The Legacy of Jeff Fisher: Controversial, Complex...and Not Yet Fully Written

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistFebruary 7, 2018

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 04:  Head coach Jeff Fisher of the Los Angeles Rams walks on the field before the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

You are Jeff Fisher, and if you listen to a few minutes of sports talk radio, you will hear opinions—even from people you have been friendly with for 40 years—about how great it is that you are out of work.

That's OK; you have an office to pack up. Two days ago, Rams CEO Kevin Demoff gave you the bad news: You were done. You asked for a little time to get your things together, and it was granted.

Two days later, the team you used to coach is leaving to play the Seahawks in Seattle. You walk out to the driveway of the team facility on the campus of Cal Lutheran where the buses leave. You have your 10-week-old golden retriever in your arms. Hunter is her name, and everyone who sees her can't help but love her.

The buses come by. You wave, give a thumbs-up, try to see faces beyond the tinted glass. The buses slow down, and players crowd one side of the bus to wave back. Some yell for the driver to pull over, but the plane is waiting. It's emotional.

With a few puffs of exhaust, the buses disappear into the clear, perfect southern California afternoon. You say goodbye, for now, to a career you loved.

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You are Jeff Fisher, and your ride has been a wild one.

You were named interim head coach of the Houston Oilers in November 1994. In your first game, you scrapped the run-and-shoot offense the Oilers had been using and went conventional, even though you had only one tight end on the roster. Then in the last game of the season, you switched back to the run-and-shoot for your only victory of the year.

In your first full year as head coach of the Oilers, the talk about moving the team from Houston began. Houston turned on the Oilers. You would, in reality, be coaching without a home-field advantage for the first four years of your head coaching career.

You and your players lived in limbo. At one point, one month before training camp began, one of your players had deposits at schools for his children in Houston, Birmingham and Nashville. In 1997, the Tennessee Oilers moved to Memphis. The next year, on to Vanderbilt. Finally, in 1999, the Tennessee Titans settled in Nashville.

You took your team to the Super Bowl in your first season in your new city. Your future team beat your present team 23-16 in one of the most exhilarating Super Bowls ever. Your Titans came within inches of tying at the end, but wide receiver Kevin Dyson ran his route a little short and was tackled by linebacker Mike Jones.

The next year, your star quarterback Steve McNair became disheartened and wanted to quit. The two of you spent 10 days in the middle of the season talking it through. A little more than two years after McNair was voted co-MVP of the league, your owner, Bud Adams, abruptly declared McNair could not work out at the team facility because he had yet to agree to restructure his contract. Your star quarterback wouldn't be your star quarterback any longer.

Your owner, however, would get you another quarterback in 2006: a first-round pick neither you nor your general manager wanted. You were to make do with the tempestuous Vince Young.

You and the Titans eventually had enough of each other. After a year away from the game, you turned down the Dolphins and became head coach of the Rams in 2012, taking over a team that had averaged three wins per year over the previous five years.

It was like being coach of the Oilers all over again with all the drama about moving.

And on the subject of drama, before you coached your first game, your defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, was suspended for a year for something he did when he worked for another team. Five of your players made a statement about the Ferguson unrest by coming out of the tunnel with their hands up—and you didn't find out about it until you got home after the game. Your starting quarterback, Sam Bradford, tore his ACL in consecutive seasons.

Fisher and Sam Bradford
Fisher and Sam BradfordL.G. Patterson/Associated Press/Associated Press

So your teams lost 165 games, which ties you for most losses in NFL history.

No coach has had a journey like this one.

You are not the same coach you were back in Houston. You evolved with experiences and the times.

You stopped having players report to early-morning meetings, for instance, because you knew most of this generation stays up late with their mobile devices or video game controllers in their hands. And there was a basket for those mobile devices to be dropped in outside the meeting rooms—but you promised the players would be able to get back to them in 25 minutes or less because you knew they couldn't take being separated from them for longer. When you would find quarterback Case Keenum alone in the meeting room watching tape at ungodly hours, you'd send in your older Golden Retriever, Sage, to keep him company.

You enjoyed the challenges. You had fun doing your job, and how many people can say that? And you know what? You would do it all over again.

You are Jeff Fisher, and when you were told you were coming home, you said you were honored. You meant it.

You grew up in the San Fernando Valley, playing football and baseball and riding the waves. You were a Rams fan and still can remember your father taking you to the Los Angeles Coliseum for the first time to watch the Fearsome Foursome. You were wide-eyed when Rams running back Les Josephson spoke at your Pop Warner banquet. When he came back for an alumni event when you were the Rams coach, you had to shake his hand.

