Jeff Fisher of Tennessee Titans Overrated?

Scott HoskinsContributor IJune 18, 2008

Overrated. A word normally reserved for ultra hyped teams who fail to live up to the hype. A word reserved for athletes who are highly drafted can’t-fail prospects coming out of college but flop. A word chanted by countless college students in the gym and on the field when their team upsets the favorite.

But can NFL coaches be overrated? ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio says yes. He opined on the NFL’s most overrated and underrated NFL coaches in a chapter from his new book, The Paolantonio Report: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches, and Moments in NFL History.

One of the coaches on his overrated list, was the Tennessee Titans’ Jeff Fisher. Fisher just completed his 14th season at the helm of the team he has directed since 1994. He took over for the not so kind dismissal of run-and-shoot guru Jack Pardee with six games left in the season.

So what exactly makes Fisher overrated in Paolantonio’s view? For starters, Paolantonio takes issue with the fact that Fisher has compiled a win-loss record of just 115-99 in his tenure as coach.

He targets Fisher for his slate of five winning seasons, four losing seasons, and four 8-8 seasons, in addition to his 5-5 postseason record.

Even the Titans’ remarkable run from 1999-2003 isn’t sacred. Fisher’s Titans posted an overall mark of 56-24, including back-to-back 13-3 seasons. Also a 23-16 loss in Super Bowl XXXIV to Dick Vermeil’s St. Louis Rams, the hyperbole-branded “greatest show on turf.”

Nevertheless, in order to discredit Fisher’s success in those years, Paolantonio finds fault in the manner the Titans concluded those seasons.

Regardless of Paolantonio’s opinions (and let’s admit this book is nothing if not a collection of opinions), Fisher deserves the approval he has gained as one of the NFL’s best coaches.

It’s quite easy to forget that Fisher skippered the troubled transition of the squad from Houston to Tennessee between the 1996 and 1997 seasons. For two miserable years the Tennessee Oilers/Titans were a collection of transients. First playing in Memphis’ Liberty Bowl during 1997 and then at Nashville’s Vanderbilt Stadium during 1998.

Although the Titans have sold out 83 consecutive home dates at 68,798 seat LP Field (add 10 more sellouts for the 2008 season), during those bleak days in the autumn of 1997 and 1998, television cameras revealed a lot of fans disguised as empty seats.

The fact that Fisher was able to muster back-to-back 8-8 seasons with little support from the community speaks volumes about his ability to rally the troops.

As for Paolantonio’s contention that Fisher can’t get it done during the playoffs? Let’s take a closer look at those season ending contests.

To close the 1999 campaign, the Rams defeated the Titans 23-13 in Super Bowl XXXIV. Even though coaches say that one play didn’t cause their team to lose a game, realistically one play caused the Titans to lose the game. It was a 73-yard touchdown bomb from Kurt Warner to Isaac Bruce with 1:54 left to play.

Despite that backbreaker, the Titans still managed to march down the field (mainly on Steve McNair’s arm and legs) and give football fans all over the world an ending that will always be considered one of the greatest in Super Bowl history.

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens defeated the Titans 24-10 in the Divisional Playoffs. If Titan kicker Al Del Greco had managed to do better than going one for four on field goals that day, or if the special teams squad could tackle that day, who knows how the game would have been resolved?

The Ravens probably would not have been in a position to even win the game. What was Fisher supposed to do, trot out onto the field himself and bring back the drop kick? The Ravens went on to achieve glory. That’s right; they won the Super Bowl, pasting the New York Giants 34-7.

After the Titans failed to reach the playoffs in 2001, they rebounded well in 2002 by reaching the AFC Championship Game. After starting the season 1-4 they were able to finish at 11-5.

The 2002 AFC Championship Game is a game all Titans' fans would rather forget, the team had a 17-14 lead approaching halftime. Then came two straight fumbles by Robert Holcombe and John Simon (on the ensuing kickoff after the Raiders scored after Holcome’s fumble) that led to a 14-point Raiders' swing.

The last time I read the NFL Rule Book, head coaches weren’t allowed to suit up and recover fumbles. Pinning that on Fisher is fairly shortsighted on Paolantonio’s part.

Finally, for some inexplicable reason, Paolantonio thinks that losing to the New England Patriots 17-14 in Foxborough in four degree January weather is shameful. He thinks losing to the Patriots, who would go on to defeat the Carolina Panthers 32-29 in the Super Bowl and claim their second Lombardi Trophy in three years, is appalling.

Once again, Fisher was not allowed to suit up and catch the gimme pass that Drew Bennett bobbled and dropped. He wasn’t allowed to take Benji Olsen’s place at guard before Olsen could be called for a takedown that nullified a big gain on the previous play.

Now, compare Fisher’s record with some of the all-time greats.

The hallowed George Halas coached the Chicago Bears for 40 years. How many times did Halas’ Bears chase the Holy Grail in the playoffs? Nine times for a 23 percent success rate. Impressive? Hardly.

Next, Curly Lambeau won six championships in his vaunted coaching career, nothing to scoff at, certainly. Upon closer inspection, however, Lambeau coached for 33 years but only reached the playoffs eight times. That’s a percentage of just 24 percent. Not much better than Halas.

George Allen? The Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins icon accomplished the playoffs nine times in his 12 years as coach and had a winning percentage of .712 during the regular season. Playoffs? Try 2-7 with no championships, a textbook example of a coach who couldn’t get it done during crunch time.  

To be fair, Fisher does have his flaws as a coach. After being in one position for 14 seasons, plenty of Titans fans point them out on fan boards and blogs even after wins.

He’s too predictable (run twice and then throw on 3rd and long). He hasn’t drafted well lately (Pacman Jones, anyone?). He gave Norm Chow too much freedom in the offense (goodbye, Chow; hello, Mike Heimerdinger).

No one can argue, however, that Fisher doesn’t know how to get the best from his players. Just look at 2006 and 2007 for proof of that.

With one of the youngest teams in the league and an almost complete turnover in roster thanks to salary cap woes, the Titans almost made the playoffs in 2006. They did make the postseason in 2007, where they had the Chargers on the ropes before falling.

Many people in NFL circles claim that if Fisher were to be canned by the Titans, any number of teams would snap him up before his clipboard even became cold. I wonder if the same could be said of Paolantonio.

Would anyone even miss his off-the-mark opinions if he were let go by ESPN? I’m waiting for the day when Fisher and the Titans chant “overrated” about Sal after the Super Bowl.