How Much Time Do You Give an NFL Coach?
December 28, 2016 by Kevin Beane • Print Story •
I ask the titular question because, in short, I think the Bills were way too hasty to shed themselves of the Rex Ryan, and the Jags took way too long to jettison Gus Bradley.
Let's start with Ryan. In his first, and only complete, season with the Bills, they finished 8-8. That's not great, but it was only the second time in 11 years that they managed to finish without a losing record. The first time was the year prior, when Doug Marrone led them to a 9-7 season and then quit, citing an out clause that allowed him to do so without meaningful penalty if there was an ownership change.
Perhaps Marrone was prescient if this is what's going to pass as normal from the new owners of the Bills, the Pegula family. I'm not saying Bills fans should feel satisfied with 8-8 seasons because it's slightly better than what they are used to. I am saying if you hire a coach, you need to give him more than the less-than-two-years to execute his vision, unless the results are atrocious.
I can understand this may seem less true in the NFL, where teams rise and fall more suddenly and precipitously than in other sports. Ironically, Rex Ryan might have ushered in the mindset of "new coach better win right away," because he led the Jets to the AFC Championships Game in his first two seasons as their head coach.
But there are six teams that, with one week to go in the regular season, will or at least have a chance to make the playoffs this season that didn't last year: the Raiders, Dolphins, Falcons, Lions, Giants, and the Cowboys. Of those, only one, Adam Gase of the Dolphins, is in his first year in his organization. Ben McAdoo of the Giants is also a rookie head coach, but as he was the offensive coordinator under the previous coach (Tom Coughlin, who retired rather than got fired) he represents a continuation rather than a regime change.
Several more head coaches of new playoff teams are in their second year, as was Ryan. But here again, Ryan isn't coming off two atrocious seasons. They've been league average, which means that they don't have as far to go as half the league does when it comes to making strides, and an improvement over 8-8 usually means playoffs. Now, in terms of all things coaching, the Bills have decided to start over.
I'm not the biggest fan of Jerry Jones, but take a look at his treatment of Jason Garrett. Garrett's first three full years in charge were all 8-8 affairs. Then, boom, 12-4. That's a more likely trajectory than going 8-8 for two years, bringing in a new head coach, and new guy brings you to 12-4. And while Garrett regressed back to 4-12 (thanks mostly to injuries) the following year, again Garrett stayed on, which brings us to the current year; look where the Cowboys are now.
There is too much patience, however, and I think the Jags exhibited that with Bradley. He was brought back this year after going 4-12, 3-13, and 5-11 in his first three seasons. He never approached even mediocrity. If we are just going by on-field performance alone, my rule of thumb is, it's premature to fire a coach after year one even if he goes 0-16.
If said coach's second year is also terrible, with no real progress made (let's say 5-11 or worse, although 5-11 is an acceptable step up from 0-16), then I think you may be justified in firing him. If you don't give him the axe after three straight years of 11+ losses, as the Jags front office did, you are essentially doing the fans a disservice. But Jacksonville kept Bradley on for most of a fourth year and — surprise! — they are no better, despite playing in the weakest division in the NFL.
There's a balance to be struck. Aspire not to be a European soccer club owner, firing your manager after every losing streak, but aspire also not to be like the Lions, who kept Matt Millen as team president for eight seasons of losing records, and only one as good as 7-9. Balance.
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