You loved Los Angeles so much you stayed there for college. At USC, you played on a team that won the national championship, and you met your future bride, a princess in the 1979 Rose Bowl royal court.

When you came back to town as the head coach of your boyhood team, people came out of the woodwork. Relatives, friends from school, old neighbors. Your people accounted for more than 100 season tickets.

Your parents and four siblings still lived in town. Mom and Dad would stop by the facility to check on you every other day. You had your first Christmas at home in 25 years. You even spent 15 minutes at a high school reunion, right after a team meeting on the eve of the season opener.

But the 2016 season did not play out like a fairy tale.

There was a lot going on. Moves from St. Louis to Oxnard for offseason training, to Irvine for training camp, and then to Thousand Oaks one week before the start of the regular season. Trying to replace two starters in the secondary who left in free agency. Playing all but one of your road games east of the Mississippi, and one east of the Atlantic.

And Eric Dickerson. The Rams legend, who had been asking for sideline passes to games, started publicly criticizing you and the team. You called him and told him it was his right to say what he wanted, but you were concerned that his remarks would not sit well with the players. You said you were uncomfortable with the idea of giving special privileges to a vehement critic.

You thought he understood and that was the end of it. But then Dickerson said he would boycott the Rams as long as you were coach.

You didn't really understand what happened with Dickerson, because you thought you were on good terms with him. You had spent time with him at golf tournaments through the years. When he came to an offseason practice, you put him on the field and let him have a handoff one day. He told you it was one of the greatest days he had since he retired.

You aren't holding a grudge. Maybe one day the two of you can talk it out. Maybe not.

You and Dickerson agree on one thing: You didn't win enough games as Rams coach. The team was 31-45-1 in your tenure.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Your ninth loss in 2016 was a bad one, and you wouldn't get a chance at a 10th.

Before the season, Hard Knocks captured you addressing your team after a couple of players violated your rules. "I'm not f--king going 7-9 or 8-8 or 9-7," you said. "We have too much talent here for that. We had some 7-9 s--t this morning, and we can't have that. … That is 7-9 bulls--t, and we don't need it."

The trolls on the internet declared 7/9 Jeff Fisher Day, and it was one of a few flash points that preceded your dismissal.

You spoke out about why you thought showing respect for the national anthem was important and why you didn't think the anthem should be a time for protest. That did not endear you to a segment of the population, but you said what you believed in, and you will never apologize for that.

When news leaked that Rams general manager Les Snead had signed a contract extension, you were asked about it. You said you didn't know about it, which you didn't. Soon, reports surfaced about tension between you and your GM.

Your team was facing long odds from the start in 2016. Your team or, rather, that team, was set up to win after 2016.

You admired the job your successor did but were not surprised to see Sean McVay take the Rams where you failed to.

"I thought it was a matter of time," you say. "I spent over four-and-a-half years working on that roster and had a lot to do with the way the drafts went. I knew they, or we, were close—a few players away. I'm just really happy for the success the players and coaches and support staff had. It's an outstanding group of people that I worked really close with."

You will turn 60 years old this month. McVay is 32, and you don't know one another, but he sees it the same way.

"I absolutely think the team was in a good place when we got here, and it's a credit to Jeff and Les being able to accumulate that type of talent, guys you can build around," McVay says. "And what was helpful is we were able to acquire some real good veterans after I got here. Coming here, I can see the respect and admiration the players and everybody who has been around Jeff has for him based on how he treated people, how he operated day-to-day."

There is a sculpture of a ram on a cliff in your home office. It would look good, you think, in McVay's office.

A part of you is with him.

You are Jeff Fisher, and they're calling you "the quarterback whisperer," usually with a rolling on the floor laughing face emoji.

You didn't win Super Bowl with Nick Foles, like Doug Pederson did. You didn't get to the NFC Championship Game with Keenum, like Mike Zimmer did. You didn't win the NFC West with Jared Goff, like McVay did.

Jared Goff and Sean McVay
Jared Goff and Sean McVayJohn Froschauer/Associated Press/Associated Press

You were never an offensive coach. You hired others to do that. And that's where things unraveled. After the 2014 season, your offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, wanted to be closer to his family, so he told you he was leaving for a job at the University of Georgia.

