Biggest Mistake in Every NFL Head Coach's Career

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IMarch 5, 2012

Biggest Mistake in Every NFL Head Coach's Career

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    NFL coaches live and die by the choices they make. 

    Right now, every choice Tom Coughlin made during Super Bowl XLVI was golden, and every choice Bill Belichick made was a dud.

    Now that's a terrible oversimplification, but that's just the way it seems right now to some people.

    But the truth is that every coach, whether he's been on the job for a year or a decade, has made choices he would love to have over again. Here's a recap—with a few caveats—of each one.

    These are regrettable decisions made by coaches in their CURRENT gigs: Bill Belichick's mistakes in Cleveland, Mike Shanahan's mistakes in Denver and John Fox's mistakes in Carolina don't qualify. Having said that, even those in new jobs with head coaching experience before (Jeff Fisher with the Rams for example) get to start with a clean slate.

    And because every situation is unique, and we can't be totally certain of the division of labor between head coaches, player personnel choices don't count for this list...but choosing a staff, that does count. 

Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

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    Biggest Mistake: Spygate

    Although the 4th-and-2 Belichick called against Indianapolis in 2009 was certainly regrettable, and there were questionable calls from the Hoodie in both Super Bowl losses to the Giants, the one that most sharply affects his legacy is Spygate.

    Obviously, filming other teams was walking a fine line, no matter how he explained it as a misinterpretation of the rules.

    The worst part of the decision, other than the $500,000 fine, is the fact that since he hasn't won a Super Bowl since being caught, many people think his three titles deserve an asterisk.

    On a side note, Belichick has to be pleased that Gregg Williams is now the coach the NFL is investigating.

Rex Ryan, New York Jets

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    Biggest Mistake: Guaranteeing a Super Bowl win

    I don't begrudge Ryan—or anyone else in the NFL—for being confident, even overconfident, in his or his team's abilities. 

    When Antrel Rolle said back in late January that he expected the Giants to defeat the Patriots and the media jumped on it, I was stunned: What was he supposed to say when asked, "Do you think you'll win?"

    But when you haven't even started the season, it's a totally different matter. 

    Seven months before the 2011 season began, Ryan boasted, "I believe this is the year that we're going to win the Super Bowl. And the fact is I thought we'd win it the first two years, I guarantee we'll win it this year."

    Head coaches can't put that type of pressure on their players, and coincidence or not, it resulted in an 8-8 record and no playoffs.

    The worst part of the guarantee: The Jets and their schtick worked best when they were underdogs who everyone counted out. Ryan's guarantee negated that.

Chan Gailey, Buffalo Bills

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    Biggest Mistake: Switching to a 4-3

    Dave Wannstedt may have a marginal record as a head coach in both college and the pros, but he does have a great resume as a defensive coordinator. So for the Bills to bring him in as their new coordinator is perfectly valid. 

    But it seems like such strange timing to bring him in considering he'll inevitably switch the team from a 3-4 to a 4-3.

    They let Paul Posluszny, who would have been the ideal mike linebacker, leave as a free agent, and now Marcell Dareus will have to start all over and move back to an interior lineman and won't be able to rush the passer as effectively.

John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens

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    Biggest Mistake: Firing Jim Zorn

    When you have a quarterback you believe is a franchise quarterback, it's vital to keep him happy.

    Clearly the Ravens have put all their eggs in the Joe Flacco basket, yet they really disappointed him last winter when they fired Jim Zorn—the Ravens quarterback coach.

    Flacco didn't necessarily take a step back after Zorn—who certainly knows about playing the position—but he didn't show any improvement. In fact, he was even more inconsistent than in any other season in his short career.

Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Biggest Mistake: "Unleash Hell" guarantee, December 2009

    As costly as Tomlin's decision to sit Ryan Clark in the playoff loss to Denver was, that doesn't count for a list like this; he had no choice since it involved a serious medical situation.

    A better choice for this kind of list is one akin—not AS bad, but similar—to Rex Ryan's Super Bowl guarantee. 

    With the Steelers 6-5, coming off a third straight loss and on the outside of the playoff picture, Tomlin announced that his team would "unleash hell" when the calendar turned to December.

    Promptly losing at home to the 3-8 Raiders and then falling on the road against the hated rival (and 1-11) Browns is hardly unleashing hell.

Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Biggest Mistake: First challenge, 2011 AFC Wild Card Round at Houston

    Challenging a play with the red flag is always a risky situation.

