This game of musical coaches is hurting NFL
Something's got to give. The way owners are going through head coaches these days, there's just not enough new coaching talent to keep up with the demand, writes John Clayton.
Being an NFL owner requires exceptional business skills. The NFL has some of the best and brightest business people in the world, and each ownership change -- though rare -- brings in more top CEO talent.
But when it comes to the maintenance of the head coaching office, owners are bankrupt of good business practices. Since free agency began in the 1993, owners have averaged seven coaching changes a year. And fittingly, seven coaches from 2006 are gone.
Memo to NFL owners: STOP. The market can no longer bear this many changes. In 13 months, the NFL has endured 17 coaching changes. That's more than half the league. Since 2003, there have been 32 head coaching changes, not including interim moves.
The NFL is changing coaches like pit crews are changing tires in Daytona. At some point, the supply of candidates for those jobs starts to run out. On the other hand, the league is changing coaches at such a fast pace, there is a pretty good list of experienced head coaches with decent records. Mike Martz, Jim Mora, Jim Fassel, Jim Haslett, Dennis Green, Bill Parcells and Bill Cowher head a list of coaches who have run teams successfully in the past.
Where the owners are hurting themselves and the league with this dramatic change is at the coordinator level. For economic reasons, owners have shifted to filling head coaching vacancies with coordinators instead of experienced head coaches. Seven first-time head coaches were hired in 2006 and so far this year three coordinators without prior head-coaching experience have been promoted to head coaching jobs.
The CBA extension is a primary reason for the owners' emphasis on hiring assistants. Keeping the salary cap was costly. Players got 59 percent of the gross revenue with little exception. Coaching salaries come out of the team owner's take and it's a lot cheaper to hire a first-time coach in the low $2 million range than it is to hire an experienced head coach at $3.5 million to $4 million a year.
However, there simply aren't enough hot assistant coaches to fill seven vacancies a year. Owners either have to go back to the more costly experienced head coaches or they are going to start reaching. Already, the strain is showing. The Raiders hired Lane Kiffin, a 31-year-old offensive coordinator from USC with no NFL coordinator experience. The Steelers, one of the smartest organizations in the league, tried to jump ahead of the hiring frenzy by grabbing Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin after his first year in charge of the defense.
And it's a real struggle for the teams that fire head coaches who run the 3-4. The trend to go back to the 3-4 picked up about four years ago and there aren't enough head coaches or coordinators with long-term 3-4 experience to replace the departed and maintain roster continuity.
And the trend is only going to get worse. Eight to 10 changes appear to be on the horizon. Tom Coughlin, Romeo Crennel and several other coaches head into next season knowing they need to be successful or they could lose their jobs. Lovie Smith and Jeff Fisher so far don't have extensions and could be free agents in 2008.
Plus, the landscape for improving teams has changed dramatically, and the NFL riches are the cause. The salary cap increase to $109 million, based on the great economic success of the game, gives teams the greatest ability in the salary cap era to keep their own talent. Fewer and fewer good free agents will hit the market.
Most of the top playoff teams are considering staying out of the overpriced free-agent market and just staying with their own players. Most of the good teams will only have 12 to 15 roster changes next season. But even the teams with $30 million of cap room will find it hard to buy more than two or three top starters.
The teams at the bottom will stay at the bottom unless they draft well and establish head coaching stability. The bad teams have become trapped in a ridiculous cycle. If a team doesn't look to be on a playoff path by the end of its coach's second season, the coach is either fired or served notice he will be gone in the third year. Jim Mora of the Falcons went to the NFC Championship game in his first year, and he was gone after three.
Owners need to look at the numbers. There are only 12 playoff spots. There are only eight opportunities for a coach to win a playoff game, four in the wild-card round and four in the divisional round.
Owners also have to take the scheduling trends in the league into consideration. This is a league in which third-place and fourth-place teams with easy schedules can jump ahead of first-place teams with tougher schedules. A tougher schedule can pull a nine-win team down to seven and an easy schedule can make an average team a 10-game winner. Those borderline playoff teams rarely win playoff games because their rosters aren't good enough, but the coach usually pays the price if the team drops out of the postseason picture because of the tougher schedule the following season.
In other words, playoff trips aren't guaranteed, and owners who keep changing coaches must think they are owed them.
Look at the top of the AFC. The teams that consistently make the playoffs are the teams with head coaching stability, although those times may be changing as the Cowhers of the world decide to move on to different challenges.
The two-to-three-year head coaching windows can't continue or the game will start to suffer. Musical coaches is a game with no winners.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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