NFL coaches Romeo Crennel, Lovie Smith, Andy Reid, Pat Shurmur, Ken Whisenhunt, Norv Turner and Chan Gailey were all fired on Black Monday. Did they deserve the axe?
NFL coaches Romeo Crennel, Lovie Smith, Andy Reid, Pat Shurmur, Ken Whisenhunt, Norv Turner and Chan Gailey were all fired on Black Monday. Did they deserve the axe?
Somewhat surprisingly, no coaches were fired during the NFL’s 2012 regular season, but plenty of coaches and general managers were nervous as Black Monday approached. In the event, nine teams decided to fire someone senior on New Year’s Eve – the day after the end of the regular season.
Some coaches will walk straight into new roles. Some will walk away. Some will return one day, to walk all over those who deemed them not good enough.
It is no surprise that so many teams decided to start over – but some of the teams who did were surprising.
Kansas City Chiefs fired Romeo Crennel, but kept Scott Pioli
Having fired Todd Haley with just three games to go in the 2011 regular season, the Chiefs turned to then defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to be their interim head coach. Under Haley, the Chiefs had gone 5-8 after a season rocked by injury after injury to key players. The roster appeared to lack motivation, something that was confirmed by the 37-10 loss against the New York Jets that ultimately became Haley’s last game. Crennel then took over and, along with a quarterback change, he changed the attitude of the players. In his three games as interim coach, the Chiefs went 2-1, with the one loss coming in overtime and his first victory being the only regular season victory against the Green Bay Packers.
Those three games made the Chiefs forget about Romeo Crennel’s record as a head coach prior to then: 24-40 during four seasons with the Cleveland Browns, to sign him to a three year deal. The Chiefs were hoping that Crennel would follow in the footsteps of his former boss, Bill Belichick, who Crennel worked with as a defensive coordinator in New England and who also failed in Cleveland initially before having great success in his next head coaching position. Alas, a 2-14 record from Crennel in his first season as the Chiefs head coach saw him sacked.
Crennel’s first mistake was letting Kyle Orton leave. Orton signed in Kansas City late in the 2011 season and was the starter for the three games Crennel took charge of. His statistics weren’t special, but his performance was drastically improved over that of Matt Cassel and Tyler Palko. Instead of going with the proven commodity in Orton, something that would have effectively complemented the team’s strong rushing attack, Crennel took a chance on Brady Quinn, a quarterback who the Browns had drafted during his time as head coach there. Quinn and Cassel both played during the season, but both proved to be incompetent at this level.
Even though he had an offense that was handcuffed by the starting quarterback, it was safe to presume that a Chiefs defense that was full of talented, young players would flourish under an experienced defensive mind such as the one Crennel possesses. Expectations were very high for this defense entering the season. Brandon Carr may have departed, but Stanford Routt was expected to be an effective replacement. Eric Berry, a Pro Bowler as a rookie had missed his second season but was also back entering his third. Dontari Poe, a rookie nose tackle who took over the combine during the off-season, was added to the defensive line with the 11th overall pick in the draft. Unfortunately for the Chiefs and Crennel, Routt was cut after failing to transition to his new team, Berry finished strong for a Pro Bowl spot but not before struggling early in his return from his torn ACL, while Poe struggled severely at times as a rookie.
Having moved from defensive coordinator to head coach, Crennel was forced to manage a much greater workload and his defensive planning suffered as a result. As a coordinator in his first two years, his defense ranked 11th and 12th overall in points allowed. As a head coach, that dropped to 25th overall. Crennel did also have to deal with the aftermath of the Jovan Belcher incident, something he witnessed first hand but the season from a football perspective had already been lost at that point. With the first overall pick in the NFL draft, the Chiefs have a chance to begin a new regime with a new head coach, quarterback and maybe even general manager. Crennel obviously won’t play any part in that, but he should be able to find work as a defensive coordinator in the near future, even if it is clear he doesn’t fit the role of head coach well.
Buffalo Bills fired entire Coaching Staff, but kept General Manager
It appears that former Bills head coach Chan Gailey was the one who convinced the Buffalo Bills to prematurely give Ryan Fitzpatrick a monstrous contract extension during the 2011 season, given that Gailey was fired on Black Monday, but general manager Buddy Nix has kept his job – for the moment at least. Gailey spent three seasons in charge of the Bills, but the first two were spent building towards the third as the franchise began to overturn it’s roster after always coming close, but failing to reach the playoffs under Dick Jauron.
