Once you hear whispers about a head coach's job security, must-win mandates or changes to his coaching staff, teams may already have contingency plans in place.
In the NFL, the honeymoon period for head coaches doesn't last long. After the first year, which is usually a teardown period, a new regime needs to show some progress.
Sometimes, a staff has to develop a young quarterback, which would put the franchise on the right track for the short- and long-term future. The front office may hire a head coach to push a veteran team over the hump and into the playoffs. Long-tenured lead skippers must keep their messaging fresh or risk losing the locker room.
Whatever the case, a handful of coaches may feel pressure to produce tangible results early in the season, especially after tough losses or a slow start.
We'll profile five head coaches who are already on the hot seat because of some early-season inconsistencies coupled with the weight of high expectations or the need to fulfill a specific objective such as quarterback development. Based on the criteria, this list doesn't include coaches of undefeated teams.
Joe Judge, New York Giants
New York Giants owner John Mara feels the heat from fans. When a reporter asked if general manager Dave Gettleman faces a must-win season, Mara put the responsibility on everyone to deliver better results.
"We're all on the hot seat, with our fans in particular," he said. "We've given them too many losing seasons. It's time for us to start winning."
Though the reporter asked about Gettleman, head coach Joe Judge should feel some pressure as well.
The Giants swung for the fences in free agency, signing wideout Kenny Golladay (four years, $72 million) and cornerback Adoree' Jackson (three years, $39 million) to big-money deals. The club also retained defensive end Leonard Williams on a three-year, $63 million extension.
With costly roster investments on proven players and quarterback Daniel Jones in his third term, the Giants should have enough talent to end their streak of four consecutive losing seasons, yet they're off to a troubling start.
New York remains winless through three weeks and lost its last two outings on the final play of regulation. In Week 2, cameras caught Golladay shouting on the sideline. The wideout confirmed that he had words for offensive coordinator Jason Garrett instead of Jones, but he brushed it off as "literally nothing."
With a 6-13 record in his third year as Big Blue's head coach, Judge must lead the Giants to a winning season. If not, Mara may have to wave goodbye to him, Jones and Gettleman.
Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys
Usually head coaches have at least two full seasons to move a team in the right direction before they feel the warmth of their seats.
The Dallas Cowboys have operated with urgency. After a 6-10 season in which the team gave up the most points in franchise history (473), head coach Mike McCarthy dropped defensive coordinator Mike Nolan from his staff.
While Nolan's exit made sense, McCarthy could follow behind him in the near future.
The Cowboys have the best quarterback in the NFC East with Dak Prescott, whom the team signed to a four-year, $160 million extension this past offseason. He has a talented trio of wideouts in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, who's currently on short-term injured reserve.
With new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and an explosive offense, Dallas narrowly escaped a 0-2 start thanks to Greg Zuerlein's game-winning 56-yard field goal that propelled the Cowboys to a 20-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. If not for that kick, McCarthy would've likely had to answer for his questionable clock management at the end of that game.
With one of the highest-paid players at the most important position, the Cowboys would have to look at this season as a disappointment if they're unable to win the NFC East against quarterbacks Jalen Hurts, Taylor Heinicke and Daniel Jones, all of whom are in prove-it stages with their respective teams in the division. In the event that happens, owner Jerry Jones may need a new head coach to lead this team back to the playoffs.
Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears
Matt Nagy still has another year left on his deal. Despite two playoff appearances in the last three years, the Chicago Bears head coach has to check off an objective that's crucial to the future of the franchise: He must foster an environment that allows rookie quarterback Justin Fields to improve in his early developmental stages.
Days after the Bears' 2020 campaign came to an end, chairman George McCaskey set the table for the 2021 season. Though he chose to keep general manager Ryan Pace and Nagy, he specifically called for "better production from the quarterback position."
The Bears allowed Mitchell Trubisky to walk in free agency, signed Andy Dalton and moved up nine spots in the draft to take Fields.
Throughout the offseason, Nagy continuously tabbed Dalton as the starter, but the veteran signal-caller suffered a bone bruise last week, which sidelined him for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.
Fields had a rough first start, completing just six of 20 passes for 68 yards while being sacked nine times. Even more concerning, Nagy garnered criticism for his play-calling throughout the game. Chicago only recorded four first downs without help from a penalty.
Though we should expect Fields to go through early rough patches, Nagy needs him to make some sort of progress before Dalton reclaims his starting job. If not, McCaskey may search for a new head coach and play-caller to develop the future of the franchise.
Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals' Week 3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers isn't enough to cool Zac Taylor's hot seat.
Don't let Marvin Lewis' 16-year run with the Bengals fool you into thinking this club will remain patient through three consecutive losing seasons with Taylor. Though it seems the organization doesn't make decisions in haste, Hall of Famer (and former Bengal) Anthony Munoz said during an appearance on ESPN Radio that he believes the club's lead skipper belongs on the hot seat (h/t SI.com's James Rapien):
"I would think he is on the hot seat because he has his own guys now. I mentioned very few guys from the old regime are still here. Maybe with a little change in management. You have Katie and Troy Blackburn I think taking a little more control. Mike Brown's still there, but maybe their attitudes are a little different with getting rid of guys a little sooner. I would have a tendency with the expectations of the fans, the community, that might put a little pressure on them.”
As the Bengals head coach, Taylor has an 8-26-1 record with two fourth-place finishes in the AFC North. He has a talented offense that features last year's No. 1 overall pick in quarterback Joe Burrow, rookie first-round wideout Ja'Marr Chase, promising second-year receiver Tee Higgins and proven veterans such as wideout Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon.
The Bengals are averaging 22.7 points per game, ranking 17th in the league. They've failed to accumulate 270 total yards in either of their last two outings.
Taylor has to unlock the full potential of an offense that's good enough to move the ball at a more efficient pace even against stout defenses. If he doesn't, the Bengals could backslide in the standings after a 2-1 start.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
Over the past three years, Mike Zimmer has twice failed to lead the Minnesota Vikings to a winning season. Despite a solid win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, he's 1-2 with another tough game to play against the Cleveland Browns next week.
Minnesota's slow start doesn't open the discussion about Zimmer's job security; these losses amplify the background chatter. As Michael Rand of the Star Tribune noted, the Vikings head coach went into the season with questions about his future.
"The question of his job security is not a new one. It was a question coming into the year, and it has been whispered about during previous disappointing seasons," Rand wrote. "But this one is different: Year 8, coming off a playoff-less 2020 season, with an aging roster full of short-term defensive commitments, 2021 feels urgent."
As a head coach with expertise in defense, Zimmer has to once again explain why his team gives up a lot of points. Last December, he called the Vikings' 2020 defensive unit the worst of his career. Well, this year's group isn't much better. Minnesota has allowed 26.0 points per game through the first three weeks, a slight improvement from 29.7 points per contest last season.
If the Vikings fall out of the playoff race with another porous defense, Zimmer probably won't coach a ninth year in Minnesota.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.