The NFL has become more and more of a homogeneous league, with parity pushing all teams to the middle, but some extreme outliers still exist just beyond the quarter pole of the 2013 season. Entering Week 6, there are three teams sitting at 5-0 and four teams that have yet to record a single win.
Oddly enough, undefeated coaches and winless coaches face similar challenges at this point in the season. Coaches in both extremes encounter a wide range of external noise that threatens to distract players from the immediate task at hand: winning the next game.
Obviously, the emotional baggage carried by the undefeated team is dramatically different from that lugged along by the team still searching for its first win. But for the players and coaches of the unblemished squad, the well-wishers and back-slappers already glibly talking about the Super Bowl and an undefeated season (in early October, no less) can be as big a distraction as those naysayers and second-guessers who attack the winless folk.
Even if the players and coaches are disciplined enough to hold those distractions at arm's length, surrounding influences away from the building (parents, wives, friends, etc.) can't help but jump the team member when he walks through the door to let him know who said what, when and why.
The coach of the undefeated team has to be constantly vigilant, watching for signs of his players slipping when it comes to focus and preparation (scouting DVDs not being collected, locker rooms left unusually messy, players not doing the extra weightlifting on their own). The winning coach wants to maintain the winning routine, but he also wants to ensure his players don't become bored with it.
Additionally, this coach must be wary of his players suddenly deciding that they've "arrived" after securing just a few wins, that they don't need to trouble themselves with the little things anymore. One of the biggest mistakes a coach can make after a hard-fought victory is breezily assuming the best team won. Sometimes that is true, but don't bet your next win on it. As often as not, the losers beat themselves. When this point is made to a team that's listening, it can make for an invaluable teaching moment. And that's what it's all about: maintaining a culture of improvement.
By the same token, the coach of the winless team must continue to sell players on the merits of his approach, even in the absence of tangible results. That said, the losing coach has to tweak things a bit, giving the players something -- even a placebo -- to hang their hats on. It might be a new practice routine, different meeting times or an altered installation schedule during the week -- a modest adjustment that, if it leads to success, can help convince players the program is back on track.
What about a winless head coach who is looking to really shake things up? Well, let's examine those options:
» Firing a coordinator. This is the easiest one. My team is playing poorly, so I'll take responsibility for it by axing one of my trusted aides. In the vast majority of cases, this action does little (or nothing) to change the fate of the team. But sometimes, you just have to do it -- and sometimes, it does make a difference. Last season, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh made a bold move in firing respected offensive coordinator Cam Cameron one day after a Week 14 loss. Harbaugh was succinct in his reasoning; really, there's not much more one can say at that time beyond "a change had to be made." For the Ravens, it proved to be the right move, culminating in a Super Bowl win.
» Changing your quarterback. This often is an act of desperation. Sometimes, when it's done, the head coach knows he's bringing in someone who isn't as good as the player he's replacing -- the move is made simply for the sake of change. There are times when it can make a difference, though. When I was coaching the Ravens in 2000, we went three games without scoring a touchdown. Tony Banks clearly was a better physical talent than our backup quarterback, Trent Dilfer, but the team needed someone to play within his talents, to avoid making mistakes and just keep us in games that our tremendous defense eventually could win. So we gave Dilfer the job midseason. This move also preceded a Super Bowl title.
» Calling a team meeting. This hardly ever works. When people are grumbling, it's usually because they haven't bought in in the first place. Sometimes there's something that needs to be said, but almost always, it needs to be said by a veteran player -- not somebody on the coaching staff.
Some people have asked me about changing head coaches midseason and if this is a viable option for an NFL franchise. My answer: It's much tougher to do in football than in any other sport.
Take baseball, for example. When a new manager comes in midsummer, he can change the atmosphere by putting a ping-pong table in the clubhouse and juggling the batting lineup. If the team starts winning, he's a genius.
In football, it just isn't practical to make that kind of change in the middle of the season. The offensive and defensive philosophies have been in place for years (or at least a number of months). You can't change these things overnight, unless you want to go back to a junior-high playbook. Or you could adopt the deposed coach's playbook, but then you face an obvious question: How are you going to do a better job implementing that vision than the person who came up with it in the first place?
So, for the most part, head coaches of winless teams in October are forced to bear down and ride out the storm. When you're in that position, you certainly scrutinize how you got there -- privately and with your staff. You try to question your assumptions. But you soldier on.
Dedicated and intelligent leadership from your veterans and captains is crucial. Because almost everyone is playing for his job, a certain amount of effort in the face of adversity is to be expected. But this can wane. When a team's best players continue to give it their all, even as things are going dreadfully, the rest of the guys often follow suit. Watch how proud veteran Troy Polamalu continues to fly to the ball, week in and week out, for the 0-4 Pittsburgh Steelers. That team isn't quitting.
Bottom line: The winless coach must keep teaching, keep showing players that he's doing everything in his power to fix the problems at hand. Bill Parcells has said that maybe the best coaching job he ever did was with the 1999 New York Jets. That team lost starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde in the opener and dropped six of its first seven games. But Parcells kept those players together, and they finished 8-8. There was no glory for that team, no Coach of the Year award for Parcells, but everyone involved knew he'd done a terrific job getting everything he could out of that group.
Of course, a great deal of all this has to do with who is doing the leading. Tom Coughlin isn't in the same boat as Greg Schiano or Gus Bradley, despite all three coaches being winless in 2013. Coughlin, with 151 wins and two Super Bowl rings, is beyond having to worry about losing his job. His task: shepherding the New York Giants through the final three quarters of the season in the most intense media market in the country.
Meanwhile, Schiano was brought in to change the culture of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When he started 6-4 in his debut season of 2012, the framework of what he wanted to do appeared to be firmly set. But now, with four straight losses to start Year 2 (and nine defeats in the past 10 games, going back to last season), the team is questioning that direction. Schiano changed quarterbacks from Josh Freeman to Mike Glennon, but issues remain. Is Glennon the long-term answer at the position, or will the Bucs dip into a deep quarterback pool in next spring's draft? It's always dangerous trying to stabilize your most important position in your third year on the job. In short, if Glennon doesn't work out, Schiano could be in trouble.
In Jacksonville, first-year coach Gus Bradley has more leeway. The Jaguars fired his predecessor, Mike Mularkey, after one disappointing season; the franchise couldn't ax Bradley without looking completely crazy and impulsive. Bradley's trying to sell his team on the "culture change" he was brought in to orchestrate, but personnel-wise, he's in a more difficult position than the other winless coaches. After all, Jacksonville has a void at quarterback, its top draft pick (Luke Joeckel) is out for the year and the cupboard's pretty bare in general.
In the end, whether you're John Fox at 5-0 or Mike Tomlin at 0-4, you must continue to reach your players and keep them focused on the weekly task at hand. There's nearly three months of football left -- enough time for a good thing to go bad, or a bad thing to go really bad.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.