NFL teams keep pulling old coaches back

BY Peter Schrager • January 9, 2012

The NFL coaching carousel has never been creakier. Riders beware, there's some rust on this ride.

With the news that 53-year-old Jeff Fisher — he of six winning seasons in 17 years as a head coach in Tennessee, a 5-6 career postseason record, and zero Super Bowl titles — has two once-prominent franchises waiting with bated breath on his decision, I can’t help but envision a terrible college dive bar at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night.

With guys like Bill Cowher, Urban Meyer, and Jon Gruden all long gone and technically “off the market,” there’s Fisher — a "5" on a good day — being courted by desperate suitors like he’s the hottest dame at the dance.

When you’re up against the likes of two Schottenheimers, Wade Phillips, and Mike Sherman, it’s hard not look like Brooklyn Decker leaning up against a jukebox. Fisher’s “stock” has skyrocketed in the last two months and it’s certainly not because of some new, innovative offense he’s been outlining on the beach in San Diego.

It’s because he’s up against a bunch of dogs.

The fact that 68-year-old Marty Schottenheimer, with a resume that includes a career 5-13 postseason record and zero Super Bowl appearances, is being considered as a serious candidate for the vacant job in Tampa Bay should shed some light on the current state of NFL coaching hires.

Tampa Bay “going old” shouldn’t surprise us, though. After putting all of his eggs in the Raheem Morris basket three years ago, GM Mark Dominik saw the Bucs quit on their 35-year-old coach midseason, completely tuning out a guy who was only 10 years older than most of them (and a year younger than starting cornerback Ronde Barber). So, Dominik’s doing what most GMs do when they fire a coach and still — luckily — retain their own jobs.

He’s pulling a 180 and going a completely different direction.

In one fell swoop, Tampa Bay will go from a young, innovative unknown coaching entity to an old, well-traveled coaching re-tread. You know what you’re getting with a Marty Schottenheimer or a Wade Phillips. It might not be Super Bowl rings, but it’s stability, it’s a time-tested process, and for at least a few years — some order to the asylum. And for many franchises and long-losing fan bases, that’s enough.

Dominik rolled the dice on Morris in 2009, and after a 10-game losing streak to end what started a promising 2011 season, he crapped out. Now, he’ll go safe and play the penny slots. One extreme to the other. In three or four years, the pendulum will no doubt swing the other way.

We see the 180 move from organizations all the time. Eric Mangini was viewed as a disciplinarian who was a bore with the local New York media. Then Mike Tannenbaum hired Rex Ryan, the complete opposite in every way.

Jim Fassel was viewed as too soft with the players up in New York. The Giants went out and hired Tom Coughlin.

The complete 180 can be good for a franchise. It’s fresh, it’s a shakeup, and it can certainly satisfy the local media and fan base who are fed up with the way things had previously been.

But, Marty Schottenheimer?

Mike Sherman?

Sherman’s 2011 Texas A&M Aggies team was ranked No. 8 overall by the Associated Press back in August. They finished the season with a 6-6 record, losing a handful of games in the fourth quarter. As one Buccaneers fan wrote in a tweet Sunday night, “Mike 'effin Sherman?!”

With the recent successes of first-time head coaches Jim Harbaugh, Sean Payton, Ken Whisenhunt, John Harbaugh, and Mike Tomlin — we tend to roll our eyes when teams go back to the well and fish out a head coach who’s had one, two, even three stints at being a head coach before.

Fans crave for one of two extremes, really — a young, hot coordinator who’ll bring new blood and new energy to the franchise or a proven, Super Bowl-winning coach who can bring along years of experience and a winning culture.

When that first list of candidates isn’t exactly eye-popping (the same week New York Jets fans were clogging the sports radio show phone lines to scream about the need to see Brian Schottenheimer fired, he was interviewed for the head coaching gig in Jacksonville) and the latter list includes only four real available options (Cowher, Gruden, Brian Billick, Jimmy Johnson), each of whom are seemingly happy with their current media gigs, you end up with the dive bar scenario. Dames you’ve seen with countless other dance partners in failed relationships and a list of anonymous names and faces you’re not sure you want to buy a drink, let alone take home.

You start to wonder what guys like Rich Kotite and Paul Hackett are up to and curiously Google "Where is Vince Tobin these days?" into your iPhone.

But then you look at the job a guy like John Fox has done in Denver this year, and think that maybe the coaching re-tread is the way to go, after all.

Fox hadn’t taken a team to the playoffs in three seasons and the Panthers were the worst team in all of football a year ago. But he was scooped up just days after being let go in Carolina, given a young team in Denver, and handed the keys to a franchise in transition. What has he done in his first twelve months in Denver? Offered some form of stability, provided an experienced voice, and given the assurance to fans that this guy—Super Bowl rings or not—isn’t at his first rodeo. Sure enough, a year after finishing with the second worst record in football, the Broncos are two wins away from the Super Bowl. The Fox hire--though not exactly the shocker a Marty Schottenheimer one would be--worked out very well in Denver.

There’s comfort in knowing that your head coach has at least been there and done that before, regardless of your definition of "done that" is.

Which leads us back to Jeff Fisher.

Fisher’s a good man and a proven NFL head coach. Though he’s got no rings to show for it, he coached three different Titans teams to 13-win seasons and came a yard short from hoisting a Lombardi Trophy back in 2000. Refreshed after a year away from the game, he’s as safe a bet as anyone this offseason.

Jeff Fisher will improve your team in 2012.

And in Miami and St. Louis, two cities where the NFL playoffs seem like distant, dusty memories from a bygone era, that’s more than enough.

In the closing minutes of the Giants’ 24-2 victory over the listless Falcons on Sunday, the FOX cameras focused in on Falcons’ four-year head coach Mike Smith. Before his arrival in the ATL, the Falcons had never experienced winning seasons in consecutive years. Since taking over as coach, Atlanta’s played January football three different times and have won an NFC South division title. With another dud in the playoffs, though, his Falcons had again come up short when it mattered most.

“What a loser,” a guy seated next to me at my local sports bar said dismissively in the game’s waning seconds.

“Just watch, that ‘loser' will probably be the hottest coaching candidate on the block in a few years. He'll be able to name his price wherever he wants to go next,” I responded.

Everyone laughed.

I wasn’t even close to kidding.
 



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