Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross seemed to indicate his team’s new head coach, Adam Gase, will be on a short leash. Speaking to the Palm Beach Civic Association on Monday morning, Ross said, “After three years, if we haven’t made the playoffs, we’re looking for a new coach,” Ross said. “That’s just the way it is. The fans want it.”
Though Ross’ camp backtracked on the statement later in the week, saying that Ross was just referring to the broader trends in the NFL as of late and not about Gase in particular, the comment was illuminating nonetheless. Because, yes, this is the new reality in the NFL and it’s a rather ugly one as well. NFL head coaches do not have the luxury of patience once afforded them in the past.
The Dolphins themselves are a good example of this. Since 2009, when Ross took over the Dolphins as majority owner, the team has had five head coaches, including interim head coaches, of which there have been two. And, perhaps not coincidentally, 2008 marked the last time that Miami had a postseason appearance—and the last time they had a record above .500. Perhaps not having an itchy trigger finger would have actually been a benefit for the Dolphins, and for the other teams around the league that have, of late, been more than comfortable moving on from their head coaches.
Since 2000, there have been 40 coaches who were fired after three or fewer seasons, having served either on a permanent or interim basis. The Oakland Raiders have eight such coaches (not including current head coach Jack Del Rio) and the Cleveland Browns have had six (not including recent hire Hue Jackson) since the start of the century.
[table id=FiredCoaches /]
The pressure of “win now” is understandable. The fight for the fans’ dollars means trying to keep them happy and ownership is increasingly beginning to believe that is directly tied to the win-loss record. And it’s also understandable for ownership to want to move on from a coach that isn’t getting his players to produce up to expectations on the field. But team-building takes time—the New England Patriots weren’t built in a day—and it often takes much longer than three seasons for a struggling team to find success.
There is more to winning in the NFL than the quality of the coach. To install a new offense and defense may be done in the span of a training camp, but for the players to master it takes much longer than that. Finding the players who do so can take even longer, depending on the quality of the roster when the new coaching staff took over, the number of draft picks available and the salary cap and free agency situations. Expecting all of this to take shape and take hold in three years or less is a pipe dream; it never works, and in the instances in which it does, it’s the exception and not the rule.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick lamented the state of the coaching hiring and firing process when asked about the firing of Chip Kelly, who served as the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach for three years and is now serving in the same capacity for the San Francisco 49ers—the replacement for Jim Tomsula, who himself had only one year on the job. Belichick said in late December that, “pretty much everybody is on a one-year contract in this league,” adding “I don’t know how you build a program in one year.” He continued, discussing the particular challenges short-tenured head coaches have in the league:
“That means you’re going to turn over a high percentage of the roster because the players that the other coach had don’t fit the new philosophy, so a lot of the players are going to have to change in part because of the philosophy and probably in part because of the scheme.”
Belichick (who was 5-11 in his first season in New England) is not wrong. Winning takes time, and losing is often part and parcel of a total coaching overhaul in its first seasons. But when losing cannot be tolerated, not even for two or three years, there’s no chance for these coaches to imprint their identities, their visions, onto their teams. It’s a self-defeating cycle. More coaching changes, in increasingly rapid succession, only begets more coaching changes.
The “win now or else,” “playoffs in three years or bust,” mentality is wrong, and pandering to it—which is what Ross’ comments are, at the very least—means struggling teams are going to continue to struggle. This won’t change unless owners like Ross start putting the breaks on the endless coaching carousels some teams have been on for a decade-plus. If quickly discarding coaches has not yielded many playoff appearances, and playoff appearances are a metric of success, then perhaps giving a coach extra time to reach that benchmark may be the better approach. This isn’t to say that all NFL coaches deserve five seasons to make their cases for continued employment, but the ever-increasing comfort NFL ownership has with quickly blowing things up hasn’t been producing the desired results. A new approach, a more patient one, seems more conducive to build an eventual playoff-caliber team. Unfortunately, that’s not the way things appear to be trending in the NFL.