- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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HOUSTON -- Like NCAA Division 1-A football and its BCS fiasco, the NFL's system of turning assistant coaches into head coaches is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle.
The hottest assistants aren't getting hired. The last time an assistant went from the Super Bowl to a head coaching job was when Mike Martz replaced a retiring Dick Vermeil in St. Louis in 2000. The last assistant to move from a Super Bowl staff to a different team following the game was when Norv Turner went to Washington in 1994 and Dave Wannstedt went from the Cowboys to the Bears in 1993. Back then though, the NFL allowed teams to hire assistants whose teams were still in the playoffs.
The system isn't working for rewarding the best assistants. Improvements have been made in the process of minority hiring. Lovie Smith of the Bears and Dennis Green of the Cardinals brought the number to five for minority coaches. But still, the overall system isn't perfect. If the system was working smoothly, why has there been so much turnover in the past decade?
"In this business, when you're hot, you're hot and when you're not, you're not," Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "You never know what the next year brings, so you just try to do the best job that you can do and hope for the best."
From the individual standpoint, Crennel and Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis paid a heavy price for advancing to Super Bowl XXXVIII. Their potential Super Bowl rings may have cost them the chance to get head coaching jobs. Seven franchises looking for coaches didn't want to wait for them. If the Patriots turn their bountiful draft riches -- seven picks in the first four rounds -- into another Super Bowl trip next year, they could face the same predicament.
Bob Lamonte, an agent for six NFL head coaches, says the system is silly because it almost rewards a coach for losing a playoff game and not going to the Super Bowl.
"You're getting a lot of head coaches from 7-9 teams or those who lose early in the playoffs," Lamonte said. "The sad part about it is that it penalizes the guy that wins."
Unfortunately, commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn't offer much optimism for the Super Bowl assistants.
"It's a huge plus being part of a Super Bow staff," Tagliabue said Friday. "I don't personally feel there is much that we can do to improve further the rules we have in place. We've worked on these for literally decades. They've been fine tuned and evolved to try to be in sync with our current realities. Each year, there are one or two coaches or more that may have their opportunity deferred."
Tagliabue said the rules are a balance from a lot of conflicting interests, but chance of change doesn't look good.
Weis has said all the correct things this week. He stressed that he's only worried about playing the Panthers. He talked about reflecting on his head coaching future after the Super Bowl. Still, his heart aches for the chance to be a head coach.
Remember this is a bright coach so hopeful of getting a head coaching job that he underwent gastric bypass surgery to slim down and improve his sideline appearance. A complication in the surgery left him with a case of drop foot, a condition that prevents an individual to lift his foot when muscle activity around the ankle is reduced.
Like Crennel, Weis was only able to interview for jobs during the first week of the playoffs. After that, Weis and Crennel were off limits to the three teams still looking for head coaches following the first round of the playoffs.
Crennel crammed five interviews into the Patriots playoff bye week. Weis had two. Weis left little doubt about what he thought would happen had he been given the freedom to talk to the Bills and Giants again following those interviews.
"I thought I nailed those interviews," Weis said. "I think if you ask the Giants or if you ask the Buffalo Bills, the reason I didn't get those jobs didn't have anything to do with the interviews. I think I had enough time to be prepared. I think I went in prepared. I think I present myself well. "
Weis and Crennel improved their resumes by out scheming the rest of the AFC and advancing to their second Super Bowl in three years. But after those opening-week interviews, they were untouchable. And once the other teams started making their head coaching hires, the scramble for assistants began.
"I think that the system, as far as it currently is, probably was a slight disadvantage to Charlie and myself," Crennel said. "Everybody assumed we were going to the Super Bowl -- which they were correct -- and they didn't want to wait until February to have a chance to talk to us again and maybe make a decision about a coaching job. I would have to say it was a disadvantage."
The problem is finding an acceptable solution. The simplest solution would be to put a freeze on hiring head coaches until after the Super Bowl. That's a tough sell. Twenty teams don't make the playoffs, and those that want to make coaching changes would be hostage for a month in trying to work toward next year.
The other solution would be to permit assistants in the playoffs to once again accept offers for head coaching jobs. The problem there: No owner would want his top coordinator working for one team while he's preparing game plans for a playoff game or a Super Bowl.
"One of the reasons people are in a rush is to hire assistants for the staffs," Weis said. "These (people) are worried about who in the hell are you going to go to work with them. It isn't just the head coach you are worried about. You worry who's the offensive coordinator and who's the defensive coordinator and who's the strength coach. There are a lot of ramifications. But there is a time element in recruiting these people. You just don't say, 'Hey Mark, do you want to come with me?" How can you be truly focused on your job as coordinator if you are out spending time on the phone recruiting coaches?"
Lamonte wants to speak to owners at the March owners meeting about a compromise. His thinking is that teams can hire the head coaches after the season but have a moratorium on hiring assistants until after the Super Bowl. By slowing the process of hiring assistants, Lamonte believes it would allow more teams to wait for the Super Bowl assistants.
"If you put a moratorium on assistants until the end, teams might wait," Lamonte said. "The problem is going to be in the future. Now, teams are blowing out (nearly) 25 percent of the head coaches every year in this system by firing seven a year. You're diluting the pool of head coaches, and you're not rewarding the guys who are doing the best."
The 2003 season only illustrated the value of assistants good enough to go to the Super Bowl. Two of the best coaching jobs this season were by John Fox of the Panthers and Marvin Lewis of the Bengals. Fox was the Giants defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XXXV for the New York Giants. Lewis was the defensive coordinator of the victorious Ravens.
Bills general manager Tom Donahoe was patient enough to wait until after the Super Bowl to interview. Both were so exhausted from the Super Bowl to be best prepared for their interviews. Donahoe instead hired Gregg Williams, who was fired on Dec. 29 after three seasons.
Had Donahoe hired Fox or Lewis, it could have been possible the Bills might have been in this game instead of the Patriots.
"It's ridiculous to think that the NFL can restrict people from improving their lots in life," said Gary O'Hagen of IMG, another top agent for the coaches. "What about the free enterprise system? This is some of the most restrictive employment stuff I have seen in my life."
What infuriates O'Hagen even more is that position coaches under contract can't interview for coordinator jobs if they are under contract and the team refuses to allow them to interview.
"They need to establish a way to characterize jobs from one to eight that allows a person to advance if he has a chance," O'Hagen said. "Plus, it should be the team's business how they handle their employees. Why is the league dictating how this should be handled?"
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue will continue to seek solutions, but there is still a lot of work to do.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
19hEric D. Williams