Are Good NFL Head Coaches Taking the Fall for Bad General Managers?
NFL teams are in the middle of a bloody revolution.
Seven head coaches and five general managers got the guillotine on Black Monday; former Jaguars head coach Mike Mularkey's head hit the basket yesterday.
The NFL has always been a win-or-go-home league, but upheaval like this is unheard of. According to a tweet by ESPN's Adam Schefter, only four GMs were fired during the last four seasons.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher told the Associated Press about his frustration at the league's short memory, saying, "You've got guys that have been to Super Bowls and won championship games and all of a sudden they've forgot how to coach, I guess."
It's indisputable: Some head coaches with outstanding credentials were fired. Did they really forget how to do their job?
Coaches are supposed to coach, and general managers are supposed to manage. That's not what they're paid to do, though: Coaches and general managers, like everyone else on the football side of an NFL franchise, are paid to win.
Coaches and general managers who win get hired, get extensions, get raises and get hired away for more money. Coaches and general managers who do not win get fired.
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Here's the problem with that: Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats found that as much as 42 percent of NFL win-loss records can be attributed to randomness. Put another way, about 42 percent of the time, the better team doesn't win.
That's why it's so rare for a team to go 16-0—or 0-16.
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An NFL head coach can take a good roster, execute his duties better than anyone ever has for an entire season and still finish on the playoff bubble. He can also do a flatly horrible job and still win a decent number of games. The NFL season is just too short, and there are too many variables involved in getting to that "W" to judge coaches by wins alone.
In the 1990s, legendary head coach Bill Parcells fought for and got total control over football personnel for the New England Patriots. Parcells famously said that if he was supposed to cook a meal, he "should be allowed to shop for the groceries."
While Parcells had luck with this approach, many other skilled coaches—Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, Mike Holmgren in Seattle and many others—did not.
It turns out not every great head coach can be a great executive.
Holmgren was a particularly special case: A Super Bowl-winning head coach who switched teams in his coaching prime, he took over the Seahawks' football operation. It didn't go well, as he was asked to step down as GM in 2002 so he could focus on coaching. He did, and the Seahawks reached their first Super Bowl three seasons later.
The trend then reversed itself: Teams started hiring GMs, who in turn would hire head coaches to work underneath them. The result of this change became apparent on Black Monday: GMs who hire coaches that don't win don't stay GMs.
But what about good head coaches stuck with bad general managers?
Surely the five fired GMs did something badly besides hiring a coach who didn't win. GMs hire scouts, oversee the building of the draft board, target free agents, negotiate contracts and manage the cap. What if they weren't doing those things well?
The New York Jets may have figured this out.
After drafting Mark Sanchez in 2009, signing Drew Stanton to be his backup this past offseason, trading draft picks for Tim Tebow just days later, credentialing about 200 media to Tebow's introductory press conference, trading the bamboozled Stanton to the Colts and then watching his head coach Rex Ryan refuse to start Tebow, general manager Mike Tannenbaum was sacked.
But Ryan kept his job.
Ryan, all else aside, is a good head coach. His players believe in and play for him. His biggest problems in 2012 were a lack of young talent on defense, an uninspired offense and poor quarterback play.
The first two problems were Tannenbaum's fault; to fix the third, Ryan got permission to fire offensive coordinator Tony Sparano and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh.
Ryan surely enters 2013 on the hot seat, and he will have to get a lot of things right to endear himself to the new head man. The important lesson is that the Jets didn't choose between "fire the coach" and "fire everybody"; they wisely identified failures and assigned responsibility.
The NFL is a complicated business, and there's no one right way to do it for everyone. Parcells famously said, "You are what your record says you are," but how many games a coach wins in a season can't be their judge, jury and executioner.
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