Monday was a sad day in the NFL.
It was sad that so many coaches and executives lost their jobs, and it's sad that so many families are going to be disrupted. It's also sad that so many NFL franchises have not found the right infrastructure for sustained success.
Monday's firings were not entirely the fault of the people being fired; some of those who kept their jobs were as responsible as their former colleagues for their teams' failures. Regardless, change is a part of the NFL, especially today, when the stakes are high and immediate results are expected.
The day's events reminded me of something Bill Walsh told me back in 1984, when I was a young scouting assistant with the San Francisco 49ers, running around the draft room like a chicken with its head cut off. Walsh pulled me aside and said there were certain teams I could stop worrying about. He said he wasn't focused on the entire league; he was just focused on what seven other teams were doing. That's because Walsh thought the only real competition he faced for Super Bowl supremacy came from those seven teams. He felt the other 20 teams in the NFL (there were only 28 in 1984) would never sustain success, in part because they couldn't develop consistent symmetry between the coaching staff and the front office.
That's something some teams still struggle to accomplish today. However, things like free agency and the salary cap mean there are even more variables to consider -- and more opportunities to make mistakes -- than there were in 1984, making it even more important to have complete organizational unity.
Some of the teams that made moves Monday will attempt to lay the foundation for the kind of change that will turn them into one of those successful organizations. Others, however, have yet to figure out what it takes to build the right infrastructure, and are doomed to be looking for a new coach or GM again a few years from now. That's why Walsh's view still applies today.
Why is it that the Giants and Steelers have the right infrastructure in place while so many others don't? The answer lies in the lessons learned from losing. Before they became modern success stories, both the Giants and Steelers endured long periods of futility, perennially counted among the ranks of losing teams. But then the Giants hired George Young and the Steelers hired Chuck Noll, both of whom solved their respective organizations' problems and installed a winning infrastructure that both teams still use today. The Giants and Steelers have replaced talented people with talented people since then, but the teams' core approaches haven't changed. Many NFL teams have yet to learn such lessons.
Not all of Monday's firings were the same. Three coaches who have been to the Super Bowl were let go: Lovie Smith by the Chicago Bears, Andy Reid by the Philadelphia Eagles and Ken Whisenhunt by the Arizona Cardinals. Smith, Reid and Whisenhunt did not suddenly become bad coaches. Their former teams just had reasons to make a move.
Smith was fired essentially because the Bears want to go in a new direction and implement a new philosophy -- things that will be easier to do with a new coach in place. The same thing is true in Philadelphia, where Reid's tenure had run its course after 14 years, a long time to be in one spot. Reid had been the man in charge, but Eagles GM Howie Roseman has acquired more authority, and the team needed to start anew. Reid, meanwhile, might benefit from a fresh start.
Whisenhunt's dismissal had a lot to do with the 2011 trade to acquire quarterback Kevin Kolb, which I'm sure Whisenhunt signed off on. Kolb did not play well, leaving Arizona without an effective quarterback. Whisenhunt and former GM Rod Graves, who was also fired, both paid the price for failing to have an answer at the most critical position in the NFL.
The other four coaching moves made Monday had more to do with a desire to effect change than anything else. New owner Jimmy Haslam brought change to the Cleveland Browns, as he is setting up his organization. Chan Gailey did a good job dealing with the talent he was given with the Buffalo Bills, but he did not win enough games, and change came to that team, as well. Change had to come to the Kansas City Chiefs, with Romeo Crennel unable to repeat the success he enjoyed while filling in on an interim basis for the fired Todd Haley last season. Change also came to the San Diego Chargers, who failed to meet playoff expectations, leading to the ouster of general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner.
With the exception of the Bears and perhaps the Chargers and Carolina Panthers, all of the teams with coaching and/or GM vacancies have failed to find a quarterback. General managers are defined by their ability to find talent both on and off the field, but their longevity is intimately tied to their ability to find the right coach and the right quarterback. Mistakes in either area can prove costly. The notion that it takes time to rebuild, meanwhile, has been made obsolete by the success of the Indianapolis Colts, who went from finishing 2-14 in 2011 to making the playoffs in 2012.
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To be one of the league's truly successful teams, it's crucial to find answers at quarterback and coach. As much as teams try to find a play caller who can fix their offense, the true mark of success is getting the quarterback to play well and finding the right leader for the team. Additionally, teams must have the right infrastructure in place for developing the rest of the roster. Some might say that it's easy to win -- just find the right quarterback. But that's like telling someone it's easy to get rich -- just go win the lottery. The odds are not in your favor.
At several news conferences Monday, we heard team representatives say they're looking for leaders who can inspire. Will they all find what they want? Will they all be happy?
There are currently seven head-coaching jobs open in the NFL. How many will be open again in three years? Probably three or four. Maybe then teams will realize failure isn't the fault of just one man; rather, it stems from the inability to help build the organization around the coach, the team's leader.
Monday was sad. Unfortunately, I see more sad days ahead for some.