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Monday, January 5, 2004
 



ARE NFL COACHES THE MOST OVERRATED EMPLOYEES ON THE PLANET?


NFL head coaches. They're the real stars of the game. They get more face time, more ink, more credit and more respect than MVPs and record-setters.

Is there a bigger supernova in today's NFL than Bill Parcells (only Brett Favre is even in the same galaxy)? Was there a bigger hero in the history of the game than Vince Lombardi (only Joe Montana and maybe Jim Brown are even in the same sentence)? Was there a bigger genius in sports history than Bill Walsh, who invented everything worthwhile about pro football that George Halas and Paul Brown somehow missed?

Even the losers -- like Jim Fassel, who presided over a team that went from preseason Super Bowl contenders to the game's biggest duds this season -- are better-known, better-covered and better-loved than any players on their teams. (In fact, Fassel, despite ending the 2003 season on an eight-game losing streak, is now the hottest coaching prospect in the game. But that's a Writers' Bloc for another time.)

The question is: Do NFL coaches deserve all the credit they are getting? Today's WB looks at this phenomenon and offers a strong opinion. Hint: Our opinion is NOT yes.

Pure genius? More like pure luck | From David Schoenfield
Perhaps an amendment is in order:

Bill Parcells -- the first coach to lose in the playoffs with four different teams.

Bill  Parcells
"Bill, you're a genius." "You, too, Bill."

Of course, pundits weren't blaming Parcells for the Cowboys' disastrous 29-10 loss Saturday to the Carolina Panthers. Fans weren't screaming for Parcells to explain how the Cowboys got ripped apart by Jake Delhomme. Analysts weren't suggesting the Tuna got out-Fox-ed.

No, of course not. We've been conditioned to think that Bill Parcells is brilliant. A motivator without peer. A genius.

His team gets crunched 29-10 in the playoffs? No problem. Meet John Fox, a brilliant genius of a motivator. Hey, two years ago the Panthers were 1-15, and now they're a playoff winner!

I swear to Vince Lombardi, every NFL coach must be brilliant. That's the way the media portrayed the storyline in the NFL this season. Parcells turned around the Cowboys. Marvin Lewis turned the Bengals into winners (well, almost). Bill Belichick kept the Patriots from sinking into Boston Harbor after losing their opener. Andy Reid stayed faithful to Donovan McNabb (what, he was going to hand the quarterback reins over to Koy Detmer?).

John Fox, Dick Vermeil, Jeff Fisher, Tony Dungy, Mike Martz, Brian Billick -- all brilliant, all with brilliant seasons. Sports Illustrated, in its Year in Review issue, headlined the major NFL story of 2003 "Heroes with Headsets." It's amazing the writers didn't announce a 32-way tie for Coach of the Year.

Well, maybe 31. We'll leave Steve Spurrier out of the discussion.

All the attention given to coaches is embarrassing. This constant coach genuflecting means they've all become overpraised and overrated. We see more closeups of Brian Billick than Jamal Lewis. The story of the Kansas City Chiefs becomes Dick Vermeil, not Trent Green and Priest Holmes. The Patriots roll into the playoffs, not because of a great defense or Tom Brady, but because Belichick "kept his players motivated." (SI)

Heck, Fox even showed Parcells from more angles than the cheerleaders.

Here's the deal: Nearly all NFL coaches are competent at their jobs. It's like a bell curve -- a very select few rise above (and Parcells, perhaps, belongs in that very few), a huge mass plods along in the middle, and a few can't hack it (Marty Mornhinweg).

But this default analysis of coach-as-genius has got to stop.

Take the Cowboys, for example. Dallas went 10-6, a five-win improvement from 2002. The team did make obvious strides -- from 28th to 15th in the NFL in total yards and from 16th to No. 1 in yards allowed.

On the other hand, widely ignored was the easy schedule of the Cowboys. Dallas played only five games against teams with winning records (including the Eagles twice). They played only seven games against teams which won as many as seven games. Their record in those seven games was 2-5, and they were outscored 158-85.

Compare that to 2002, when the Cowboys played 12 games against teams which won seven or more games and lost five games by four points or less. A play or two here or there and the Cowboys would have been .500 last season.

So, mix together a little better luck, a lot easier schedule -- and maybe a small pinch of Parcells -- and it is reaffirmed that Parcells was brilliant once again.

In Cincinnati, the players were "captivated by Lewis's cool, driven leadership." (SI)

Yes, the Bengals improved from 2-14 to 8-8. Maybe Lewis is a great coach. Or maybe we need to withhold judgment for now. After all, seven of the Bengals' eight wins came by seven points or less (the other was by eight points). They were outscored 384-346 on the season. And they play in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL  with four games against the hapless Steelers and Browns.

