First Time’s the Charm in NFL
Herm Edwards knew when he became head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006 that he had to build a winner quickly.
Win, and win fast, is the mandate NFL head coaches carry into their jobs. So it wasn't a huge surprise to Edwards when, after a 2-14 season and a three-year record of 15-33, the Chiefs fired him Jan. 23. "When you take those jobs, you've got about a three-year window," Edwards said. "And you know that."
His dismissal was part of a year in which a record-tying 11 head coaches lost their jobs. That carousel has created upheaval among the ranks of head coaches. Thirteen of the current crop have less than two years' experience. There are six coaches (Brian Billick, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan) out of work who hold seven of the last 13 Super Bowl titles and who figure to draw interest from the next batch of owners ready to start anew.
"There's only 32 of those jobs," Edwards said, "and there's a lot of guys who want to be head coaches in this league."
Long-term stability among NFL head coaches is rare. Only eight teams have coaches with at least five years' experience in the same job. When Mike Tomlin led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl victory in February, he joined Bill Belichick (New England Patriots) and Tom Coughlin (New York Giants) as the only active head coaches to have won a title.
"There's no question there's more pressure," former NFL quarterback and current CBS analyst Phil Simms said. "Owners are less patient. They see young guys and think there might be a different way. The media and fans are impatient. You can't change all the players, but you can sure change the coach."
Tomlin's success has helped usher young and inexperienced head coaches into vogue. Of the 11 new coaches since the start of last season, nine are in their first shot as the head man.
Hiring inexperienced coaches isn't novel - Don Shula, John Madden and Gruden won NFL titles before turning 41. But it's trendy now, fueled in part by three rookie head coaches (the Baltimore Ravens' John Harbaugh, Atlanta Falcons' Mike Smith and Miami Dolphins' Tony Sparano) reaching the playoffs last year after inheriting sub-.500 teams. Their success stories have transformed the traditional pool of head coaching candidates that for a long time consisted of veteran coordinators and former head coaches.
"It's like a style of clothes," said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Raheem Morris, 33, in his first year. "They all come back around in circles. At some point, Dick Vermeil will get a job, they'll hire Marv Levy, bring Bill Parcells back, then we'll change it all over again and go to the young guys."
Quick turnarounds not the norm@
Despite last year's success, new coaches, especially young ones, often can face a perilous track to success. Winning respect from players is important, and having a front office that will cultivate a talented roster is a must.
Sparano, who turned Miami from a 1-15 doormat in 2007 to 11-5 AFC East champion last year, said it's unreasonable to expect turnarounds such as those he, Harbaugh and Smith engineered to be regular occurrences. "Some people may say, 'Hey, they were able to do it, so you should be (able),' " Sparano said. "It's not that easy, doesn't work that way."
Effective head coaches can be any age, but good communication and inspiring players are must-have skills. "They've got to believe you can make them better," former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "They've got to believe in your plan. Being able to do those things is ageless."
Baby-faced Morris said his message is the same as his competitors twice his age: "We're just saying it maybe with a different swagger, some different slang, a different way to relate to some of our players."
Learning how to straddle the line between respecting players and wielding authority can be challenging.
"A head coach has little to do with the X's and O's," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said. "It's about managing people. We've certainly seen that in Denver, a young coach (Josh McDaniels) trying to establish he's the man."
McDaniels feuded with Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler this spring in a dispute that ended with Cutler being traded to the Chicago Bears. He also suspended Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall last week, continuing a rift that's lingered since Marshall requested a trade in June.
@"When you're riding in a nice luxury car and you're a passenger, it's a little different," former Pro Bowler Warren Sapp said of McDaniels, who served as an assistant for eight years under three-time Super Bowl winner Belichick. "There's some buttons to work when you're in the driver's seat. I think he hit one of those buttons and thought it did this, and it did that. So now he's figuring out the driver's seat is a lot different than sitting in the back."
Cowher, who was 35 when he started a 15-year run as Steelers coach in 1992, acknowledged gaining control of a locker room is challenging at first.
Players, he said, "are looking at you when you're young and have no experience and are thinking 'Can you do this?' And they will test you."
The trick, Cowher said, is to win. "Winning early gains you a lot of credibility."
Youth is served - and cheaper
The glut of available head coaching talent could serve as a buffet for unsatisfied owners throughout the 2009 season and beyond. "This is unprecedented to have this many quality coaches available," Casserly said. "It's unbelievable."
Why are so many Super Bowl-winning coaches out of jobs? It's possible that the big salaries these coaches would command could be scaring off teams. Said Edwards, "You're not going to pay a young guy as much as you pay a veteran guy."
The potential for labor strife also could play a role. The league is negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the players union. If no deal is reached, there could be a lockout in 2011.
Collinsworth said that could be a factor in recruiting younger coaches. "You still pay the coaches even through those labor issues," he said.
But Cowher, now a CBS analyst, said owners also seek inexperienced candidates because it gives them an opportunity to build a long-term relationship on their terms and not have to cede to a veteran coach's vision.
"You want young guys you can groom within your system," Cowher said. "Owners say, 'We're not looking to bring somebody in to change anything. We're looking to bring someone in to keep it the way it is.' Your younger coaches are more receptive to not wanting to change a lot."
Billick, Gruden, Shanahan and Holmgren have hinted to varying degrees that they'd entertain offers to return to coaching. Dungy hasn't said if he'll return, and Cowher calls himself "year-to-year."
He'd have to find the ideal situation, Cowher said, one that would allow him to chart a course toward another Super Bowl title. "If you get into that business, you don't go back into it for the money," he said. "You don't go back into it because of the notoriety. You're going back into it because you want to win a championship."
Simms said the spot that's most natural for Cowher, Dungy, Shanahan and their ilk is on the sideline. A job in TV is nice, he said, but like Parcells and Joe Gibbs before them, he expects the crop of unemployed Super Bowl-winning coaches to return to the NFL.
"The biggest thing of all is just the power," he said. "You're the man in charge. And I think that's why they go back.
"And I'll be shocked if Bill Cowher doesn't go back someday."