Monday December 12th, 2011

So this is what it has come to in the current state of affairs regarding NFL head coaches: A division title last season doesn't necessarily assure one of making it through this season with a job. Alas, toast of the town status just doesn't last as long as it used to.

The Chiefs fired third-year head coach Todd Haley on Monday, and it really wasn't much of a surprise. That's a remarkable realization given that at this point last season, Haley was in the process of leading Kansas City to a 10-6 record and its first AFC West championship since 2003. The 2010 Chiefs made a six-win improvement from 2009, Haley's first year in town, and that was the largest such jump in franchise history. But in the crucial what-have-you-done-for-me-lately department, this year's Chiefs had faltered to a 5-8, last-place standing in the division, losing five of its past six games and struggling mightily without injured starting quarterback Matt Cassel and top running back Jamaal Charles.

In Tampa Bay, you could forgive third-year Bucs head coach Raheem Morris for barricading himself in his office and not answering the phone today as well. His Bucs were turnaround season darlings last year, going from 3-13 in 2009 to 10-6 and on the cusp of the NFC playoffs. But this season, after a hopeful 4-2 start, Tampa Bay (4-9) has careened out of control, losing seven in a row and hitting rock bottom with Sunday's disastrous 41-14 loss at Jacksonville, a game the Bucs once led 14-0.

As in Kansas City, last year seems like a coaching lifetime ago in Tampa Bay.

Haley's dismissal and Morris' fading job security have more than the obvious in common. When hired as surprising choices to their first head coaching jobs in early 2009, Haley and Morris were part of the league's new wave of youthful and lightly experienced head coaching additions. Haley got the Chiefs gig days before his 42nd birthday, but Morris made him look like a coaching lifer, being elevated to take over in Tampa Bay for the fired Jon Gruden -- himself a former coaching whiz kid -- at the tender age of 32.

Throw in the short but eventful Josh McDaniels tenure in Denver -- a giddy 6-0 start to 2009, but a dismal 5-17 record thereafter -- and you have a trend here that's not too difficult to spot. And that's with only a quick nod to the youth-must-be-served backdrop of the ever-so-brief Lane Kiffin era in Oakland (5-15 in 2007-08), which kind of started the whole kiddie corps coaching movement in the AFC West.

It's not a stretch to connect a few dots and wonder if the pendulum has now swung completely and inevitably away from the hiring of ultra-young head coaches in the NFL? After all, there were maturity issues that troubled both the tenures of McDaniels in Denver (too much responsibility given too soon, said Broncos owner Pat Bowlen) and Haley in Kansas City (his fiery temper and in-your-face coaching style made for a headline or two). As for Morris, well, he appears to be in full-blown meltdown mode these days, dropping an f-bomb in his post-game news conference last week in explaining why he banished defensive tackle Brian Price to the Bucs locker room in mid-game, making repeated excuses for his team's shoddy performances, and generally acting like someone who wasn't quite ready for the lofty position he was handed. In short, it could be said he's acting his age.

Winning cures all of those issues, of course, and losing exposes them. McDaniels and Haley would no doubt still be on the job if they could have avoided significant losing streaks, and Morris has left himself vulnerable on the same front thanks to the seven-game skid his surrendering team is on. The bottom line is still wins and losses, rather than birthdates and age lines.

But is it coincidence that Denver turned to the steady, veteran coaching leadership of the proven John Fox in the post-McDaniels era, and that the Chiefs quickly named 64-year-old Romeo Crennel, Haley's defensive coordinator, as their interim head coach for the season's last three games? Mike Tomlin's success in Pittsburgh might be the aberration, and the days of an NFL team elevating someone who has never been a head coach at any level to their top job could be over. In a copycat league, the trends swing both ways: What works gets repeated, and what doesn't work gets shunned. Until everything cycles back around.

At the very least, it's fair to draw the conclusion that the younger head coaching hires are facing an even more accelerated game of win-now-or-else compared to their peers with greater experience. For Haley to post 10 victories and earn a playoff berth last season, and then be fired 13 games into his follow-up act is a swift downfall by anyone's timetable. With Morris now thought to be on a very similar career track, and McDaniels having gone from the mountain top to the valley almost overnight in Denver, the window of opportunity seems to be open for just an instant for the whiz kid set.

The irony, of course, is that McDaniels, with his experience and familiarity with Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli dating from their days together in New England, could very well re-surface as Kansas City's next head coach. For the same reason, maybe Pioli's list of potential hires even includes Eric Mangini, the former Jets and Browns head coach whose meteor flamed out quickly in both New York and Cleveland after he was once considered coaching phenom material. Remarkably so, Mangini has to be the first coach in history to lose two NFL head coaching jobs before he even turned 40.

As Todd Haley learned on Monday, and Raheem Morris might soon discover, youth can be your advantage one day, and a drawback the next. The Not For Long element that comes with a typical NFL coaching gig is no joke, and the learning curve of the job keeps picking up speed all the time.

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