The 2011 NFL Coaching Carousel

The 2011 NFL coaching carousel ended surprisingly early after the Oakland Raiders promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to head coach yesterday. Seven teams made coaching changes after the season:

Carolina Panthers – Hired San Diego OC Ron Rivera to replace John Fox
Cleveland Browns – Hired St. Louis OC Pat Shurmur to replace Eric Mangini
Dallas Cowboys – Promoted OC/Interim Head Coach Jason Garrett to replace Wade Phillips
Denver Broncos – Hired former Carolina Head Coach John Fox to replace Josh McDaniels
Minnesota Vikings – Promoted DC/Interim Head Coach Leslie Frazier to replace Brad Childress
Oakland Raiders – Promoted OC Hue Jackson to replace Tom Cable
San Francisco 49ers – Hired Stanford Head Coach Jim Harbaugh to replace Mike Singletary

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It took an impending lockout next season, but I think the NFL teams finally got it right for the most part.

Every offseason, a big-name former coach throws his name out as a potential head coaching candidate. This year, it was Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden who floated rumors that they wanted to return to coaching. Even Cleveland Browns GM Mike Holmgren briefly considered coming out of retirement for the second time to lead the Browns.

Last year, it was the Redskins that made the biggest coaching move by hiring former Bronco head coach Mike Shanahan. Buffalo (Chan Gailey) and Seattle (Pete Carroll) also hired former NFL coaches. In 2009, Cleveland hired Eric Mangini and Seattle hired Jim Mora. In 2007, it was Dallas (Wade Phillips) and San Diego (Norv Turner). And so on.

But these moves rarely work. I have no doubt that, without the potential lockout next season, at least one of these seven teams would have made a big splash by luring one of these coaches out of retirement. That would have been a mistake. Luckily for these teams, no owner wants to pay a boatload of cash for a big-name coach when there might not even be football next season.

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The biggest problem that owners have when making coaching decisions is the parity in the NFL. Every team thinks that they are one great coach away from being Super Bowl contenders, so they reach out for a big name to put them over the top. Most of the time, they are not.

Look at the Washington Redskins’ list of head coaches since Daniel Snyder took over as owner in 1999:

2001 – Hired former Chiefs head coach Marty Schottenheimer out of retirement. Went 8-8 in one season.
2002 – Hired Florida Gator head coach Steve Spurrier. Went 12-20 in two seasons.
2004 – Hired former Redskin head coach Joe Gibbs out of a 12-year retirement. Went 30-34 in four seasons.
2008 – Hired Seahawk OC Jim Zorn. Went 12-20 in two seasons.
2010 – Hired former Bronco head Mike Shanahan after one year retirement. Went 6-10 in first season.

Snyder seems like the type of guy that would call a Hail Mary on every offensive play. Only one of the five coaches that Snyder has hired wasn’t a Hail Mary. Zorn was the only patient, well-thought out hire; unfortunately he turned out to be completely incompetent.

Coaching an NFL team takes insane amounts of time that I can’t even begin to comprehend. There’s only so much time a person can reasonably be expected to put in at a job before they start getting frustrated. A guy like Shanahan has already won two Super Bowls and put in 14-hour days for 15 years as the Broncos’ head coach. Why in the world would he care that much about turning around a dysfunctional organization? I’m sure it sounded good on paper, after Shanahan had already blocked the memories of how hard it was to build a team. But I’m guessing it took him about two weeks to realize that he had an overbearing owner that doesn’t understand the salary cap, a $100 million crybaby for a defensive tackle, and a quarterback so washed up that a division rival let him go for nothing.

Predictably, the Redskins were a train wreck. I could describe the reasons why, but I think I’ll let Melly Mel “Tell it like it is” Jackson take it from here:

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Melly Mel.

In the past couple of decades, the list of former head coaches that have succeeded with rebuilding a second team begins and ends with Bill Belichick and Dick Vermeil. Sure, Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden won Super Bowls with their second teams, but both took over teams that were established.* Dungy’s Colts already had Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison and just needed a motivating presence to get them over the top. And Gruden took the Buccaneer team that Dungy built to the Super Bowl in his first year.

* I thought about including Tom Coughlin with the Giants, but I’m not sure he even counts as a success. The Giants caught fire in the 2008 playoffs and won the Super Bowl, but that’s pretty much all he’s done. Prior to the Super Bowl run, he was on the hot seat and only escaped firing because of the playoff run. In his tenure with the Giants, they have won exactly zero games in the playoffs not including the 2008 run. I can’t even really call that a success story – in seven seasons, he happened to catch lightning in a bottle once for a five-week stretch.

