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EACH OF THE 32 men who began this NFL season as a head coach still holds the job, and it's not because all 32 bosses are happy.

It's because the unhappy bosses are caught in an intrapersonal power struggle.

On one hand, they want to be associated with winning franchises.

On the other hand, they feel more obligated than ever to limit expenses.

And, so far, the more powerful hand has been the one on the checkbook.

Head coaches in charge of bad NFL teams are among the few employees in America who actually stand to benefit from sluggish economic conditions. They're much less likely to be fired abruptly when ownership is nervous about the profit margin.

That is, as long as those coaches don't leave themselves vulnerable to be axed "for cause."

When the Raiders say they are investigating domestic abuse allegations made by an ex-wife and former girlfriend of coach Tom Cable, it's OK to interpret that to mean they're evaluating the legal ramifications of whacking him without having to cut a check.

That Cable may be the lowest-paid head coach in the NFL is of less consequence when Raiders boss Al Davis already has to contend with overpaid players, declining attendance and the likelihood of local TV blackouts for the rest of the season.

Even Washington owner Daniel Snyder, who can spend money while sitting in a closet — and also fire employees while napping — is hanging on to a coach, Jim Zorn, even though Zorn's body has been moved to a different part of the building than his head.

By this time last season, even though the economic picture was bleak, three coaches had been fired, including Lane Kiffin of the Raiders and Mike Nolan of the 49ers. Insofar as Nolan was in the fourth year of a five-year deal worth a reported $8.5 million, his farewell boot was filled with gold. Hey, old firing habits evidently die hard.

Kiffin, by contrast, will have to fight to see another penny from his former boss. Though Davis knew months before the season opener that he was going to dump the coach, he waited until he felt justified in doing so for cause.

Translation: Davis didn't want to pay a coach whose key he had taken.

Other translation: Al was willing to lose a few games on the field if it meant winning the war against paying someone to do nothing.

Suddenly, on came the lights for everybody. As bottom lines continued to shrink, as wealthy NFL owners accepted the reality of an epic financial crisis, the thought of giving someone millions to go away became harder to accept.

That's partly why Zorn (2-5) remains on the job, though with severely diminished authority. It helps explain Buffalo's continued support of Dick Jauron (3-5, one winning record in nine seasons as a head coach) and Cleveland's unwillingness to shed Eric Mangini (1-7), despite indications he annoys 90 percent of those around him.

Yet it is evident Browns owner Randy Lerner wants to take action, as he on Monday fired general manager George Kokinis, who was halfway through his first season and had been recruited by his former roommate, Mangini. Kokinis is the second front office official to get tossed, following Erin O'Brien, Mangini's hand-picked director of team operations.

Why is Mangini safe? Partly because he's good at rubbing Lerner's ego but mostly because he's in the first year of a four-year deal worth almost $10 million.

It's not that Lerner accepts losing. It's that his checkbook hand won't let him fire the coach. It is rumored that Lerner is pursuing a "for cause" case for firing Kokinis.

So first-year coaches such as Mangini, Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris (0-7), Kansas City's Todd Haley (1-6), Detroit's Jim Schwartz (1-6) and St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo (1-7) should consider themselves safe. As long as they don't break rules or commit crimes or violate policy or a character clause, it's too costly to cut them, no matter the record.

Let it be said, too, that this economy also works against such accomplished but unemployed coaches as Mike Shanahan, Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden — each of whom would command a high-end salary.

Though there are many reasons to resist changing coaches during the season — one research study revealed no interim coach in the post-merger era has led a team to the playoffs — that hasn't stopped owners in the past.

It's not stopping them now, either. What's stopping them is the idea of paying a guy who isn't working.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.