    The fans watching on television have to remember that an NFL head coach watching the game live from the sidelines doesn't always have the benefit of seeing everything we see, especially since they have 100 other things going on at the time.

    Having said that, Lewis had no business challenging a call early in the second quarter of the Bengals loss to the Texans.

    It was so obviously clear that Cedric Benson didn't cross the 30-yard line to earn a first down, and since Lewis later on challenged another call in the same period, he was out of challenges before halftime.

    In the playoffs, you can't give up such a vital element so early on.

Pat Shurmur, Cleveland Browns

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    Biggest Mistake: Letting Colt McCoy return, Week 14, 2011 vs. Pittsburgh

    Because the league's biggest issue the last few years has been player safety and specifically concussions, Shurmur dealt the NFL a major disservice in his rookie season.

    In a truly vicious hit that led to a stoppage of play, Steelers linebacker James Harrison belted Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, knocking him out of the game.

    Inexplicably, Shurmur allowed McCoy to re-enter the game later on.

    Even if McCoy (allegedly) passed the team's sideline tests, Shurmur should have known better than to roll the dice on a head injury. A bruised knee, sprained shoulder, twisted ankle, sure. But not a head injury.

Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans

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    Biggest Mistake: Not utilizing Ben Tate, 2011 AFC Divisional Round at Baltimore

    Because Arian Foster had an incredible game in the narrow loss to the Ravens, you can't say that Gary Kubiak abandoned his bread and butter, the running game, especially since the Ravens were so successful at pressuring T.J. Yates and forcing mistakes from the rookie.

    But it's just so strange that he didn't let Ben Tate, who finished the regular season with nearly as many yards and carries as Foster, touch the ball even once.

    Foster slowed down a tad in the fourth quarter, and the Texans were shut out of a game-tying touchdown, so had they let Foster sit a few more plays and entrusted Tate with the football, Foster might have been a bit fresher.

Mike Munchak, Tennessee Titans

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    Biggest Mistake: Sticking with Matt Hasselbeck

    The front office spent a lot of money to bring in Matt Hasselbeck to help stabilize the Titans new regime. Through the first half of the season, the decision was fine.

    Besides, coming out of college, Jake Locker was known to be raw and in need of refinement.

    But late in the season, when he finally got a few opportunities to play, Locker showed plenty of ability to handle and excel in the offense. Against Atlanta, New Orleans and Indianapolis he was very efficient.

    With Hasselbeck nursing a calf injury, Munchak had a built-in excuse to start the rookie who they made a surprising eighth overall draft choice.

    But for the stretch run Munchak stuck with the veteran and kept Locker on the sideline.

    Heading into the 2012 season, a start or two under Locker's belt would have been fantastic for his confidence.

John Fox, Denver Broncos

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    Biggest Mistake: Not starting Tim Tebow sooner

    Here's an entry that will certainly cause trouble.

    Who knows how much different the Broncos' season would have turned out had they started Tim Tebow earlier?

    Maybe they would have won even more games, been a higher seed and gotten further in the playoffs. Maybe, with less time to learn the offense and the pro game, he would have struggled, the Broncos would have struggled and the Tebow experiment would have been a disaster.

    But it sure makes for an interesting debate and might make Fox and John Elway's decision this offseason easier.

Norv Turner, San Diego Chargers

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    Biggest Mistake: Onside kick, 2009 AFC Divisional Round vs. New York Jets

    This is a bit of a nit-picking choice for a man who's been renowned for failures, but Turner's choice late in the Chargers' most recent playoff loss was one that drew serious criticism across the NFL, including from the CBS panel of Bill Cowher and Boomer Esiason.

    After inexplicably falling behind by 10 points at home to the underdog Jets, the Chargers scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. 

    Although they still had a timeout, the two-minute warning and were facing a team with a marginal offense, the Chargers elected an onside kick that didn't work. The Jets recovered the ball, got a first down and won the game.

    Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered, but you never know.

Tom Coughlin, New York Giants

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    Biggest Mistake: Kicking to DeSean Jackson, Week 15, 2010 vs. Philadelphia

    We all saw the footage afterwards: Tom Coughlin chewing out his punter Matt Dodge. 

    Then we all heard the story that Coughlin explicitly ordered Dodge to kick the ball away from DeSean Jackson. 

    But if Coughlin had any uncertainty that Dodge would get the job done, he shouldn't have sent him out there.