The common theme with these former coaches that have succeeded with a second team is a unique skill. Dungy was the best motivator in the league; Gruden was the best at working 18-hour days and breaking down film; Vermeil was the most energetic, emotional coach. These hires worked out because each team needed the skill that the coach brought. The Colts already had a brilliant offensive coach on the field in Peyton Manning, so they needed a defensive-minded, positive motivator. The Bucs needed an Xs and Os-minded coach to take the core that Dungy built over the top. And the Rams were on of the saddest franchises in the league (they had nine consecutive losing seasons in two cities between 1990 and 1998), so they needed an emotional, energetic coach to restore confidence.

The former coaches that fail miserably are those that don’t bring anything particularly special to the table other than a big name. Shanahan, Gailey, and Carroll all were fired from their previous head coaching jobs after several losing seasons. They all had poor seasons, the 7-9 Seahawks’ wild card win notwithstanding. Before them, you can pretty much fill in the blank on former NFL coaches that failed miserably in their second jobs: Norv Turner; Marty Schottenheimer; Art Shell; Wade Phillips; Jim Mora Sr; Jim Mora Jr.; Dennis Green; Dave Wannstedt; the list goes on and on.

The only former head coach that was hired this offseason was the Broncos’ John Fox. Fox falls somewhere between these two categories. He is a good hire for the short-term, because the Broncos are trying to be a more open organization (John Elway even posted Twitter updates on the coaching search) after the closed-door regime that former coach Josh McDaniels ran. Fox is a personable player’s coach that seems to fall into the “right time, right guy” category.

But here’s the problem with Fox: does anybody, anywhere really think that Fox will turn the Broncos into a Super Bowl contender? I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Still, I think Fox was probably a good hire for the Broncos. The organization is a complete mess after the Josh McDaniels era. Fox is pretty much performing the same role as Gerald Ford did after the Nixon presidency. Sure, you don’t expect great things out of him, but his personality will provide a stabilizing force that will get the Broncos organization back on track.

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I tend to like the other five promoted coordinators. Frazier and Garrett are two “right place, right time” guys. Both the Viking and Cowboy organizations have dealt with their fair share of inner tumult in the past season. Like Fox, Frazier and Garrett are calming, thoughtful coaches that will stabilize their teams. As an added bonus, Frazier has one of the best defensive minds and Garrett has one of the best offensive minds in pro football.

I like Hue Jackson and Pat Shurmur for two different reasons. I heard a few analysts arguing that the Raiders and Browns were both on the right track, so they shouldn’t have fired their coaches. I suppose that technically they were – the Raiders finished 8-8 for their best season since 2002 and the Browns finished only 5-11, but beat both the Saints and Patriots. But let’s be honest: neither one of those teams is going to be a contender anytime soon. Why not bring in a young, energetic coach to try to turn things around?

Jackson and Shurmur are both relatively young 45-year old first time coaches. As I mentioned earlier, rebuilding an organization takes a ridiculous amount of energy and optimism that only a first-time head coach can provide. Maybe they will flame out like Josh McDaniels and Eric Mangini. But maybe they’ll be the next Sean Payton or Ken Whisenhunt – two young coaches that led the Saints and Cardinals to the Super Bowl for the first time ever. When you hire a first-time head coach, it’s impossible to tell what kind of head coach you’re going to get. But if you’re the Raiders or Browns, what do you have to lose?

And then there’s Ron Rivera. I feel bad for the guy. Rivera is of Hispanic descent, so approximately 74 teams gave him a token interview in the last four years because of the Rooney Rule. Finally, after enduring the exhausting hiring process every offseason he gets hired…by the Carolina Panthers. Carolina has a unique situation – they are both the worst team in the NFL currently and they aren’t really built for the future. Poor Rivera is set up for failure. I call this a good hire for the Panthers, insofar as “willing to actually take the job” was probably the number one qualification among potential head coaches.

The last coach is San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh, formerly the head coach at Stanford. As this Charlotte Observer article points out, the only group of coaches that perform worse than former head coaches are college coaches. The last big-name college coaches that stepped up to the pros were Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin, Bobby Petrino, Mike Riley, Steve Spurrier, Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis, Nick Saban, and Steve Mariucci. Only Mariucci finished with a winning record. Kiffin, Petrino, Riley, Spurrier, and Saban were all complete train wrecks.

Harbaugh is an interesting case. He’s not the prototypical career college coach and has only been coaching since 2004. Unlike many of the other college-to-pro coaches, he actually had a long, productive NFL career. And if he has questions on the differences between college and the pros, he can always ask his brother John, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

But if Harbaugh fails as an NFL coach, it will surprise precisely no one. The coaches above emphatically demonstrated that coaching college football takes an entirely different skill set than coaching pro football. Harbaugh is in a better position than the rest of the college-to-pro coaches, but for as high as his stock was after Stanford’s season, his entire pro resume consists of two years as quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders.

Even with that said, I think Harbaugh is a solid hire, just like the other six coaches. I don’t know how well each will do, but at least for now, they are the right hires. Guess we’ll find out in 2012.

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