Black Monday firings largely brought about by disasters at QB

Monday December 30th, 2013

Tension mounted between Mike Shanahan (left) and Robert Griffin III all year, culminating in RGIII's benching.
Carlos M. Saavedra/SI

• To be sure, lousy quarterbacking gets coaches sent packing every year in the NFL. No news flash there. It's a cause-and-effect relationship that will never change. But has that brutal reality ever been on more vivid display than during this year's firing season in the NFL?

Take a quick scan of the six coaching openings in the league on this Black Monday, and almost all of them were largely brought about by a team's problems at quarterback. And not just your run-of-the-mill QB issues either. In several cases, it was an all-out, unmitigated disaster that unfolded at quarterback, helping grease the skids for the half-dozen recently deposed members of the headset crowd.

BLACK MONDAY TRACKER: Updates on latest firings, rumors

To wit:

-- Tampa Bay's Greg Schiano had most of the first half of his second season with the Bucs engulfed by the Josh Freeman controversy, which was the centerpiece of the team's 0-8 start. Fired Monday with an 11-21 record in his two years, Schiano suddenly finds himself a Free-man.

-- Washington's Mike Shanahan and Robert Griffin III had a few quibbles and issues with each other this season. You might have heard about it. It was in all the papers. Enough said.

-- Houston's Gary Kubiak met his Waterloo with the Texans thanks to a record-breaking run of pick-sixes thrown by supposed franchise quarterback Matt Schaub. Once that snowball of a losing streak started rolling, it flattened everything in its path, including the team's eighth-year head coach.

-- Minnesota's Leslie Frazier took the fall a year after the Vikings' surprise playoff run in large part due to the team's inability to bring any sense of order to its quarterback position. The Josh Freeman signing in midseason was like $2 million thrown out the window. Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel weren't the long-term answer either. Though Vikings GM Rick Spielman should shoulder plenty of the blame for the mess at QB, it was Frazier who paid with his job.

-- Cleveland's sacking of Rob Chudzinski after a mere year in the big corner office reportedly had several root causes, and just fed into the perception of the Browns organization as Chaos Central in the NFL. But if Cleveland could have gotten more production (or health) out of the three-headed quarterback combination of Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell, Chudzinski probably would have received the Browns' more standard two-year coaching commitment (see Chris Palmer, Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur).

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-- Even Detroit's dismissal of Jim Schwartz after five seasons had a strong element of quarterback failure as one of its pillar causes. The Lions dropped six of their final seven games after a strong 6-3 start, blowing what should have been a gift-wrapped NFC North title. Franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford and his turnover issues had as much to do with that Motown meltdown as anything. His 14 turnovers (12 interceptions and two lost fumbles) were the most in the league over the final seven games, and he came up particularly small in protecting the ball in Week 15 and 16 home-field losses to Baltimore and the New York Giants.

All of which is not to say that the NFL head coaches who have lost their jobs so far this season were the mere victims of poor quarterback play, and had little or no significant role in their own demise. That's not remotely the reality. But if you can't see the connection between the bad quarterback situations that the Bucs, Redskins, Texans, Vikings, Browns and Lions dealt with this season and the coaching changes they just made, you're standing too close to the forest to see the trees.

More than ever in the NFL, if you don't have a quarterback, you don't have a chance. Black Monday just reminded us how quickly fortunes can change at the game's premier position, and lead to changes in employment status for the coaches. After all, last year at this time, Shanahan, Kubiak and Frazier were getting ready to lead their teams into the playoffs, believing that their starting quarterbacks put them into solid positions in terms of the future. But then the narratives changed, and dramatically so. Every firing so far this season had a pretty substantial link to the failures of the guy(s) who was firing the passes.

• Lions team president Tom Lewand made it clear Monday that he considers the vacant Detroit job one of the most "attractive coaching opportunities in the National Football League.'' Shanahan spent several minutes of his farewell press conference with Washington extolling how much better off the Redskins are compared to when he arrived in 2010 (3-13 record be darned). And Schiano opted for a similar tact, calling the Bucs' vacancy "a real good situation'' for whichever coach takes over in Tampa Bay.

No coach ever says he left things worse than he found them, and points out that the cupboard is really quite bare, but not every team can lay claim to the best opening in the NFL and really mean it.

But I think Houston can. And maybe that's why Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien is reportedly wasting little time locking up that opening. (And for the record, several league sources told me last week that O'Brien was virtually hell-bent to get back to the NFL, so I wasn't really buying the idea of him potentially staying in Happy Valley.)

