Under the Headset  

 

Rex Ryan's firing of Greg Roman spotlights realities of coaching

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I was reminded this week -- not that those of us who have done it for a living need much of a reminder -- of how tenuous and hard-hearted the coaching profession can be.

Saturday in Baltimore, Clarence Brooks, one of my former assistants with the Ravens who stayed on the staff when John Harbaugh took over, died after a long battle with cancer. A day earlier in Buffalo, one of my former assistants, Rex Ryan, fired another one of my former assistants, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, just two games into the new season.

Clarence was a profoundly joyful, beloved character who perfectly fit the mold of a defensive line coach. The best D-line coaches are part coach, part lion-tamer, because the manic intensity of a Jared Allen or J.J. Watt is so integral to success at that position. Brooks was a living testament to Dick Vermeil's saying: "Your players don't care what you know until they know that you care." C.B. was a pure coach who loved working with the players.

Like the rest of us, he was also an obsessive who was fortunate enough to find an outlet for his obsession. If you haven't done it, it's difficult to understand the truly all-consuming nature of the job.

Brooks' son, Jason, who coached four seasons for the Ravens, is now a tight ends coach at Florida International University. He coached Saturday, a day after his father's death -- FIU was playing his father's alma mater, Massachusetts -- because "that's how he would have wanted it." That's a cliché, I know, but in C.B.'s case, it's actually true.

The coaching life isn't for everyone, and the coaching fraternity can be both fiercely loyal and incredibly cold-blooded. The old adage that you often heard at the NCAA coaches conventions was that if an assistant coach died of a heart attack on the convention floor, his head coach would have two dozen résumés slipped under his hotel room door before the paramedics arrived.

On Friday, Roman reportedly sat for the Bills' team picture, and then he was told he was being relieved of his duties as offensive coordinator. I count both Ryan and Roman as friends and have seen the perspective from both sides. Here are two competing imperatives in coaching, which can be roughly distilled to: "It's a results business; it's all about winning," and, "Loyalty to your staff above all else." Sometimes, these two ideals are in competition, and the head coach has to make a decision.

Since almost every assistant coach desires to be a coordinator, and almost every coordinator wants to someday be a head coach, you have to be careful to distinguish the genuine philosophical and strategic differences that might arise among assistants from those trumped-up divisions by people who are just looking to move up at the expense of others.

The head coach needs to keep any discord controlled and contained. The minute your owner or GM gets involved, either directly or (even worse) behind your back, it is over. You can debate who should have final say over the draft, the game-day roster and so on, but a head coach who doesn't have complete control of his staff is done. Period.

Looking back over my head-coaching career, the biggest mistakes I ever made were giving in to the pressures from management to make changes on my staff. That is not an excuse. I made the changes and I take responsibility for them, but in a couple of instances, I did so for the wrong reason.

As a rule, when a decision to fire a coach is made during the season, things have to be really bad. And unless you know all that went on in the background, it's impossible to know whether it's a swift executive decision that needs to be made (the football equivalent of the management concept of "fail fast") or simply a sign of panic or frustration, when a coach, GM or owner decides someone has to be thrown under the bus.

When I took over the play-calling duties in the middle of the 2006 season, having to fire a friend in the process, I felt like I had no choice -- I knew I would lose the team if I didn't. No players had come to me, nor had any other coaches, but I knew it was not a healthy situation, and we were losing the players day by day. Once we had the success later that season, as a team and as an offense, I felt as though I was boxed into retaining the duties, which ultimately led to my firing after the following season. Instead of being ripped for 16 wins or losses over the course of the next season, I was being scrutinized for 1,200 calls. Every pass should have been a run, every run should have been a pass.

I don't know the particulars in the Bills' situation. But as for rumors that Ryan wanted Roman gone all along, that just doesn't make sense. I introduced Ryan and Roman when I hired them both on my staff, and to suggest that Roman just wasn't Ryan's guy is absurd. Ryan liked Roman so much that he sought him after Roman's previous boss, Jim Harbaugh, left San Francisco; the Bills didn't simply hire Roman as offensive coordinator, they made him the highest-paid coordinator in all of football. While I am not privy to the inner workings of their recent relationship, to just blindly suggest that Roman was not Ryan's guy is ill-informed.

Last year, these same Buffalo Bills, under Roman, were the No. 1-ranked rushing offense in the entire NFL and finished just outside the top 10 (12th) in scoring offense. Similarly, it's not like the 2016 version of the Bills' offense was grossly underperforming. They were coming off a Week 2 loss in which they passed for more than 300 yards, scored 24 offensive points and orchestrated three explosive plays. In short, the needle seemed to be pointed in the right direction.

From the outside looking in, there wasn't a better coordinator to handle the skill set of Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor. What Roman was able to do with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco is proof enough. Two years ago, Kaepernick looked like the next big thing under Roman's tutelage; since Roman left, Kaepernick has looked merely pedestrian.

So the true reason for the firing will remain obscured, for the time being, at least. In the end, you have to remember that this game is a zero-sum world. For every win, there's a corresponding loss. Every week in the NFL, someone gets closer to losing their job. And learning to live with that uncertainty makes you even more obsessive.

I had an 85-67 coaching record in my pro career. I tried to keep things in perspective, spend time with my children and be a decent husband to my wife -- and I think I succeeded at least partially in those things, compared to coaches who were sleeping in their offices from August to January. But it's also true that I was obsessive, too. I didn't sleep a minute on the night of each of those 67 losses.

After the wins, there is a short respite -- you come back to the locker room, you shake hands, you confer with your other coaches, and you go have a nice dinner with your family. But even before you leave the stadium, even before you share in that hour of relaxation with a steak and a glass of wine, it starts again.

There's less than seven full days to prepare for the next game, and you become pensive, thinking about the new set of challenges, the injuries you may be dealing with, the play designs that didn't work, the opponents' strengths and the opposing coaching staff's tendencies. You go back to work.

That's what the staff did in both Baltimore and Buffalo, after grieving the loss of Brooks and saying their good-byes to Roman. That's what coaches do. We'll tell you that the game doesn't allow anything else. While that's true, it's also true that we are obsessively devoted to the game, and don't know any other way.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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