Sometimes, someone can stay at one place too long -- even in football. Change in the NFL is part of the culture and not always bad.
Jeff Fisher leaving the Tennessee Titans does not surprise me. What surprises me is that he is leaving now. I thought for sure the 2011 season would be his last as the coach of the Titans, but in a turn of events, Fisher and the Titans decided to part ways on Thursday -- and in reality this is the best move for him and the Titans.
It's hard to coach a team in lame-duck status -- even for someone who has been doing the job as long as Fisher. The players sense that the coach is not going to be around for the long-term, therefore he is not completely vested, why should they?
When Bill Parcells was the coach in Dallas, we had several phone conversations a month talking about all things football. Often he would mention to me his uncertainty of his future; how he was not sure he was coming back. I would politely remind him that his team can sense his indecision and if the players think for one moment he is not going to be back, they won't give him their all. Parcells is as demanding as any coach, but players have great instincts and they know if their coach is really committed. To win in the league, it takes everyone giving their all -- and then some. Even Parcells could not fool the Cowboys, and perhaps their early exit in the playoffs had as much to do with his indecision as their opponent.
When defensive line coach Jim Washburn walked out the door and headed to Philadelphia, so did a piece of Fisher. Fisher believes the game is won up front -- in both the offensive and defensive lines. He took great pride in being strong in both areas, with his players and coaches. Once he lost Washburn, whom Titans management allowed his contract to expire, Fisher lost any chance of having the kind of team he envisioned. Going into the season without Washburn would be like climbing Mount Everest without enough rope. Fisher knew the 2011 season would end badly, so why begin?
Much will be written about quarterback Vince Young coming back now that Fisher is gone. That's ridiculous, as it implies the only person Young had problems with was Fisher. Young had problems with everyone in Tennessee, not limiting it to his head coach. In fact, when general manager Mike Reinfeldt went to Houston to discuss Fisher and Young to owner Bud Adams, Reinfeldt knew winning with Young as his quarterback was not going to happen. Young's lack of leadership, work ethic and commitment to the team is why he is not coming back, not Fisher.
The real problem with Fisher coming back for one year involves the quarterback. Without a proven starter on the team, the Titans are in full search-mode, hoping to find a short- and long-term answer at the position. How can they draft a quarterback that the coaches feel fits their system, then fire the whole staff and start anew? Denver has made this mistake with Tim Tebow, as the man who drafted him is no longer their head coach -- so why would Fisher want to draft a player for the next staff?
Being successful when drafting a quarterback involves the organization making a long-term commitment to the player and the system the player will be asked to execute. These are decisions that can't be made quickly or easily, and before selecting one, the team must ask itself two fundamental questions: First, what system of offense can this player best function in? Second, can this system win a championship? If the answers lie with the staff that is being let out the door after one year (i.e. Denver), then the pick has a strong probability to fail. Football is not baseball. You can play third base for the Mets and get traded to the Yankees and not miss a beat, but you can't play quarterback for the Ravens and then go play for any West Coast team. Success happens when the right system finds the right player. We had a saying in Cleveland that we would often remind the scouts when I directed the personnel department there: We are not looking for players we like, but rather players that fit.
With this as a backdrop, it is easy to see why perhaps Fisher is no longer coaching the Titans. He might have come back for one year, but all the decisions moving forward involved long-term decisions, therefore his presence coaching the team might hinder the Titans' rebuilding process instead of helping. Wouldn't the Panthers be better served had they not brought John Fox back as a lame-duck coach and started their rebuilding process last year instead of enduring a two-win season, wasting an entire year developing players for another system? Carolina wasted a year, and now the Titans, as well as Fisher, are free to move forward.
Fisher has been around pro football long enough to know being a lame-duck coach is not a good place. Being the ultimate competitor, Fisher is better served to move along, not suffering the losses in a rebuilding year. He can recharge his battery, re-energize his enthusiasm for football and take a step back.
Remember what Winston Churchill once said: "To improve is to change and to be perfect is to change often." It was time for a change for Fisher and the Titans.