Coaches Always on the Firing Line

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

At least five NFL teams will hire new coaches this offseason -- a surprising development after 10 teams replaced their coaches last year -- and the number could grow if the New York Giants fire Tom Coughlin, Bill Parcells leaves the Dallas Cowboys or there's an unexpected switch. Come next season, about half the teams in the league -- at least 15 of 32 -- will have coaches in their first or second seasons with their clubs.

"It's instant gratification," former NFL coach Dan Reeves said by telephone yesterday. "If you don't win, changes are going to get made. And the coach is the one who gets changed."

Getting fired always has been part of the equation for a coach. But Reeves and others with longtime associations with the NFL said they sense there's less leeway for coaches today because the money in the sport has become so big. Coaches, like players, have mammoth contracts and the owners and fans of every team have super-size expectations for every season -- and super-size anguish and anger when things don't go as hoped.

"The ownership isn't patient anymore," said Ron Wolf, former general manager of the Green Bay Packers. "I think it started when [expansion franchises] Carolina and Jacksonville made the playoffs after two years, and not only the playoffs but the [conference] championship games. After that, there was no patience anymore. It was 'What have you done for me lately?' ever since that, and 'lately' means this year."

The NFL has become a $6 billion-a-year industry, and part of its winning business formula has been that every team should begin every season with a realistic chance to be a champion, which translates into ticket and merchandise sales and otherworldly television ratings. The more teams that remain in the playoff chase in the final weeks of the regular season, the more all the interest is sustained.

Every mechanism in the sport drags teams toward average. The order of selection in the NFL draft has the bad teams picking first. The scheduling formula matches bad teams from the previous season against bad teams and good clubs against good clubs in non-division games. Potentially elite teams have their rosters shredded by free agency and the salary cap.

"The line between the good teams and the average teams and between the average teams and the bad teams is so thin right now, that it's easy to go from one side to the other," former Oakland Raiders coach and longtime broadcaster John Madden said last week.

It is a formula that's working well, but it creates a backlash: Because everyone begins every season with great expectations, the disappointment that accompanies a poor season creates a someone-must-pay uproar. That someone, more often than not, is the coach. "Some of it has to do with the fact that there are a lot of new owners who haven't been involved in the game a long time," said Reeves, who coached -- and was fired by -- the Denver Broncos, the Giants and the Atlanta Falcons. "They spend money, but they don't understand. They look around and say: 'That team's in the playoffs. How come I'm not in the playoffs when I spent just as much money?' The owners in the past who stuck with their coaches over a long time, like the Rooneys in Pittsburgh, there aren't a lot like that anymore."

Last week, Falcons owner Arthur Blank fired Jim Mora after three seasons, the first of which resulted in an appearance in the NFC title game. The Arizona Cardinals, who have had one winning season since 1984, fired Dennis Green after three seasons. Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis fired Art Shell after one season.

"It's all about a four-year span now, or a three-year span," Wolf said. "In three years, you can start to lose the players you drafted [to free agency]. All these long-term rebuilding projects, that went out in 1993," when the league's current system of free agency and the salary cap was put in place.

Wolf points out that owners must have noticed that two rookie coaches, the New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton and the New York Jets' Eric Mangini, finished first and second in coach of the year balloting. That fuels the owners' belief, Wolf said, that the next coach might be the savior.

"The new guys that came in, people said these guys were no-names," Wolf said by phone. "But they did a heck of a job."

Coaches, meantime, have enough money to walk away if they want. Bill Cowher resigned from the Steelers last week at age 49, after 15 seasons with the franchise and with the team willing to sign him to a contract extension. And there's big money to be made by switching jobs. Nick Saban bolted after two seasons with the Miami Dolphins to return to the college ranks by accepting a $4 million-a-year deal from the University of Alabama last week.

Payton and Mangini reached the playoffs along with Herman Edwards, who was in his first season with the Kansas City Chiefs after jumping from the Jets. The 10 NFL teams with new coaches had a combined regular season record of 69-91, compared with the 52-108 mark those clubs had in the 2005 season. But apart from the Saints, Jets and Chiefs, the other seven teams with new coaches went 8-8 or worse this season. The Raiders went 2-14 under Shell. The Detroit Lions went 3-13 under Rod Marinelli.

"We all love the hunt and the kill of a head coach out there," former NFL wide receiver and current TV analyst Cris Collinsworth said last week. "But when you do it, you have a whole transition to go through."

The Falcons hired a college coach, Bobby Petrino of Louisville, as their coach Sunday, giving him a five-year, $24 million contract. The Cardinals, Dolphins, Raiders and Steelers are looking. Giants co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch are contemplating Coughlin's future, and Parcells is to tell Cowboys owner Jerry Jones by Feb. 1 if he'll come back for a fifth season. Madden has said he thinks Parcells will return and Wolf, who's friendly with Parcells, agreed yesterday.

"My own feeling is, I don't think he walks away," Wolf said. "But if you're asking me if I know, I don't know."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company