After going 6-10, including three straight losses to close out the 2012 season; after turning Tim Tebow into the most expensively pointless player in football; after missing the playoffs for the second straight year and turning his team into the most calamitously backbiting franchise in professional sports; after doing all these things and more, Rex Ryan has not been fired as head coach of the New York Jets. And this is a good thing.
The situation in Jetsland — a mythical crater that simultaneously exists in both New Jersey and Queens, filled completely with Natty Ice — is far from perfect, and Ryan’s played a big role in that imperfection. He’s boisterous to the point of parody and overly loyal, with massive blind spots when it comes to the offensive side of the game. But in the pro-con-weighing exercise that is choosing whether or not to fire your coach, Ryan doesn’t deserve to lose his job. Actually, that’s the wrong way to put it: there’s no such thing as “deserving” to be fired, in the abstract. There’s only the question of whether a different coach would be better-equipped to win the Super Bowl with your franchise.
But that’s not how a lot of people in the NFL see it. If you ask the owners and multi-headed ownership conglomerates who/that run the NFL’s 32 teams, they’ll happily tell you that there’s few things they enjoy more, aside from inheriting money and inventing new types of financial derivatives, than firing head coaches. It’s soothing, it’s cleansing, and it gives you at least a year where you can tell yourself, “Hey, we’re rebuilding — going 3-13 and kicking 15 field goals for every touchdown is just part of the process.” But firing a coach is often like using a flamethrower to melt the ice on the windshield of your Subaru: effective and super-awesome. Er, sorry: briefly effective but ultimately destructive. A proper coach-firing should ensue only if at least one of these criteria is met:
1. You don’t believe the coach can win a championship.
In his first two years with the Jets, Rex Ryan’s team reached the AFC Championship twice. The second time, they lost by only five points; in football, five points is a bad bounce, a dropped pass. Ryan’s Jets were an infinitesimal distance from the Super Bowl. And those Jets teams weren’t even all that great, either, with fantastic offensive lines and the presence of all-world corner Darelle Revis counterbalanced by young, ineffective skill-position players on offense. They succeeded exactly how Ryan said they would — through innovative, suffocating defenses. Ryan’s approach worked, quite recently.
2. The coach hasn’t irreparably botched his relationships with his current organization and players.
From 1999-2010, Andy Reid had more seasons where he reached the NFC Championship game (five) than missed the playoffs (three). There may be many things wrong with his coaching approach, but he’s got a lot in the plus column as well. He’s clearly capable of managing a championship-caliber team in today’s league. But that team is, also clearly, not going to be the 2013 Eagles. Two years ago, players were comparing the Eagles to a dream team. The team missed the playoffs amid a whole lot of internal strife, and this season, the Eagles went 4-12 with the league’s third-worst point differential and even more melodrama involving players and assistant coaches. While I’m not an Eagles locker-room insider, I find it likely that most of the people involved with that franchise would rather set fire to their Subarus than endure another Reid-led season. With legit talent on the roster, it’s a better move for them to replace Reid than it would be to clean out the entire organization and let him start over.
3. The coach is squandering obvious talent.
Norv Turner couldn’t win consistently despite all the stars the Chargers have had. Lovie Smith had three of the league’s best skill position guys (Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall) on offense and couldn’t get things working. Ryan’s offense this year was head-slapping… but it wasn’t as if he was deploying a bunch of All-Pros in their prime. Their best uninjured player was Shonn Greene, whose name is Iowan for “passable but unexceptional corn.” (Shonn Greene played football for Iowa.)
4. The coach has been consistently terrible his entire career.
Actually, you shouldn’t have hired this coach in the first place. So let’s say this rule is about “pre-firing.” Smart NFL execs make sure to always pre-fire Romeo Crennel, Chan Gailey, Herm Edwards, and Lane Kiffin, among others.
Considering these guidelines, it makes sense that the Jets kept Ryan. It also makes sense why they ditched general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who is more directly to blame for Mark Sanchez’s inflated contract, the lack of depth across the board, the Tim Tebow fiasco, and a paucity of draft picks. That being said, Ryan’s rightly on notice, particularly if he sticks with Sanchez and fails to bring in a marquee offensive coordinator to compensate for his own ham-handedness there.
And to those teams who need new coaches, take heed — do you really want to be doing this again in 24 months?