The late Larry Miller never fired a head coach during the nearly 24 years he owned the Utah Jazz. He hired Jerry Sloan and let him do his job for more than two decades, right through some 245 coaching changes in the league. He was the most tenured coach in all of professional sports. Miller liked to say that if teams fire coaches then they did a poor job of hiring them in the first place; it’s the fault of the organization.
Which brings us to the NFL. Seven of the league’s 32 head coaches lost their jobs this year. NFL coaches have the shelf life of bananas. Since 2000, there have been 167 head coaching changes. That’s an average of about eight per season — 25% of the league. One of those coaches was Andy Reid, who will coach the Chiefs in Sunday’s Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida. According to Miller’s reasoning, most NFL owners don’t do their homework when hiring coaches and/or are too impatient after they do.
Seven of the league’s 32 head coaches lost their jobs this year. NFL coaches have the shelf life of bananas. Since 2000, there have been 167 head coaching changes. That’s an average of about eight per season — 25% of the league.
It’s an expensive mistake. Most of those coaches have years left on their contracts when they are fired, and clubs are obligated to pay them millions of dollars not to coach while also having to pay millions to their replacements.
The vast majority of those 167 coaching changes occurred among a relatively small number of teams. There are several stable clubs — the Patriots have had one coach during those 21 years, the Steelers and Ravens two each, the Packers and Seahawks three each. Then there are the clubs that treat coaches like office temps — the Raiders and Browns (10 each — or about one every two seasons), the 49ers, Bills, Washington and Lions (eight each), the Buccaneers, Dolphins and Jets (seven each), and the Jaguars, Chargers, Falcons, Rams, Broncos, Cardinals and Chiefs (six each — or a new coach every 3.5 years). That means half of the league’s teams accounted for 69% of those 167 coaching changes during the last 21 years.
Let’s study the Raiders’ dealings with coaches as an example of foolishness. They hired Jon Gruden as their head coach in 1998. In four seasons he had a won-loss record of 38-26 and in his third and fourth seasons he took the Raiders to the playoffs, including the conference championships in 2000. So what do the Raiders do? They traded him to the Buccaneers for two first-round draft picks, two second-round draft picks and $8 million.
Gruden won the Super Bowl the next season. Meanwhile, the Raiders replaced Gruden with Bill Callahan, who lasted two seasons, then followed Nov Turner (two seasons), Art Shell (one season), Lane Kiffin (just over one season), Tom Cable (two seasons), Hue Jackson (one season), Dennis Allen (a little more than two seasons), interim coach Tony Sparano (11 games), Jack Del Rio (three seasons) and then they rehired none other than Jon Gruden in 2019, having had just two winning seasons since he was traded away.
It’s as if the Raiders were playing a game of Whack-a-Mole with head coaches. Is this any way to run a business?
Every NFL season ends with the ritual firing of coaches. In 2020, it was Houston’s Bill O’Brien (after seven seasons), Atlanta’s Dan Quinn (six, including a 2016 Super Bowl appearance), Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson (five, including a 2017 Super Bowl championship), Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone (five), San Diego’s Anthony Lynn (four), Detroit’s Matt Patricia (three) and the Jets’ Adam Gase (two).
Maybe one of them will come roaring back a la Reid.
Reid was fired following the 2012 season after 14 years with the Eagles despite a 130-93-1 record, nine playoff appearances (including the Super Bowl), and five conference championship appearances. He was hired by the Chiefs the day after he was fired and his second act has topped the first one. In eight seasons he has produced a record of 91-37 (a .711 winning percentage) and seven playoff appearances, including last year’s Super Bowl victory, with the possibility of winning another one Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Eagles replaced Reid with Chip Kelly, who lasted three seasons before giving way to Pederson, who won the Super Bowl two years later and then was canned three years after that.
Reid is not the only coach to get the pink slip only to rebound with another team.
• Bill Belichick was fired after five seasons as the head coach of the Browns (and a 36-44 record). Five years later he was hired by the Patriots and we all know how that worked out: nine Super Bowl appearances, a record six Super Bowl victories, 19 straight winning seasons, a .726 winning percentage, a date with Canton.
• Pete Carroll was a two-time loser, fired first by the Jets after just one season, then fired again by the Patriots after three seasons. He was replaced by Belichick, making Carroll football’s version of Pete Best. After coaching in the college ranks for nine years, Carroll was hired as head coach of the Seahawks, and 11 years later he has two Super Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl win and a 112-63-1 record.
• Tony Dungy was fired by the Buccaneers after six seasons, and a year later they won the Super Bowl without him. Dungy was immediately hired by the Colts and together they won the Super Bowl five years later. He took the Colts to the playoffs all seven years that he coached in Indianapolis and then retired to the TV booth.
• Gruden, after being traded away by the Raiders, won the Super Bowl in his first year in Tampa, largely with a team built by Dungy. After seven seasons, the Bucs fired Gruden, who moved to the TV booth for a decade before returning to the Raiders.
• Jim Fassel isn’t in the same category as the coaches above, but there is this: After five seasons and only 25 wins, he was fired by the University of Utah. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to him, although he was angry about it at the time. For six seasons he served as an NFL offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach before being promoted to head coach of the Giants, who advanced to the Super Bowl four years later (and lost). Fassel lasted seven seasons before the Giants showed him the door, albeit with a winning record (58-53-1), and he never again coached in the league.
Then there is the case of Dan Reeves. He was the head coach of the Denver Broncos for 12 years and took them to three Super Bowls, all losses. He was fired by the Broncos. Then he was fired by the Giants after four seasons. Then he coached the Falcons for seven seasons and took them to the Super Bowl — alas, another loss, to the Broncos, of all teams. He was fired a third time and called it a career.
The NFL is a cruel, demanding world for coaches.