A play or two here or there, and the Bengals are 5-11 and Marvin Lewis isn't quite so captivating.

I could go on. Is John Fox brilliant or were the Panthers (seven wins by three points or less) merely lucky in running up an 11-5 record? Was Jon Gruden brilliant last year and less brilliant this year?

You know what the biggest problem is? Nobody wants to attribute anything in the NFL to luck. But so many NFL games do turn on one interception, one fumble, one blown call -- events that have nothing to do with the coach.

Remember that as you watch the rest of the NFL playoffs. It won't be coaching brilliance that decides anything.

But it very well might be luck.

Unless you're Bill Belichick. In which case, it may be tuck.


Alan Grant
To: David Schoenfield
Subject: Lucky ... and good

You know that T-shirt slogan, "Football is Life"? There's some truth to that. By that I mean football ain't an exact science. You can study film, formulate plans, and bang the hell out of your opponent. But that shall never, ever ensure success.

Brett Favre
Brett Favre and the Packers won on Sunday -- by being good and a little lucky.

That's where a good coach comes into play. The good coach is the one who embraces those players who give his team the best chance to win. Though the cameras capture his "facial genius," the good coach knows it ain't about him ( Steve Spurrier didn't need Stephen Davis. He wanted to win Super Bowls without a running game. Cool. That's why Steve Spurrier is out of a job, and Stephen Davis can make plans to cash his second playoff check).

You're right about one thing, Dave. Luck is everything. And that applies to both coaches and players. The so-called "good" coach wants to control his players and does so through mandating offseason conditioning. Sorry, but workouts don't bring chemistry to a group, and they don't bring an individual a step closer to immortality. It's great to be in shape, but all the sprinting, lifting, and cone drills in the world are no match for life's random misfortunes.

Read: Jerry Rice. For 14 years, Rice, the most supremely conditioned athlete I've ever seen, had also been blessed with extensive luck. By '96, how many times had Rice run that Z reverse? How many times had he taken the ball, looked to turn the corner and freak a backer or safety? Perhaps a hundred times? And for 14 years, he performed such tasks without injury. But that day in Tampa, when Rice took the ball and Warren Sapp took hold of Rice's knee, his luck ran out. The knee collapsed, and we had proof that the greatest receiver of all time was mortal.

I know about coaches, luck, and playoffs. I spent the '92 season returning punts for the 49ers. Any intelligent defensive player knows that he only has so many chances to touch the ball. You gonna call fair catch? That season, as I had throughout my college career, I eschewed the fair catch, choosing to run whenever possible. I finished the year with a 9-yard average -- decent, but not spectacular. But in the '93 NFC Championship Game, when my team met the Cowboys, life interceded. On a short kick, I sprinted forward, fielded the ball, and started up field. And when the first tackler ran into me, placing his helmet directly on the ball, my luck ran out. The ball popped loose and they recovered. After the game I wept.

Let's toss in an old axiom here: Coaches coach and players play. But there are times when a coach says something to the player to keep that player going. The good coach always says the right thing to the right player. But the statement doesn't always come from the head coach. When I came to the sideline, secondary coach Jeff Fisher, told me, "you know we still need you."

That's all some people need to hear.

I don't think Jeff Fisher has ever said this to Eddie George. But I don't think he has to. I'm also pretty sure Jeff Fisher could have replaced Eddie George a few years ago. George isn't the same player he was. But I think special things happen when someone else believes in you. You do things like take on freakin' Ray Lewis with a freakin' separated shoulder. And your team, which wasnt supposed to be able to run the ball, wins the game because you successfully ran the ball.

Afterward you celebrate, you heal, then you prepare for the next challenge. And you hope for good luck.

Just like life.


Patrick Hruby
To: David Schoenfield
Subject: Steve Inferior

Leave Steve Spurrier out? Uh-uh. More like keep him in. While the brain-swelling brilliance of the NFL's coaching savants might be overrated -- Mike Shanahan hasn't exactly won a playoff game without John Elway, has he? -- the sheer ineptitude of the league's lesser lights is underrated.

To borrow from David: It's amazing that the Spurriers of the world keep their jobs as long as they do. And even more amazing that league owners have only canned seven coaches this offseason.

Steve Spurrier
Who needs Stephen Davis when you have the Fun 'n Gun?

