Here are some musings on the firings around the NFL, on Black Monday and beyond. Be sure to stop back during the week as new coaches and executives join the ranks of the unemployed. Read full analysis of Andy Reid's firing here.
Norv Turner, Chargers
Here is a list of the lowest winning percentages in history among coaches with 200 or more NFL-AFL regular-season games:
|Jim Mora I||125||106||0||.541|
There is a clear separation of “tiers” between spots three and four on the list. Starting with Vermeil and Reeves, the list is dominated by modern coaches who had some degree of success with at least two different organizations. The more games they coached, the more central tendency pushed them toward .500. For someone like Coughlin, it's better to read his record as “29 games over .500 for his career” than the less-impressive “.554 winning percentage.” (Just saying “two-time Super Bowl winner” also works.”)
The first three spots belong to two AFL guys and Norv Turner. Ewbank won two NFL championships as Colts head coach, then slid over to the early-1960s Jets, who initially were as horribly run as the 2012 Jets but in a different, groovier way. Ewbank racked up a lot of 5-8-1 seasons (three of them) before riding a more-professionalized organization and Joe Namath to a victory in Super Bowl III. His career was unique.
Lou Saban, no meaningful relation to Nick Saban (some family members guess that they may be cousins), coached the Buffalo Bills to two early AFL championships. He later took over the Broncos, who were an underfunded mess, before returning to the Bills after the merger to coach the O.J. Simpson team. Like Ewbank, he racked up a bunch of 5-8-1 and 5-9 seasons for franchises that would not have met modern professional standards in terms of scouting and management, lowering his overall record. So Saban is another unique case.
Turner, therefore, is a unique case among unique cases. Unlike Ewbank and Saban, he did not win multiple league championships early in his career, unless you give him extra credit for coordinating the Cowboys offense in the Triplets years. He did not have the excuse of playing for teams that could barely meet payroll or scouted the draft out of Street & Smith’s magazine. He still managed to amass a winning percentage 40 points lower than Vermeil, the most comparable coach on the list in terms of career length and era.
Turner accomplished this dubious feat despite taking over two tightly-run organizations: the Redskins just two seasons after Joe Gibbs’ first retirement and the Chargers after Marty Schottenheimer led the team to a 14-2 record. When you compare his circumstances to those of some of the other modern coaches on the list above -- Vermeil inherited Eagles and Rams organizations in disarray, Fisher coached through a franchise move and a painful salary cap purge, Mora cut his post-USFL teeth by turning around a laughingstock Saints organization -- Turner’s mediocrity takes on staggering proportions. No coach in NFL history has done less, with more, for so long.
To find Turner’s true peer group, we need to look to coaches with fewer than 200 regular-season games. Sam Wyche (84-107, .440) shared Turner’s reputation as an offensive mastermind with credentials as an assistant for a great team. Ted Marchibroda (87-98-1, .470) was another offensive guru whose career record is tarnished by a stint with the “expansion” Ravens and a game effort to coach the Baltimore Colts through a late-’70s salary dump. Turner’s legacy fits roughly in the same category as these guys: interesting characters who had their strengths and their moments, but got more opportunities than they deserved.
Mike Tannenbaum, Jets (GM)
In the weeks to come, tens of thousands of words will be written on the Jets’ front office skullduggery. Real Jets insiders will serve up tons of juicy gossip, and I will be as eager to read it as you. Here’s one thought from an outside observer: You can learn a lot about the NFL by watching your kids play Minecraft.
Minecraft is a video game in which players build structures and mine resources to stave off zombie/monster attacks. On the surface, it is a “kill the zombie” game, but the core gameplay really focuses on managing resources and creating a sustainable “world” that can stand up to the nightly onslaughts of invaders. Watch gamers in action, and they spend more time caring for livestock and managing a variety of commodities than fighting.
The NFL is a lot like Minecraft. The real work is done by scouts, assistant coaches, management and trainers, who identify talent (not just in the first round of the draft, but on the waiver wire on Tuesdays in mid-season), develop it, maintain and sustain it, and make sure that both immediate and long-range needs are met. Fans love coaches who shout “just win” and get the guys fired up on game day; the best coaches/executives do a little of that and lots and lots of tape study and delegation/coordination work to keep everyone on the same page.
The Jets are a team that really needs to sheer some sheep. All Woody Johnson and Rex Ryan want to do is kill creepers.
Lovie Smith, Bears
The defensive version of Andy Reid. Smith took the Bears to the Super Bowl early in his tenure and has produced intermittent playoff teams ever since, but there is a real sense that the Bears have plateaued under his leadership. The core defense is aging, while the offense keeps adding talent but producing roughly the same results. Mike Tice deserves his share of criticism as a coordinator, but the directive to keep the Bears ultra-conservative on offense comes from Smith.
Smith’s 2012 season matches up to the kinds of seasons the Reid Eagles were producing in 2008-2010: The roster nucleus and philosophy could still produce winning results, but there were obvious signs of diminishing returns. The Bears have opted to not follow Smith off the cliff the Eagles leapt from this year.
