Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher is an expert at performing just well enough to not get fired. He is a master of mediocrity who has turned a successful stretch in Tennessee and a Super Bowl trip in 2000 into a total of 21 head coaching seasons (and counting, in light of his recent extension by the organization).
Fisher’s career record is currently 173-164-1, and with one more loss he will tie Dan Reeves for most losses by a head coach in NFL history. Of course the losses alone aren’t a bad thing; Tom Landry, Don Shula, Tom Coughlin, George Halas and Chuck Noll round out the top seven after Fisher. But Fisher hasn’t enjoyed anything any close to the success or championships of those legends. He has just lasted.
Jeff Fisher is also self-aware.
“Little things are important, follow me?” he famously said on ‘Hard Knocks’ during the 2016 preseason. “I am not [expletive] going 7-9 or 8-8 or 9-7, okay? Or 10-6 for that matter. This team is too talented. I am not going to settle for that, okay? I know what I’m doing. We had some 7-9 [expletive] this morning. ... We don’t need it.”
After getting plastered 28-0 by the 49ers in their opener this year, the Rams won three straight, and it looked like they just might just might have the ability to realize Fisher’s promise -- until regression set in and the defense couldn’t overcome poor play from backup QB Case Keenum, some coaching miscues and a generally uncreative, inefficient offense. The Rams will now need to win three of their remaining four games to reach their 7-9 destiny.
But before we delve too deeply into the mythology of Fisher’s coaching career and his comical (partial) assessment of No. 1 overall draft pick Jared Goff’s first start ("he did a really good job. No delay of games.”), let’s hone in on the mediocrity:
- Fisher has five career playoff wins in six postseason appearances, three of which came in 2000.
- Fisher’s teams have not posted a winning season since 2008, when George W. Bush was still president.
- 10 of his 20 full seasons (not counting 2016 or 1994, when he took over midseason for the fired Jack Pardee) have resulted in a record of 8-8 or 7-9, including one 7-8-1 campaign.
And that final point is the inspiration for this undertaking which, if it is anything like its inspiration, will be highly mediocre. Before we look at the seasons, a few quick words about how the ranking was decided.
Ranking “mediocre” is an inherently difficult task because how do you order something that is by definition “of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; barely adequate.”
So basically we looked for the perfect blend of good and bad, reviewing the team’s performances, expectations and the talent on the roster (Fisher has had some very good teams on paper.)
For each of the five teams you will see Football Outsiders’ statistics for overall DVOA (essentially a measurement for overall team performance if you're unfamiliar) as well as offensive, defensive and special teams DVOA. Also pay attention to FO’s “variance” rank which measures a team's “game-to-game consistency as judged by total DVOA rating for each game. A lower number (1 being the lowest) represents more consistency and a higher number represents less consistency.”
Synopsis: This marked a third consecutive mediocre season (following 7-9 and 8-8 campaigns) and one more 8-8 followed immediately thereafter, but this season saw much more variance, hence the ranking. The march toward 8-8 began with a win, four losses, then three wins, then alternating wins and losses until a Week 17 victory delivered 8-8 and hope for the next season’s eventual 8-8.
Highlights: In back-to-back weeks in November they beat ‘90s powerhouses (but slightly past their primes) the Buffalo Bills 31-14 and the Dallas Cowboys 27-14. Against Buffalo the defense held Thurman Thomas and Antowain Smith to a combined 8 yards on 12 carries and then shut down Emmitt Smith, limiting him to just 22 yards on 10 carries. Reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie George rushed for 1,399 yards (on 357 carries as the extremely heavy usage continued), and Steve McNair began to show flashes of greatness in his first full season as a starter.
Lowlights: Everything about this team was average or below-average, including attendance at it temporary home, the Liberty Bowl, where attendance dipped below 18,000. And if you don’t recall, yes, the franchise was the Tennessee Oilers for one year before rebranding.
Synopsis: A brilliant mixture of a five-game losing streak to open the season and a six-game winning streak down the stretch set up a chance to reach the postseason in Week 17, when they hosted the Patriots. The Titans lost, 40-23.
