Firing coaches midseason hardly solves the problem

It seems like the easy answer when a team is struggling, but firing a coach midseason rarely solves anything, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: November 3, 2006, 12:43 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

It wasn't particularly surprising last week when Arizona Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill all but acknowledged that, despite a disappointing 1-7 start, coach Dennis Green wasn't going bye-bye during the team's bye this week.

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Nor, most likely, before the end of the season, if even then.

Few teams have changed coaches in-season as much as the Cardinals have during their mostly miserable existence in three cities. Although Bidwill isn't old enough to remember many of the moves that were enacted by senior members of his family, he has been around plenty long enough to understand this NFL truism: A coaching change during the season rarely reverses the fortunes of any franchise.

Since the 1970 merger, the Cardinals have made three in-season changes, and the upshot of those moves is pretty much a microcosm of the results leaguewide. The replacement head coaches -- Larry Wilson in 1979, Hank Kuhlman in 1989 and Dave McGinnis in 2000 -- posted an aggregate record of just 3-14 as fill-ins for those seasons. Wilson managed a winning mark, but coached only three games after replacing legendary Bud Wilkinson.

The leaguewide record for replacement coaches since 1970 isn't quite as shabby as the Cardinals' puny winning percentage of .176 with their three fill-ins, but it isn't pretty, either.

There have been 58 in-season replacement coaches since 1970 -- including two last year, with Dick Jauron replacing Steve Mariucci in Detroit (1-4) and Joe Vitt (4-7) taking over in St. Louis after Mike Martz was forced to take a leave of absence from the Rams for medical reasons -- and the cumulative record of the group is 119-261-1. That's an anemic winning percentage of .314.

Five To Watch
One name to watch as a candidate for potential openings after this season is Southern California coach Pete Carroll, who already is being raised as a possible successor to Dennis Green should Arizona decide not to bring Green back in 2007. Carroll has been an NFL head coach twice and probably would return only if ceded near-absolute control of a franchise. But the trend, as manifested this season with the hiring of seven first-year coaches, is toward the younger, fresher face. With that in mind, here are five assistants who never have been head coaches previously and who could be on some teams' short lists after this season:

Cam Cameron, San Diego
The Chargers' offensive coordinator presides over a powerful and diversified attack and has done nice work this season in preparing quarterback Philip Rivers, a first-time starter. Was the head coach at the University of Indiana for five seasons (1997-2001) and interviewed for NFL openings this spring.

Ron Rivera, Chicago
The former Bears linebacker was a strong favorite to land a head coaching gig after the 2005 season but, despite three interviews, didn't generate an offer. If the Bears keep playing at their current high level, Rivera will be difficult to ignore. He is an excellent communicator, is articulate and accessible with the media, and is respected by players.

Jim Schwartz, Tennessee
Came close to landing the San Francisco job two years ago, then, inexplicably, the Titans' defensive coordinator fell off the interview map in the most recent hiring cycle. A big-time computer guy who loves to crunch trends and tendencies, he's excellent with developing players and with creating something out of very little. Smart teams need to take another look at a smart guy. Should Jeff Fisher depart the Titans, Schwartz would be a worthy successor.

Mike Tomlin, Minnesota
The meltdown of the Vikings' defense Monday night won't serve as a very good, nationally televised résumé entry, but the first-year coordinator still has the unit statistically ranked in the top 12 in the league. Learned the Cover 2 scheme from Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay and now knows it inside out.

Ken Whisenhunt, Pittsburgh
The collapse of the defending Super Bowl champions, and the poor play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, won't hurt the prospects of the Steelers' offensive coordinator. A former NFL tight end, Whisenhunt is creative and organized, and he was smart enough to remove his name from consideration for the Oakland job this past spring. If Bill Cowher decides to retire after this year, Whisenhunt will get strong consideration as his successor.

-- Len Pasquarelli
Unlike in some professional sports, a coaching change just for change's sake in the NFL rarely proves to be a magic elixir. Bringing in a new coaching, or elevating someone from the current staff, doesn't break old problems, which is why so few franchises bother to make in-season alterations anymore.

In the past 10 years, there have been only a dozen in-season coaching switches, and there have been just 16 since 1990.

The mind-set of most owners now seems to be that it's better just to ride out the storm, play the hand you've got, no matter how poor, then make the switch in the offseason, when transitions are easier. Certainly, no one can blame them. Of the 58 replacement coaches since 1970, only 10 posted winning records, and that included four who coached three or fewer games. There have been 27 coaches who inherited a team with at least a half-season remaining on the schedule, and only five managed winning marks. Just 23 of the fill-ins retained their head coach positions into the next season.

For sure, it is a thankless job, one most assistants don't want to take on anymore and one most owners these days don't want to ask them to.

So don't look for any in-season changes in 2006. And with 10 head coach changes after the 2005 season, including the subsequent hiring of seven first-year coaches who won't get the rug yanked from under them no matter how badly things go in their debut seasons, there might not be many dismissals even at the end of this campaign.

There is no denying that impatient owners, who are inclined to be instant gratification types, have reduced the shelf life for coaches and tend to have a quicker hook with them. And because many of the new coaches this year got contracts that featured shorter terms and smaller salaries than their predecessors, it makes them a lot easier to fire. But almost every head coach gets three seasons to reverse even the worst of franchises. And of the 32 coaches in the league, 18 -- more than half -- are in their third season or less with their current franchises.

That suggests that, unlike the past offseason, when nearly one-third of the teams turned over head coaches, this spring could be a relatively quiet one during the annual firing-and-hiring cycle.

Since 1970, the league has averaged 6.3 new head coaches per season. The average in this millennium has jumped to 6.9 per year as owners grow increasingly restless with disappointing results. Over the past four years, there have been 25 changes. Right now, there are only about four head coaches -- Baltimore's Brian Billick, Cleveland's Romeo Crennel, San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer and Green -- who are facing uncertain futures. Of that group, Billick and Schottenheimer have their teams in playoff contention and will be tough to fire if they advance to the postseason. Crennel is in just his second season and, although he probably needs to demonstrate progress in the second half of the season, still has the respect of players.

It's difficult to fathom, then, that the turnover for the 2007 season will be in line with the average of 6-7 changes per year.

Except for this: There are almost as many coaches who could depart their teams voluntarily, or by mutual agreement with ownership, as there are coaches in peril of being dismissed.

Speculation has been rampant -- ever since the news that Bill Cowher bought a home in Raleigh, N.C., and that his wife and youngest daughter are living there this season -- that the Pittsburgh coach might take a hiatus from the game after this year. Cowher is under contract through the 2007 season, and there have been no recent talks about an extension, which only fans the speculation.

Jeff Fisher of Tennessee is working in an option year of his contract, and the Titans hold an option for 2007 as well. General manager Floyd Reese is in the final year of his contract, and the likelihood is that one of the two won't return for next season. If owner Bud Adams ever permitted Fisher out onto the open market, he would have multiple job offers. After more than a dozen seasons working for the same organization as an assistant coach and head coach, Fisher might be best served by a change.

One has to wonder about the futures of Joe Gibbs in Washington and Bill Parcells in Dallas, given their current situations. Conventional wisdom is that Gibbs would never walk away from the Redskins after a disastrous season, but he enters this weekend three games under .500 in his second incarnation with the team and with several potential replacements already on staff. Just as Parcells might have to decide whether he wants to stick around long enough to help nurture young quarterback Tony Romo, Gibbs might be faced with whether he has the patience to wait for Jason Campbell to develop for the future.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.