Jeff Fisher could afford to be stubborn, predictable, hidebound, uncreative, uninspiring, indefensibly mediocre and historically unsuccessful and still keep his job as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams.
He just could not afford to be publicly embarrassing.
The Rams relieved Fisher of his head coaching duties Monday afternoon. It would have been no surprise for most coaches. The Rams have lost eight of their last nine games, the last two by a combined score of 68-24. They amassed a 31-45-1 record under Fisher over nearly five seasons. Change was overdue the way a library book found in the attic of an abandoned house is overdue.
But the Rams announced an inexplicable Fisher contract extension just one week ago. Fisher had become some hybrid of Wolverine, a horror movie villain and a tenured college professor who falls asleep during his own lectures. The football world was just coming to terms with the fact that Fisher's perennial, indefatigable mediocrity was as inevitable as death, taxes and laundry.
But then came the embarrassment.
First, there was a public feud with Rams legend Eric Dickerson. Dickerson claimed Fisher made him feel unwelcome around the organization because the Hall of Fame running back was too critical. Fisher downplayed the hostility of his position toward Dickerson. The organization was caught in the middle of a public relations nightmare between a popular old player and an unpopular coach while trying to re-establish a beachhead in the Los Angeles media market.
Then, there was the media conference call in which Fisher identified Danny Woodhead as one of the Patriots running backs. Woodhead has not played for the Patriots in four years. Casual fantasy football gamers wouldn't make the blunder Fisher made during his week of preparation for an important game. It became a national punch line, and it gave the impression of a head coach who had checked out from his day-to-day responsibilities.
Third came FishyLeaks. Fisher name-dropped a pair of draft picks that did not pan out during a press conference, tacitly throwing blame for those selections (and, by consequence, for the disappointing Rams offense) on general manager Les Snead, who answers to Fisher. After the remarks, Albert Breer of The MMQB investigated and ferreted out some friction in the Rams organization. Fisher made a point of calling out those who "leaked" the information. It painted the image of a coach more interested in information and damage control than solving his team's problems.
Lastly, there were Todd Gurley's postgame remarks after Sunday's 42-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Gurley compared the Rams offense to a "middle school offense" and claimed players were just "going through the motions."
Finally, all the boxes were checked off. Failure of team marketing? Checked by Dickerson. Failure of game-planning? Checked by Woodhead. Failure of organizational stability? Checked by FishyLeaks. Failure of team chemistry/system "buy-in?" Todd Gurley, checkmate.
Failure to win football games? That was never going to get Fisher fired. Fisher leaves the Rams tied for the most losses in NFL coaching history. Andy Reid has two fewer wins than Fisher but 52 fewer losses. Bill Belichick could go 0-16 for six straight years and still have a higher winning percentage than Fisher.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke builds department stores for a living. He was around the league for decades as a minority owner before taking over the Rams in 2010, but he also owns the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and Arsenal, so he's not a guy who spends time studying game plans. Sports exist for Kroenke to build, fill and cross-promote entertainment complexes. He likely has only a vague idea of what NFL head coaching really entails. He hired himself a coach that almost won a Super Bowl once, is on a first-name basis with everyone in the NFL and beats the Seahawks every now and then.
Fisher sold Kroenke on the idea that he provided "stability" while the Rams moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Kroenke bought it. He spun the standard cliches about attacking, aggressive defense and establishing the run on offense. Kroenke believed them as though they were new. Fisher was no longer very good at coaching—the game had passed him by, in a variety of ways, since his Tennessee Titans heyday—but he was outstanding at looking, sounding and acting the part. Kroenke was willing to go along with his old-school football wisdom.
Fisher acquired a ransom in draft picks in the 2012 Robert Griffin trade, selected some very good players, yet kept finishing under .500. He engineered a Sam Bradford-for-Nick Foles trade that was little more than a waste of time and energy. He pulled a reverse-Griffin by spending picks to trade up for Jared Goff, decreed Goff unready to start, waited two months, then inserted the poor kid in the lineup to remove all doubt.
Fisher squirmed away from accountability every time. Why can't a team built out of a bundle of high draft picks reach the playoffs? Why did the Rams draft an unprepared quarterback, and in an era when rookie quarterbacks often perform well during on-the-job training, why couldn't Fisher's staff prepare him? Fisher always kept the Rams on the verge of being competitive, burning resources while keeping them perpetually a year away from putting the pieces together. Kroenke let himself be strung along, figuring one day Goff would be great, everyone else would be acclimated to California and the 13-3 seasons would begin.
You can fool a multimillionaire like Kroenke but not at his own games: marketing, public relations, promotion. And you certainly cannot humiliate him. Kroenke knows a public relations nightmare when he sees it, and Fisher spent the last two weeks serving them up in rapid succession. As for Fisher's stability-unity-toughness cliche bundle, it's hard for anyone to seriously believe he is somehow keeping the troops goal-oriented when his brightest young star, suffering through a miserable season, begins venting about "going through the motions."
Fisher could lose all he wanted. But he couldn't make Kroenke choose between him and Dickerson, as well as the season-ticket purchasers sympathetic to Dickerson. He couldn't make Kroenke take sides between him and Gurley, the guy whose image goes on all of the merchandise. Fisher couldn't make Kroenke look this silly in the days after that ill-conceived extension was announced. Business magnates like Kroenke eat contracts like Fisher's for breakfast all the time when it means moving on from a bad idea.
So Kroenke fired Fisher, politely affirming his "great respect for Jeff as a coach, person, father and friend," because professionals extract themselves from bad deals with the least possible drama. The Rams are left without an obvious replacement, because people like Fisher are far too survival-savvy to keep potential rivals among their assistants. John Fassel, special teams coordinator and son of former Giants head coach Jim Fassel, is the likely interim successor, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Kroenke will embark on his coaching search offering an appealing situation: new market, new stadium coming soon, top quarterback prospect ready for grooming, some Pro Bowl talent, a fanbase ready to embrace anyone who isn't Jeff Fisher. Kroenke may look for a big name like Mike Shanahan or a hotshot young coordinator. Maybe he has learned his lesson from the NFL "old school" and seeks innovation. Maybe he's seeking another flavor of comfort food.
Whoever gets the Rams job will probably have a year or two to sort through the Fisher rubble. Kroenke appears to be a deep-pocketed owner who holds a fairly long leash.
Just don't embarrass him the way Fisher did. You'll only end up embarrassing yourself.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.