Highlights: It’s not easy bringing a rookie quarterback along, but the Titans gave it a whirl after drafting Vince Young at No. 3 overall before jettisoning Steve McNair to Baltimore that June. Young struggled badly out of the gate but found a groove later in the season as he relied more on his scrambling ability. This .500 team overachieved a bit record-wise thanks to outrageous victories over the Giants (when Mathias Kiwanuka released Young instead of sacking him for fear of a roughing call) and Jaguars (the Titans gained only five first downs as the Jaguars turned the ball over four times). Young won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Lowlights: That five-game losing streak proved too much to overcome. Also in Week 10, when McNair came back to town in a “revenge” game, the Titans mounted a 26-7 lead early in the second quarter before the Ravens scored 20 unanswered points and McNair indeed got revenge with a game-winning touchdown pass to former Titans wideout Derrick Mason. Naturally, the Titans’ winning streak began the next week.
Synopsis: Coming off a 7-8-1 season in his first year as the Rams head coach, this is your classic Jeff Fisher team: pretty good defense, a poor offense and high volatility. Those are the hallmarks of the subsequent Rams teams, although the defense has deteriorated a bit in 2016 with free-agent losses and some veteran losses like Chris Long). Only one team was better than the 2013 Rams at week-to-week inconsistency: the 10-6 Chip Kelly-led Philadelphia Eagles, which later provided the Rams with quarterback Nick Foles for the 2015 season.
Highlights: The season opened with a win over the Cardinals at the Edward Jones Dome, and the Rams defended home turf pretty nicely, compiling a 5-3 home record.
Lowlights: The team entered the season with high hopes for Bradford’s fourth year in the league, but after the opener it stumbled with lackluster offensive performances in three straight losses. Then came two straight wins and another three-game losing streak. In the first loss of that streak, Sam Bradford tore his ACL running out of bounds, which became his last play as a Ram. Kellen Clemens took over and led the Rams to wins over the Saints and Bucs late in the year before the Seahawks dismantled them in Week 17. 7-9.
Synopsis: The final St. Louis season was very difficult for fans with the prospect of relocation looming. A combination of the recently acquired Nick Foles and Case Keenum played quarterback. Jeff Fisher and owner Stan Kroenke delivered a last hurrah that was exactly what they should have expected: 7-9.
Highlights: Thanks to solid defensive performances, the Rams beat the Seattle Seahawks in both meetings. Todd Gurley won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award thanks to a solid 1,106-yard rushing effort in which he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns (Todd Gurley is now running into walls of defenders). Note that the offense ranked 29th despite producing the Offensive ROY.
Lowlights: The season crumbled with a five-game losing streak (Weeks 9 to 13) in which the offense scored, in succession, 18 points, 13, 13, 7 and 3. And then they won three straight. And then the season ended in a 19-16 overtime loss to the Blaine Gabbert-led 5-11 San Francisco 49ers, one week after beating the Seahawks in Seattle.
Synopsis: This is Fisher’s Mona Lisa. These Titans were average or worse across the board and excelled in inconsistency. After Vince Young injured his knee in 2008, the team turned to a 36-year-old Kerry Collins, who led the Titans to an unexpected 13-3 record (ranked 21st in DVOA), Fisher decided to stick with Collins in 2009.
Highlights: In his second season, running back Chris Johnson became the NFL’s sixth 2,000-yard rusher with 2,006 (125.4 per game), 2,509 yards from scrimmage and 16 total touchdowns. Vince Young earned a Pro Bowl nod in a season in which he didn’t get his job back until Week 7. So what happened here?
Lowlights: The team lost its first six games and Fisher finally succumbed to pressure from owner Bud Adams to start Young again. "I'm still in Kerry Collins' corner because I don't believe that our record is a reflection of the quarterback play," Fisher said at the time. "It's a reflection of the team play. I'm still in his corner, but we've decided to go ahead and make this change."
The last of those six losses? A 59–0 beatdown at the hands of the New England Patriots. Young started the first game after the Week 7 bye, and the Titans won five straight and eight of their last 10, realizing their 8-8 destiny and more hope for the future. The 2010 Titans started out 5-3 before Vince Young clashed with Fisher, precipitating both Young's and Fisher's departures from Tennessee in 2011.
Why did the Rams owner Stan Kroenke sign up for more of this? Apparently they believe that Fisher is some kind of expert at managing a team that has just relocated, given his prior experience in Houston/Tennessee. But he is a football coach, not a travel or real estate agent.
It probably helps that Fisher’s agent, Marvin Demoff, is the father of Rams Executive Vice President of Football Operations and Chief Operating Officer Kevin Demoff.
We can all only wish for Jeff Fisher’s unprecedented level of job security. Fisher said he wouldn’t be 7-9 or 8-8 this season, but apparently Rams ownership has settled for him.