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NFL coaching carousel nuggets: Everything we’ve heard on potential openings

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NFL coaching carousel news? Already? Week 6 just ended. Can’t we let this season breathe a little bit?

Ahhh … no. In case you haven’t been paying attention, two head coaches (and two general managers) have already been fired. At least three more head coaches appear to be on thin ice. We’re coming up on the midway point of the regular season, and there’s no use pretending this stuff isn’t going to happen, because it has already started.

The two coaches who have been fired so far — Houston’s Bill O’Brien and Atlanta’s Dan Quinn — have a combined 100 wins, including the playoffs. Knowing that, there are very few coaches who have a right to feel completely safe — especially with so much time left in the season.

Which is why, no, it’s not too early for informed coaching buzz, talk of buyout clauses, interim labels and coach-GM dysfunction. And it’s never too early to look ahead to the next crop of candidates.

So we’ve been calling and texting NFL folks in the know, taking a look around the league at what does and doesn’t make sense, in order to provide you with a list of coaching-related notes to prepare you for the inevitable chaos to come. Enjoy.

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Next wave of NFL coaching candidates

The weirdness of the COVID-19 season isn’t going to save any jobs

The 2021 salary cap is going to drop as a result of COVID-19-related revenue losses, but coaches don’t count against the cap. That’s why an industry source gave a simple reply when asked if teams might keep coaches to save costs: “NBA.” If Doc Rivers can get fired after a short, financially strapped season, so can big-name NFL coaches.

Expect up to three more NFL head-coach openings by season’s end and possibly a few more in the offseason. Last year’s total of five head-coaching changes was the fewest since the 2009-10 cycle, when only three teams changed. But that was coming off a historic 2008-09 in which 11 teams changed coaches. And the following cycle, in 2010-11, eight teams changed.

History tells us the fact that there were only five openings last year means the market will overcorrect, and that there should be a lot more this year.


Industry sources are certain Eric Bieniemy will get one of these jobs

The Chiefs’ offensive coordinator has been on the head-coach interview circuit the past couple of years but hasn’t managed to get one of the jobs. His contract expires at the end of the season. The Chiefs would love to have him back, but they know he’s probably gone.

Houston definitely has interest, and some believe Bieniemy could already be the front-runner there. Roster talent, quarterback and organizational structure will be important to him, and the Texans can offer that, with the willingness to tie a new general manager to the coach. Bieniemy is the marquee Rooney Rule candidate in a year with revamped rules to amplify Black coaches. He’s far from the only qualified coordinator or assistant coach. Hiring Bieniemy should be the floor for diversity hiring this year.

Josh McDaniels looms large once again

Former Patriots executive Jack Easterby, who ironically was brought into the Houston organization by O’Brien, has massive influence in that organization right now and is likely to direct both hires. That has fueled some speculation of a Nick Caserio/Josh McDaniels pairing in Houston, but McDaniels still carries some baggage from the Indianapolis fiasco of a couple of years ago.

McDaniels is a guy on whom you’d have to sell ownership if you wanted to hire him, which we aren’t even sure Easterby does. Easterby and McDaniels did have a relationship when in New England together, so the connection is worth watching. And winning with Cam Newton at quarterback the season after Tom Brady left would remind everybody why McDaniels is so well regarded as an offensive mind in the first place.


Is Gase long for New York?

Someone involved in the shaky Adam Gase-Jets marriage says his job has not been considered a “week-to-week thing” internally. That might not matter, as change seems inevitable, but it could happen later than many expect.

One league exec pointed out that the Jets might even be better off letting Gase finish out the misery over 16 games, for a few reasons: This isn’t a roster that will ignite a winning streak anyway, a mini-tank might aid quarterback positioning in the 2021 NFL draft (though players and coaches never go for that), and the only natural interim option would be defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose relationship with the current staff appears tenuous.

Williams went 5-3 as Cleveland’s interim coach in 2018, but that team had hope. This team has upheaval. The Jets are hoping to show some semblance of offense with the returns of rookie second-round pick Denzel Mims, third-year quarterback Sam Darnold and free-agent acquisition Breshad Perriman, who played in Week 6 and caught four passes for 62 yards. But that’s all wishful thinking, as many in the league have lost faith in a coach who has well-documented problems with some of his players.


There could be several GM openings, too

As we mentioned, the Texans and Falcons jobs are already open. Industry sources are watching the Panthers and Giants for potential openings, and some believe Washington will hire a general manager at some point as well.

