The NFL regular season is officially in the books. As expected, the usual suspects have made their way into the postseason. Teams including the Patriots, Broncos, Pittsburgh, Seahawks, and Packers all have a shot at lifting the Lombardi on the night of February 7th.
But this isn’t about those teams. We know they’re great, and their continued presence on the field in the coming weeks will be a reminder of that. Come January, we’re inclined to focus on success, and not the failure. You have to admit, seeing fresh faces in the playoffs is one of the best parts of January football.
However, it is precisely those ignored failures that often present the most interesting storylines in professional sports, and football is no exception. For example, Bill Parcell’s inherited an abysmal Giants team in the 80’s and won two Super Bowls. Rex Ryan took a 4-12 Jets squad and led them to back to back AFC Championships. After the Ravens went 5-11, head coach John Harbaugh led the team to 11-5 and the AFC Championship in his first year.
Parcell’s story is an example of what a long term plan should look like. But because the Ryan and Harbaugh situations are impressed in our recent memories, many teams whirl through coaches like a carousel, believing a magical season to be just around the corner.
But that’s a crapshoot. Because if we’re being totally honest, hopes for an instant turnaround are pipe dreams at best.
If you want a prime example, look at Washington. Within the past ten years, their coaching staff has included four different head coaches: Joe Gibbs, Jim Zorn, Mike Shanahan, and Jay Gruden. With each new coach comes new staffing changes as well, and players have to learn new playbooks, too. That’s essentially wasted time that can be avoided by not firing a coach after a bad season or two. It’s not about being compassionate, but hedging your bets with the security of consistency. Each of the five previous Super Bowl Champions have had relative head coach stability in the ten years leading up to their win.
2014-15 New England Patriots: The Pats have been rolling with Belichick since 2000.
2013-14 Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll has been head coach since 2010. Before him, Jim Mora took the reins for the 2009 season when he replaced longtime coach Mike Holmgren (1999-2008).
2012-13 Baltimore Ravens: Jim Harbaugh was installed as head coach in 2008, succeeding coach Brian Billick (1999-2007).
2011-12 New York Giants: Tom Coughlin had been head coach since 2004. Before him, Jim Fassel was coach since 1997.
2010-11 Green Bay Packers: Mike McCarthy led his team to a championship in his fourth year. He took over for the 2006 season, replacing coach Mike Sherman (2000-2005).
Of these coaches, McCarthy has enjoyed the longest tenure, for a total of 9 years. More telling though, is the performance of these teams in their first seasons with the head coach:
- New England went 5-11 in their first season under Belichick. Their most notable draft acquisition was a 6th round compensatory pick, quarterback Tom Brady. But a sixth round rookie isn’t getting much playing time in any league.
- Seattle posted two consecutive losing seasons (both 7-9) in Pete Carroll’s first year. Picks included Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Golden Tate.
- Baltimore finished the 2008 season 11-5 and advanced to the AFC championship. Their finish was a rarity and came from the magic of a rookie trio: head coach John Harbaugh, quarterback Joe Flacco, and runningback Ray Rice.
- When Tom Coughlin took over as head coach for the Giants in 2004, his Giants went 6-10. The big offseason move was the Eli Manning-Philip Rivers trade.
- Mike McCarthy was joined by rookies A.J. Hawk, Daryn Colledge, and Greg Jennings during the 2006 season. But with all that talent, they still went 8-8.
Of those five, just one coach made the playoffs in his first year. When a team is tasked with restructuring on a massive scale, major overhauls every three years may look like great leaps forward, when in reality they are several steps back.
Washington thought that RGIII was the football messiah, and for all we know, he could have been. But the rookie quarterback had only two years with his coach before new leadership took over. Seriously, how much do you expect to change in two seasons? And that’s not even taking into account that the starting quarterback was injured for the second of those years.
But Washington isn’t the only club suffering through setbacks. Since 2005, Cleveland has seen six head coaching changes. It’s not necessarily an issue of their draft picks being busts, but rather an issue of potential stars lacking the opportunity to develop under consistent leadership.
Just as in life, nothing changes overnight. Top brass in low performing clubs needs to learn the importance of patience and development. A revolving door of on-field leadership will most likely lead to disappointment from fans and poor performance from the team. And on history’s scoreboard, like any other, the numbers don’t lie.