As we all attempt to stave off talking too much about the draft too soon, there’s one topic that’s on everyone’s NFL minds: the coaching changes.
Don Banks put out a pretty decent analysis of the trends in the coaching market; and talked about how this offseason has been weird. Most every writer has at least spent some time on the topic. And now, with all the head coaching positions finally filled, it’s my turn.
Amidst all the talk of how the tried and true methods of finding head coaches were abandoned – looking at former head coaches, picking hotshot coordinators, finding college coaches – is the simple point that there weren’t a lot of great options there.
Most of the hotshot coordinators have been given jobs in the past three years, and they’re running out. The best coordinators left either don’t want a head coaching job at all (Monte Kiffin, Tom Moore) or they want more time as a coordinator before they get in over their heads (Steve Spagnuolo, Jason Garrett).
With the rapid turnover of head coaches recently, ex-coaches are pretty much devoid of success on their resume. They’ve been demoted to coordinator or worse, like Dom Capers, Mike Sherman, and Gregg Williams. Yes, they coached before, but the most recent memory of them is of failure after two or three years’ opportunity to prove themselves. The likes of Jim Fassel, who had a gig for seven years before being fired, are rare, and Fassel was such a failure as a coordinator that there hasn’t been a good reason to pick him off the scrap heap, not even if you’re a football idiot.
Bobby Petrino and Nick Saban have put the final nails in the coffin of the practice of hiring former college head coaches. It was a dying practice already, thanks to Steve Spurrier and a number of other failures, but it’s going to take a real hotshot to make the jump anytime soon.
Here’s my theory. This trend of picking position coaches to head your team – surprise guys with a “clean” resume, as Banks said – is related to another trend: QBs sliding in the draft.
In one of sports journalism’s favorite clichés, the NFL is often referred to as a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” league. The strongest evidence is how quickly fans give up on young QBs as well as the high coaching turnover. Rex Grossman, Joey Harrington, David Carr, Patrick Ramsey, and likely Alex Smith were high draft picks of recent years whose fans said, “Next!” Harrington, Ramsey, and Carr have already changed teams, Grossman will probably be sent away, and Smith looks right now to lose his job to Shaun Hill. Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler could be in trouble they don’t bust out in 2008.
We saw this year that we’ve pretty much run out of quarterbacks. The league is in mini-crisis because there aren’t 32 people capable of quarterbacking a team at the NFL level. Ask any Carolina fan. And the way I see this year’s hiring trends, the same thing is happening to the coaches.
This year, only four teams fired their head coaches, less than half of what took place the past two offseasons. Teams who may have been on the fence, like San Francisco, St. Louis, Carolina, and Kansas City probably looked around and said, “I don’t like our options, we’ll stick with what we have.” Oakland’s Al Davis is a different story altogether. And of course, quarterbacks have been sliding like crazy in the draft. First it was Aaron Rodgers, competing with Alex Smith to be the #1 pick, falling to #23. Then it was Cutler and Leinart, thought once to be top-5-worthy picks, falling to 10th and 11th. Then it was Brady Quinn, presumed franchise QB, falling to 22nd.
So what do these trends have in common? They symbolize a retaliation against “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” And they will help bring that era to an end, I predict.
The fight has already been led by the Giants, triumphing in the Super Bowl, even though the fans were stymied that now-ringed Tom Coughlin wasn’t fired this time last year, and even though they called for future Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning’s head at various points during the season. Patience is a virtue, yeah, we’ve all heard that, but now we actually have some proof. And if Mike Nolan and Alex Smith magically get the 49ers in the playoffs next year, we’ll have more – don’t scoff, it could happen.
Of course, if teams were following the Giants’ model, they’d have hired the likes of Fassel, Brian Billick, and Marty Schottenheimer – guys who have the experience and success but went out on bad terms. That was Coughlin’s situation when he was hired four years ago. Instead they hired no-names; two who are there because they mesh with the owners (Tony Sparano and Mike Smith) and two who are there because they’re expected to be liked by the players (Jim Zorn and John Harbaugh). And here’s what they all have in common: low expectations. Are any of these fans going to throw a fit if their team finishes 5-11 next year? Dolphins and Falcons fans would be happy with it, Ravens fans would accept it, and Redskins fans would direct their ire towards Snyder as always, not Zorn. If consistent improvement of any degree is shown, I don’t see any of these guys getting fired in the next three years. Although with a 1- or 2- win season, they might bite the dust as soon as next year.
Similarly with quarterbacks – who’s the favorite in Chicago, Orton, Griese, or Grossman? Clearly Orton. And his track record is only slightly better – his main advantage is that expectations were so low, and by winning more games than he loses, he outperforms them. This is also why Shaun Hill is the front-runner in San Francisco. And maybe it has less to do with expectations and more to do with money – if a guy’s going to pass or coach at a mediocre level, he’d better not be getting paid top dollar. But the principle’s the same.
So I’m thinking owners and general managers are realizing they have to find a way to give coaches and quarterbacks time to develop. If you bring in a high-profile kind of guy, expectations will soar, and your fans will get antsy. If you spend that first-round pick on a defensive lineman and wait until the second round to get your passer, fans won’t mind that it takes a few years before the guy’s ready to start. They’ll be angry at you for letting Brady Quinn slip past you, until he holds out for all of training camp and gives his team headaches. Meanwhile your guy is racking up tackles and the fans are happy, even though your offense isn’t ready for the big time. So that’s the quarterback problem solved.
For coaches, the trend now is that if you take someone they’ve never heard of to be your coach, they’ll assume the team will tank. And when you pull off 6-10, they’ll say “All right, we’ll give him another year.” Then you’re 7-9, and it’s “You know, I kind of like this guy.” Then you’re in the playoff hunt, and you’ve built up continuity, and all is well.
That, I think is the plan of Arthur Blank, Ozzie Newsome, and Bill Parcells (Dan Snyder’s plan is to go smoke a few 100-dollar bills). Will it work? Who knows? But I’m all about trying something new, because the old way wasn’t working anymore.