Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon was right. Every crime needs a fall guy, a patsy on whom to pin the mess. In the world of hard-boiled detectives, guilt doesn't matter much, and nuance doesn't matter at all. Same thing in the NFL.
Consider the case of Eric Mangini. Two years ago, he was the toast of New York, the Big Apple's wunderkind, the Mangenius. Forget Broadway, he scored a cameo on The Sopranos. That's the big time. But he deserved it then. Who but a genius could transform a 4-12 bunch of sad sacks into a 10-6 playoff team? And that was just his first season. Jets fans couldn't wait for Mangini's encore.
Of course, NFL head coaches aren't hired to coach. They're hired to win. Don't win enough, and you're out, which is fair enough since everybody knows that going into the deal. So when Manigini was fired this week, no one cried foul.
But forget fairness for a minute. Jets fans might want to ask whether firing the head coach will be helpful. Put it another way: Is Mangini a fall guy?
Could be. If Mangini was a genius two years ago, why isn't he a member of MENSA now? Where did his intelligence go? Who gets worse at his job with more experience?
We don't know whether Mangini is a good coach or not. We do know that lots of coaches who many consider pretty good sometimes have some pretty crummy records. Ask Mike Holmgren or Mike McCarthy. The former went to a Super Bowl three years ago and the latter the NFC Championship Game last season. This season, their teams were rotten, or rather their records were. And that's the point.
It beggars belief that coaches are good one year and not the next. After all, unlike players, whose health and physical condition vary widely from game to game (let alone year to year), coaches inhabit a world of ideas. Theirs is a life of the mind. Sure, some coaches have more charisma than others, but in the NFL, everyone's a pro. That means players play for a paycheck, not to please their coach.
And here's the hard truth. Results are more random than fans like to admit. A couple of completions here and there, a few tackles made a few yards sooner, would have made all the difference for the Jets and every other team on the cusp of the postseason. That those passes weren't caught or those tackles made doesn't seem like a failure of coaching so much as a function of chance. A 50-50 proposition. A coin flip. Mangini's record the last three regular seasons: 23 wins and 25 losses. That means one more win, and he would have been even-steven. Results might not be random, but it sure looks that way.
But if you're still not convinced about fall guys, consider Chad Pennington. You might recall that Pennington was cut by the Jets before this season started. He was a bum, a rag-armed quarterback with suspect leadership skills. The implication was that he was a big part of the Jets' failure the last couple of seasons. New York didn't trade Pennington, it flat-out cut him. That's taking the fall. So Pennington took a flight to Miami.
Four months later, things look a little different. Pennington took the Dolphins from one win to 11 -- tying the 1999 Indianapolis Colts for the biggest turnaround in NFL history. Along the way, Pennington also managed to lead Miami to the AFC East title. And with that crown has come a lot of talk about Pennington as the league's MVP. That sounds like a fall guy who got out from under a bad rap.
At the end of The Maltese Falcon, when the object of desire has been found, Sam Spade doesn't play the fall guy, not for love nor money. Mangini and Pennington probably can appreciate that. After all, like Spade, NFL players and coaches are eternally on a quest for the Lombardi Trophy. Or, as Spade would describe it: The stuff dreams are made of.