Commentary

In-season coaching changes rarely pay dividends

In what is often a knee-jerk reaction in hopes of reviving a struggling team, bringing in a new coach or elevating someone from the current staff rarely pays dividends, Len Pasquarelli writes.

Originally Published: October 25, 2008
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Jim HaslettChris McGrath/Getty ImagesRams interim head coach Jim Haslett has the Rams re-energized after winning their last two games.
Notwithstanding the remarkable 2-0 record fashioned by the St. Louis Rams under interim head coach Jim Haslett, the NFL's three in-season replacement coaches so far this year will have to buck history if they are to reverse their teams' fortunes in 2008.

And buck the miserable records of those men who came before them.

So far this season, Haslett has replaced Scott Linehan, Tom Cable has followed Lane Kiffin in Oakland, and Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary has supplanted Mike Nolan with the San Francisco 49ers. Even with Haslett's 2-0 start and the 1-1 beginning for Cable, the prospect of hammering out a winning record during their respective tenures in 2008 is daunting. Singletary, who replaced Nolan on Oct. 20, makes his coaching debut Sunday, when the 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks.

"It really is a tough gig," said Rams assistant head coach Rick Venturi, who should know. Venturi -- who inherited the Indianapolis Colts in 1991 and the New Orleans Saints in 1996 when Ron Meyer and Jim Mora, respectively, departed -- managed to win only one game in each of those jobs, finishing with an aggregate 2-17 record. "You're brought on to turn the ship around."

Little wonder the mindset of many owners is simply to ride out the storm, play the hand they've been dealt and then make a change at the end of the year. Even in this era of instant-gratification owners, most loathe making in-season alterations.

Few teams in the league have made as many in-season coaching changes as Arizona, which in its mostly miserable existence in three cities has employed six interim head coaches, including three since 1970. Although vice president Michael Bidwill isn't old enough to remember the moves made by most of the senior members of his family, he has been around long enough to understand this truism: A coaching change during the season is usually more placebo than panacea.

"The odds of success are stacked against you," Bidwill said.

Which in part makes 2008, with its three changes already, an unusual season.

The three coaching departures this season represents half as many as the league has undergone since 2002. In the three-year period from 2005 to 2007, there were just three in-season coaching moves. In 2005, Dick Jauron replaced Steve Mariucci in Detroit for the final five games, and Joe Vitt took over for the ailing Mike Martz for 11 contests in St. Louis. Bobby Petrino resigned from the Atlanta Falcons with three games to play in 2007 to accept the top job at the University of Arkansas.

In the previous 38-season history of the modern NFL (1970 to 2007), there have been 59 in-season coaching changes, fewer than two per year. Only 10 of those men finished the first year with winning records. Four of them -- Fred Bruney (Philadelphia in 1985), Wade Phillips (Atlanta in 2003), Larry Wilson (St. Louis Cardinals in 1979) and Meyer (Indianapolis in 1989) -- coached three games or fewer.

Of course, that makes sense, since in-season coaching alterations are usually made only with disappointing teams. Only four men -- Ron Erhardt and Hank Bullough (co-coaches for New England in 1978), Raymond Berry (New England in 1984), Gary Moeller (Detroit in 2000) and Terry Robiskie (Washington in 2000) -- inherited a club with a winning record.

In the previous dozen years, there were just 13 in-season changes, an average of a little more than one per season.

Twenty-seven coaches inherited a team with at least half the games left on that year's schedule. And 23 of the in-season replacement coaches satisfied ownership enough to retain their positions for the following season.

For sure, it is a thankless job, one many assistants find hard to accept, and a task most owners won't ask them to do.

So by winning his first two games with the Rams in impressive fashion -- defeating Washington and Dallas, two would-be playoff clubs from the powerhouse NFC East -- Haslett is in pretty select company.

Only five replacement coaches -- Bruce Coslet (Cincinnati in 1996), Meyer (Indianapolis in 1989), Wilson (St. Louis Cardinals in 1979), Art Shell (Los Angeles Raiders in 1989) and Moeller (Detroit in 2000) -- won their first two games or more. Only Shell guided his club to the playoffs.

The aggregate record for in-season replacements until this year was 126-248-1. That winning percentage of .337 is only slightly better than the men the in-season guys replaced.

"You're in there coaching hard, trying to win games, but the reality, in most cases, is you're like the substitute teacher," said Atlanta receivers coach Terry Robiskie, who had stints as an in-season replacement in Washington (2000) and Cleveland (2004). "It's a great opportunity, but …"

Unlike in some sports, a coaching change in the NFL just for change's sake rarely proves a magic elixir. Bringing in a new coach or elevating someone from the current staff rarely pays dividends.

Several years ago, Bullough, who inherited the Buffalo Bills in 1985 as an in-season replacement for the deposed Kay Stephenson, was asked whether he had any advice for men who took over a club during the season.

"Good luck," Bullough said.

Years later, the advice still holds true.

If the past is any indication, good luck, indeed, to the 2008 interim head coaches.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.