Your intent was to replace him with an experienced NFL play-caller. You reached out to four coaches who had been successful NFL coordinators. Three of them also had head coaching experience. None of them wanted to be your coordinator. "My sense," you say, "is they didn't want to have to endure the relocation."

So you promoted from within. It didn't work once. You made a change and tried another promotion. Your team didn't have Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp for your quarterbacks to throw to, so it wasn't ideal for your coordinators.

"Had I stayed," you say, "there were a lot of changes I needed to make that we had been unable to make because of the move."

No one was calling you "quarterback whisperer" when Mike Heimerdinger was your offensive coordinator and McNair was leading the league in passer rating. Your record with Heimerdinger was 75-53. Heimerdinger died of cancer in 2011.

Ever since, after your team's final walkthrough on Saturdays, you gathered your assistants in your office. You ate pizza and watched a little college ball. You opened a bottle of wine and offered a toast.

"To Dinger."

A few weeks after you were told you weren't being retained by the Rams, you received a text. Keenum was throwing a Christmas party at the same time as the Rams' official team party, and about 20 players and their wives or girlfriends would be there. He wanted you to come.

Case Keenum and Fisher
Case Keenum and FisherRob Carr/Getty Images

When you arrived, some of your former players were so surprised and touched that they cried, Keenum says. "It was so good to have him," he continues. "I love Coach Fisher. He's a great coach, better person. I loved the time we spent together. He's a guy you want to run through walls for and you want to fight for. I really appreciate what he did for me in my career, giving me a shot. He's somebody I have a lot of respect for."

The party turned out to be one of the greatest Christmas presents you ever received.

Even through the hard times, you thought, you did something right. You still believe in you.

You are Jeff Fisher, and you are considered a retread.

Being a retread is bad if you are you but good if you are Jon Gruden.

Your career record is eight games above .500. Gruden's career record is 14 games above .500. You are 5-6 in the postseason. He is 5-4. Your team lost in your only Super Bowl. His team won in his only Super Bowl.

He was given a 10-year contact to coach the Raiders, reportedly worth $100 million. You were not interviewed for any of the seven head coach openings.

Maybe being a retread just means you have some battle scars. You have faced challenges and survived some things.

"He's a guy who's been in some pretty tough situations," former rival Mike Shanahan says. "I know how good a coach Jeff is and what kind of person he is. Players play hard for him. Everybody is on him because the Rams had success last year. But they added some good players, they put in a good new offense and they had a quarterback step up in his second year. I think if you wait a year or two, you'll look back at Jeff and say, 'I forgot about some things.'"

You went to USC as a wide receiver. After some injuries, the team asked if you wanted to switch to cornerback before your junior year. Your teammates told you not to do it, but you went against them and the odds—and became a starter in a secondary with Dennis Smith, Joey Browner and Ronnie Lott.

In your second season with the Bears, you were a safety, but before a game in Minnesota, Buddy Ryan told you he needed you to play nickel cornerback, even though you had never even practiced the position. He left you one-on-one with Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White, Pro Bowl wide receivers. You were beaten for two touchdowns. The next day, Ryan felt so bad about putting you in that position that he edited the plays out of the film review.

You were on a USO tour in Iraq when you found out McNair, one of your favorite players ever, was shot to death. When you came back, you had to eulogize him twice.

Fisher and Steve McNair
Fisher and Steve McNairRON HEFLIN/Associated Press/Associated Press

You have been bluff-charged by a cow moose and chased by a black bear.

You parachuted out of a helicopter in the middle of your team's practice. You became a long-distance runner at the age of 44 and completed your first marathon. You climbed Kilimanjaro.

Some goof made a death threat against your family. You and your family had to build precautions into your lives as the FBI got involved and tracked the guy down.

You and Juli, the Rose Bowl princess, went through a divorce near the end of your days with the Titans. Afterward, you and a close friend went turkey hunting one morning in Tennessee. On your way back, in the mid-morning, the two of you stopped to talk on a bridge on your farm. There was some understandable strain in your life. You opened up. You had been a spiritual man, but you realized then something was missing.

On that bridge, with turkeys in the back of your truck, you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior. You felt a tremendous sense of peace. "I put a lot behind me," you say. "My life took a turn for the better at that point."

Today, you wear a wristband that reads, "I AM SECOND." God is first.

And today, Juli, your beautiful Rose Bowl princess, is by your side again.

"I really believe God has a plan, and I trust in it," you say. "There is peace in that."

Success can be measured in different ways.

