Mike Shanahan and Jim Zorn: The NFL Coaching Merry-Go-Round Continues

T.J. DoneganCorrespondent IJanuary 5, 2010

SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 28:  Head coach Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos walks the sidelines during the NFL game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on December 28, 2008 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

With Mike Shanahan seemingly closing in on a deal to take over the coaching reins in Washington, D.C., hearts are breaking in upstate New York.

But having lived in D.C. the past three years, I can tell you it's a familiar feeling for Washington.

The excitement when Zorn was hired wasn't what you'd call palpable, but it was real.

Redskins fans I knew said they'd have a guy who could provide some much-needed creativity and stability—and a young quarterback—to a franchise that hadn't seen much of either in recent years.

Now two years later, Jim Zorn is looked upon as a failure in D.C. for two sins that were largely out of his control: failing to pierce one of the toughest divisions in football and not being able to turn Jason Campbell into the elite quarterback he's capable of being.

At least Zorn isn't alone on the unemployment line. Across the league several coaches and coordinators are polishing up their resumes, whether they've been fired yet or not.

Watching the Shanahan news break, a co-worker quipped about Zorn: "Well, he'll not get hired anywhere in the NFL again."

And yet, that's probably exactly what will happen. Jim Zorn will likely have to work his way back up through the ranks, never having been a head coach before his time in Washington. But he'll probably get another shot in a league that loves to recycle its people.

Head coaches in the NFL survive largely on the basis of perception. Wade Phillips won the NFC East and has guided the development of Tony Romo to elite status. And yet, you still have the feeling that anything less than an NFC championship could see him out the door if Bill Cowher's on the line.

Chargers coach Norv Turner looked to be a sure bet to lose his job by midseason before his team decided to rattle off 11 straight wins en route to becoming, once again, the sexy Super Bowl pick.

This is before we even get to the coaches who didn't help their teams win division titles this season.

In truth the NFL is a closed fraternity. Of the coaches fired last season, most don't stray too far from the game. Eric Mangini went to the Browns, Mike Shanahan is now back in the running for the Washington gig (reportedly after receiving a hefty sum to not coach this year), Rod Marinelli is the defensive line coach of the Chicago Bears, Herm Edwards is an ESPN analyst, Tony Dungy walked away voluntarily, Jon Gruden was on Monday Night Football. The list goes on and on.

Of all the head coaches who were fired after the 2008 season, only Romeo Crennel looks to be completely out of football for the moment—although even now it looks as though he may have a chance to become a defensive coach (and possibly coordinator) with the New York Giants.

But is this good for the NFL?

Obviously hiring former head coaches is no guarantee of success.

Several teams have then experimented with their hires in recent seasons, bringing in guys with no head coaching experience, trying to plumb the depths of the college game, or going after candidates who were not even coordinators previously.

Raheem Morris, Tom Cable, Jim Caldwell, Mike Singletary, and Jim Mora were all brought in as head coaches during the 2009 offseason (or in the middle of the 2008 season) with no previous NFL head coaching or coordinating experience.

Other than Jim Caldwell, none really saw a great deal of success this season, although with only a season under their belts, it may be too early to make any real judgements on their abilities.

Still, one has to wonder if one year is enough time to really get a hold on the NFL game; to implement a system and find success, especially when candidates are largely asked to learn on the job.

In many ways, some of these guys may be better off as coordinators. Two perfect examples are Cam Cameron and Mike Nolan. Both were very good in their previous stints as coordinators and, after finding little success as head coaches, have moved back to their previous job.

Cam Cameron has put together a nice offense in Baltimore despite having a rookie quarterback who struggled diagnosing the blitz last season. Mike Nolan put together a defense that was quite able despite being saddled with veterans who, physically, weren't at their peaks in 2009.

It's a refreshing sign to see guys working at a capacity that suits their talents better, but even these are most likely pit stops for Nolan and Cameron until head coaching jobs open up in the next couple of seasons.

Remember this is a league where Mike Shanahan—a coach with two Super Bowls to his name— is championed as the savior of D.C. just two years after being removed for sliding performance in Denver.

This isn't to say Mike Shanahan isn't an effective football coach. He's very good. But the simple fact remains that the league is always evolving in play while continually looking backwards for coaching.

The truth for Nolan and Cameron is that, as coordinators, they have little control over their futures with their current clubs. If John Harbaugh or Josh McDaniels get the axe, there's no guarantee either coordinator would remain on staff.

So take heart, Jim Zorn. At least the likely hiring of your replacement shows there's always a place for former head coaches with an NFL franchise on their resume.