Gailey had a record of 16-32 during his three seasons in charge, but it was likely the combination of his lobbying for Fitzpatrick as the long-term face of the franchise and the lack of improvement in performance this year that cost him his job. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999 and made heavy investments during the off-season to break that streak.
Dave Wannstedt was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator, as the Bills brought in multiple pieces to fit his scheme and improve what was one of the worst defenses in the NFL in 2011. Defensive end Mario Williams signed a record-breaking contract. Coming off of a 10 sack season and career year, Mark Anderson was added to be the other pass rusher on the outside. Star defensive tackles Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams were being moved into positions within the scheme that should have drastically improved their already excellent play, while Stephon Gilmore, a top 10 pick in the 2012 draft and second overall cornerback taken was to be an immediate starter. Wannstedt appeared to have all of his pieces in place to significantly improve the defense, but his scheme proved too passive and the expected impact of Williams was limited by a wrist injury. The Bills improved defensively, but only very slightly from 30th in points allowed to 26th.
Combined with a dropoff in offensive production and Gailey’s job was always going to be under threat in the off-season. Gailey had been coaching a very long time, since the 1970s when he was a general assistant at Florida, but he had been an offensive inclined coach since 1982. Very little of what happened on defense was his creation, but as the head coach he carried the responsibility. Offensively, it was Gailey’s scheme and completely his creation. With improved talent across the board, the Bills should have been better on offense this year, instead of dropping from 14th best in scoring to 21st. The additions of Cordy Glenn and TJ Graham notably improved the talent on offense, but the combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s tendency to turn the ball over and miss open receivers coupled with Gailey’s reluctance to put the ball in the hands of his best player, CJ Spiller, seriously affected production. Spiller ranked second in the league in yards per carry, but 22nd in the league in attempts. Some of that can be attributed to Fred Jackson’s presence, but Jackson is a lesser player at this point in his career and Spiller could have had vastly more than 207 carries even as part of a committee.
If you presume that Nix only signed Fitzpatrick to that disastrous long-term contract because of Gailey’s lobbying, then you have to admit that Buddy Nix has done a fantastic job assembling talent in Buffalo. Even with Fitzpatrick, the Bills have more player talent than a six-win team. If you put the blame on Nix for giving Fitzpatrick that contract, you still can’t say that Gailey got the best out of the whole offense. Therefore, it makes sense that Gailey was the one to lose his job while Nix still has a chance to keep his. He put his fate in Fitzpatrick’s hands when he should have put it in Spiller’s instead.
Chicago Bears fired Lovie Smith
For nine seasons, Lovie Smith had been the head coach of the Chicago Bears. He had a record of 81-63, a playoff record of 6-3, five winning seasons and appeared in one Super Bowl, a loss to the Indianapolis Colts in 2006. Rarely does a coach stay in one place for so long with so much relative success and still get fired after a 10-win season. Smith has likely lost his job for not appearing in the playoffs often enough. Despite having five winning seasons, one 8-8 season and two 7-9 seasons, Smith’s Bears only went to the playoffs three times and once in the past six years.
Smith’s own success in the long-term worked against him this year. The Bears’ window to win a Super Bowl with their current roster is closing, and may in fact be closed after this season. Key defensive leader 34 year old linebacker Brian Urlacher may have played his last down in the NFL, after a season plagued by injuries both before and during the regular season. The rest of the Bears’ most important defensive players are also in their 30s: Lance Briggs, Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers are all 32 and Charles Tillman is 31. Any successful season that the Bears had under Smith came with a strong defense that was led by those players. Having missed out on the opportunity to go to the playoffs with that defense one more time, the Bears needed someone to blame and that someone just happened to be Smith, although he hadn’t done much wrong.
The Bears can justify this move by bringing in an offensive inclined head coach who will get the best out of Jay Cutler’s offense. For maybe the first time in their history, the Bears could be set to be an offense reliant team next year. Cutler (29), Brandon Marshall (28), Matt Forte (27) and Michael Bush (28) all have plenty left in the tank, while Alshon Jeffery (22) and Earl Bennett’s (25) potential, additions to the offensive line and a new offensive coordinator could allow them to significantly improve over their output from this season. For all that Lovie Smith did do in Chicago, he never really had the capabilities to get the very best out of Cutler and neither did Mike Martz in the past or Mike Tice this past season. The Bears need to bring in a coach who will get the most out of Cutler so they can put their future fortunes on his back.