When you were coaching the Titans, one of your players was having trouble concentrating. His mother was in Samoa struggling with breast cancer. She needed to get to Hawaii for treatment. He was the oldest of her children, so it was his responsibility to get her there and set everything up. He was overwhelmed.

You told him not to worry. You would get it done. She got to Hawaii, and Joe Salave'a gave you a big hug and told you he loved you.

When you were coaching the Rams, one of your young players was spending his free time consumed by the mistakes he was making. You had a suggestion. Take up the guitar. He did, and a few years later you were sent an album of guitar music—Butterflies, Rainbows & Moonbeams—with Joe Barksdale's face on the cover.

You have touched lives and changed paths. You want there to be more Salave'as and Barksdales in your future.

You are Jeff Fisher, and you look out the window of your Pleasant Valley home on a December night, and the sky is not dark blue, as it should be. It is orange—hot, angry orange. The next thing you know, your power goes out. The Thomas Fire, raging about 15 miles in the distance across the canyon, is going to change things for a lot of people.

The fire won't affect your property. But it will give you something meaningful to do. There are evacuees who need to be fed. There are firefighters who are camping out and need food, toiletries, power strips, pillows and more.

The nearby humane society normally houses about a dozen dogs and cats and five horses. Now, it has hundreds of dogs and cats, 70 horses and everything from alpacas to pythons—pets with nowhere to go. It needs pet food and hoses and hay.

You can help with all of that, so you do. Not having a job hasn't been all bad.

You have thought about trying broadcasting, or maybe working for the league office. But you aren't ready to do that yet.

You threw a wedding reception for your daughter Tara that was incredible and even had your friends Rascal Flatts sing "My Wish" for the bride and groom's first dance. You became a grandfather for the first time when your son Brandon and his wife Anne had a son, Cameron.

You decided to get in better shape, so you started eating right and dropped 20 pounds. You stopped drinking too, even though you love wine so much that when Rams owner Stan Kroenke brought you to his office in 2012 to interview you to be his head coach, your first question was to ask him to confirm a story you'd heard about him at some point: "Did you really pour out the entire 2004 vintage of Screaming Eagle?" He did, because the cab, which sold for about $2,000 a bottle, wasn't up to the winemaker's standards.

Rams owner Stan Kroenke and Fisher
Rams owner Stan Kroenke and FisherTom Gannam/Associated Press/Associated Press

You returned to Augusta and shot par on the 16th hole—the only remaining hole you hadn't been able to par in previous visits. You went fly fishing in Alaska, Argentina and Mexico with Brandon.

And mostly, you spent time in Montana, where you fished and hunted for elk. You have a cabin in Montana, and when you are there you let your beard grow long, your Montana look.

You had a lot of alone time, just you and your bow, out in the fields where the only sounds came from an occasional gentle breeze rustling the pines and wildflowers, and from the gurgling of a running creek. In those fields, through those twisting valleys and on those rolling highlands, you came to terms with where you've been and where you are headed.

You remembered sitting in a meeting room in Lake Forest, Illinois, in the late summer of 1982 when you first thought you wanted to be a coach. You were relieved to learn you had made the team in your second season, and now Ryan was telling his players they needed to turn in their training camp playbooks the next morning. You went home and copied some sections of the playbook. "Maybe," you thought, "I'll use this someday."

You were injured during the Bears' incredible 1985 season and ended up being Ryan's right-hand man on the sidelines. The next year, Ryan took you with him to Philadelphia to coach defensive backs.

You had quite a run, including a quarter of a century as a head coach. Only seven men in history coached more games than you—you had to be doing some things very well. But things haven't gone well in recent years. Your last winning season was 2008.

"You have to face the truth," you say. "You have to look in the mirror and ask what you could have done differently. We all could do things differently. There is a sense of rejection you have to come to terms with."

You don't need to be confronted with your failures. You know them better than anyone.

You also know every story has two sides—at least. And memes don't concern themselves with all of that. "I make the choice to see my career not as the one that tied Dan Reeves for having the most losses in NFL history," you say. Instead, you choose "to see it as 13 wins away from being in the top 10 in wins in history."

Others will see it differently. You get it.

You know that now, more than ever, knowledge, context and perspective are not prerequisites for judgment. "I don't let those things eat away at me," you say of the body blows. "The people who are making the comments don't really know what took place or why. You can sit there and state facts, but people's opinions are always going to disregard facts. That's the world we live in."

Every man is given only so many autumns. You are hopeful about the ones that remain for you.

You are Jeff Fisher, and you want to be an NFL head coach.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.

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