What’s interesting about this is the way teams decide to pair up the two positions. The Giants, for example, have always instituted a strict separation of powers between the GM and the head coach, but they’re in this awful cycle right now in which they always seem to be replacing one or the other. They fired coach Tom Coughlin after the 2015 season but kept GM Jerry Reese. They fired Reese and coach Ben McAdoo during the 2017 season, hired GM Dave Gettleman months before hiring coach Pat Shurmur, fired Shurmur after two years and are widely expected to fire Gettleman after this year.

Do they stick with the “Giant Way?” Or do they think about matching up new coach Joe Judge with a GM they know he can work with? Teams such as the Bills and 49ers are having success in situations in which they picked the coach first and matched him up with a GM with whom he already had a strong relationship. That could become the trend, in which case the coach hires might take on more importance than the GM ones.

As for GM candidates? The names you hear include:

  • Caserio, the longtime Patriots exec whose new contract, per sources, allows him to leave whenever he wants to.

  • Eliot Wolf (the son of former NFL GM Ron Wolf), who’s now working with Caserio in New England after stints with the Packers and Browns. He is still on teams’ lists.

  • Vikings assistant GM George Paton, who some believe would leave Minnesota for the right opportunity. He got a long look from the Browns last year but decided to stay put.

  • Usual suspects from the Seattle front office, Scott Fitterer and Trent Kirchner. Veteran personnel man Alonzo Highsmith, also with the Seahawks, helped build talented rosters in Green Bay and Cleveland, along with Wolf.

  • Bills assistant GM Joe Schoen, Chiefs director of football operations Mike Borgonzi, Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds and Bucs director of player personnel John Spytek.

The key here is to watch the winning organizations. Those are the ones from which other teams like to find coaching and GM talent.


The Broncos are a team to watch … maybe

We’ve talked to a few people who believe coach Vic Fangio will get a third year in part due to all the injuries the Broncos have suffered. His team seems to have fight, which is a good sign, though that 29th-ranked total offense needs to improve.

If things were really to go south in Denver, it’s not crazy to imagine a total overhaul, with Broncos legend and general manager John Elway potentially even getting the boot and the team bringing in a new GM/coach combo. But the idea of the Broncos firing John Elway still just seems tough to believe, doesn’t it?


An audition in Atlanta?

The Falcons like interim coach Raheem Morris a great deal. They know he helped the defense rebound late last season, and they believe he has the demeanor for a head-coaching job. They’ve helped re-groom him in a way, as he has coached both sides of the ball since he has been there. And he does have long-ago head-coaching experience from Tampa Bay when he was very young — he went 17-31 from 2009 to 2011. All of that said, he’d need quite the impressive 11-game stretch to win the job, and he knows it. The odds seem stacked against him.

Atlanta is not the appealing job it was two years ago, however. This has the makings of a near-complete teardown, with some people around the league openly wondering whether quarterback Matt Ryan or even wide receiver Julio Jones will be shopped at the Nov. 3 trade deadline (their contracts would make that extremely difficult). Plus, it’s difficult to name five impact players on that defense without Google.

The feeling around the league is that Atlanta probably won’t use a search firm, as Houston is doing with Jed Hughes. Team owner Arthur Blank and president Rich McKay will conduct the coach and GM searches.


Hot seats in Detroit

Detroit is feeling the heat internally. People there know the coaching staff must make a spirited push, with the Week 6 victory over Jacksonville easing tension temporarily. Lions brass wants to see the Matt Patricia era work, but Detroit’s propensity for relinquishing leads has become a big concern.

Patricia and GM Bob Quinn entered this season knowing they likely had to win to keep their jobs, and they’re 2-3 so far. Quinn and Patricia were a promising pair with New England’s championship pedigree. Quinn, the former Patriots director of pro scouting, helped hire Patricia, then the Patriots’ defensive coordinator, in 2018. That synergy has helped both sides stay united on personnel decisions, but synergy doesn’t matter much when the record is 10-25-1 together. Maybe it will start to pay off in the next few weeks.


Is Jacksonville a sneaky-good job?

Many potential coaches look at it as one. The Jaguars’ roster is already stripped down but has young talent in spots, not many bloated contracts and 10 draft picks and counting in 2021, including a shot at the No. 1 pick.

Should Doug Marrone get fired before the season ends — he’s 23-33 over four-plus seasons in Jacksonville — it’s not out of the question that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden could ascend to the interim spot and, depending on how the season goes, get the job full time. But that’s a lot of “if”s and “depending”s.