    Yes, players play and coaches coach, but maybe he should have elected to go for the first down; even on 4th-and-17, at least that wouldn't have led directly to the game-winning touchdown.

Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Biggest Mistake: Retaining Juan Castillo

    I can't say for certain—I don't think anyone can—that Juan Castillo isn't a good defensive coordinator. All coaches, head or assistant, deserve more than one year, especially when there was a work stoppage throughout the summer.

    But the problem with Reid retaining Castillo for the 2012 season is this: Unless the Eagles defense—loaded with all that talent—is absolutely dominant and bolts out of the gate with a string of brilliant performances, the "Fire Juan Castillo Watch" will resume.

    That's yet another distraction and problem for Reid and the Eagles' front office to deal with.

Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys

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    Biggest Mistake: Icing his own kicker, Week 13, 2011 at Arizona Cardinals

    This whole last-second timeout calling by head coaches—standing next to the official and waiting until the right time to signal TO—finally reached an absurd breaking point courtesy of Garrett.

    Before Dan Bailey's attempted game-winner for the Cowboys, Garrett called a timeout. Bailey—who made the kick that he attempted as the refs were waving the play off—then missed the next kick. The Cowboys lost the game and ultimately the NFC East. 

    Again, Garrett wasn't the one who missed the kick, but he's now known as the first coach who "iced his own kicker." 

    That's not the best legacy to have after one season as a head coach.

Mike Shanahan, Washington Redskins

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    Biggest Mistake: Hiring Kyle Shanahan

    The very definition of nepotism.

    Ultimately, it doesn't really matter how qualified or brilliant or unqualified or non-brilliant Kyle Shanahan is as an offensive coordinator.

    Hiring your son to run your offense is a conflict of interest and leads to extra and unnecessary scrutiny. 

    Besides, he didn't exactly do Kyle a favor, at least not in the long run. 

    Any success he has will ultimately be attributed to Mike.

Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers

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    Biggest Mistake: Resting starters for Week 17, 2011

    The classic Rest vs. Rust question always plagues the best team in the NFL's regular season.

    Aaron Rodgers sat out all of the Week 17 game against Detroit, and several other starters sat out significant portions of the game.

    Coincidence or not, in the playoff loss to the Giants, Green Bay's offense wasn't nearly as dominant or consistent as it had been through the first four months of the regular season. It wasn't "anemic" or "bad," but it wasn't the Packer offense we were used to seeing.

    Just a year earlier, McCarthy's Packers had a do-or-die mentality throughout the final month of the regular season, and it carried over into the playoffs. Perhaps he should have kept that in mind when deciding how to handle the roster in Week 17.

Jim Schwartz, Detroit Lions

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    Biggest Mistake: Third-down pass, Week 9, 2010 vs. New York Jets

    In many ways, Schwartz can do no wrong since he took over the first 0-16 team in NFL history and within three years earned a playoff berth.

    But before the Lions claimed their first playoff berth in a decade, Schwartz wasn't bulletproof.

    In fact, a decision in 2010 drew him comparisons to Marty Mornhinweg, the former Lions coach who made one of the worst in-game decisions in NFL history (i.e. taking the wind instead of the ball in overtime).

    Ahead 20-17 with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Lions had the ball. Despite the fact that the Jets had no timeouts remaining and a run would have almost certainly locked up the game, they opted to try a pass on third down.

    It was incomplete, and the Jets got the ball back, tied the game and then won it in overtime.

    Schwartz probably didn't make the call of the play, but he certainly signed off on trying to sneak a pass in there.

Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears

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    Biggest Mistake: Hiring Mike Martz

    Just a disastrous hire, and Smith and the front office should have known better.

    Martz has had very limited success away from the Dick Vermeil-Kurt Warner-Marshall Faulk triad. Just look at his brief stays in Detroit and San Francisco.

    Jay Cutler still hasn't become the type of passer we've been waiting to see, and Martz was expected to be the one capable of doing so.

    Although Matt Forte had flashes of brilliance and versatility, Martz wasn't able to consistently put the ball in his hands, and it was a main reason why the Bears offense (30th in offense in 2010, 24th in 2011) was always mediocre at best.

Leslie Frazier, Minnesota Vikings

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    Biggest Mistake: Starting Donovan McNabb in Week 1, 2011

    This isn't necessarily a knock on McNabb—although he clearly didn't have much, if anything, left in the tank.

    Hindsight is always 20/20 in these cases, but since Andy Dalton and Cam Newton had such remarkable success right out of the gate—on teams with low expectations—perhaps Christian Ponder should have been given the reins from day one.

