Leslie Frazier was walking off the field following a Thursday practice the week before Christmas. Already sensing the firing that would come 11 days later, the then-Vikings coach took a moment to elaborate on a national radio interview he gave in which he denounced the lack of patience being practiced by most NFL owners and general managers.
“Today’s NFL is a different deal,” Frazier said. “You’re trying to develop young rosters [because of the salary cap]. It’s hard to keep a veteran-laden team. You need time to develop these young guys. And some coaches are fired after one year?”
At the time, 77 NFL head coaches had been fired since 2000. That number has grown to 83 — 5.9 a season — since the end of the regular season and includes not only Frazier, but Rob Chudzinski, whose stay in Cleveland lasted all of 344 days.
Chudzinski’s quick exit wasn’t even unusual. In fact, it marked the sixth time in six years that a coach was fired after one season. And that doesn’t include Lane Kiffin, who managed to survive 20 games with the Oakland Raiders.
On that Thursday before Christmas, Frazier also talked about the crème de la crème job that Mike Tomlin, his predecessor as Vikings defensive coordinator, landed in 2007. Tomlin was 34 when the Rooney family hired him as Pittsburgh Steelers coach. If nearly half a century of tradition continues, Tomlin will remain there until he chooses to retire.
The Steelers have won a league-high six Super Bowls in eight appearances. They also haven’t fired a head coach since 1968, when Bill Austin was removed to make room for Chuck Noll.
“The Rooneys, they get it,” Frazier said. “Patience.”
They got it. But it’s sure not contagious.
Since 2000, the Raiders and Browns have fired six coaches apiece. The Redskins just fired their fifth one, while the Vikings, Lions and Buccaneers are up to four apiece following the most recent Black Monday. Every other team except the Steelers and Patriots has fired at least one coach since 2000.
Although there was the usual finger-pointing on both sides that comes when a coach and general manager separate, Frazier and Vikings GM Rick Spielman did agree on one thing at the bitter end.
“We’re not as far away as people think,” Frazier said 11 days before he was fired.
“I feel it can be a quick turnaround,” Spielman said the day Frazier was fired.
In Frazier’s opinion, blowing five last-minute leads by a combined total of 2 minutes, 26 seconds was a sign to maintain the status quo in the wake of a 5-10-1 season that was painfully close to being 10-6. In Spielman and ownership’s opinion, it was one of the signs that the old spark was gone and a new one was needed.
In the latter’s defense, the NFL now has an eight-year streak of at least one coach taking over a losing team and leading it to the playoffs in his first season. It happened three times this year in Philadelphia (Chip Kelly), Kansas City (Andy Reid) and San Diego (Mike McCoy).
The Chiefs’ nine-game turnaround from 2-14 to 11-5 under Reid isn’t even the best one-year spark the past six years. In 2008, the Dolphins fired Cam Cameron after going 1-15 in his only season as coach there. Tony Sparano came in and posted an 11-5 record and wrestled the AFC East title away from the Patriots.
In other words, while a 5-10-1 team with an uncertain quarterback situation might seem unattractive now, this is the NFL. This year’s dysfunctional mess often becomes next year’s surprisingly well-oiled playoff run.
“I think this is a very attractive job,” Spielman said. “I think when you talk to people on the outside, that the young talent that we do have on this roster, with all the new coming in, the new stadium … I don’t think we’re in a total rebuilding mode.”
Casting a wide net
Known to be a staunchly detail-oriented person, Spielman let it be known Monday that he is casting a wide net for the next Vikings coach. That prompted one player to smile and say: “You know Rick. This could take awhile.”
The goal, as it is for all teams without a coach, is to have a hire in place by the start of the week leading up to the Jan. 25 Senior Bowl. But Spielman has said he won’t be pressured into meeting that deadline.
“I’ve sliced every way you can slice it,” Spielman said. “I’ve looked at 13 different categories where coaches come out of and that can be anything from head coaches that are currently offensive coordinators, former head coaches that are currently defensive coordinators, defensive coordinators [and] offensive coordinators without head coaching experiences, college head coaches with and without NFL coaching experience. So there is a long list of areas that you can look for in a head coach.”
The coaches who are known to have interviewed, are scheduled to interview or are of interest to the Vikings are Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
None has NFL head coaching experience. But that hasn’t proven to be much of an obstacle in recent years.
From the end of the 2007 season until the start of the 2013 season, 41 NFL head coaches were hired. Of those hires, 30 were NFL assistant coaches at the time; 23 of them never had been a head coach at any level, while seven of them had been head coaches at lower levels.
Five were college head coaches, five were former NFL head coaches and one, Bears coach Marc Trestman, was a head coach in the Canadian Football League.
Eight of the 33 coaches hired between 2008 and 2012 have led their new team to multiple playoff appearances. They are: Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (five), Atlanta’s Mike Smith (four), Denver’s John Fox (three), San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh (three), Seattle’s Pete Carroll (three), the Jets’ Rex Ryan (three), former Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell (two) and current Colts coach Chuck Pagano (two).
Of those eight, only Fox and Carroll had NFL head coaching experience. Fox was the only one to come directly from another NFL head coaching job.
Carroll and Jim Harbaugh were college head coaches, John Harbaugh was an NFL special teams coach, Caldwell was an NFL offensive coordinator hired from within and Smith, Ryan and Pagano were NFL defensive coordinators.
In other words, no wonder Spielman ended up with 13 separate columns while trying to categorize recent NFL coaching history.
No staying power
The two most successful hires since 2008 are the Harbaugh brothers. John’s five playoff appearances with the Ravens have come in six years and include a victory over Jim’s 49ers in last season’s Super Bowl. Jim’s three playoff appearances have come in three consecutive years with an organization that had missed the previous eight playoffs.
Finding a spark in a new coaching hire is difficult. Finding one with staying power is even tougher.
For instance, many people remember Sparano tying the NFL record with that 10-win turnaround in Miami in 2008. But how many remember Sparano’s head coaching career ending in 2011 with a 29-32 record that included an 0-1 mark in the postseason?
Meanwhile, in 2009, the year after Sparano was hired, the NFL welcomed 11 new head coaches. Ten have since been fired, and the lone one still in place, the Jets’ Ryan, will start next season on the hottest seat in the league.
Overall, 20 of those 41 coaches hired since 2008 have since been fired. Right or wrong, one thing is certain. For today’s head coaches, the NFL’s circle of life spins faster and more impatiently than it ever has.