Saving jobs in Chicago?

The Bears are 5-1, somehow, and a run to the playoffs could spare not only coach Matt Nagy but also GM Ryan Pace, in spite of the disastrous outcome of the Mitchell Trubisky pick. Most people to whom we’ve talked think the Nagy/Pace pairing gets another year at least, which means another shot to try to solve the quarterback situation there.

The way the Bears are playing, they aren’t going to have a very high pick with which to do it.


Is Anthony Lynn safe in L.A.?

While the Chargers appear headed for another disappointing season, the feeling around the league is that Lynn will get more time … for now. The organization loves Lynn, and he hasn’t lost the locker room.

He’s 3-13 the past two years in games decided by seven points or fewer, however. A second consecutive season as a noncontender could force the organization’s hand, especially as it tries to drum up interest from the Los Angeles fan base.

The emergence of rookie quarterback Justin Herbert could buy Lynn time. Herbert has flashed star potential through four starts and has a good rhythm with offensive coordinator Shane Steichen. The Chargers might not want to disrupt that.


Could Joe Burrow be playing for someone else in Cincy?

At 3-18-1 so far, second-year coach Zac Taylor hasn’t impressed, but he came in with little experience and plenty of roster holes, and you have to think the historically patient Bengals were and are willing to live with his growing pains. That said, everything is about rookie quarterback Burrow now. And if the franchise gets to the end of the season and decides Taylor isn’t the guy to shepherd Burrow to long-term NFL success, it absolutely could look elsewhere.

The Bengals seem to be in every game, but they don’t win many of them. Taylor’s offense has helped Burrow put up solid counting stats (1,617 passing yards, sixth in the NFL), but Burrow is on pace to be sacked 64 times and his 50.1 Total QBR ranks 26th in the league. Taylor must get it fixed by season’s end.


There’s always a surprise …

Everybody you talk to about this stuff says that, every year. “There’s always a surprise.” And if we knew where the surprises would come from … well, they wouldn’t be surprises. But look at a situation such as Minnesota, where well-regarded coach Mike Zimmer is in his seventh season, won a road playoff game last season and just had his contract extended through 2023.

There’s no indication from anyone reliable that Zimmer is in any immediate trouble. But he is 1-5 with a team that had playoff aspirations and has a ton of money sunk into its quarterback. If things continue to go this badly, the extension isn’t likely to keep him safe.

Put Minnesota on your back-burner watch list, along with long-shot possibilities such as the Cowboys giving up on Mike McCarthy after only one year, or Bill Belichick retiring in New England. No concrete reason to expect it as of now, other than weird things happen.


Who’s got next? Candidates for head-coach openings

OK, you want to know who the candidates are going to be for these openings. We’ve already addressed Bieniemy, who seems the most likely hire. After that, there’s a good bit of buzz around Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who’s likely to get multiple interviews. One big reason why? He’s good at what Kyle Shanahan is good at — creating explosive plays without a dominant quarterback. Only Dallas is producing more yards per game than Tennessee’s 422, despite the Titans ranking 11th in passing offense. Should Smith leave, Bill O’Brien, who gave Mike Vrabel his first NFL coaching job, could be a favorite to join Vrabel’s staff as offensive coordinator if that’s what he wants. O’Brien also could turn out to be the head-coach apple of some team’s eye, be it an NFL team or a college team.

Others on the lists you get when you ask about potential head-coach candidates include Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer (word is the Seattle culture has been good for him, and convincing Pete Carroll to “Let Russ Cook” has been no small accomplishment), Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and, as usual, McDaniels.

It can be tough for defensive coaches to get traction in head-coaching interview circles, but a couple of defensive coordinators to watch include San Francisco’s Robert Saleh and a list of former head coaches: Buffalo’s Leslie Frazier, New Orleans’ Dennis Allen, Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles and, if the Chiefs were to win again, maybe even Kansas City’s Steve Spagnuolo.

Saints assistant Dan Campbell has some head-coaching experience and would like another shot, and some teams have him on their radar. 49ers offensive assistants Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel are names of interest. Guys working behind hot coordinators such as Bieniemy and Roman also could get interviews, which means you look at prospects such as Chiefs assistant (and longtime Andy Reid favorite) Mike Kafka as well as Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban.

Remember, this is a list made before Week 7. A lot can still happen. Some of the guys whose prospects look good now can fade if their teams struggle. Some we don’t know about could jump into the mix. (Who will be this year’s Joe Judge?) But this should at least give you a taste of whom to watch as this talk continues to heat up.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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