Coaching a football team is a lot like teaching a group of students. The measure of a coach or teacher's success hinders on the performance of its pupils, whether it be in the classroom or on the gridiron. But how much of a role does an innovator have in someone's success? Just how exactly do we measure coach of the year?
The popular way, and unfortunately the way it usually happens is simply looking at the most improved team from a year ago. And most of the time, it's a FIRST year head coach who took over a team that was horrendous the year before and has led them to a significant improvement. That is why Dolphins coach Tony Sporano, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, and Falcons coach Mike Smith are the names being mentioned the most. They took over teams that were 1-15, 6-10, and 4-12 respectively.
Not to take away anything from these guys, sneaking up on teams when they don't expect you to win and underestimate you should not be the way to measure coaching. So many times first year coaches win with a team, and then the next year when they have expectations on their shoulders and it's time to play with the league's elite, they plummet.
Two years ago Sean Payton took over as first year head coach of the New Orleans Saints. They were 3-13 a year ago, had faced adversity with Hurricane Katrina, and no one expected much of them. They sneaked up on the rest of the league and went to the NFC Championship game. Payton was named head coach and the Saints were suddenly the team to beat in the NFC. But the next year, when it was time to play with the big boys, the Saints stumbled to 7-9. And this year, although the Saints are at .500, they are still a last place team.
In Payton's case it seems like history repeated. In 2000, first time head coach Jim Haslett took over a 3-13 Saints team and led them to a 10-6 record and a playoff win only to get slaughtered in the next round. The next season, the Saints went, you guessed it, 7-9, and never went to the playoffs again under Haslett.
The Bears hired Dave Wannstedt as head coach in 1993. After leading them to the playoffs in 1994 and being anointed coach of the year, they never made the playoffs again until his firing in 1998.
Everybody in Philadelphia remembers the whirlwind when Ray Rhodes took over as coach in 1995. He had five Super Bowl rings as an assistant coach and promised owner Jeffrey Lurie he'd "save his other hand for him." Rhodes inherited a team that lost its last seven and led them to a 10-6 record and playoff berth. They would make the playoffs only one more time during his tenure and he was fired in 1998.
Even coaches with head coaching experience go through this. Dan Reeves, who led Denver to three Super Bowl appearances and numerous playoff berths took over for the reeling Giants in 1993. He led them to 11-5 and a playoff win. Three playoff-less years later, he was fired.
Marty Schottenheimer took over as head coach of the San Diego Chargers in 2002, seven years after their last playoff appearance. Two years later, he led the team to a divisional title and coach of the year award. After missing the playoffs the following season, his team won the most games in the league but couldn't win a playoff game as they lost to the Patriots. He was fired and replaced by Norv Turner, a coach fired twice, who led the Chargers to a division title where they, well, lost to the Patriots.
Sometimes first year head coaches who inherit good teams aren't safe. Back before the Raiders average double digit wins a season instead of losses (believe it or not, it was only six years ago) Bill Callahan took over for the departed Jon Gruden and led the team to an 11-5 mark and Super Bowl appearance. The next season, Callahan suffered through a 4-12 season in which he called his players "the dumbest team in America." After a Super Bowl appearance, he didn't even finish with a winning record as head coach.
So what have we learned here? First, that maybe some coaches who receive the coach of the year award should decline it. But mostly, we should recognize LONG term success in coaching rather than just a one hit wonder.