OK, I’ve been doing a little math.
There have been 332 NFL head coaches in the Super Bowl Era. That does not include interim coaches.
The median tenure for those head coaches is a little more than four years. Now, that’s the median, so it takes into account the 43 head coaches who lasted for one year (from Bill Austin to Richardson Williamson). It also takes into account those 27 coaches who lasted ten years (from Bill Belichick to Bill Walsh).*
*Interesting fact: Bart Starr coached the Packers for nine years, which is how long Vince Lombardi coached the Packers. This has nothing to do with anything but in running all these numbers, I came across lots of little factoids that I have to share somewhere.
Four years. That doesn’t seem like much time to build a football team. And on Tuesday, the Philadelphia Eagles refused to give Chip Kelly even that fourth year.
There are a lot of theories about Kelly’s firing — everything from poor player-acquisition skills to his refusal to give up some control to his grating style that alienated various players and colleagues — but I want to get at something else.
What are the chances that the Eagles made a huge mistake here?
My pal Peter King thinks the Eagles missed an opportunity. He makes the fair point that whatever you might think about Kelly, he is an innovator in a league that doesn’t have many innovators. He will try things, push the evelope, take chances. That’s appealing in a copycat league. And Kelly had some success, too — he had a 26-21 record.
Peter looks at NFL history and points out that the Browns fired Bill Belichick at roughly the same point in his career, and that was clearly a mistake*. He points out that the Steelers stuck with Chuck Noll, who was quite unpopular early in his career, and that worked out very well.
*Quick point: I don’t think it’s fair to compare Belichick’s situation in Cleveland to anybody else’s. Yes, Belichick WAS wildly unpopular in his early years in Cleveland, but the Browns stuck with him through that. Art Modell fired him only after he went 5-11 in that disastrous final season in Cleveland when no coach — not Don Vincent Landry Bear Rockne himself — could have won. Whoever was coaching in Cleveland the year before the team moved to Baltimore was going to get fired. Belichick just happened to be the man in the crosshairs.
So, fair question: Did the Eagles jump the gun and fire Kelly way too soon?
Well, let’s look at math. There have been 58 men in the Super Bowl era who lasted three years as coach. The majority of them had dreadful records and never coached in the NFL again, but those are probably not good comparisons. Kelly had a winning record and a powerful reputation. So, let’s try to find other coaches like him.
— Oakland’s Johnny Rauch had a staggering 33-8 record in his three years with the Raiders, and he coached one team to the Super Bowl. But he found it all-but-impossible to work with Al Davis — not the first coach to feel that — and he resigned and went to coach the Buffalo Bills. In the end, it worked out fine for the Raiders: Davis hired John Madden, who became one of the great NFL coaches. It did not work out well for Rauch, who lasted just two years in Buffalo with a 7-20-1 record.
— Baltimore’s Don McCafferty went 22-10 in three years, and he coached the Colts to a Super Bowl victory. In his third year, he quarreled with the Colts general manager Joe Thomas over the use of legendary quarterback John Unitas (McCafferty refused to bench him) and was fired. The Colts hired Howard Schnellenberger who had two terrible seasons. McCafferty coached the Lions for one season. He died of a heart attack at age 53.
— New England’s Ron Meyer has a few similarities with Kelly. He was a fiery, cocksure, and successful college football coach who was fired during his third season despite a winning record. Meyer had alienated players and, more to the point, he just fired coach Rod Rust without asking permission or even telling anybody. “I made the move that I felt would make us a better football team, and I would do it today,” Meyer said on the day he was canned. Soiund like anyone you know? The Patriots hired Raymond Berry, who led the Patriots to the Super Bowl in his first full season. Meyer went on to coach the Indianapolis Colts for six nondescript seasons.
— Buffalo fired Wade Phillips despite his 29-19 record, in large part because Phillips refused to fire special teams coach Ronnie Jones. This one in retrospect seems a big mistake for Buffalo. The Bills have hired six different coaches since firing Phillips and have not reached the playoffs once. An aside: The Bills and Raiders have had the most coaches in the Super Bowl Era with 16 each. Phillips went on to coach the Cowboys in his 60s, twice taking them to the playoffs.
— The Patriots fired Pete Carroll after he went 27-21 in three years. He is the coach that Chip Kelly fans might point to as a warning. Carroll, like Kelly, was an out-of-the-box coach and an innovator. But they are obviously very different men. There was a sense that Carroll was too nice a guy to be a successful NFL coach, something that exactly no one has said about Kelly. Carroll, of course, went back to college, to USC, where his teams dominated. Then he came back to the NFL with the Seahawks, won a Super Bowl, then almost won another. There are some who think Carroll found his mojo at USC and that Kelly might return to college and try the same path. Kelly says no.
Oh, it should be added that the Patriots hired Bill Belichick.
— The last one to consider: The Jets fired Eric Mangini after three years. Mangini did not have a winning record though it was close (23-25). But Mangini, like Kelly, is bright, can be abrasive, has a certainty about him, and he is willing to try new things. To be fair to Mangini, he was put in an untenable situation in his third year when the Brett Favre circus sort of took over, so there was a feeling around the league that he might still be a great coach. The Cleveland Browns followed that line and hired Mangini almost immediately. Let’s just say that didn’t work out too well.
So there’s the history. Chip Kelly has made it clear he’d like to coach in the NFL, and he likely will get a chance, perhaps with Tennessee, perhaps somewhere else. Will he be successful at the next stop? It’s possible. Kelly IS innovative and smart and he may have learned some things.
But history suggests it’s not very likely he will be any better at the next stop. While there are some coaches like Carroll (and, to an extent, Belichick) who successfully reinvent themselves in the NFL, most find that the flaws that sunk them the first time around don’t just go away.
Kelly’s fatal flaw in Philadelphia seems to have been his insistence on controlling player personnel, and he has already said that he will let others handle player personnel at the next stop. But is he capable of letting that part of himself go? Can he work well with others when it comes to the players on his football team? It doesn’t seem to be in his nature. The Eagles may have moved too quickly, and they might regret firing Chip Kelly. There’s a pretty good chance, though, that they won’t.