Smith’s career winning percentage (.563) is higher than Mike Ditka’s (.560), Marv Levy’s (.561), Tom Coughlin’s (.555) and Jimmy Johnson’s (.556). His defense was ranked first in the NFL according to Football Outsiders, and I believe his Cover-2 principles can adapt well to the league’s new fascination with read-option principles. Like Reid, he will be an in-demand candidate. A Reid-Smith coaching staff, with either as head coach and the other as coordinator, would be an organizational coup for the ages. It won’t happen, but what’s New Year’s without some daydreaming about a great future?
At press time, Tice’s fate was not known. Given Tice’s career-advancement-despite-ineffectiveness abilities, he will probably end up as a Supreme Court justice.
Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals
Chan Gailey, Bills
Gailey came into each week brimming with dozens of new offensive ideas, a little less than half of which were good. If ever there was a coach who deserved the title of “consultant,” it’s Gailey, who was having a measure of success with Tyler Thigpen running a pistol offense in Kansas City in 2008, four years before Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick made it cool. Gailey is like the R&D whiz who is never sure what he has invented, or the cutting-edge musical visionary who was rapping in 1963. There was a cable reality show called “Rocket City Rednecks” about good ol’ boy scientists in Alabama who could build tank armor out of old beer cans. That’s Chan Gailey.
Last season, the Bills ranked first in the NFL in empty-backfield formations, first in four-receiver sets, last in play-action passes, next-to-last in max-protect blocking schemes, and were the only team other than the Jets who still had any real use for the wildcat. Do you hate running plays on second-and-long? So does Gailey. His Bills ran only 25 percent of the time on second-and-long last year, the lowest percentage in the league. The tendency stats for 2012 are not done cooking at Football Outsiders yet, but the results will be similar: Gailey’s offenses are consistently first or last in the league in various situational tendencies. He marches to his own tune. That tune generally sounds better at the college level.
Pat Shurmur, Browns
It is hard to find anything positive to say about Shurmur’s two-year tenure, except that the deck was stacked against him the whole time. The Browns change regimes the way most of us change Facebook statuses, the Mike Holmgren era in the front office ended as soon as it began and Shurmur was saddled with the kinds of decisions executives make when they're engaged in short-term thinking, like drafting a 28-year old rookie quarterback and thinking he would somehow be more “NFL ready” than other rookies simply because he's old. Shurmur looked like a stopgap on borrowed time from the beginning of his second season, and he did nothing to change that image.
An interesting point about the Browns offense: According to Football Outsiders, Cleveland faced an easier slate of defenses than any other team in the NFL. That may sound ridiculous at first, because the Browns face the Steelers and Ravens twice. But the Steelers and Ravens defenses were not exceptional this year (12th and 19th, respectively, according to Football Outsiders), and the Browns faced awful defenses like the Raiders, Eagles, Chiefs, Bills and Colts in their out-of-division schedule. Given the easy schedule, their offensive output was actually worse than it appears in the final totals: Their 25th rank in yards-per-game is misleadingly high.
Since 1999, the Browns have gone from an Old 49ers paradigm to a University of Miami paradigm, then to a Baby Belichick paradigm, a Let’s Pretend We’re the Ravens and/or Jets paradigm, and finally a Holmgren Family paradigm. If the Josh McDaniels rumors are true, they are about to start repeating themselves, with Joe Banner providing a Holmgren-Andy Reid connection and McDaniels bringing a dose of Belichick. This would be a great time for new owner Jimmy Haslam to stop recycling and try to build something organic by hiring a coach who does not bring another organization’s baggage. McDaniels is not that coach, in any way whatsoever.
Romeo Crennel, Chiefs
Brings nothing to the table as a head coach. Will soon be reabsorbed into the Belichick collective.
Gene Smith, Jaguars (GM)
Smith, like me and dozens of other students of the NFL draft, whiffed badly on Blaine Gabbert. Unlike me and my colleagues, Smith was playing with real money. Gabbert’s failure was an organization-wide failure. He was the wrong prospect for the wrong team at the wrong time. Gabbert was a spread-offense quarterback who was not NFL-ready. He was drafted during a lockout by a team that needed immediate help, and which ran an I-formation offense completely at odds with the system Gabbert was familiar with. System-wide organizational matters are just as important for a general manager as drafting and signing free agents. Smith was not just responsible for evaluating and selecting Gabbert (who was overvalued and would have likely struggled in the best of circumstances), but for creating an environment in which Gabbert would be rushed onto the field, unprepared, to run an unfamiliar system.
Smith might have gotten a mulligan on the Gabbert pick if not for some other blunders. Laurent Robinson was an overpriced bust at wide receiver before getting injured, and the decision to draft punter Bryan Anger, with Russell Wilson sitting on the board in the third round, punctuated Smith’s limitations as a cost-benefit analyst. Shahid Khan probably wanted his own executive in place from the moment he bought the Jaguars, but if he had any doubts, they disappeared every time he saw Seahawks highlights and wondered why the hell his team needed a punter so badly.