Only in the NFL can Mike Shanahan, who has won two Super Bowls as a coach, depart his profession with a pink slip while Rex Ryan, who falsely promised two Super Bowls and has done little lately except acknowledge a foot fetish, keeps his job. But then, who would you rather be next year: Ryan, continuing a slow death in New York with Geno Smith and Mark Sanchez locked in a lame quarterback controversy, or Shanahan, sitting on an island while collecting the $7 million owed him by Daniel Snyder?
Such is the quirky fate of the coaching profession. As a dozen teams advance to the league’s Super Bowl tournament, the 20 also-rans bitterly retreat and ask what went wrong. Don’t be shocked if a good many decide a coaching change is necessary, even if I see only four candidates — Bill O’Brien, David Shaw, Ken Whisenhunt and Jay (brother of Jon) Gruden — likely to project higher as eventual rewards than risks. The rush is on for O’Brien, the one Bill Belichick disciple who won’t go bust, who is being pursued by Houston, Cleveland, Detroit and other franchises after his remarkable two seasons of morale-boosting and scandal-purging at Penn State. There also will be pressure from the league office to hire minority coaches — of 15 head-coaching vacancies the last two seasons, 14 went to white candidates — which means Shaw could become the highest-paid coach in American sports if he changes his mind about the NFL and fields offers after Stanford’s appearance in the Rose Bowl Game.
Some coaches obviously had to go, none with more urgency than Shanahan and Jim Schwartz. It’s difficult enough coaching in Washington when the owner knows nothing about winning, having had more head coaches (the next will be Snyder’s eighth) than over-.500 seasons (four) since buying the Redskins in 1999. But Shanahan’s future was doomed last postseason when he mishandled the Robert Griffin III injury mess, allowing the gifted rookie to keep playing with an injured right knee that worsened into a torn ligament requiring reconstructive surgery. All trust was lost between phenom and coach after that — Griffin seemed to blame Shanahan for keeping him in against Seattle, while Shanahan insisted Griffin talked him into the idea — and the situation grew untenable amid reports that Griffin and the owner, Snyder, had become BFFs. When the 23-year-old star is more powerful than the 61-year-old coach, and the star regresses signficantly in a sophomore season of mistakes and limited mobility, well, Snyder isn’t going to fire RG3 after a 3-13 season, is he?
Asked recently about the injury decision, Shanahan recalled it this way: “He said: `Hey, trust me. I want to be in there, and I deserve to be in there.’ I couldn’t disagree with him. I could have kicked myself in the rear end because my gut was. …”
To pull him out.
Unlikely to be offered another head coaching job, Shanahan’s career was done in by a naive kid and the doctor who backed him, probably with Snyder’s cell-phone consent from the owner’s box. Knowing the politics of such an arrangement, who would want the challenge of dealing with an unsuccessful owner and a problematic quarterback who might never be the same two-way threat? Art Briles created the RG3 machine at Baylor, and while the likes of Chip Kelly, Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh have made impressive leaps from college ball to the NFL, I also remember Steve Spurrier flopping while cashing Snyder’s checks. If I were Snyder, who has been arrogant and borderline insensitive in addressing Native American concerns about the team nickname, I’d think on a higher plane, show the critics that I’m open-minded and also address the Griffin issue with Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, the minority hire that the NFL wants and much of D.C. would embrace. After experiencing a seven-game winning streak and the emergence of a young star in 2012, Redskins fans grew hostile this season. Snyder needs to think about them for once, do the smart thing and not just throw wads of money at a big name.
At least Washington has won Super Bowls. Detroit hasn’t sniffed an NFL title since the 1950s, supposedly cursed by Bobby Layne, the Lions’ last championship quarterback. To eradicate that voodoo, they will take a shot at O’Brien, who might laugh at it all after dealing with a much more onerous challenge — the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal — the last two years. If not, then the best bet might be Whisenhunt, who coached the Arizona Cardinals within seconds of a Super Bowl victory, we forget. The Lions have marvelous offensive weapons and a monster defensive line, which made the Schwartz era more maddening. He seemed out of control at times, whether it was confronting Jim Harbaugh during a post-game handshake meltdown or shouting at fans who were booing in Ford Field, and his team played with a lack of discipline in critical moments. The Lions should have breezed in the NFC North after starting 6-3, particularly after Green Bay lost Aaron Rodgers. But their record in close games the last two seasons was putrid — 6-14 when the margin was seven points or fewer — and they finished with a 1-6 collapse.
Cleveland moved quickly in firing Rob Chudzinski after one season — so quickly that the franchise looks scatter-brained and the players are upset he didn’t receive more time. The Browns are eyeing Whisenhunt and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, perhaps trying to channel the Browns’ 1990s hire of Belichick despite McDaniels’ struggles and firing in Denver. But why would they want Cleveland? The Browns will draft a passer and have a major weapon in Josh Gordon, but this project, as always with that franchise, will require patience. Gruden might be a fit, or a proven offensive coordinator such as San Francisco’s Greg Roman or Seattle’s Darrell Bevell. This will be the third coach of Jimmy Haslam’s brief, tumutuous reign as owner, which includes a federal investigation into alleged illegal financial practices inside his truck-stop empire. This will not be a coveted job. Chudzinski, who is owed the final three years on his contract, might consider his dismissal a blessing.
