Coaches feel pressure to win from start
Coaches of the remaining undefeated teams are quick to point out that there's no magical "three-year" plan in place.
Much has been made, and justifiably so, of the seemingly magical three-year turnaround cycle that Dick Vermeil enacted in two previous stints as an NFL head coach, and which he appears to be repeating in his latest incarnation.
In his third season with the Philadelphia Eagles, after all, Vermeil shepherded a team that was 4-10 the year before he arrived to a wildcard playoff berth in 1978. In St. Louis, the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999, three seasons after Vermeil inherited a franchise that was 6-10 in Rich Brooks' final year on the sideline. And now, in his third season in Kansas City, the miracle-working Vermeil looks to have the undefeated Chiefs poised for a title run as well.
Despite the fact the NFL's three remaining undefeated franchises all have head coaches who have all been in their current positions for three seasons or fewer -- John Fox of the Carolina Panthers is in only his second year, and the Minnesota Vikings' Mike Tice took over his team with one game remaining on the 2001 schedule, when Dennis Green exited -- there certainly is no planned gestation period for hatching a playoff contender.
The only rule of thumb for conceiving a winner, acknowledged Vermeil, is to do it as quickly as possible. There was a time when a head coach would inherit a team and, at his introductory press conference, announce with feigned grandiosity he was implementing a so-called "five-year plan." Those days are history since, in this era, most coaches aren't provided a five-season shelf life.
Certainly the three-and-in (the playoffs) history Vermeil has fashioned is laudable. The franchises he took over, it should be noted, had an aggregate record of just 17-29 in the season that preceded his arrival. But there have been plenty of three-and-out coaches as well over the last 10-12 seasons, as owners have become increasingly impatient and seek instant return on their investments.
"There's always a personal blueprint," Vermeil said. "You don't just come in and start doing things haphazardly. And, sure, you have to have an eye, in this age, on the future. But the goal is still to get things (rectified) as fast as you can. Hey, some (coaches) have done it even quicker than three years, you know?"
Indeed, in his first three NFL head coaching jobs, the big bump for Bill Parcells' teams has come in the second season. The New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets realized an average of eight more victories in the second season than they had the year before Parcells arrived.
With his latest gig, Parcells might actually have the Dallas Cowboys, stuck in a rut with three consecutive 5-11 campaigns, ahead of his typical schedule. Then again, he really has no schedule, no fail-safe design tucked away in a safe deposit box that lays out, part and parcel, a road map for success in a given year.
Nor, it would seem, does any other head coach.
It makes for interesting debate, down at the local watering hole, that Fox and Tice have so expeditiously reversed the once dismal fortunes of the Panthers and Vikings, respectively. Or that Dom Capers and Tom Coughlin in 1996 stewarded expansion teams to conference championship games in just the second year of their existence. Or that Herman Edwards had the Jets in the playoffs each of his first two seasons.
That does not, though, suggest a pattern. Gregg Williams of Buffalo is in his third season and the jury is still out, as the Bills have lost three of four, on his future. Another third-year veteran, Butch Davis of Cleveland, has had mixed results. Marty Mornhinweg got just two at-bats in Detroit before being dumped after just five wins. Only nine months after his team's Super Bowl appearance, Oakland's Bill Callahan could be in trouble if owner Al Davis doesn't see improvement in the second half of the season.
That the head coaches of the last four Super Bowl champions -- Jon Gruden (Tampa Bay), Bill Belichick (New England), Brian Billick (Baltimore) and Vermeil -- were each with their teams three seasons or less when they claimed the Vince Lombardi Trophy doesn't mean there was a common thread to the title tapestries they created.
|“||You want things to come together as quickly as possible. You've got to roll with the punches, make adjustments, sometimes get a little bit lucky. ”|
|—Vikings coach Mike Tice|
Maybe in candid moments, Fox and Tice might allow that their teams have so far been a surprise even to them, because few pundits predicted the clubs would vie for a playoff berth, let alone be undefeated midway through October. The public stance, however, is that good things happen to people with good plans and to teams that work hard and just keep plugging away.
What it might reflect is the lack of stability and continuity being witnessed in the league again this season, a campaign in which none of last year's division champions currently owns so much as a share of first place, and where the dozen playoff franchises of 2002 have compiled a 30-38 cumulative record through six weeks.
"There are a ton of different factors," said Fox, whose modestly-talented team has taken a fairly simplistic game plan and driven it to five straight wins (seven over two seasons). "But if you're a guy who has aspired to be a head coach, then, sure, you've got some concept of what you want to do if you ever get a top job. And you try to implement the plan. You don't say to yourself, 'Well, maybe it'll work in the second or third year, huh?' You put it in, work it, try to (adhere) to it as much as possible and, hopefully, things fall into place."
It would diminish the accomplishments of the three coaches with undefeated clubs to simply suggest their success is a function of serendipity or happenstance. One Panthers assistant coach allowed that Carolina is probably a season ahead of schedule, but quickly noted there is no grand timetable stashed away in one of Fox' desk drawers. And Tice noted recently that he was with the Vikings for six seasons as an assistant, before taking over for Green, and that he was familiar with the organization from top to bottom.
Like most of his peers, Tice emphasized the need to stick with what you know best, and to not set standards based on timeframes. Every victory is a Kodak moment that is to be embraced, and then stashed away in a drawer. Hopefully, in time, the drawer overflows with snapshots of happy, winning faces.
"You want things to come together as quickly as possible," Tice said. "You've got to roll with the punches, make adjustments, sometimes get a little bit lucky."
One former Rams administrator, speaking of Vermeil's success in his third season with the Rams, pointed out that the franchise acquired tailback Marshall Faulk in a 1999 trade with Indianapolis, and reminded that starting quarterback Trent Green blew out his knee in preseason that year. His point: Nowhere in the master plan Vermeil brought with him when he came out of retirement in 1997 were those incidents plotted out.
"I love Dick and he came in here with very definitive ideas," said the former staffer. "But, believe me, nowhere in his plan did it say anything like: 'OK, three seasons from now, we will trade for Marshall Faulk. We will sign Trent Green but lose him to a bad knee injury. And then some guy named Kurt Warner will come out of nowhere and lead us to a Super Bowl.' I mean, that kind of stuff isn't part of the script, you know? That said, Dick had a terrific script and I'm sure the same is true in Kansas City, too. But there is some (stuff) for which you just can't plan."
What he could control, Fox agreed, was enunciating to general manager Marty Hurney what he expected in terms of personnel and how players fit into his schemes. Fox could implement offensive and defensive designs and, in his own way, instill a mindset that now pervades his club.
As for predicting how long it would take everything to dovetail, guessing when a team that had been down on its luck for several years would embrace his ideals, Fox had no delusions about setting a timeframe. But there are hints he is at least somewhat surprised by the alacrity with which the Panthers have come together.
"Yeah, it's been gratifying, very gratifying," Fox said. "We've grown up pretty quickly and you certainly like to see that."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.