NFL's key rookies? Men in headsets
Ten teams have hired new head coaches – most of them novices. How will they fare?
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis has a three-word mantra: "Just win, baby!" Around the National Football League, most teams have taken that saying one step further: "Just win – or hit the road!"
Time was when Dallas Cowboys legend Tom Landry could begin his coaching career with an 18-46 record, or Pittsburgh's four-time Super Bowl-winner Chuck Noll could start 12-30 and still end up in the Hall of Fame. Such patience is now rarer than a Google hit for "Terrell Owens" and "humble."
Gone are the days of white-haired sages stalking the sidelines for decades, men like Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins and Bud Grant of the Minnesota Vikings. This season, 10 teams – nearly a third of the league – have new head coaches. Seven of those hires have no prior experience as an NFL head man, the largest number of novices in headsets since 1966. They include 35-year-old Eric Mangini of the Jets, the second-youngest top dog in league history. These days you're more likely to see a 60-something during an NFL half-time show (think the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney) than running a team.
Analysts cite a range of reasons for the shorter tenures. They include higher salaries for head coaches, which makes financial security much easier to attain in a shorter time; franchise values in the $1 billion range, which make owners more likely to fire coaches, even successful ones, after a losing season or two; and the rigors of the job, which has gone from a stressful, grinding season to a stressful, grinding yearround labor of scrutiny and pressure.
"It's a different job than it was before," says Charley Casserly, who served as general manager for 16 seasons with the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans before moving to CBS as a broadcaster this season. "With free agency coming into the game [in 1993], everything changed. You don't have the roster continuity – and now it's a 12-month job managing that."
In addition to the Jets, new coaches will be guiding Buffalo, Detroit, Green Bay, Houston, Kansas City, New Orleans, Oakland, and St. Louis. Ironically, it may be the Raiders' maverick owner Davis who is trying to bring stability to his team. After plowing through five coaches in the past 10 years, he has brought back Art Shell, atoning for the self-admitted mistake of firing him a decade ago. Shell had a winning record of 56-41 when he was let go.
While Shell's hiatus wasn't planned, the few elder statesmen leading NFL teams – Joe Gibbs (65), Bill Parcells (65), and Marty Schottenheimer (63) – have all taken two years or more off to recharge during their coaching careers. Gibbs, a Hall of Famer with three Super Bowl wins under his belt, spent 11 years running a NASCAR operation before returning as the Redskins coach in 2004.
There are exceptions to the quick turnover. One is Bill Cowher, who led Pittsburgh to a 2006 Super Bowl win in his 15th year as head coach. Others include Mike Shanahan, in his 12th season leading the Broncos; the Titans' Jeff Fisher, also in his 12th year; and Tony Dungy, who has led Tampa Bay and Indianapolis for the past 10 seasons. But don't expect more than a couple of coaches from this group, all of whom are under the age of 55, to make a Shula-esque, three-decade run.
"These coaching jobs are so demanding now that I don't think you can work as long as you used to," says Gil Brandt, who built the Cowboys with Landry.
Brandt, now a columnist at NFL.com, says coaches once had enough time in the off-season to take on other jobs and always counted on taking three or four weeks of vacation.
Now, he says, many coaches are more hands-on in assessing college players at on-campus workouts. Head coaches also conduct much more rigorous off-season conditioning programs and constantly work to integrate a shifting cast of players engendered by free agency and salary-cap demands. The job on the field is different, as well. When Landry started, most offenses ran a couple of formations. Now, Brandt says, teams use as many as eight formations within the first 10 offensive plays of the game.
Burnout has become a rampant word among NFL coaches since Dick Vermeil famously used the term after a seven-year stint with the Eagles that ended in 1982. He spent 15 years on TV, then returned twice more to the NFL ranks before retiring after last season. Jimmy Johnson, who is a year younger than Landry was when Johnson replaced him in Dallas, has already been out of coaching for seven years, citing the demands of the profession.
Another early retiree, Jerry Glanville, questions the idea of burnout. At 64, Glanville is back in the game as a college coordinator. He was an NFL head coach for nine years before launching a 12-year career as a TV analyst.
"The only people that can ever talk about burnout are people that have enough money," Mr. Glanville says. "I never heard of a guy working in the mill, by the hour, for his 35th year saying he's burned out."