Black Monday, the day following the last whistle of the 2018 NFL regular season, saw five head coaches walk the plank. With three in-season terminations, the firings left eight teams - one-quarter of the league – searching for a new coach.
It’s win or else in the coaching profession and no one’s job is safe if they lose. Even Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick, the most successful coach in NFL history with a record eight Super Bowl appearances and five Lombardi Trophies on his resume, was once a casualty of his team’s record.
So shed no tears for ex-coaches. They knew what they were getting into when they signed up for the job. The name of the game is to win, and if your team fails to meet expectations, you’re discarded like a used tissue. It’s called accountability.
But accountability in the NFL usually begins and ends with the head coach, who in most cases doesn’t have a say in his personnel. As my first baseball manager, the late Doc Edwards, used to say in deflecting praise for his team’s success, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers.” Players are the main ingredient in the success of a sports team, but acquiring players – through the draft, trades and free agency - is usually the responsibility of the General Manager.
And yet Black Monday saw only one General Manager, Miami Dolphins’ executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum, join his coach on the sidelines. And Tannenbaum wasn’t fired, he was reassigned, a euphemism for continuing to collect a paycheck albeit from a different office and with a different title. His coach, Adam Gase, wasn’t so fortunate.
One casualty in the recent purge of coaches was Steve Wilks of the Arizona Cardinals, who was dismissed after only one year at the helm. Granted, his team went an abysmal 3-13, tying the franchise’s worst record since moving from St. Louis to Phoenix. But when a coach is fired after just one year – a fate that also befell several other coaches in recent years – it’s a public confession that the wrong decision was made to hire him in the first place. Shouldn’t the person who did the hiring be held accountable?
Sometimes the person who hired the coach does stand up and takes responsibility. After Denver Broncos president of football operations John Elway sent coach Vance Joseph packing after two years and an 11-21 record, he admitted, “I’m just as responsible (for the team’s record), if not more responsible.” As the personnel director, Elway is right. Furthermore, Joseph’s successor will be Elway’s fourth coach in six years, hardly an enviable hiring record. But Elway wasn’t about to fire himself. And as a Hall of Famer who quarterbacked the Broncos to two Super Bowl titles, you can count on Elway’s next coach getting the ax before ownership relieves the team icon of his duties.
Choosing the right coach in the ultra-competitive NFL is admittedly a difficult decision. But when errors in judgment are made, accountability should be placed where it belongs.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.