Contrary to Joe Namath’s legendary Super Bowl prediction, there are no guarantees in the NFL.
No, becoming the first head coach to win a championship in franchise history won’t prevent the unavoidable fate of any coach that doesn’t slip out of town before management decides the buck has stopped and future bucks will no longer land in the coach’s account.
Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan, two of the highest-paid coaches in the National Football League, were probably one win away from maintaining their lofty status this offseason.
The NFL, notorious for its quick hooks and short memory, hasn’t failed to disprove its "Not for Long" label, a tag that applies to coaches, too.
Since the end of the 2008 NFL season the Bucs and Broncos have made moves that suggest they share a philosophy of how to rebuild a franchise.
Both teams approach training camp with young, energetic, but untested coaches.
Raheem Morris, 32, the new coach of the Bucs, and Josh McDaniels 33, Shanahan’s replacement, may lack NFL head coaching experience, but they don’t command the type of risky salaries that forced Gruden and Shanahan out.
Teams look for value after disappointing end to 2008 season
The Bucs and Broncos finished last season on a sour notes that led to the firings of Gruden and Shanahan.
Both teams seemed to be easy locks for playoff births. Denver was 8-5 with a three-game lead in AFC West and needed only one win to clinch the division title. After a blistering 9-3 start, Tampa Bay lost its last four games to miss the playoffs.
Taking a page from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who hired rookie coach Mike Tomlin after Super Bowl-winning head coach Bill Cowher resigned in 2007, the Bucs and Broncos looked for younger, cheaper coaches more concerned with action on the field instead of the activities in the front office.
Gruden, who became the only coach to win the Super Bowl in team history in 2003, had a less-than-cordial relationship with Rich McKay, the Bucs' General Manager that helped build the team into a perennial playoff contender. Bruce Allen was brought on following the team’s title win.
Gruden, then, received a raise and the input on personnel decisions that he desired.
In 1998, Mike Shanahan brought Denver the Super Bowl title it yearned for, repeating the feat with another championship the following year. After the second title, Shanahan was bestowed full authority on personnel decisions, and like Gruden, a salary that accompanies such power.
But, past successes seem an eternity ago to hardcore fans and owners that gave in to the coaches’ desires for more personnel power only to be disappointed with the return on their investments.
Similar Solutions to a Common Problem
The Broncos and Bucs won’t have such problems with Morris and McDaniels, the youngest head coaches in American professional sports.
The Broncos have already sent their starting quarterback, former first-round draft pick Jay Cutler, to the Chicago Bears, while Tampa released long-time Bucs and former first—rounders Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn and Ike Hilliard.
There are question marks at quarterback for both teams. Denver acquired Kyle Orton in the deal that sent Cutler to Chicago, whle Tampa Bay drafted Josh Freeman in the first round. It’s unclear whether Freeman will get the starting position, with NFL veterans Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown and Brian Griese also on the roster.
Oddly, both teams chose to sign coaches in areas the team was already successful.
Tampa Bay was No. 9 in overall defense last season and hired Morris, who was previously the coach for team’s defensive backs before serving as Defensive Coordinator in the final weeks of the season. When Monte Kiffin decided to follow his son Lane to the University of Tennessee, Morris jumped at the opportunity to serve as Head Coach.
Denver had the league’s No. 2 offense and one of its better quarterbacks in Jay Cutler. With receivers Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal developing into stars, McDaniels, the former Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach for the Patriots, made the bold choice to pursue his former pupil, Matt Cassell. Although Cassell signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, the damage was done and Cutler wanted out.
Morris and McDaniels serve as evidence of the NFL’s move away from high-priced coaches that want personnel power. In the last few years Shanahan, Gruden, Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, and Mike Holmgren have resigned or been fired.
Owners are no longer afraid to give a coach his first shot and the trend has opened the door for first-time coaches.
Last year head coaches Mike Smith, of the Atlanta Falcons; Tony Sparano, of the Miami Dolphins; and John Harbaugh, of the Baltimore Ravens, took their teams to the playoffs in their first seasons as NFL coaches.
There will be plenty of opportunities for a repeat performance with nine rookie head coaches preparing for the 2009 season.
Maybe Morris and McDaniels will be like Tomlin, rewarding their owners and confirming that age and salary are numbers, but they can’t measure success.