Like a mediocre one-term President or a wide receiver whose name rhymes with "Keyshawn Johnson," a crummy coach can set the off-key tone for an entire franchise. And that's without mentioning Richie Kotite. Consider the Redskins' befuddled ol' ballcoach. Like countless reformers before him, Spurrier came to Washington with a promise to do things his way: He would eschew the long hours put in by workaholics such as Bill Parcells, ignore his defensive unit and special teams, round up a posse of discredited ex-Gators and use the same schoolboy-stumping pitch 'n' catch tactics that allowed him to run up the score against outmatched 20-year-old defensive backs.

For one magical evening, of course, everything worked perfectly. Problem was, it happened during Spurrier's first preseason game. In Osaka, Japan. Which, coincidentally, puts Stevie Superior in the company of Alyssa Milano and Jennifer Love Hewitt -- two TV starlets whose pop albums tore up the charts in the land that brought us Ninjas and the PlayStation. (Then again, our Japanese friends also embrace Hello Kitty. But that's a story for another time).

Back on the mainland, things quickly turned sour, much like Spurrier's near-constant sideline grimace. His faith in Danny Wuerffel and Co. went unrewarded. His beloved Fun 'N' Gun offense proved wholly ineffective against NFL-caliber defenses -- unable to protect the passer or control the clock, let alone generate the gaudy offensive numbers common to, say, the largely-abandoned Run 'N' Shoot.

Spurrier's fixation on the pass led the Redskins to release Stephen Davis and spend a first-round pick on Florida receiver Taylor Jacobs, all while ignoring their woefully undermanned defensive line. Similarly, the ballcoach's inattention to detail and breezy attitude carried over to the field of play, where silly penalties, blown assignments and questionable clock management were the norm.

Most damningly, Spurrier's distaste for defense helped hasten the departure of former D-coordinator Marvin Lewis -- a coach who nearly prodded Cincinnati into the playoffs, a coach Washington owner Dan Snyder should have hired in the first place, a coach whose eight wins were more than Spurrier managed in either of his forgettably feeble seasons.

(Oh, and don't forget -- while some of Lewis' wins were close, Spurrier's last few losses weren't).

Granted, there's no discounting the role of luck, particularly in a near-even league like the NFL -- how else to explain Chicago enjoying a 13-win season under Dick Jauron? Still, when a team goes bottoms-up, it usually starts from the top down.


Eric Neel
To: David Schoenfield
Subject: Listen in the locker room

David's right: We fixate on the coach because we need a point to fix on; because he seems, by virtue of a softer body and some street clothes, to be more familiar than the players; because he does most of the talking; because he looks so serious all the time; because George Halas wore glasses, Paul Brown wore a suit, and Tom Landry wore that hat; because the thought that maybe luck is a factor is a thought that sends us screaming into a nihilistic void where things have no rhymes, no reasons, no architects and no orchestrators (in other words, it's a religious crisis); because Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant loom large, and George C. Scott played Patton, and Gregory Peck played MacArthur; because we forget that scene where Toto pulls back the curtain and it turns out Oz ain't all that great and powerful; and most importantly, because the Man don't want us recognizing the power of the people and the will, brilliance, and acumen of the players because that would upset the social order, don't you know, would throw us into chaos ... yes, yes, would surely lead to madness ... and revolution.

On the other hand, David's wrong in that it isn't just the fans and the media who say Parcells is brilliant, Belichick is a difference-maker, and Lewis is a godsend. It's the players, too. And if the men who play for the men see something that stirs, focuses and drives them in what these coaches do or say, well, who are we to say it ain't there?


Dan Shanoff
To: David Schoenfield
Subject: Thank you, Mr. Norwood

Good point about luck, Dave, and let's keep it in the context of Parcells: Sure the guy deserves credit for his various turnaround jobs, but he's one shanked kick -- the other team's mistake, not his own brilliant coaching job -- away from having won the same number of Super Bowls (one) as any number of lesser-light mediocrities.


Robert Lipsyte
To: David Schoenfield
Subject: Good Dad/Bad Dad

I agree with everything, but want to add this: At least since Gandalf, we have insisted on some powerful Dad figure with a larger vision to direct the raw energy of young men, to direct them to victory and keep them from turning on the rest of us. Also, to let them learn from mistakes and to take the ultimate blame.

Unlike our real dads, they are replaceable and can be shuffled off to different sons. We have conflicts over this. A hot shot like Oedipus can get the coach fired, but then beats himself up over it. We love a coach like Parcells because he wins, but we're afraid of him because he's a Bad Dad, burns out his sons with shame and humiliation (a great point made that he's lost playoffs with four teams now.) We love a coach like Vermeil because he's the Good Dad who shows us it can be done with humanity, but we're afraid of him because goodness is hard to maintain (ask a special teams player like Frodo). And once you get your arms around all this, you'll understand why the racial thing is so complicated (it's time for men and elves to line up together.)