On coaching carousel, hang on tight
Gregg Easterbrook [ARCHIVE]
ESPN Playbook
January 3, 2013
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Off with their heads! The season has ended, and NFL coaches, assistants and general managers are being fired left and right.

To a certain extent this is poetic justice. The sole goal of an NFL football operation is to win. (The goal of the business side is to make money, which is another story.) If the football part of the franchise doesn't win, by definition the coaches and front-office types have done a poor job. Their huge salaries are justified by "the buck stops here" claims. So if the team does badly, the buck should stop for coaches, assistants and general managers.

The situation is different in college football, at least in theory. For a college football coach, victory is only one of several objectives. If players graduate, if the team represents the school in a positive manner and attracts students and donations, a college football coach can have a good season despite losses. One of the things wrong with NCAA football is that increasingly it is treated, including by ESPN, like pro football -- as if all that mattered was wins. But at least in theory, a college football coach can do a good job even if his team loses.

An NFL coach whose team loses by definition has not done a good job. NFL coaches don't have any educational responsibilities. They don't represent a venerable institution. They're not trying to inspire young people to apply to attend the Kansas City Chiefs or to get boosters to donate to the Cleveland Browns. They're supposed to win. If they don't, off with their heads!

Another cause of the annual season-ending NFL coaching Black Monday is that the owner needs someone to blame, in order to placate the fan base. On a practical basis, the owner can't fire the entire team. But he can fire the head coach. It's a prompt, decisive action. Nearly all NFL tickets are sold in the offseason. Even though 20 of the 32 teams are shutting it down on the field, they need a reason ticket buyers can believe next season will be better than this one was. They need that reason fast, for sales purposes. Firing the head coach creates hope for next year.

So out the door they go! Norv Turner, Andy Reid, Pat Shurmur, Chan Gailey, Romeo Crennel, Lovie Smith, Ken Whisenhunt. The list of those stopping at the cashier's window for their final paychecks may be longer by the time this column is published. General managers are losing their heads too, with Tom Heckert (Browns), Mike Tannenbaum (Jets), Gene Smith (Jacksonville), A.J. Smith (San Diego) and Rod Graves (Cardinals) fired as of this writing. General managers lack the media profile of a head coach, but if you're, say, not willing to fire Rex Ryan, and your Jets just stunk up the joint, somebody has to go.

In the Jets' case, firing Tannenbaum may mean he will be blamed for trading up to draft Mark Sanchez in 2009. That will allow Ryan to claim he was just humoring the general manager by starting Sanchez. It may be nonsense, but will create hope among ticket customers.

NFL head coaches can't complain about being fired for blame-shifting reasons, considering they do this to their own assistants. Reid fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo midseason, trying to make the Eagles' straits his fault: though Philadelphia gave up 21 points per game under Castillo, then 32 points per game after he departed. John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron midseason, trying to make the Ravens' plodding offense his fault: though Baltimore averaged 25 points under Cameron, and has averaged 23 points since.

Which leads to an obvious question -- will firing the head coach do any good?

Already there is a mad scramble to find new NFL head-coaching candidates who glisten with promise but have not themselves been fired, or at least haven't been fired too often. There is not a gigantic list of candidates who would get ticket buyers rushing to their laptops to place orders. Everybody wants Chip Kelly, who would seem ill-advised to leave his dreamlike situation at Oregon for the backstabbing environment of the NFL. Everybody wants Jon Gruden, who would seem ill-advised to leave the job with the least work/most visibility/highest pay formula in broadcast sports. Many teams want Bill O'Brien, who would seem a weasel if he walked out on his promises to Penn State after a single year.

Everybody always wants Kirk Ferentz, the Al Smith of NFL coaching vacancies.

Realistically, most clubs who just fired their head coach won't be able to obtain glamour names, regardless of how much money is waved. Teams will end up with current assistants such as Denver's Mike McCoy or Cincinnati's Mike Zimmer, men who work hard and know football -- but are replacing men who work hard and know football. Because high-profile college head coaches don't often jump to the NFL (Jim Harbaugh, Tom Coughlin and Pete Carroll are exceptions), pro football teams invariably look to the ranks of current NFL assistants, and end up with head coaches who have never been head coaches before, making their potential hard to gauge. And who, a few years later, will be blamed and fired.

In playoff news, the Broncos won the first seed in the AFC and enter the postseason on a league-best 11-0 streak. Obviously Peyton Manning has something to do with this. The football world is already salivating over the prospect that the AFC title game will, once again, pit Manning versus Tom Brady. But football is a team sport. What else besides Manning is happening in Denver?

First, balance. Denver was the sole club to finish in the top five on both offense and defense. If New Orleans had a defense this season, or Pittsburgh had an offense, either would have been formidable. Denver had an offense and a defense.

Second, defense. The Broncos led the league in sacks -- Manning arrived as Von Miller was becoming a star. Denver's front seven showed excellent "gap discipline" against the run, with players rarely out of position. The Broncos were third best in rushing yards allowed -- partly because opponents were behind and passed so much in the second half -- and tied for best in preventing long runs (20 yards or more). The veteran secondary rarely out of position, Denver finished fifth best in long passes allowed and fifth best in average gain per opposition pass attempt. Statistics like this reflect both talent and discipline.

Third, offense. When Manning was surveying the NFL, wanted by almost every team, he looked at blockers. The Broncos have one of the league's best in left tackle Ryan Clady. They used their second-round picks of 2010 and 2011 on talented, hustling offensive linemen Zane Beadles and Orlando Franklin. After Manning signed, they brought in center Dan Koppen, a former Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-Quarterback Non-Running Back NFL MVP. Denver finished the season second best for sacks allowed. Manning is immobile, but that doesn't matter if the rush...
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