Lack of coaching continuity could be an issue

With a large amount of turnover among head coaches and coordinators this offseason, continuity at the top has become a rare commodity in the NFL.

Updated: January 30, 2006, 1:18 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Much will be made in the coming week -- and justifiably so -- about the relative stability demonstrated by the two Super Bowl XL franchises.

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Despite the front office turmoil of the previous few seasons, the Seattle Seahawks stuck with head coach Mike Holmgren through some difficult times, and only three of his peers have more continuous service with their current teams. But even the Seahawks are pikers compared to their Super Bowl counterparts, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have employed just two head coaches since 1969, and who, in the celebrated Rooney family, have had just one proprietor in franchise history.

The issue of continuity is notable, because come next season, the NFL definitely will be shy of that most precious commodity, at least at the coaching level.

Consider this: As things currently stand, fewer than half the NFL franchises (15 of 32), will embark on the 2006 season with the same head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator with which they began the 2005 campaign. And given that the Oakland Raiders remain interested in Pittsburgh offensive chief Ken Whisenhunt for the last of the league's head coach vacancies, the turnover might not have altogether ended.

Apprised of the numbing numbers, one league owner joked this week that "keep" has apparently become a "nasty, four-letter word" in the NFL lexicon. Once an entity that embraced a status quo philosophy, at least at the top levels of organizations, the NFL has suddenly morphed into a league much more obsessed with instant gratification, and with moving the furniture around every couple seasons if the football feng shui doesn't quickly click.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, who views the top three spots on a staff as a kind of holy trinity, agreed the degree of wholesale shake-up taking place could promulgate serious repercussions next season.

We've always felt that when you change coaches, you become like an expansion team, because you're starting over, in a sense. Football is our family business, and we tend to believe that you're better served [with stability]. We kind of think that patience isn't such a bad virtue to have.
Dan Rooney, Steelers owner

"What's gone on [this offseason], that's a lot of turnover, even if you're talking about two years," acknowledged Gruden, who was able to retain both coordinators, but who spent much of this week at the Senior Bowl college all-star game interviewing candidates to fill other key vacancies on his Bucs staff. "As complex as this game is now, with all the stuff [swirling] around, you have to be surrounded by good people. Your support staff has to be good. But there sure has been a lot of movement and upheaval."

Extend the offseason makeover to include the quarterback position, and because of injuries (to veterans such as Cincinnati's Carson Palmer and San Diego's Drew Brees) and other uncertainties, the number of franchises that figure to begin the 2006 season with their top four key people still in place could be reduced to fewer than 10.

The advent of the free-agency salary cap has meant that since 1993, the league has existed in some state of flux. The upheaval of this offseason, however, is arguably the most far-reaching in recent history. And the scope of the turnover could make for some rough times in several league precincts.

Think about New Orleans, where the head coach and both coordinators will be new, and where starting quarterback Aaron Brooks is on the outs. Or the New York Jets, where the coaching staff is new, and no one knows whether quarterback Chad Pennington's twice surgically repaired right shoulder will be fully rehabilitated in time for camp. Even in some stable spots, such as Denver, there will be alterations, since longtime offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has moved on to become the Houston Texans' head coach.

Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the NFL's reigning sultan of stability, is among those who are concerned by the churning that is taking place. There is no denying that the darkest cloud of uncertainty currently hanging over the league is the lack of movement on the labor front, both in terms of the intramural disagreement over revenue sharing, and the failure to extend the collective bargaining agreement. But the sound of distant thunder, a rumble whose resonance will increase as teams get closer to minicamps in the spring, is that of the problems that could be posed by all the change undertaken by franchises this offseason.

With 10 head coach changes, and the trickle-down ramifications that entails, the 2006 season could be an uneven one, at least at the outset. The scale of change this offseason all but dictates that next offseason, at least when it comes to coaching turnover, will be significantly less active. But some owners have made it clear, especially with the shorter-term contracts to which head coaches were signed over the last two weeks, that they will not easily reconcile a lack of progress.

And that concerns owners such as Rooney, who isn't necessarily opposed to new ideas, but who remains decidedly old school in some areas.

"We've always felt that when you change coaches, you become like an expansion team, because you're starting over, in a sense," Rooney said. "Football is our family business, and we tend to believe that you're better served [with stability]. We kind of think that patience isn't such a bad virtue to have."

But as demonstrated by the jaw-dropping turnover numbers already in place for the '06 season, Rooney's league brethren don't necessarily agree.

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

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