What do the Texans have that gives them the edge? Plentiful talent on defense and some proven offensive playmakers to build around. A patient and non-meddlesome owner who doesn't mind spending money in Bob McNair, for another thing. And then there's next May's No. 1 overall draft pick, which should bring a potential franchise quarterback to hopefully fill the club's most glaring deficiency.

What's not to like about Houston? Especially since the Texans have a quality stadium, rabid fan support and a spot in an AFC South that had fewer victories (24-40) than any other division in the league this season. There are attractive qualities to the Lions and Bucs gigs in terms of roster talent, I'll give you that. But no team can offer the whole package that Houston can. And I don't think it's even close.

• Once the Browns settle on a new coach, it'll mean they've hired four of those since ending Romeo Crennel's tenure in Cleveland in early 2009. Four head coaches in a span of five calendar years (January 2009-January '14) is a heck of a feat. Not a good one. But a feat nonetheless.

That means the Browns have made the past four head coaching hires in the AFC North, because John Harbaugh joined Baltimore in 2008, Mike Tomlin took over in Pittsburgh in 2007 and Marvin Lewis became the Bengals coach in 2003.

Some statistics really do tell the whole story.

• A Bucs source told me Monday that the team has learned its lesson and won't go for anyone but a proven and experienced NFL head coach this time. No more trying to discover a diamond in the collegiate ranks, and then hoping he can make a smooth and rapid transition to the professional game. Call it the end of the Schiano Error.

Lovie Smith, come on down. The former Bears head coach and Bucs assistant under Tony Dungy is instantly a strong favorite to land in Tampa Bay. The Glazer family is looking for a win-now guy, not somebody to undertake a rebuilding program. The Bucs didn't trade for Darrelle Revis and sign him to a rich new deal, as well as add several other big-ticket free agents in the past two years, in order to take their lumps for a while. They think they've been there, done that.

Getting someone like Smith would in all likelihood be well-received by the team's frustrated and thinning fan base, and that's very important to the Glazers, who struggle to fill seats on gameday. In addition, after this season's Josh Freeman melodrama in Tampa Bay, Smith's reputation of steady, drama-free leadership must look attractive to the Bucs. It doesn't hurt that Smith's long-time defensive scheme is fairly well proven, and named the Tampa-2, which he helped coach there under Dungy.

As for the ESPN report Monday that Atlanta team president Rich McKay will be in the mix to return to Tampa Bay as general manager, replacing the fired Mark Dominik, I'm buying it. McKay still has ties to Tampa Bay, is said to be eager to get back into a hands-on personnel role that Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff handles well in Atlanta, and might be intrigued with the challenge of putting together a second glory era in Bucs football.

• Plenty of folks you talk coaching candidates with in the NFL tell you Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase is going to be a head coach some day. But will some day come later this week?

The 35-year-old coaching phenom has reportedly already drawn interest from the Browns and Vikings, with Cleveland asking Denver for permission to speak with him. With the No. 1-seeded Broncos not playing this week, Gase would be free to interview with Cleveland if he so chose. Detroit is another possibility, since Gase is from Michigan and went to Michigan State. The Lions are expected to hire a QB-friendly coach given Stafford's struggles.

One league source last week told me "Gase will be a big-time guy, and he's a bit of a wunderkind.'' But the question is, with no head-coaching experience and just one season as a coordinator, with the very involved Peyton Manning in Denver, is Gase ready to take that kind of leap up the NFL's flow chart?

The thought was he might be more inclined to stay at least one more year as the Broncos OC and try to get a head coaching job next year at this time. But maybe a three-team competition for his services will serve to change his mind, especially if he and the Broncos win the Super Bowl.

Detroit would seem to have the home-state factor in its favor, and Gase might be able to do better than rolling the dice on the Browns. But with two first-round picks and the likely ability to draft a starting quarterback, maybe Cleveland presents both a challenge and an opportunity to a coaching prospect who some have compared to a young Jon Gruden.

• Listening to Washington general manager Bruce Allen at his press conference say "the control will be mine'' on the team's personnel front, later adding "that power will be with me," it gave you the sense he was going all Al Haig in light of the Redskins' newly created power vacuum. But I suppose with the firing of Shanahan, who had pretty much full authority on the personnel front, it's only understandable that someone has to be in charge on that front, at least for the time being.

You do wonder, however, if Washington owner Daniel Snyder is going to serve to limit his options on the head coaching front if Allen is perceived as having fully-vested personnel authority going forward. Allen's strong suit has not been on that side of the game, and how that different approach in D.C. will be viewed is a question left unanswered for now.

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