Retreads No Longer the Trend

The coaching carousel has begun, with three teams finishing the season with interim coaches. What's the rush? Esteemed NFL writer Len Pasquarelli provides some insight into what goes on during those coach searches.

Christmas isn't the only season upon us. For the second consecutive year, the NFL firing season commenced a little early.

As to the rationale of owners Wayne Weaver/Shahid Khan (Jacksonville), Clark Hunt (Kansas City) and Stephen Ross (Miami) in adopting the Grinch stance, well, we've suggested several times here that canning coaches in-season has little bearing on immediately reversing a franchise's fortunes. And armed with the success rate of the so-called "replacement" coaches since 1970 over the terms of their interim employment, a winning mark of less than one-third, we'll hold to that contention.

Even with the aggregate 10-9 record carved out by the four interim head coaches in 2010 — two of whom, Jason Garrett in Dallas and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier, landed the jobs full-time — the dismal history of in-season replacements is irrefutable.

But we're softening our stance on another oft-cited and convenient excuse for firing coaches during the season: The argument that it provides an owner and a general manager the opportunity to get a head-start on identifying his next sideline boss.

In the wake of the firing of Todd Haley by Kansas City on Monday morning, we noted that Chiefs' decision-makers didn't even have a "long list" of possible candidates yet, let alone the ever popular "short list." Even a day later, that remains the case. But in talking with team executives around the league on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning — admittedly only one from the three franchises that have pink-slipped coaches the past week — we may have gained a new and grudging understanding of the head coach search process.

"It's more (exhaustive) than you think," insisted an official from a team that has not made one of the three coaching changes to date, but could make a move at the end of the season. "To be honest, you've always got some (candidates) in mind, and people who tell you they don't have some ideas are lying. But most teams go over all of the scenarios and possibilities. And sometimes the model you end up with doesn't jibe with the one you began with. And sometimes, people you might consider just aren't available or aren't interested."

It's part of last piece of that equation, potential candidates not being available at the outset of a coaching search, that always provided some pause. The perception has been, including with us, that most candidates for head jobs typically come from successful franchises, teams that are in the playoffs. And those assistants, save for one week of potential interview access, wouldn't be available anyway until after their clubs are eliminated from the Super Bowl derby.

So, we always figured, what's the rush.

But a veteran club executive who closely monitors coaching hires, and the origins of the new head coaches, noted Monday that more than half of the 15 assistants who were promoted to head coach gigs since 2008 weren't with teams in the playoffs the season before they landed top jobs. For every John Harbaugh or Mike Smith or Rex Ryan, all of whom were with clubs in the postseason immediately before garnering their respective head coach positions, there was a Ron Rivera or a Mike Munchak or a Raheem Morris.

Yeah, it seems that even some bad teams have good assistants, guys who, in the parlance of the NFL, should be "in the pipeline."

And so maybe the "head start" argument posited by teams that dismiss coaches during a season actually holds some water after all.

And then there is this: For a second straight year, some of the most attractive head coach candidates are guys who aren't on the sideline right now, but instead in the broadcast booth. Bill Cowher has publicly insisted he has no plans to resume his head coach career in 2012, but that won't stop owners with openings from asking. Ditto, Jon Gruden, despite his new ESPN contract. You think some clubs will hire a coach without forcing Tony Dungy to reiterate his plan to stay retired? The names of Eric Mangini and Brian Billick, both working in television, have been raised in some precincts. Jeff Fisher isn't working in the media, but it's hard to imagine he won't be popular with owners ready to make a change.

One team official termed it the "Joe Gibbs theory." Said the official: "For years, Joe Gibbs said he wouldn't return to coaching. But shame on you if you had a job, and you didn't call him, and force him to say no again. And, finally, he came back."

There is this factor as well: Of the 26 men who were appointed to full-time coaching jobs since 2008, only a half-dozen had been NFL head coaches. The trend — of the 32 current head coaches, only eight are "retreads" — may argue against the nod toward former coaches currently out of the business. But it does accentuate the notion that owners are increasingly thinking outside the box in determining a menu of potential candidates.

And it may, despite our previous suggestions, contribute somewhat to the decisions of the past week to dump coaches before the end of the season.

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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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