Silly me, I thought the Jets would cut their losses on Rex Ryan and become the biggest bidders in the O’Brien derby. Not only would he have built-in credibility with the New York crowd after his work at nearby Penn State, his ability to develop quarterbacks and his past connection with Belichick would win points. But owner Woody Johnson likes Ryan, though he has developed only one-half a football team as one of the sport’s best defensive tacticians. He’ll get one more year, at $3 million, after missing the playoffs the last three seasons. With Ryan, the Jets land on more back pages than the reeling, boring Giants. But one of these years, they’ll have to reach to a Super Bowl instead of letting two other teams play the title game in their home stadium.
Seems Johnson, a Jets fan at heart, listened to the customers and the players and even the media. Ryan has defied the New York mantra — win or else — by becoming a man of the people without winning. “Rex is our guy. We believe in him,” guard Willie Colon said.
“I’m the right man for the job,” said Ryan, sounding like a political candidate.
Maybe that’s what is ahead for him, in the city of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer. Rex clearly has them fooled. “We’re clearly on the ascent, and a lot of it us due to our coach,” said Johnson, who joined general manager John Idzik in giving Ryan a game ball after a victory in Miami, which left the Jets at 8-8.
“I love being the head coach of the New York Jets, plain and simple,” said Ryan, who fought back tears when addressing the players. “I never wanted to go out this way, another losing season or something like that.”
Tom Coughlin has won two Super Bowls with the Giants. He also has missed the playoffs four of the last five years. As a two-time champion, he should be allowed to leave on his own terms and recently said he’d like the challenge of coaching in 2014. “Sure, absolutely,’’ Coughlin said. “I mean, probably even more because there are a lot of those that are telling you that you didn’t do very well and you’re not a very good coach and you’re not this and you’re not that, so perhaps you have something to prove.” This is a tough call, because Coughlin is highly respected in New York, but the operation seems stale.
Two coaches who deserve the ziggy are Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier and Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano. Armed with the gift of Adrian Peterson, Frazier hasn’t developed a quarterback. And though his specialty as a defensive assistant was the secondary, the Vikings were the league’s worst defense against the pass. With a new stadium on the horizon, the owners need to make a splash for the fans. The Vikings, too, must draft and develop a franchise quarterback, so Gruden, Roman or Bevell work, assuming the Wilfs are too cheap to offer a lucrative package to Shaw. Tampa Bay is a more attractive job, and not just because of weather. The Bucs have their share of talent — Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy, Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson on defense; Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams on offense — and need a coach whose message resonates. Schiano’s did not this sseason, as shown by his fatally flawed handling of Josh Freeman, and if the Glazers still care about the family football operation and aren’t looking to sell, then they, too, need to make a hire for the fans. O’Brien is out after Belichick’s misfire on his Schiano recommendation, and so are college coaches and former assistants (the Raheem Morris flop). Tampa Bay could do worse than Whisenhunt or Lovie Smith, who knows the Bucs franchise well but would have to bring a credible offensive mind after his periodic offensive droughts in Chicago.
Then there’s Joe Philbin, who enabled the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying debacle that wound up sabotaging a Dolphins team that collapsed the last two weeks and missed the playoffs. Philbin seemed to recover from the national scandal by coaching Miami to three straight wins, but then came a 19-0 loss in Buffalo and a stinker loss to the Jets. Ryan Tannehill has promise as a quarterback, but he’d like an offensive line after being sacked 58 times. Ditto, the Dolphins need an offensive mind who can develop a quarterback. Will Stephen Ross cover up an embarrassing wart with a new coach? He might want a proven leader of men — say, Whisenhunt or Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Much as I have little faith in Jason Garrett, you can’t fire him in Dallas when Tony Romo misses final game with a back injury. As for Tennessee’s Mike Munchak, few seem to care about a non-descript franchise, which probably is a good reason to look elsewhere. After 32 years of playing and coaching for the Titans, maybe he’d prefer the coaching job at his alma mater, Penn State. And it’s too early to make Oakland’s Dennis Allen a fall guy when the Raiders are purging bad contracts and fixing their financial situation.
All of which is a crapshoot, of course. No one ever heard of Chuck Noll, winner of four Super Bowls, when the Steelers unearthed him in 1969. Ron Rivera was about to be dumped in Carolina three months ago — now, the rampaging Panthers are a darkhorse choice to win a Super Bowl. Kelly arrives from Oregon and becomes the toast of Philly. Shanahan flashes his Super Bowl jewelry to crickets and catcalls in Washington.
And Rex Ryan? He’s the doofus who failed again yet keeps working.
Maybe that’s the idea. Don’t take the coaching racket too seriously.