Let the Scrutiny Begin

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It's not like there's much job security associated with being an NFL head coach. That was underscored yet again when three teams fired coaches during the season last year, then six more clubs dismissed their coaches soon afterward. With two coaches also walking away from jobs, 11 franchises open this season with head coaches entering their first full season with their teams.

That's a 34 percent turnover rate in one year. But if it's possible for those who hold the 32 head coaching jobs to feel even more vulnerable, all the current coaches need to do is take a look at the list of available replacements.

Two Super Bowl-winning coaches were fired this past offseason, Mike Shanahan by the Denver Broncos and Jon Gruden by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Two more, the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy and the Seattle Seahawks' Mike Holmgren, made good on previous pledges to quit. Those four joined recently unemployed Super Bowl winners Bill Cowher, who resigned from the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2006 season, and Brian Billick, who was fired by the Baltimore Ravens after the 2007 season.

"I don't remember this many Super Bowl-winning or Super Bowl-participating coaches ever being out, with the thought that some of them might come back and coach," said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. "There's probably never been this many so recently out of the game."

If this is, in some ways, the last season of certainty for the NFL, with the salary cap system set to expire after this season and the labor agreement between the league and players' union ending a year later unless there's an extension, it also could be the final season of the standard sort of uncertainty for coaches.

It used to be coaches had to worry about being fired for losing games. Now, in some cases, even winning games might not be enough. Some coaches might have to win big to keep jobs, given how accomplished the possible successors are. Of the last 13 Super Bowls, seven of them were won by Holmgren, Shanahan, Billick, Gruden, Cowher and Dungy.

"I think as a coach, you always feel like you have to go out there and do your job, year in and year out," Dungy said. "When you see that Mike Shanahan is gone from Denver and Jon Gruden is gone from Tampa, that does impact you that, hey, these are great coaches, guys with great pedigrees who won Super Bowls. And it does just reinforce that it's a 'now' league. That pressure is always going to be there. But I don't think that's a lot different."

Several executives within the league said they assume Shanahan, the winner of two Super Bowls with the Broncos, will be coaching in the 2010 season. Holmgren has said he intends to go back to work, although it's possible he'll do so as a general manager rather than as a coach.

Gruden and Dungy have landed television jobs, Gruden in ESPN's booth for Monday night games and Dungy on the NBC studio show. Dungy also served as an adviser to recently reinstated Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and has a full slate of off-field endeavors, and he said he is content in retirement and isn't contemplating a return to coaching.

"I'm enjoying life," said Dungy, speaking during a recent NBC conference call with reporters. "I thought August would be a tough month for me, but it really hasn't been. I haven't had that urge or that passion to feel like I should be out there. I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I've been able to stay fairly busy. So I kind of think right now I'll hopefully be with NBC for a long while."

People around the league said they expect Gruden to coach again but aren't sure when. He also has been linked in the past to some college coaching jobs.

Billick's name came up in a coaching search or two this past offseason, but it's not clear how serious his candidacy was in any city. It had been widely assumed when Cowher walked away from the Steelers he would be back in coaching a year or two later. But it hasn't happened thus far, as he has remained content staying away from the sideline and working on the NFL studio show for CBS.

But Cowher, like Shanahan, probably could attract a big-money offer from a team if he expresses a willingness to return.

Last season, two teams, the St. Louis Rams with Scott Linehan and Oakland Raiders with Lane Kiffin, fired their coaches four games into the season. Mike Nolan lasted seven games in San Francisco. The flurry of coaches fired after the season included Shanahan, Gruden, Detroit's Rod Marinelli, the New York Jets' Eric Mangini, Cleveland's Romeo Crennel and Kansas City's Herman Edwards.

The trend--perhaps inspired by a young coach, Mike Tomlin, winning last season's Super Bowl with the Steelers--was for teams to hire untested assistant coaches. Two interim coaches, the Raiders' Tom Cable and Mike Singletary with the 49ers, kept their jobs, and the first-time NFL head coaches include Steve Spagnuolo in St. Louis, Jim Schwartz in Detroit, Rex Ryan with the Jets, Josh McDaniels in Denver, Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis, Raheem Morris in Tampa and Todd Haley in Kansas City.

The only two coaches hired with NFL head coaching experience were Mangini, who got the job in Cleveland after his ouster by the Jets, and Jim Mora, the former Atlanta Falcons coach who had been chosen to succeed Holmgren in Seattle before Holmgren's exit.

The next hiring cycle could be far different with the heavy hitters potentially in the mix. Already, there is talk about which coaches enter the season with their jobs most obviously on the line, with some of the speculation focusing on Minnesota's Brad Childress, Wade Phillips in Dallas and San Diego's Norv Turner, among others.

"I don't think any of this affects a coach doing his job," Casserly said. "He understands his own organization and where it is. I don't think it affects the day-to-day things that a coach does. The question is, what will it take to get some of these other guys to come back and coach, in terms of money and power? What will owners be willing to do? At this point, I really have no idea. I haven't asked any owners that question yet."

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