Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 3/22/12
So the 2012 New Orleans Saints will have to play an entire season without head coach Sean Payton.  The Super Bowl XLIV champions will still have superstar QB Drew Brees and a potent offense, but it remains to be seen how the team will be affected by the coach’s absence.
 
Which brings me to the question of the day:  excluding New Orleans, which other NFL teams could least afford to lose their coach for this upcoming season?
 
It’s not necessarily a question about who the best coaches in the league are; for example, for one season I believe the Pittsburgh Steelers could survive without Mike Tomlin mainly because of the veteran presence of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley.  Plus, the Steelers are a team loaded with veterans.  That in no way means Tomlin is a bad coach – I think he’s done a phenomenal job in Pittsburgh (four division titles, two Super Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl win in five seasons).
 
FIVE TEAMS THAT MOST NEED THEIR HEAD COACH IN 2012

5.  Atlanta Falcons / Mike Smith
The Falcons have a solid second-line of coaches behind Smith, including defensive coordinator (and former NFL head coach) Mike Nolan.  But as QB Matt Ryan tries to make the leap from good to great, stability is important.  After a dip in production his sophomore campaign, Ryan’s numbers have improved each of the past two seasons.  What Ryan – as well as Smith and the entire team – needs to take that next step up is success in the playoffs.  Losing Smith for an entire season would put a serious damper on any thoughts of a deep playoff run in 2012.

4.  Cincinnati Bengals / Marvin Lewis
Even though it seems that Lewis has been on the hot seat every season in recent years, with the progress that the Bengals made last season, it would be a major setback if they had to survive without Lewis for a season.  It appears that Cincinnati has its QB of the future (Andy Dalton), along with some young playmakers (namely A.J. Green) – and consistency and stability is important for those young players as they continue to develop.

3.  Arizona Cardinals / Ken Whisenhunt
Despite the fact that the Cardinals underperformed in 2011, Whisenhunt is still vital to the franchise.  Whisenhunt and his staff are in the process of trying to get the offense in synch behind (highly paid) QB Kevin Kolb, and a year without Whisenhunt would definitely hinder any progress.  It’s likely assistant head coach Russ Grimm would get the chance to lead the team in Whisenhunt’s absence, but it would be his first head coaching opportunity.

2.  St. Louis Rams / Jeff Fisher
Even though he has yet to coach a regular-season game for the Rams, the franchise desperately needs the stability and experience that Fisher will bring.  He was the top available coach on the open market, and St. Louis was able to secure his services (for the right price, of course).  If he were to miss this season, a Rams franchise that is trying so hard to turn the corner would be left high and dry for one more year – especially considering defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been suspended indefinitely for his role in BountyGate.

1.  San Francisco 49ers / Jim Harbaugh
The 49ers were a mess in the years before Harbaugh arrived, but he immediately turned them into a title contender.  He guided the team to a 13-3 regular season record last year, and perhaps just as importantly, turned Alex Smith into an above-average QB.  It feels like the progress that was made in 2011 would all disappear if Harbaugh had to miss a season. 

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