T BUY GREEN BANANAS
Ron Rivera, Panthers: There are a few bright spots there, but it's been mostly been a struggle for Rivera in his second season in Carolina. While Rivera might be spared at the end of this season, don't look for him to be with the Panthers long term.
Mike Mularkey, Jaguars: It's not so much Mularkey's fault -- he's actually had a very nice track record as a coordinator and position coach. It's just that the 2-9 Jags appear to be not going anywhere on his
Jason Garrett, Cowboys: No surprise at all here, as the Cowboys are finding new and exciting ways to lose games this season.
Pat Shurmur, Browns: Another sub-.500 record and a change of ownership means that Shurmur will likely be out the door sooner rather than later.
Andy Reid, Eagles: On his way out the door. A sad end to a once-impressive coaching career. Reid never won a Super Bowl, but his ability to keep the Eagles playing at a high level over an extended stretch is worth noting.
Norv Turner, Chargers: No chance he comes back in 2013.
Romeo Crennel, Chiefs: It's a shame, because when he worked as a defensive coordinator in New England, those of us who covered the team knew Crennel as a wise and intelligent guy. But with Kansas City imploding, there's little chance he returns in 2013.
Not Listed: Chuck Pagano, Colts; Sean Payton, Saints. Both of these are unique situations -- Pagano has spent the bulk of the season away from the team as he undergoes treatment for leukemia, while Payton is currently serving a season-long suspension for his role in Bountygate.