The Tennessee Titans and head coach Jeff Fisher mutually agreed to part ways on Friday. Obviously, this either means that Fisher was fired or, like Jerry Seinfeld and his fiancée, this was the first mutual breakup of a coach and a team in history:
If the Titans without Jeff Fisher feels weird, that’s because it should – Fisher has been the franchise’s only coach since they moved to Tennessee before the 1997 season. Aside from that, this firing was surprising on many levels.
Fisher had only one year left on his contract. As I pointed out in this article, the Houston Texans chose not to fire Gary Kubiak and his 37-43 career record this offseason largely because owner Bob McNair didn’t want to pay two coaches for zero games if there is a lockout next season.
I suppose that we can commend Titans owner Bud Adams for his willingness to pay two coaches if he feels it’s the right move for the team. But unless the relationship between the two soured in the past month (after Adams announced in early January that Fisher would stay on next season), the firing seems out of place. The Titans finished 6-10 this season and had a very public falling out with quarterback Vince Young. They will enter the 2011 season with 38-year old Kerry Collins at quarterback. In short, their Super Bowl odds for next year won’t change if there is a lockout. And they certainly won’t change no matter who the coach is.
The Titans are a young team aside from Collins. They have the best young running back in the league (Chris Johnson) and one of the best young receivers (Kenny Britt). Maybe Adams wants to give a new coach a chance to get comfortable with these players to better prepare for a 2012 or 2013 Super Bowl run. If so, I commend him for the move.
But even that explanation might not make much sense. The leading candidate for the job is reportedly offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who will retain many of Fisher’s assistants. I’m just not sure what Adams is trying to gain by promoting an assistant and keeping the same basic coaching staff.
And then there’s the simple question: why this season? Sure, the Titans finished 6-10, but they did start a rookie named Rusty Smith at quarterback once this season. They are just two seasons removed from finishing an AFC-best 13-3. Why now and not, say, after Fisher went 32-38 in his first four and a half seasons (after the Oilers went 42-22 in the previous four seasons). Or when the Titans went 17-31 between 2004 and 2006. After sixteen mediocre seasons, why replace him with his assistant the year before a lockout? A curious decision, to say the least.
Here comes the 180. I’m genuinely confused about the timing of Fisher’s firing, but I’m more confused that he lasted so long with the Titans.
Fisher coached for one franchise for the seventh-longest period of time in NFL history. The six coaches ahead of him are Hall of Famers; Fisher is decidedly not a Hall of Famer. Here are those six coaches’ records, plus Fisher:
George Halas (Bears, 40 seasons): 318-148-31 (.682) (6 NFL championships, 2 runner-ups)
Tom Landry (Cowboys, 29 seasons): 250-162-6 (.607) (2-3 in Super Bowl)
Curly Lambeau (Packers, 29 seasons): 209-104-21 (.668) (6 NFL championships, 1 runner-up)
Don Shula (Dolphins, 26 seasons): 257-133-2 (.659) (2-3 in Super Bowl)
Chuck Noll (Steelers, 23 seasons): 193-148-1 (.566) (4-0 in Super Bowl)
Bud Grant (Vikings, 18 seasons): 158-96-5 (.622) (0-4 in Super Bowl)
Jeff Fisher (Titans, 16 seasons): 142-120-0 (.542) (0-1 in Super Bowl)
One of these things is not like the other ones.
Perhaps even more amazingly, Fisher’s longevity came in the era of NFL parity. Throughout history, NFL head coaches have a notoriously low shelf life. 448 coaches have coached at least one season in the league; only 27 of them lasted fifteen or more years. Only nine of those 27 were contemporaries of Fisher’s – and the league now has far more teams than it did in the past.
Fisher has never really been a great coach. Sure, he became the first head coach to lead the Titans franchise to the Super Bowl. But he finished within two games of .500 nine times in his 16 seasons – pretty much what you’d expect any coach to be able to do in the era of parity.
And yet, Fisher kept hanging on to his job. Fisher’s firing leaves just four coaches who have coached eight years (half as long as Fisher). The four are: Andy Reid (11 seasons with Eagles, 1 NFC championship, perpetually deals with fans’ calling for his head); Bill Belichick (10 seasons with Patriots, has job for as long as he wants it); Marvin Lewis (8 seasons with Bengals, unclear how he still has his job); and Jack Del Rio (8 seasons with Jaguars, unclear how he still has his job).
Even among those coaches, Fisher was an outlier. Belichick’s three Super Bowl victories for the Patriots makes him coach for life or until he decides to retire, whichever comes first. Eagles fans keep calling for Reid to be fired, but he has never really been bad enough to justify firing him; although he has yet to win a Super Bowl, his .613 winning percentage is third among active coaches (behind Belichick and Mike Tomlin) with four or more years experience and he has missed the playoffs only three times in his eleven years with the team. Lewis and Del Rio have only one playoff win and four playoff appearances between the two of them, but they keep their jobs because their owners are too cheap to fire them or find a new coach.
Fisher never came close to Belichick’s level. He finished .500 or worse eight times, so unlike Reid, there were plenty of chances to fire him. And while he’s no Dan Snyder, Adams certainly isn’t cheap.
So I guess this is rapidly turning into a eulogy. Goodbye, Mr. Fisher – you certainly were one of a kind. You lasted sixteen seasons in a league in which the median length of service is 2.88 years. This despite never doing anything particularly noteworthy and having only six winning seasons. Not only are you the only head coach to last more than sixteen years with a team without compiling a Hall of Fame-resume, you didn’t even come particularly close.
Thank you for giving hope to mediocre people everywhere.