Commentary

In-season changes rarely prove to be magic elixirs

Even the most embattled head coaches should be able to sleep a little more peacefully for the next month and a half, because inseason coaching changes almost never work.

Originally Published: November 16, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Now that the 2007 season has moved into its stretch run, with more than half the league's franchises burdened by losing records and exactly one-quarter of the 32 clubs claiming three wins or fewer, the vultures are starting to circle some potentially imperiled sideline bosses.

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The carrion birds are going to have to flap around impatiently for about seven more weeks, though, because realistically there don't figure to be any head coach carcasses to pick clean until the conclusion of the season.

That's when dissatisfied owners will swoop in, and the buzzards can follow.

Barring a late-season surprise, whatever pink slips will be doled out almost certainly will wait now until the full season has run its course. The bye weeks, mercifully, have ended without any goodbyes, and that generally means even the most anxiety-ridden owners will delay bringing down the guillotine. And even the most embattled head coaches should be able to sleep a little more peacefully for the next month and a half.

Why so? Because, as recent history has indicated and as this space has pointed out annually, in-season coaching changes in the NFL do virtually nothing to reverse the fortunes of the franchises that enact them.

Several years ago, Hank Bullough, who had a long NFL career as an assistant coach, an interim head coach and a permanent head coach, was asked what he might tell owners who were making an in-season change, and also coaches who were accepting the job. His reply: "The same thing. Good luck."

Good luck, indeed.

There have been 58 in-season replacement coaches since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. The last two were in 2005, when Dick Jauron replaced Steve Mariucci in Detroit and Joe Vitt took over in St. Louis after Mike Martz was forced to take a leave of absence from the Rams for medical reasons. Jauron won just one of five games with the Lions and Vitt was 4-7 in his Rams' stint, and those records are pretty typical of the results a team has when a change at the top of the coaching staff takes place during the season.

The cumulative record of the in-season replacement coaches since the merger is just 119-261-1. That's an anemic winning percentage of .314, not much better than the success rate of the coaches that the replacement guys supplanted.

You take over a sinking ship and it's like trying to bale out water with a thimble.

--Veteran NFL assistant Rick Venturi, who compiled a 2-17 record as an interim head coach with the Colts and Saints in the 1990s

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 11 years, there have been only a dozen in-season coaching switches, and there have been just 16 since 1990.

"It really is a tough gig," said current Rams assistant head coach Rick Venturi, who inherited the Indianapolis Colts in 1991 and the New Orleans Saints in 1996, when Ron Meyer and Jim Mora departed, respectively, and who managed a combined record of just 2-17 in the two interim positions. "It's miserable, really, because you can't reverse the momentum.

[+] EnlargeRick Venturi
Don Larson/Getty ImagesRick Venturi (seen here in 1991 as the interim head coach of the Colts) knows the problems inherent with taking over a team in the middle of a season. He's done it twice.

"You take over a sinking ship and it's like trying to bale out water with a thimble. [It's] a no-win situation, but you do it because of loyalty to the franchise and because, in the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'Well, if I can show them some progress, maybe they'll keep me as the [permanent] coach. But it's pretty much a 'Mission Impossible' situation. And I think owners realize that now."

The mind-set of most owners now seems to be that it's better just to ride out the storm, play the hand you're holding, no matter how poor the cards, then make a switch in the offseason, when transitions are far easier.

No one can blame owners for feeling that way.

Of the 58 in-season 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.

Said longtime NFL assistant Terry Robiskie, who had stints in Washington and Cleveland as an interim head coach: "You're in there coaching hard, trying to win some games, but the reality is, you're like the substitute teacher. [The players] know you're a short-timer. Turn around and they're probably shooting spitballs."

True story: In 1989, then-Atlanta assistant Jim Hanifan originally declined to assume the interim job with the Falcons after head coach Marion Campbell resigned 12 games into the year with a 3-9 record. Hanifan knew the final four games would be a nightmare, were essentially unwinnable, and he didn't want four defeats posted on his career head coaching mark previously forged with the St. Louis Cardinals earlier in the decade.

Only after then-Falcons president Taylor Smith told Hanifan he had struck an arrangement with the league for the games not to count on Hanifan's lifetime record did the veteran coach accept the job. Of course, as Hanifan feared, Atlanta lost all four games. And, because there was no such deal with NFL officials, the defeats were recorded in Hanifan's coaching ledger book.

"The odds [of success] are stacked against you," Arizona Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill said last season.

Which is why, despite a 1-7 start to their 2006 season, the Cardinals eschewed dismissing then-coach Dennis Green at the bye week and waited until after the season to fire him. To have canned Green during the season would have been both messy and, likely, futile. And Cardinals management can speak firsthand about the futility of in-season changes.

Few franchises have changed coaches in-season as often 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 is more placebo than panacea. The initial relief is usually followed by a harsh dose of reality.

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 he coached only three games after replacing the legendary Bud Wilkinson.

While 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, it isn't pretty, either. So don't look for any in-season changes this year.

Marvin Lewis
Justin Kase Conder/US PRESSWIREEmbattled current head coaches, such as the Bengals' Marvin Lewis, probably have time to right their ships before their seasons sail into sunset.

And with exactly half the league's current head coaches having been hired only since the end of the 2005 season, and in their second season or less with their respective clubs, there likely will be far less turnover than usual even in the offseason.

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 the past two years got contracts that featured shorter terms and smaller salaries than their predecessors, it makes them a lot easier to fire.

Still, almost every head coach gets three seasons to reverse the standing of even the worst of franchises. Since 1970, the league has averaged 6.4 new head coaches per season. The average in this millennium has jumped to 7.1 per year as league owners grow increasingly restless with disappointing results. Over the past four years, there have been 27 changes.

Since 2000, half the league's franchises have made multiple coaching changes, not counting interims, and the Oakland Raiders have had four different coaches in this millennium.

Which suggests that, unlike the past two offseasons, when there were 17 head coaching changes, including two by the Raiders, next spring might be a relatively quiet one during the annual firing-and-hiring cycle.

Put the emphasis, though, on might, because there are certainly some coaches on the hot seat. For various reasons, it's likely that Brian Billick (Baltimore), John Fox (Carolina), Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati), Scott Linehan (St. Louis), Brad Childress (Minnesota), Mike Nolan (San Francisco) and Cam Cameron (Miami) will be under heavy review. And every firing-and-hiring cycle seems to include at least one surprise.

But unless there's a coaching move out there that catches everyone by surprise in the next several weeks, whatever purge is coming will wait until the season ends, because there is little to be served by acting before then.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.