As a franchise that is littered with winning in it’s history and with a fanbase that has watched Lovie Smith’s sides come so close but lose out on so many occasions of late, the Bears are moving on from Smith despite the fact that he was doing a good job and is a good coach. He will land elsewhere when he chooses to coach again, but the Bears may regret letting him leave. Beware Bears fans, the grass isn’t always greener…
Philadelphia Eagles fired Andy Reid
Had Andy Reid not been so well respected in Philadelphia, at least by the franchise members if not the fans, he would certainly have been the first coach fired during the 2012 Regular Season. After Jeff Fisher was let go by the Tennessee Titans ahead of the 2011 season, Reid became the longest serving coach in the league having been hired in 1999. During his time as the Eagles head coach, Reid established a record of 130-93-1 in the regular season and a 10-9 record in the playoffs. He made it to one Super Bowl, in 2004 and five NFC Championships, the last coming in 2008.
Since that final NFC championship season however, Reid’s reputation in Philadelphia continued to worsen and worsen. The 2009 and 2010 seasons brought the Eagles to the playoffs, but they were one-and-done both times. After the end of the NFL lockout in 2011, Reid’s exit from Philadelphia began. Michael Vick had won the starting quarterback spot in 2010, so the Eagles traded Kevin Kolb to the Arizona Cardinals for a second round pick and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. That started an off-season of upheaval as Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Ronnie Brown, Ryan Harris, Cullen Jenkins, Evan Mathis and Vince Young all arrived in free agency while Danny Watkins, Jaiquawn Jarrett, Curtis Marsh, Casey Matthews, Alex Henery, Dion Lewis, Jason Kelce and Stanley Havili were notable draft picks. Without an off-season to gel together and develop chemistry, the Eagles failed to meet the bloated expectations of the off-season and finished the year with an 8-8 record. There was little Reid could really do as the shortened off-season prevented him and his coaching staff, a group that also underwent some upheaval, from implementing everything that was needed.
Having failed to meet expectations in 2011, the Eagles entered 2012 under serious pressure. Michael Vick had been given a $100 million contract before last season, which effectively tied Andy Reid’s future to his performance. That meant that even when the Eagles started the season 3-1 but with Vick throwing six interceptions and fumbling the ball five times, Reid was still being criticized for his decisions. Vick’s turnovers lessened as the season grew, but the victories departed as the Eagles went on a losing streak that lasted from Week 5 until Week 14, when Nick Foles was starting for an injured Vick and the season had already been lost.
The Eagles’ performances on the season put major scrutiny on Reid’s decision-making. In particular, the decision to move Juan Castillo from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator in 2011. Castillo couldn’t get the best out of the defense before being fired mid-season, but it later emerged that he was being undermined by defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who was also fired soon after. Despite having Todd Bowles in Castillo’s position, the damage had already been done and the Eagles’ defensive talent proved to be much worse than they had anticipated when Reid overlooked the revamping of his roster. The defense eventually finished the season 29th in points allowed, while the offense suffered similarly ranking 29th in scoring offense. The offense was ravaged by injuries, but it had become clear that Reid had made got some pivotal decisions wrong in creating the offense.
After 14 years in the same position, it had become clear that both Reid and the Eagles needed a fresh start. Reid had dealt with personal problems throughout his time as the Eagles’ head coach but those problems peaked entering this year when his son Garrett Reid was found dead at Eagles’ training camp. Nothing had gone right for Reid since the playoffs of 2010. After 10 years at the top of his game, it was inevitable that Reid’s production would drop off at some point.
Cleveland Browns fired Pat Shurmur and Tom Heckert
The Cleveland Browns were bought by Jimmy Haslam during the season. While Haslam doesn’t appear to be an owner who wants to be overly involved in the football aspects of the franchise, he does, like any owner, want to hire his own people who he can trust to run the franchise. He set about doing that by hiring new people to fill the non-football roles within the organization and then fired general manager Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur after the season.
Shurmur had only been the head coach of the Browns for two seasons, and although his record was 9-23, the team had significantly improved under his guidance. There was likely nothing that Shurmur could have done to save his job, outside of working miracles with a Browns’ roster that was heavily involved in a rebuilding process. Heckert had done a fine job as the Browns’ general manager since being appointed in 2010. The only reason he is being let go is because Haslam wants to hire a coach and let that coach determine who becomes the general manager. That is a good way of structuring your franchise, but it is also ridding yourself of a general manager with a very impressive resume. In three drafts, Heckert hit on Joe Haden, TJ Ward, Montario Hardesty, Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, Greg Little, Buster Skrine, Eric Hagg, Mitchell Schwartz, John Hughes, Travis Benjamin and Billy Winn. He also got good value at other spots, while Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden still need to prove that they are a better combination than Ryan Tannehill and Doug Martin would have been.
