Vikings better off keeping Tice for rest of season

As poorly as the Vikings, Texans and Packers have played, history shows that making an in-season coaching move wouldn't help.

Updated: October 9, 2005, 1:49 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In a bye week that many felt would actually be the bye-bye week for Mike Tice, given that the Minnesota Vikings have been one of the NFL's biggest disappointments at the season's quarter pole, new owner Zygi Wilf has spared his embattled coach with the dreaded but at least dilatory vote of confidence.

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For a rookie owner, Zygi, not a bad move.

Why so? Because as recent history has demonstrated, giving a coach the bird during the season, even when the vultures are circling, is almost never an effective move. Even a franchise that is struggling as mightily as the talented but also tainted Vikings are.

We'd love to invoke the old stop-here-if-you've-read-this-before line right now. But we know you've read this before, at least if you are a "Tip Sheet" regular, because we've written it before. Or at least something similar. But if you stop now, you'll miss the occasional splendor of redundancy, and the whole idea of a point worth remaking.

That point: As poorly as the Vikings have performed under Tice, or as shabbily as the Houston Texans have played in the fourth season of the Dom Capers regime, or as bad as the Green Bay Packers have looked under Mike Sherman, there is little to be served by making a coaching change before the end of the season.

As premature as it may seem, the end of the first month of the NFL campaign typically signals the beginning of hot-seat season. But just because a restless constituency starts stoking the flames of dissent doesn't make it cool to enact a coaching transition. Let the fans wait because, as the numbers show, an interim or replacement head coach isn't apt to ameliorate their simmering ire.

Mike Tice
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesMike Tice and the Vikings have struggled to a 1-3 start.
Obviously, the drums are beating already around Tice, Capers, Sherman and a few others as their teams have struggled through four weeks of the 2005 season. But, Wilf insisted this week, Tice is safe. There has been so sign of diminishing support for Capers. And, because the Packers signed Sherman to a two-year extension before the season began, Green Bay would owe him more than $6 million if it handed him a pink-slip. There are occasions -- just ask Dave Wannstedt or Butch Davis, who prematurely left the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns, respectively during the 2004 season -- when change can no longer be avoided.

But avoiding a change until the season ends, at least recently, has been significantly better than making a switch during even the most miserable of times. Owners, even first-year owners, such as Wilf, seem to have learned that lesson. "There's not much to be gained," agreed Saints owner Tom Benson last year, when it appeared that New Orleans coach Jim Haslett might be jettisoned in-season. "The numbers don't lie."

Indeed, they don't, and the numbers on interim or replacement coaches aren't pretty.

Counting Jim Bates in Miami and Terry Robiskie in Cleveland last season, there have been 56 in-season replacement coaches since 1970. Just 10 of those replacement coaches registered winning records after assuming the top job, and four of those coached three games or less. Of the 26 replacement coaches who inherited a team with at least a half-season remaining on the schedule, just five posted winning records.

The cumulative record for those 56 replacement coaches since 1970 is 114-250-1, an anemic winning mark of .314.

In replacing Wannstedt last season, Bates was lauded for the terrific job he turned in, and he, indeed, was marvelous in restoring some sense of order to the franchise. Still, Bates had just a 3-4 record, hardly scintillating, but still far better than the norm for an interim head coach. Robiskie, in his second stint as an interim head coach -- he also took over in Washington in 2000 after Norv Turner was fired with three games left on the schedule -- won one of five games for the Browns.

"Once the momentum starts in that downward cycle, it's hard to get it reversed, and I don't care who you are," said Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi, who was the interim head coach at Indianapolis in 1991 and in New Orleans in 1996, and who had a combined record of 2-17 in those two brief stints replacing Ron Meyer and Jim Mora, respectively. "It's not like baseball, where it's a long season, and you might have time to get things turned around. [In the NFL], there is no time, and by the time they make the change, it's usually too late. The truth is, it's pretty much a thankless job."

One telling point that graphically illustrates just how thankless, and also points out the negligible impact that an interim or replacement coach has in-season: Of the 56 interim or replacement coaches over the last 35 years, only 23 were around for the start of the next season. Most were truly "interim" coaches, guys who took over the steerage of sinking ships, either out of loyalty or the misguided hope the job would become permanent, but who were tossed overboard at the end of the season.

Following his 2-10 stint after inheriting a bad Buffalo Bills team from Kay Stephenson in 1985, longtime league assistant Hank Bullough allowed he had only two words for any interim head coach: "Good luck." In 1989, Jim Hanifan took over the Atlanta Falcons following the resignation of Marion Campbell with four games remaining, but only after club officials lied to him and convinced him that his record for stewarding the Falcons over the final month of the season would not count on his NFL lifetime resume.

Recalled the colorful Hanifan at the end of that season, after the Falcons lost all four outings under his leadership: "You think you can make it better. But you can't."

And therein lies the lesson for owners with their fingers poised over the panic button. Change for the sake of change characteristically means no change at all in how a bad or underachieving team performs. Which might explain why most owners now choose to simply ride out the storm to season's end, and why there have been fewer interim head coaches in the past few years.

Over the past seven years, there have been only 10 in-season coaching changes, just a dozen, in fact, in the past decade. Not since Bruce Coslet resigned from the Cincinnati Bengals in 2000, after losing the first three games of the season, has a head coach lost his job in the first half of a campaign. That streak isn't likely to end this year, and most of the personnel directors, general managers, owners and coaches surveyed this week agreed that there probably won't be any in-season coaching switches this year.

Compounding the issue for some teams, notably the Vikings, is that there is an absence of viable in-house candidates even for interim positions. The Minnesota staff includes no former head coaches at any level above high school. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who has interviewed for NFL head coach positions in the past, and came very close to landing the San Francisco 49ers job that instead went to Dennis Erickson in '03, arguably would be the most qualified man to take over for Tice. Cottrell enjoys respect in the locker room, but might be a hard sell with fans, given that the Vikings defense has not played well, even with five new starters this year.

And there is this element: Were Cottrell to take over and buck the odds, get things turned around with a talented team in a bad division, Wilf might be forced to retain him for '06, rather than bring in a new coach of his own choosing. Remember, Wilf, who purchased the franchise from Red McCombs in March, inherited the current staff. He's inherited a mess right now, as well, but his public statements this week that he will support Tice and keep him on the payroll were probably the right move.

When it comes to the "dead men walking" category at such an early juncture, history has clearly demonstrated that even the most frustrated owner is typically better served waiting until the end of the season to request that the coach take a permanent hike.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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