NFL head coaches have it rough. Every year, nearly a quarter of the league’s teams make a leadership change–this year, fortunately, there are “only” six clubs with new coaches.
Sometimes, as in the case of Lovie Smith and Jim Tomsula last year, these coaches are fired unceremoniously after only one or two seasons. These coaches didn’t necessarily deserve to stay, but consider this: Smith’s win percentage after two seasons in Tampa was .250. Sure, that’s atrocious; but Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, who led Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles, wasn’t any better. In his first three seasons in Pittsburgh, his win percentage was a mere .214. Moreover, in his first six seasons as the head coach in Dallas, Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry’s win percentage was only .304. Can you imagine a coach today being allowed to average roughly 5 wins for six years without even a playoff appearance?
I suppose it’s simply a different era. It’s not enough to win–you have to win quickly. So, as we creep closer to the start of the NFL season, I want to take a look at three coaches that have actually been around for a little while, by NFL standards, who may not be coaching their respective teams by next season. Specifically, I want to discuss what level of underachievement it will take to get them fired.
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
Let’s start with Lewis, who I think is on the hottest seat of all other NFL coaches. What makes his seat the hottest is that he has the highest expectations of any coach in danger of losing his job. It won’t be enough for Lewis to lead Cincinnati to the playoffs again. He needs to win in the playoffs.
It’s safe to say Lewis would’ve been fired last year after the Bengals self-destructed in the Wild Card round if Andy Dalton had quarterbacked that game. But the fact is Dalton didn’t, and even in a league where harsh decisions are made all the time, it would’ve been unfair to fire Lewis given those circumstances.
Playoff agony aside, the other reason Lewis wasn’t fired is because the Bengals took a huge step forward last year. Since they drafted A.J. Green and Andy Dalton in 2011, Cincinnati’s average finish in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value over Average- a.k.a. Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings) was roughly 12th. Last year, though, they ranked 2nd, and they finished in the top three in both offense, defense, and special teams. The main catalyst for their rise was Andy Dalton, who was surprisingly elite before he broke his thumb late in the year. But Lewis still deserves credit for molding Cincinnati from a fringe-playoff team to a legitimate contender in the AFC.
Ironically, this puts even more pressure on the fifty-seven year old Lewis this season. Last year, he could afford losing a seventh playoff game in a row without losing his job because not only did he not have his starting quarterback when it mattered most, but the Bengals had improved immensely during the regular season. Lewis probably won’t have those two excuses this year: Dalton should be healthy and the Bengals aren’t good enough to go, say, 14-2.
It’s quite clear what Lewis needs to do in order to remain in Cincinnati for another year: Win a damn playoff game.
Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
Garrett’s situation is similar to Lewis’s. Under normal circumstances, he would’ve been fired after a 4-12 season, especially when you have an owner like Jerry Jones breathing down your neck. However, even if Vince Lombardi descended from heaven, he still wouldn’t have had much success with Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore as his starting quarterbacks. Given their success in 2014, Garrett rightfully deserved at least one more shot with a healthy Tony Romo.
Yet the time is ticking for Garrett. I believe that, like presidents, head coaches should have four years before a team considers firing them, excluding any exceptional circumstances. Garrett is now in year six, and let’s look at how he’s done so far:
- Total record: 45-43
- Average DVOA finish: 16th
- One NFC East Title
- One playoff appearance in five seasons
- 0 NFC Titles (let alone Super Bowl victories)
Sure, you can throw out last season due to injuries and you can praise Garrett for the job he did in leading Dallas on the verge of the NFC Championship game in 2014. But overall, the Cowboys have been average under Garrett–plain and simple. NFL teams don’t shoot for average, let alone Jerry Jones.
What does he need to do to survive another season? Ten wins, minimum. Playoffs, minimum. Unless they were to lose in the NFC Divisional round, then Dallas will need to win at least one playoff game as well. Anything less and Jerry Jones should look for a new head coach. The point is that the excuses have worn thin for Garrett. He’ll need the Cowboys to rise above their usual mediocrity in 2016.
Jeff Fischer, Los Angeles Rams
As I said before, being average is not tolerated in the NFL, or in any sport for that matter. I understand the Rams have played in one of the NFL’s tougher divisions since Jeff Fischer took over in 2012, but the fact is they are a combined 27-36-1 during that span. With that record, most coaches would’ve been fired. But given Fischer’s previous success in Tennessee, I understand why he’s still here.
The main thing that has held Los Angeles/St. Louis back over the past couple of years is their offense. But luckily for Fischer, he’ll have someone other than Nick Foles at quarterback this year in first overall pick Jared Goff. Is this good news for him, though? Look at last year’s top rookie quarterbacks, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. They had flashes of brilliance, but their teams ultimately finished 6-10 and 3-13 respectively. Coincidentally, both of their head coaches at the start of the season ended up getting fired as well.
Fischer certainly won’t stick around after a 5 or 6 win season. However, if Goff shows enough promise, he can probably survive another 8-8 year given how hard their division is. Simply put, Fischer’s job security will depend on how quickly his top overall pick adapts to the pro game.
Garrett photo courtesy of Sporting News; Lewis photo courtesy of Associated Press; Fischer photo courtesy of Getty Images