Arizona Cardinals fired Ken Whisenhunt and Rod Graves
Ever since Kurt Warner retired from the Arizona Cardinals in 2010, neither Rod Graves or Ken Whisenhunt have been able to effectively create a replacement. Graves signed Derek Anderson, acquired Kevin Kolb and drafted John Skelton after Matt Leinart failed to take over from Warner and those quarterbacks (along with some Ryan Lindley and a Brian Hoyer start) accounted for an 18-30 record in the regular season, with no playoff appearances or winning seasons. Both Graves and Whisenhunt must take responsibility for the frailties of the quarterback position in Arizona, but Graves must take much more than Whisenhunt. The Cardinals may regret firing their head coach.
Whisenhunt knows how to work with quarterbacks and was actually getting good production out of Kevin Kolb this season when he was healthy. But any coach can only work with what his general manager gives him. Either Graves trusted Whisenhunt to cover the quarterback position too much, or he simply misevaluated his options when trying to improve the offense. Like many general managers who are being fired or who will be in the near future, Russell Wilson is a big reason. The Cardinals passed on Wilson just once, because they didn’t have a second round pick this year after trading it for Kevin Kolb. However, they were also in touching distance of Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick at the top of the second round in 2011, but instead of trading up a few spots in the draft, they made that trade for Kolb. Outside of missing at the quarterback position, Graves and his staff really struggled when evaluating offensive talent. Their offense has very few players who would start on other teams in the NFL. On the other hand, Graves did build an outstanding collection of defensive talent, but that obviously wasn’t enough to save his job.
With Kevin Kolb on the field this year, the Arizona Cardinals were 4-2. Kolb was an average quarterback at best, but Whisenhunt managed him well enough so that the offense could complement the defense and be competitive enough to win games. That’s not to say that they would have continued that win to loss ratio if Kolb stayed healthy all season, but they almost certainly wouldn’t have lost 11 of their final 12 games. Whisenhunt made his name as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive coordinator, where he managed a very young Ben Roethlisberger and helped the Steelers to get to the AFC Championship and then win a Super Bowl during his first two seasons. When he moved to Arizona initially, he managed to bring the team to a Super Bowl with Kurt Warner under center. Whisenhunt isn’t a bad coach, but he was given so many bad players on offense that he couldn’t create a winning unit on that side of the field.
Rod Graves certainly did enough to be fired with the Cardinals, but Whisenhunt was like a poker player dealt a pair of twos against pocket aces.
San Diego Chargers fired Norv Turner and AJ Smith
Norv Turner had been the head coach in San Diego for six full seasons, despite constantly being berated by the fanbase and many members of the media. Turner had a 56-40 record in San Diego, which isn’t exactly bad. However, Turner took over a team that finished 14-2 in 2006 and was stacked with talent. Turner guided the Chargers to playoff appearances during his first three seasons, with a record of 32-16 as well as a trip to the AFC Championship, however no playoffs over the past three seasons and the team’s first losing record since 2003 this year ended his reign in San Diego.
The Chargers finished 7-9 this year which was still good enough for second in the very weak AFC West. During Turner’s reign, with Philip Rivers at quarterback, the Chargers’ offense was never ranked outside the top five in scoring until this year. This year the Chargers ranked 20th in scoring and a large part of that was assessed as being a result of Turner’s play-calling and use of personnel. Although Ryan Mathews broke two collarbones this season, some still felt that he was mismanaged when healthy and Turner also made a comment about his vision which was unflattering in the way most coaches don’t. It was all part of his uncoiling as a head coach, as many were surprised Turner was even in a job entering this season. The Chargers’ defense was relatively good this year, but Turner gets little credit for that because John Pagano looks after much of the defensive work in San Diego, while Turner is renowned for his offensive intelligence.
AJ Smith has always been a polarizing general manager. Smith is a high-risk high-reward general manager. It was that strategy that gave him such outstanding collections of talent midway through the last decade, but it also was what put so much pressure on Philip Rivers to carry the offense this year and last. Smith invested heavily in Jared Gaither in the off-season to try and solve the Chargers’ offensive line woes, but Gaither didn’t work out as he dealt with multiple injury issues and question marks over his commitment. With Vincent Jackson joining Darren Sproles as key free agents who left San Diego to flourish elsewhere, it was no surprise that Smith was shown the door.