    Because knowledge of the game and grasp of the offense isn't his problem, Ponder needs to be on the field as much as possible, and 16 starts would have been more ideal than 10.

Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints

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    Biggest Mistake: Trusting (or ignoring) Gregg Williams

    Ughhhh, and we thought Spygate was bad.

    This is only going to get worse as more and more comes out and the harsh penalties are issued.

    It's going to either cripple the Saints for years to come or at least embarrass the organization.

    No one is going to believe that Payton was unaware of the bounties that his defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was issuing.

    And if he was, no one is going to think Payton was doing his job.

Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons

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    Biggest Mistake: 4th-and-1, Week 10, 2011 vs. New Orleans

    The Falcons had plenty of problems this season, from issues with their offensive line to their pass rush to a slew of injuries.

    Since they were the top seed in the playoffs in 2010, they had a tough act to follow anyway.

    But Smith's decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 in a critical moment—in overtime and from their own 29-yard line against a division rival with control of the NFC South on the line—failed, and it was one of the bigger coaching gaffes in recent memory.

    Michael Turner had no prayer of getting that yard, and the Saints took possession and four plays later kicked the game-winner.

    Smith really didn't give his team much of a chance.

Ron Rivera, Carolina Panther

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    Biggest Mistake: Clock management, Week 5, 2011 vs. New Orleans

    As a first-year coach, there's actually not that much to choose from in terms of mistakes; after all, Rivera took over the worst team in the NFL, made it fairly competitive and was largely responsible for the perhaps the greatest rookie season a quarterback ever had.

    But Rivera was far from infallible, and he showed a weakness or two with his clock management, particularly at the end of the first half in a divisional game against the Saints. Since the Panthers only lost to the mighty Saints 30-27, that gaffe was costly.

    With 18 seconds left and no timeouts remaining, Drew Brees completed a pass to Darren Sproles, who was tackled in bounds, but rather than let the clock continue to run out, the Saints rushed their field-goal team out. Worried that they were unprepared for the field goal, Rivera called a timeout. The Saints took advantage, made the field goal and ultimately won the game 30-27.

    “That was squarely on me. ... Those three points come right on my shoulders," Rivera said afterwards.

Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers

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    Biggest Mistake: Jim Schwartz postgame handshake

    Harbaugh seemingly could do no wrong in his first year as the head coach of San Fran.

    He took over a once proud franchise that had been mediocre for nearly a decade, won the division, won a playoff game against a hot opponent and came within a fumble (or two) of reaching the Super Bowl.

    But Harbaugh's antics at the end of a regular-season win at Detroit were a mistake.

    Maybe the heat of the moment was to blame, but he still essentially showed up the opposing head coach and then compounded the situation by getting into it with Jim Schwartz.

Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks

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    Biggest Mistake: Getting "hormonal," Week 8, 2011 vs. Cincinnati

    College (Pac-10?) coaches and their amped-up, rah-rah style.

    Like Jim Harbaugh, Carroll allowed emotion to overwhelm him at one point in the 2011 season.

    With the Seahawks trailing the Bengals 17-3 just before halftime, Carroll's offense faced a 4th-and-goal with 14 seconds remaining.

    Rather than take the points and cut into the deficit, Carroll eschewed the field goal and sent his offense out to execute a running play. With no timeouts left, the Seahawks ran the ball with Marshawn Lynch, failed to score and time ran out. The Seahawks ultimately lost 34-12.

    “We learned about what happens when a coach gets hormonal and tries to jam it down their frickin’ throat for the touchdown,” Carroll said afterwards.

Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona Cardinals

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    Biggest Mistake: Not hiring an offensive coordinator

    With Kurt Warner at the helm, the Cardinals were able to overcome the loss of Todd Haley in 2009. Ken Whisenhunt and his staff relied on the future Hall of Famer and eminently experienced quarterback in 2009, and they didn't seem to need a replacement at offensive coordinator.

    But once Warner retired, Whisenhunt lost that "coach on the field," and since he didn't have a coach off the field, the Cards offense really suffered.

    In 2010 and 2011, with Wiz serving the dual role of head coach and offensive coordinator, the Cards offense has been among the worst in the NFL, and the quarterback play has been average at best.

    Even Sean Payton, who calls the plays in New Orleans, has an offensive coordinator to at least manage and oversee the offense. The Cards would benefit from one.