Commentary

The perils and pratfalls of NFL coaches

The Wade Phillips experience makes one wonder why anyone wants the job at all

Originally Published: November 9, 2010
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Sure, the money and the perks are good, the ego stroke is beyond compare and the potential for eternal adulation is a decent incentive. Obviously, there's never going to be an NFL team or BCS-level program that'll have trouble finding one. But there are times when you have to wonder why anybody wants the hassle of being a head coach in the NFL, or big-time college for that matter.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBy the time Wade Phillips finally was fired, it almost seemed compassionate.

Certainly when you look at Wade Phillips' past few weeks, you have to wonder. He twisted uncomfortably, not to mention repeatedly and publicly, while his team quit and his owner stewed. His vacant sideline look -- the same in good times and bad -- became a national commentary on his helplessness.

By Sunday night, when the Cowboys soiled themselves on national television, Phillips' firing seemed like the only humane way to proceed. Jerry Jones said, "People will suffer" (oh, the arrogance! oh, the self-importance!), and the next day he patted Phillips on the head one last time before putting him down. Sure, the money's good but how much goes directly to therapy?

Phillips was as done as his team. His remark two weeks ago -- "If I knew what to do, I'd already done it" -- was as concise a concession speech as a plain-spoken leader of men can summon. If he wasn't asking for a firing then, he was at least hinting that the rigors of the job had officially exceeded his ability to tame them. It was a re-imagining of his dad Bum's famous line about Don Shula: "He can take his'n and beat your'n, and then take your'n and beat his'n." Wade's, however, was a little more succinct: "I can take mine and lose to you'n."

So much of coaching is projection. The idea that Dallas might be the first team to play a home game in the Super Bowl was pure Jones' hubris from the start. The team wasn't anywhere close to that good, even with a healthy Tony Romo, but Phillips didn't help. He might be the world's greatest football strategist, although that's not the safe way to bet, but he projects a personality that falls somewhere between Eeyore and asleep. Contrast his style to Mike Shanahan, who seems to coach like he just doesn't care.

Right or wrong, Shanahan doesn't mind bruising egos, stepping on toes or being caught giving two different answers to the same question. There's a mental swagger to the way he runs his teams. He's going to coach his way or not at all.

[+] EnlargeCable
Cary Edmondson/US PreswireLadies and gentlemen: Meet Tom Cable, your NFL coach of the year.

Ten days ago, Donovan McNabb was deemed either too mentally challenged to grasp the nuances of Shanahan's two-minute offense, or he was deemed too physically unfit to endure it. Shanahan gave both explanations -- one postgame, one in a press conference last Monday -- and he probably doesn't care which one you choose to believe. Better yet, believe them both.

Seven months in the Redskins' system and McNabb can't run the two-minute offense against the Lions? That's an indictment of the coach, the player or both. And if the new face of your franchise isn't the guy to lead the team in the final 1:50 with a 6-point deficit, maybe he isn't the guy to lead the team the other 58:10.

This isn't a referendum on Shanahan's coaching ability, just his style. He's definitive even when he's wrong. (It's clear that if he wasn't wrong for removing McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman, he at least wasn't right.) He coaches like a guy who doesn't need it, which he doesn't, and he coaches like a guy who is going to stop coaching the moment someone tries to tell him there's a better way. That's probably why nobody's tried it yet.

It's instructive to note that while Phillips is gone and Brad Childress is working his way out of a job in Minnesota, Tom Cable is leading a mini-resurgence in Oakland. Everyone's favorite choice in the first-to-be-fired pool, Cable, is putting himself in position to be considered for Coach of the Year.

There's a reason: He projects in the locker room.

Cable doesn't care about anybody outside the team. To coach the Raiders, you need that quality, and he manages to understand the institutional dynamics of the job -- they're as weird as it gets -- without using them as an excuse to fail. (Jon Gruden drew up that blueprint.) Cable has shown an unusual willingness to take responsibility for his bad calls, openly and publicly, and there's no way you can overestimate how well that works in the locker room.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonIf nothing else, Pete Carroll can sell a move, whether it works or not.

It's the difference between Childress, who doesn't seem to have ever met a responsibility he couldn't dodge, and Cable. It's the difference between a guy who projects an image of confidence and solidarity and a guy, like Phillips, who made a career out of looking like it would be best for all involved if someone else went ahead and handled the hard stuff.

It's the difference between the Childress/Phillips mentality and Pete Carroll, whose schoolboy enthusiasm has played well in Seattle. Last week, as he was announcing that Matt Hasselbeck wouldn't play and Charlie Whitehurst would, I watched as he managed to sound disappointed and thrilled at the same time. Regardless of popular opinion -- and when it comes to popular opinion in Seattle and Whitehurst, what you saw Sunday is what you will get -- Carroll projected. Who knows what he believed when he said he would send the man Seattle-ites call "Clipboard Jesus" into a game against the Giants, because what he projected was nearly enough to make every Seahawks fan believe it just might turn out OK.

It didn't, not even close, but you might not have been so sure if you'd seen Carroll on Thursday. It wasn't magic, but it was almost enough to make you suspend your disbelief. But then Whitehurst, timid and unsure of himself, took the stage and summarily destroyed everything Carroll attempted to build up.

Which means, of course, that even the best projections mean nothing if you don't have the players who can respond to them. It's a state of affairs Phillips, finally free of it all, might find comforting.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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