New Jork Jets fired Mike Tannenbaum, but kept Rex Ryan
Woody Johnson doesn’t have the greatest reputation as an NFL owner, but he made a very impressive and well-thought out decision when it comes to personnel management on Black Monday. Rex Ryan will stay on as head coach, but general manager Mike Tannenbaum was relieved of his duties after taking over the role in 2006 and being a part of the Jets’ franchise since 1997. During his time as general manager the franchise had a record of 57-55, with three appearances in the playoffs, two AFC championship appearances, four winning seasons and just two head coaches.
From the onset, it appears that Tannenbaum did a relatively good job. There are plenty of teams in the league who would be delighted with that level of return from their teams. However Tannenbaum is responsible for the Jets’ current roster, a roster that was reliant on some top class coaching and a soft schedule to win six games. Tannenbaum has always been an aggressive general manager who has earned his reputation based on hitting in the first round. Players such as D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, Darrelle Revis, David Harris and Dustin Keller make headlines, but the poor number of late round draft picks who have had any sort of success during Tannenbaum’s era have deprived the team of any sort of depth or future base to build on. Tannenbaum’s aggressiveness has seen him make multiple trades. The most (in)famous being the Mark Sanchez trade back in 2009. Sanchez may not have panned out, but the trade was still very lopsided in the Jets’ favor. Sanchez hasn’t worked out because the Jets have mismanaged him, that doesn’t take away from the fact the actual trade itself reflects good value still today. Tannenbaum also traded up for Darrelle Revis in another success story and added Antonio Cromartie for what turned into a second round pick. However his track record is ruined not only by the lack of late round success, but also two major misses in Vernon Gholston, the only defensive end ever taken in the top 10 to never record a sack in the NFL, and Santonio Holmes, a player the Steelers gave to the Jets for a pick that eventually turned into Antonio Brown. Holmes was re-signed to a big contract after his first season, but his character issues boiled over again with his quarterback.
Injuries to Holmes and Revis highlighted just how poor Tannebaum’s drafting had been this season. Shonn Greene didn’t live up to his billing as a bell cow the offense could build upon, the offensive line was amongst the worst in the league while the receiving talent was left wanting. Tim Tebow was acquired when the coaching staff blatantly didn’t want him, considering they didn’t start him all season no matter how much the others in his place struggled, not to mention how contradictory that trade was after giving Sanchez a huge contract extension in the off-season. The defense did finish a respectable eighth in yards allowed, but that was largely a result of Rex Ryan and his defensive coaching staff.
Ryan has likely kept his job because of his defense’s displays and the fact that his team never quit on him despite the season being lost early on. Now that Ryan is staying, the Jets do need to employ a general manager who can help him develop an offense worthy of the modern era of football. Ryan is not an offensive coach, he needs to have an offensive coordinator come in who can build a passing attack to complement his defense. In essence, they need to run the inverse of what the Saints did in 2009 with Sean Payton and Gregg Williams. Tony Sparano can’t be that player. His offense is archaic and is essentially like giving Ryan a wooden sword to fight a nuclear war.
Jacksonville Jaguars fired Gene Smith
After the 2012 NFL draft, I wrote that Gene Smith’s actions were of a man trying to keep his job: unambitious but effective. While that may have been the case, Smith’s approach left the team exposed if injuries hit. That is exactly what happened this year. Maurice Jones-Drew, Will Rackley, Lauren Robinson, Blaine Gabbert, Rashad Jennings, Dwight Lowery and Daryl Smith were all expected to be key players but spent lengthy periods on the sidelines. Without them the Jaguars finished the season 2-14, tied for the worst record in the league, and will have the second pick in the draft.
The Jaguars’ record alone since Smith took over as General Manager in 2009 is enough to condemn him. Smith’s record stands at 22-42 with a season best of 8-8 in 2010. The past two seasons have been a total disaster for the Jaguars with a combined record of 7-25. That is largely a result of Smith’s poor drafting. Smith has hit on some excellent value picks in Eugene Monroe, Derek Cox and Cecil Shorts, but those picks have been too few and the majority of the players Smith has taken are either not with the team, or helping to contribute to the losing culture that is developing there. Most importantly however, Smith has hit no real home runs beyond Monroe back in 2009. Tyson Alualu, Eben Britton, Terrance Knighton, Andre Branch, Bryan Anger, Justin Blackmon and even Blaine Gabbert could all develop into decent players, but none look like being franchise-leading stars. Monroe can only do so much as a left tackle.
It says a lot about Smith that Jack Del Rio, the man the Jaguars fired just two years ago, is now a hot coaching candidate for others with vacancies. Those teams must be willing to attribute the Jaguars’ failings to Smith.