Sunday, January 10, 2010

Coaching Carousel or Wheel of Death? Why NFL Owners Have the Attention Span of a Goldfish and the Patience of a Spoiled Teenager


The NFL regular season has only just ended, the playoffs are only just begun and yet already there are ‘end of the year’ coaching casualties. Of course, more are still to come. No matter how much NFL owners may protest this fact, the idea that they think only in the short term is as true as ever. This is nothing new, as all I need to do is turn on ESPN’s First Take to hear Skip Bayless spout the famous cliché ‘what have you done for me lately?’ in his typically hyper-intense way.

To me, this highlights the increasingly obvious contradiction in how NFL organizations are run with how they should be run. Try to ignore the usual BS emanating from Redskin’s owner Daniel Snyder’s mouth (among other NFL owners) about how they’re trying to build for longevity or whatever other slogan is fashionable to them in the moment. It’s all a bunch of crap.

The Al Davis Jerry Jones Syndrome

The simple fact is that far too often NFL teams will look at their record, recognize that they suck, fire their current coach, hire a new coach who is saddled with the same crappy team and then expect him work a miracle in one or two years. Statistics support this. In every year of the last decade, nearly one quarter of all NFL coaches are fired every season. In reality, how many of those were truly given a legitimate chance to succeed? In theory, every name on the ‘fired’ list could be debated on whether they were gifted proper opportunity, but there are a couple of bedrock facts to help determine this.

First in a discussion over coaching survival chances are NFL teams like the Cowboys and Raiders. Both are owned by absolutist monarchs, bent on first maximizing their own popularity and then the success of their team (in that order). This they attempt at any cost, causing many predictable problems. Jerry Jones pushed for Terrell Owens, choosing to overlook the fact that any team whose top receiver overshadows the starting quarterback will consistently fail to win a Super Bowl. Al Davis continues to believe that raw athleticism is the most important measuring stick for NFL talent (just look at the selection of Darrius Heyward-Bey ahead of nearly 80% of the other receivers taken in the whole draft.)

Essentially, those two examples (of which there are many more) prove the mentality of compulsive owners. They want to make a splash and they want everyone to know it was their genius that achieved it. Yet when these gambles fail (which, more often than not, they do) it isn’t ever their fault. Not officially, anyway. The axe will always fall on the coach. Maybe sometimes the general manager or individual coordinators will take a hit, but generally speaking the head coach gets blamed for an entire organization’s problems.

The big secret that owners are oblivious to…

I suppose I’m not so naïve as to pretend that I don’t understand that this is the responsibility of being a coach (to accept the blame both for good and bad) but I take issue with the relentlessly short-term thinking and stupid decision making of owners who will not stop making the same mistakes over and over.

Take a look at my best friend Daniel Snyder (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW-pcmIHH5Y&feature=related). His team (the Redskins) typifies everything I hate about how a team is run. There is absolutely no continuity. The roster is stocked with draft picks from many different coaches and big-money free agent signings spurred on by none other than Snyder himself. Added to that, they’ve continually switched whose calling plays for their young quarterback (Jason Campbell).

What this all adds up to is a team without an identity. Look at the Super Bowl winners from the past six years. With one exception, they’ve all had head coaches who were firmly entrenched in their organizations for no less than three years before winning the big one. And the one exception is Mike Tomlin, who, thanks to Bill Cowher retiring, became just the 3rd coach in Steelers history.

My point is not that giving a coach three years guarantees a Super Bowl. It’s that continuity wins the Super Bowl. Short term, snap decision making will never triumph over well-reasoned, long term practicality (barring massive amounts of injuries and poor officiating). If a coach is afraid to have one losing season, he will never give young players with potential to grow a chance over veterans who have a more pronounced ceiling. That kind of approach may score a playoff spot, perhaps even a division title, but never the Super Bowl.

The widespread regression that’s growing faster than Barry Bonds's steroid enhanced neck

Now it appears that instead of recognizing this fact, NFL owners are simply getting worse. The Seattle Seahawks just fired Jim Mora Jr. after giving him a grand total of one year to turnaround an increasingly decrepit Seahawks team that Mike Holmgren fled like it was infested with swing flu. Eric Mangini just escaped the axe from Cleveland Browns management (headed by a group directed by none other than Holmgren) after scraping through one year despite being saddled with a team that has made one playoff appearance in a decade. Rod Marinelli, who concluded the only winless season ever in 2008, was immediately shown the door, not even given the token chance to acquit himself after such a horrible start (as if the Lions really had a chance to make the playoffs this year anyway).

Why is this happening? Look no further than all of us, constantly commenting in our blogs or internet podcasts. Couple with the media itself, the current era lends itself to constant debate and never-ending discussion over profound subjects such as the direction of the team, or whether the players actually can win with the coach. Basically, we all make a lot of completely uninformed judgments and fire them off to every corner of the internet, while guys like Tom Jackson (who once famously decreed that the Patriots hated their coach shortly before they went on to set the NFL record for consecutive wins) bellow from the ESPN network about various things that are generally only 40% accurate.

Collectively, this creates an atmosphere that makes it impossible for NFL owners to avoid media and fan opinion. And, as the most outlandish opinions are usually the most discussed, the voice that owners will hear most are ones attached less to reason than a desire for wide-spread attention. Essentially, this all adds up to create a climate of negativity and pessimism where the glass is always half empty. Apparently, NFL owners are completely incapable of having any backbone, because more and more recently they’ve been quite content to shamelessly pander to the fans, buying into the socially constructed idea that if a coach isn’t winning within a single season (perhaps two) then he isn’t worth a dam.

In other words, the community ADD and total lack of any semblance of patience that we all display is rubbing off on those who actually have the power to influence the NFL landscape. The results are less than inspiring. It’s created a vicious cycle with no end in sight. Newly hired coaches come into certain jobs knowing they have to get results or they’ll be out right away. So instead of employing time-tested methods of building a team through the draft and organically growing chemistry, they try to forcibly create it faster than the correspondingly fast-paced media can dissect it and find what they see as irreparable problems. Once the media finds these faults, they become more sour then bad milk, besieging the owner with pleas to ‘change the team’s direction’ etc, effectively killing the coaches chance.

And this ADD coaching carousel affects all aspects of the organization. Free agent signings (see the Redskins on this subject and the Bills when they signed TO), how a team drafts (see the Raiders and Jets on this), who plays and who gets cut (the Jets Brett Farve debacle last season) and so on and so forth. It’s like watching a car that ten different people are trying to drive at once. At no point is it going in a set direction with a clear route.

Basically I stay up at night wondering how these NFL owners got so much money in the first place. How could anyone so successful in business not understand that people do their best work when they don’t have to look over their shoulder everyday to make sure they’re safe? I understand the importance of not allowing your coach to become overly content and lazy, but there’s a difference between doing that and being completely irrational. When you consider the outrageous expatiations attached to some of these teams (expectations which, in the case of the Redskins, Browns, Lions, Raiders and Seahawks are completely unfounded considering their lack of talent) it will be interesting to see if any of these teams ever wins a Super Bowl again until there are newer, more patient owners. For the sake of the poor Browns and Lions fans, I hope this isn’t true. History, however, is decidedly not on their side.

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