If you’ve been around the league long enough chances are pretty good that you have learned something from Jimmy Raye.
Spend even 30 minutes in a room with Raye, and no matter the level of tenure or the degree of jadedness, you feel as if you sat in on a football tutorial.
Too bad Raye, who was dismissed Monday morning as the San Francisco offensive coordinator, couldn’t impart his 34 years of wisdom to some players. Hard to figure, but tough to deny.
Raye used to say the closer you got to presiding over a seven-on-seven drill, the closer you were to being a head coach. Despite being an offensive coordinator on seven occasions, Raye never made the next step to head coach. Interviewed several times, Raye always ended up as a bridesmaid. Too bad, too, because, as history has frequently demonstrated, there have been a lot of coaches in league history who could barely tell an X from an O. Raye could, but it never seemed to matter.
Brutally honest for most of his three-plus decades in the league, outspoken for years about the inequality of hiring practices in the NFL, long before it was fashionable to promote coaches who weren’t white or racial diversity was mandated, Raye was probably a victim of his candor. But the guy is essentially a walking encyclopedia of football knowledge.
There was a reason that seven teams hired Raye as coordinator, a reason that he bounced around so much and accumulated so many luggage tags. Let’s face it, in a dozen years of calling plays, his teams ranked just once statistically among the top 10 offenses in the league. Seven times, including this season, Raye’s offenses rated 20th or worse.
But there was a reason head coaches, Mike Singletary being the latest example, entrusted their offenses to Jimmy Raye, too. Because they knew he was a wise, old hand, a throwback, old school for sure, but a guy who knew football.
It has become more popular to fire offensive coordinators of late than head coaches. Literally. Since the summer of ’09, there have now been four offensive coordinators handed their walking papers.
Ask guys like Tony Dungy about Raye, and he’d tell you he was a pioneer, one of the black assistants upon whose shoulders stood the several men of color who eventually became head coaches in the league.
Just last week, in a Tip Sheet item for The Sports Xchange this columnist noted that San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith had actually developed a comfortable mix with Raye. A day later, 49ers’ linebacker Patrick Willis defended his quarterback, which was seen as an endorsement of sorts as Raye.
But the Niners have a bagel in the left-hand side of the wins-losses column and, for a team that was a chic pick to win the woeful NFC West, that is seen as a no-no.
Maybe Raye, whose unit was 20th in the league when he was fired, wasn’t nearly as good as advertised.
Maybe, neither, were the 49ers.
Chances are that management, which probably believed all the hyperbole about the club’s excellence, was looking for a scapegoat. Odds are, too, that no one in the San Francisco front office possessed the nerve to fire Raye, and that it was left to Singletary, as inexperienced as he is, to perform the dastardly deed.
But probably no one more than the prideful Raye, who understands full well that it is a results-oriented league, understood the move. There were rumors on Sunday night, following the 49ers’ latest pratfall, that Raye was in trouble. Maybe out of loyalty, a trait Raye knows well, this columnist ignored them. Or perhaps it was just dialogue spread by the unidentified "rat" in the organization — Singletary’s word, not ours — that wanted the coordinator job.
Probably, if he’s smart, Raye will go back to the retirement home in North Carolina that he built a few years ago. He’ll likely spend some time with his second passion, golf and work on his handicap.
But if some coach in 2011 needs a quarterbacks assistant, or a wide receivers guy, or a running backs aide, he’ll pick up the phone and give Raye a call. The events of Monday notwithstanding, he could do worse.