When I started covering the NFL in the 1970s, the buzz words for any coaching hire were “five-year plan.”
Teams generally gave their hires five-year contracts back then. With no free agency during that era, the new coach would need three drafts to stock his roster with players that fit his schemes. Those coaches would be expected to field playoff contenders by their third and fourth seasons and Super Bowl contenders by the fifth and final year of their contracts.
That was the plan, anyway.
But with the dynasties of the Steelers and Cowboys in the 1970s and the 49ers and Redskins in the 1980s, many of those coaching hires during the 1970s and 1980s didn’t see the fifth years of their plans. Several didn’t see the fourth years. The NFL was becoming a league of very little patience.
Now it’s a zero-patience league.
There were 40 head-coaching changes in the 1980s. But free agency arrived in the 1990s and NFL owners expected rebuilding processes to accelerate. Coaches who didn’t win didn’t last. There were 68 head coaching changes in the 1990s, 70 in the 2000s and 68 more this decade.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969 – Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. All won Super Bowls. New England has had the same coach since 2000 – and Bill Belichick has rewarded Patriots owner Robert Kraft with eight Super Bowl appearances and five Lombardi Trophies.
But coaching stability in today’s NFL is the very rare exception, not the rule.
Of the 68 coaches hired in the 2010 decade, nine lasted just two years on the job. Seven more lasted just a single season. The Cleveland Browns have hired five head coaches since 2010. The Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans have all hired four coaches, and the Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have hired three apiece.
Adam Gase took the Miami Dolphins to the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons in 2017 with a 10-6 record. He was fired a year later when the Dolphins fell back to 6-10. Mike McCarthy won a Super Bowl as head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 2010 and took them to the NFC championship game as recently as 2016. Thirty-two games later he was fired.
Steve Wilks was hired by the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 and spent his first season playing with a rookie quarterback. He was fired after a 3-13 debut. Jimmy Johnson was hired by the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and spent his first season playing with a rookie quarterback. The Cowboys finished 1-15. Michael Bidwill would have fired him. Jerry Jones didn’t – and Johnson went on to build a team that would win three Super Bowls over the next six seasons.
Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry never would have lasted in today’s NFL. He didn’t manage a winning season with the Cowboys until his seventh year. Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll didn’t post a winning season until his fourth year in Pittsburgh. He’d have been in jeopardy into today’s NFL. Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh was 8-24 in his first two seasons with the 49ers. He might not have seen a third season in today’s NFL.
The San Diego Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season in 2006. The Denver Broncos fired John Fox after a 12-4 season in 2014 and the Chicago Bears fired Lovie Smith after a 10-6 season in 2012. Jim Caldwell (Detroit) and Mike Mularkey (Tennessee) were both fired after 9-7 seasons in 2017. Let that be a cautionary tale for the eight new head coaches in 2019. They’d better win. And they’d better win quickly. And sometimes even winning doesn’t guarantee any job security in a league without patience.