Let’s Not Make Coaching a Death Sentence

In a saner profession, it would be considered self-torture. In football America, we call it dedication to the job. But at what point does it all fade to zero for an NFL head coach, this daily preoccupation with winning games, pleasing bosses, managing problem players, changing quarterbacks, monitoring concussions, dealing with fickle fans and fulfilling expectations? Does he ever realize he’s overdoing it, that sleeping on the office couch and rarely seeing his family are counterproductive to whatever he’s trying to achieve?

There I was, ready to write why the league is harder to figure out than Dave Chappelle, why Greg Schiano should be dismissed yesterday and how I’m not sure which teams are good and which aren’t … when Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak collapsed to the turf at halftime Sunday night and was rushed to the hospital, a frightening scene that hijacked the narrative of the country’s most-watched TV time slot.

All of which came a day after Denver Broncos coach John Fox was rushed from the golf course to the hospital, where he was told he’ll need aortic valve replacement surgery and will miss several weeks of his team’s potential Super Bowl run.

It makes you pause and wonder exactly what we’re trying to get done here.

There are more stressful jobs than coaching a pro football team, but not many, particularly given the public nature of the job and the crazed fervor surrounding it. These men are the pressure points for heavily scrutinized organizations that represent large population bases filled with demanding fans, nutty fantasy leaguers and uptight gamblers. Not until two are taken away in ambulances on the same weekend do we realize football is just a big, old, dumb game and we stop hyperventilating long enough to make sure they’re all right.

Kubiak did not have a heart attack, the Texans announced, and he was conscious at the hospital with “good” vital signs. But the enormous pain on his face as he first held his head with both hands, then fell to a knee and crumpled to the turf, suggested something more seriously was wrong. “He had an episode; he was light-headed and dizzy,” general manager Rick Smith told NBC in a postgame interview. “He was evaluated by a number of specialists … he was awake and coherent. We have to assess … obviously, there’s a lot of info.

“Hopefully, Gary will be back with us tomorrow.”

Let’s not rush it, OK? He is a 52-year-old man with a family, which joined him as he was taken to the hospital. The Texans, who had a 21-3 at halftime, fell apart without Kubiak in an eerie second half and lost 27-24 to the Indianapolis Colts. It was their sixth straight loss after a 2-0 start and all but assures that a team once hopeful of a Super Bowl berth will finish the season as a major washout. The strain of underachievement no doubt wore on Kubiak, who had to manage the poor play of veteran quarterback Matt Schaub and watched helplessly as the city turned on Schaub, going so far to cheer when he was injured. There has been talk that Kubiak might lose his job at season’s end, but he was doing something right in the first half against the formidable Colts, with new quarterback Case Keenum continuing to play well and the Texans defense harrassing Andrew Luck into errors.

Next thing you knew, Kubiak was sprawled on the ground for several minutes. Suddenly, quarterbacking performances and desperation victories didn’t matter much.

“It was really weird,” Keenum told the media. “Someone came in (to the locker room) and started yelling for a trainer. They said that he had passed out and we were all very worried. When we went back out, they told us he was … stable. We were all upset about that but trying to stay focused at the same time.”

“There was a lot of unknown,” said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who served as head coach in Kubiak’s absence. “Everything was unknown as to what was going on and what happened to Kub. (Offensive coordinator) Rick Dennison called the plays from the press box. We had to adjust as far as the head coach not being there. But it was a shock to everybody.”

Fox has enjoyed much more success this season in Denver, where Peyton Manning has led a prolific offense into the league elite. But a devastating loss to Baltimore in the AFC playoffs last season has created a burden to reach the Super Bowl, which may be dependent on a shaky defense and how well troubled Von Miller performs having returned from a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Fox had known of his heart condition and wanted to delay the procedure until February. He prioritized the team’s goals over his own health, and it caught up to the 58-year-old Fox when he experienced dizzy symptoms while playing golf in North Carolina during the bye weekend.

Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, rumored to be a prime candidate in USC’s search for a new coach, is the interim coach. Having served the Jacksonville Jaguars as head coach for nine seasons, Del Rio has experience — but how they adapt without Fox becomes a major story as two games against 9-0 Kansas City await. Said Fox in a statement: “Although I am disappointed I must take some time away from the team to attend to this pre-existing health condition, I understand that it’s the right thing to do. I have great confidence in our coaches and players, who are fully committed to our goals. I look forward to returning to coaching as soon as possible.”

He shouldn’t rush it. Consider everything he has dealt with in Denver while working for legendary John Elway — Tim Tebow’s emotional roller-coaster ride and inevitable demise … Manning’s signing and the accompanying high hopes … the playoff collapse on a blown secondary coverage against eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore … criticism that Fox was outcoached in the game by Baltimore’s John Harbaugh … Miller’s suspension for tampering with a dirty drug test … a front-office fax snafu that allowed Elvis Dumervil to leave for the Ravens … the arrests of two top team officials for drunk driving … Manning’s emotional return to Indianapolis and the cheap shots delivered by Colts owner Jim Irsay, which the normally mellow Fox publicly called “ungrateful and unappreciative.”

When the players scattered for the bye week, Fox told them, per ESPN.com: “I don’t want to see your name in the paper unless you win the lottery.” Turns out his name was in the paper for a date with a surgeon.

It’s useless, I know, to suggest this will send a message to other coaches to slow down. Kansas City’s Andy Reid was urged by friends to take a year off after his long, tumultuous tenure in Philadelphia; he refused, signed with the Chiefs and hasn’t lost a game as the league’s Coach of the Year favorite. Yet never have we seen two active NFL coaches rushed to the hospital in a two-day period during a season.

Whether their coaching brethren listen or not, it’s a message nonetheless. We hope they heed it.