The Annual NFL Coaching Carousel
By Neal Shaffer

The Super Bowl is still a week away and already the annual NFL coaching carousel is at full tilt. The casualties so far: Tony Dungy (Tampa Bay), Jim Mora (Indianapolis), Dennis Green (Minnesota), Mike Riley (San Diego), George Seifert (Carolina), and Marty Schottenheimer (Washington). In the cases of Riley and Seifert it’s nearly impossible to argue with the wisdom behind the moves—neither one of them ever achieved any real progress. In the cases of Dungy and Green the moves are odd (both coaches were highly successful on the whole) but understandable given the fact that their respective peaks appear to have been reached. Schottenheimer’s case is the strangest, and it speaks to a very serious problem with professional sports.

Ordinary folks are fired every day in corporate America to little fanfare. This is sensible, as being fired is not something one normally wants to advertise. People who make their living in professional athletics, however, live under a different set of rules. It sometimes feels awkward, but there is a very good reason for us to know these things about athletes and coaches: accountability.

Sports franchises have, or more often ought to have, an obligation to their cities. The presence of a major league team from one of the Big Four sports can have a huge impact on the local economy, not to mention that it serves to create some level of civic pride and cultural unity. In turn, the people of a given area keep the team afloat by going to games and buying merchandise. Thus, citizens are de facto shareholders in their teams. They deserve the best possible performance and personnel as long as they continue to show up.

It goes with the territory of watching pro sports that your team will sometimes lose, and that they will sometimes go through stretches where all they seem to do is lose. But teams with solid management and ownership never embarrass themselves, even in the bad years.

This brings us to Schottenheimer.

Daniel Snyder, who owns the Washington Redskins, fired Marty Schottenheimer after a first year that was lackluster (8-8) but not awful, and with the team showing signs of improvement. It takes a good three to five years to build a program, and only after that time (barring a lack of progress) can a coach’s effectiveness be evaluated. Had Schottenheimer been given this chance it is likely that he would have brought the same success to the Redskins that he brought to the Browns and Chiefs in the eighties and nineties. Everywhere he goes, he wins. Same for Dungy and Green, yet all three are now looking for work.

There is a new breed of sports owners—Peter Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles and Snyder being the two prime examples—who feel qualified to make decisions related to on-field performance even though they have little or no expertise in such matters. In doing so, they disrupt the building and rebuilding process that all teams undergo and replace it with a strange brand of inconsistent mediocrity.

What is necessary here is a redefinition of ownership.

The idea of an owner, whether in sports or any other large business venture, having complete control over the decisions made within that venture is patently absurd. It doesn’t seem that way, of course, because ownership is such an important plank in the capitalist platform. The truth is that the people in the trenches should be making the bulk of the decisions, as it is they who best understand what will and will not work. What does Daniel Snyder know about football? Enough to hire a coach with a proven track record of success and then bristle at his means—which, conspicuously, did not include sycophancy. His response is Steve Spurrier—an amazing college coach with no NFL experience. Should Spurrier falter, can there be any doubt that he, too, will be out of a job?

Ideally, owners like Daniel Snyder would realize the error of their ways and adopt a hands-off approach (an approach that works for many, many teams). In the best case scenario people with experience in the field would become owners, as is the case with Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Until that time there’s very little that can be done, but one has to wonder: how long will people put up with it before they stop caring completely?