Under the Headset  

 

Jeff Fisher, Jim Caldwell highlight era of patience with coaches

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The drumbeat will start soon. Rumors will fly, anonymous "reliable sources" will be quoted and conjecture will spread on the pregame shows, in newspapers, on the internet and talk radio. How many NFL head coaches will be fired after this season? Eight? Ten? Twelve?

Whatever the predicted number is, I'm betting the under.

I think there is a new mindset taking shape among NFL owners. It may not be a trend yet, but it might become one. Call it The Return of Patience, or maybe just the return of sanity.

There were 32 coaching changes in the NFL between 2006 and 2009, with double-digit changes in two of those seasons. The overarching belief then was that you needed to succeed in your second season at the helm -- at the latest -- or you were looking at the ax. But since that time, there hasn't been a season with more than eight coaching changes. There were seven changes each after the 2013 and '14 campaigns, and only six after last season. I don't see the number going above that this year.

Are owners getting smarter? Or just more practical? It could be a little of both. After that rush toward change for change's sake at the end of the last decade, there's been a renewed sense of patience by many teams, an acknowledgment that the best thing isn't always to tear everything down and start from scratch.

Consider the Los Angeles Rams. Before the season, coach Jeff Fisher vowed on HBO's "Hard Knocks" that he wasn't "#&$! going 7-9." Well, the Rams are now 4-8, meaning they'd need to go 3-1 down the stretch just to reach that mediocre level. But news came this past week that the team already had given Fisher a two-year contract extension (through 2018) before the season.

As my own experience proves, signing a big contract extension doesn't mean you're going to be there, necessarily; it just means you're going to be paid. (I signed a four-year extension with the Baltimore Ravens before the 2007 season and was fired right after it.) But I think the Rams are going to stick with Fisher.

The detractors will point out that he'd coached 20 full seasons in the NFL heading into 2016 and finished with a winning record just six times. The defenders will counter that he's a solid, competent coach. They'll say allowances should be given for the fact that the entire franchise and all its players had an offseason in flux, as the organization moved halfway across the country from St. Louis to Los Angeles. They'll point out that Fisher is also breaking in a rookie quarterback in No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff.

But owner Stan Kroenke and the Rams aren't the only ones who've been patient. The Jaguars were 12-36 in three years under Gus Bradley, but they stuck with him for another season in the hopes that continuity would be rewarded. As of yet, it hasn't been, and the Jags stand at 2-10. If the pink slip comes at the end of the season, Bradley can't say he didn't have a fair shot.

In recent years, a lot of teams have seemed to be on the verge of firing their coaches before pulling back from the ledge. Carolina's patience with Ron Rivera paid off with a trip to the Super Bowl last season. Indianapolis seemed certain to fire Chuck Pagano after the injury-marred disappointment of 2015. But owner Jim Irsay had a change of heart and stuck with both Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson. Indy hasn't set the world on fire this year, but the Colts are right in the hunt for a playoff spot in 2016. Detroit's patience with Jim Caldwell, similarly, could well result in an NFC North title and playoff trip this year (the Lions are currently in first, with a two-game lead over the Vikings and Packers).

The reasons for teams staying the course are manifold. There are strategic advantages (we've seen what having three or four different coaches or coordinators in as many years can do to a quarterback's development), but also practical ones (coaches are making a lot of money these days, and when you fire a coach, you fire a staff as well -- the new coach will want his own people -- meaning you're on the hook for all those salaries). So teams have both a strategic and financial incentive to avoid being too rash.

Also, teams are starting to ask themselves a very valid question before they fire a coach: Who can we find that's going to do a better job? Who can we find that will make us competitive faster than the coach and staff we have in place now? There's not a long list. Do the Bengals give up on Marvin Lewis, who made five playoff appearances in a row before this year's disappointing campaign? I think not. Who is better suited to succeed in Cincinnati? What about Rex Ryan in Buffalo? Is there a better coach waiting in the wings who wants to take the Bills over and who has a better chance of succeeding?

Look, everybody wants to be perennial contenders. But there are only a handful of head coaches who can make teams competitive instantly and keep them in the mix year after year. And guess what? Most of them are already working (Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Andy Reid) or out of circulation (Tony Dungy).

So after an era of hair-trigger firings, it could be that patience is being viewed as a virtue again. The Steelers are the model. They stuck with Chuck Noll after he started 12-30 over his first three seasons, and they were rewarded with eight straight playoff appearances and four Super Bowl wins in a six-year span. Later, they remained loyal to Bill Cowher, despite his missing the playoffs three years in a row (1998-2000) and again after going 6-10 in 2003. Their patience was rewarded with a 15-1 mark in 2004 and another Super Bowl title a year later.

Stability is hard to find. But teams have tried the other way and realized, at some point, they were just spinning their wheels. There have been six different coaches at the helm in Cleveland in the years since the last non-Browns coaching change in the AFC North (the Ravens hired John Harbaugh in 2008). Lewis, Harbaugh and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin have watched Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine and now Hue Jackson stride the Browns' sideline. In a related note, the Browns are suffering their ninth consecutive losing season.

The NFL is a zero-sum world. You're not going to have 32 successful head coaches at the same time. Sometimes you really do need to clean house and start over from the ground floor. But in a league in which every team is drawn inexorably toward the middle, there's a lot to be said for continuity and stability, for riding out the occasional year of retrenchment or injury and keeping everyone on the same page going forward.

I'd like to think that NFL owners are being more patient because, in most cases, it just makes good football sense. But it might be simply that impatience has gotten a lot more expensive. Either way, look for fewer firings at the end of this season. Most coaches will get to do what they most want to do at the end of a losing season: get right back to work.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @CoachBillick.

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