Strange Days Indeed

It used to be that head coaches in the NFL hung around for a decade or more, especially if their teams were successful. But an evolution is underway in which Hall of Famers walk away, successors are picked with the head coach still on the payroll and owners are drawing up documents for coaches to sign in order to be fired. What's going on?

There are trends that take over the NFL, but usually don't get noticed until sometimes after the fact. The West Coast Offense spread across the landscape by two or three teams a year until half the league or more ran a full-blown version or, at the minimum, a hybrid version. The same has been true with teams stockpiling running backs and the success that two-back systems have had the last couple of years.

But a new trend that has developed since the end of the 2007 season has a lot of people saying, "What the …?" and it just seems to be growing. That trend deals with how head coaches are hired and fired in the NFL.

In early 2007, Nick Saban was vilified – and rightfully so – for using the Dolphins' head coaching position to make a lot of money only to spurn them after a year to return to the college game. In December, Bobby Petrino did the unforgivable – quitting on his team before the season ended to take another job.

At that time, it seemed that the luster of being an NFL was wearing thin, but that would only seem to be the tip of the iceberg. What was once viewed as a "must-have" job just doesn't seem to be as "must-have" as it was just a couple of years ago.

Bill Parcells walked away from the Cowboys after their 2007 playoff exit and Joe Gibbs followed suit after this season when the Redskins lost to the Seahawks. Two other very successful, high-profile coaches with Super Bowl championships on their resumes – Tony Dungy and Mike Holmgren – were both talking about walking away from the game while their teams were still successful. In both instances, they decided to stay but all but hand-picked their successors – Jim Caldwell with the Colts and Jim Mora Jr. with the Seahawks.

While grooming a replacement is one thing, the Cowboys upped the ante considerably when both the Falcons and Ravens offered Cowboys assistant Jason Garrett their head coaching vacancies only to have the Cowboys pony up $3 million a year – more than some head coaches make – to remain with the Cowboys and put the Wade Phillips Coaching Death Watch in motion.

Daniel Snyder is the Redskins owner who has spent the better part of the last decade hiring and firing coaches like Steve Spurrier and Marty Schottenheimer to $5 million-a-year deals only to fire them after a couple of years and still be on the hook to pay them their remaining millions. After Gibbs retired, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was the frontrunner to get the job. That changed this weekend when he and offensive coordinator Al Saunders were both fired. It was a quite a week for Williams, going from interviewing four times for the head coaching position and then being fired.

But, perhaps the strangest story is the sad saga of Lane Kiffin. He had a plum job with USC, but the lure of an NFL head coaching position was too tempting to pass up. Unfortunately, that job was with the Raiders and Al Davis. Word got out last week that Davis wants Kiffin to leave but doesn't want to fire him. If he was to fire Kiffin, he would be on the hook to pay him the remainder of his contract. Instead, Davis wants Kiffin simply to resign. In fact, he is alleged to have already drawn up the paperwork for Kiffin to sign, but, understandably, Kiffin is balking at that prospect.

While coaching changes have always been a part of the NFL, we've reached a new point in the evolution of the head coach. Successful ones are leaving. Non-successful ones are bailing for the comfort of the college game and still others are being told to sign papers that say "I quit" so a team won't have to honor the remainder of the contract.

These are strange days indeed for NFL head coaches and their little brethren of 32 doesn't seem like such an exclusive club anymore.

* Today is the last day to vote for the Diet Pepsi Rookie of the Year at the NFL's official website. The voting, which has been open all during January, ends at 6 p.m. EST today. Adrian Peterson is one of the finalists, so vote late and vote often.
* Rumors are spreading that the Cowboys might be willing to work a trade to move up in the draft, with speculation being that owner and Arkansas native Jerry Jones is interested in Razorbacks RB Darren McFadden. The scuttlebutt is that Julius Jones would be allowed to leave via free agency and McFadden would team up with Marion Barber to give the Cowboys a multi-dimensional running attack.

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