NFL Panic Index: What should we make of teams’ recent firings?
The teams that preach patience but actually practice it are a small minority in the NFL. Think Green Bay or Cincinnati or New England—places where there is a great deal of continuity on the coaching staffs and a high percentage of homegrown talent on the roster.
It’s the teams that crack at the first sign of trouble that are far easier to find. They’ll talk about restraint, only to show the composure of a screaming and crying Shelley Duval from The Shining when things get a little hairy.
Ever heard the saying “bad teams stay bad”? It’s not quite Shakespeare—his line, “How poor are they that have not patience!” fits, though, in case you need the Bard to class this joint up a bit here.
But the less poetic uttering is a shorthand way to explain how franchises like Cleveland, Detroit, Jacksonville and others have stayed buried at the bottom of the standings most seasons, despite playing in a league designed to make everyone competitive. Worse teams gets higher draft picks and easier schedules, two elements that should allow them to close the gap.
Those advantages are wasted when franchises let the league’s win-now pressures dictate too many decisions.
“It takes a while to get it going and there’s a lot of impatience around the league,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin, whose team just moved to 8–0, told Cincinnati.com. “There’s a thought, ‘Hey, we can reboot this thing in a year and bring in all these guys,’ and on paper it might look good but it’s a team-building process and it takes time. You need guys who develop within the team to be leaders for you.”
Already this season, there have been a handful of major personnel moves, three by the Lions, who on Thursday fired both team president Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew; earlier in the season, they dumped offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. There will be far more bloodletting around the league between now and the first week of the off-season.
So, what should we make of the pink slips handed out in the past few weeks? Which moves were understandable and which moves were out of sheer desperation? Our Panic Index tries to sort it all out.
Dolphins fire head coach Joe Philbin
This move could have—some argued, should have—come after the 2014 season. It hardly qualified as a surprise when it did occur following Miami's lethargic London loss to the Jets. The timeline was a bit unusual. If ownership trusted Philbin so little that it bailed after four games, why was he brought back in the first place?
With that result, Philbin fell to 24–28 as the Dolphins’ head coach, and just 1–3 this year for a team that carried high playoff hopes into Week 1. The Dolphins immediately showed more life under interim coach Dan Campbell (albeit against mediocre competition), featuring a game plan that appeared better suited to the roster.
Miami may not get all the way back from its sluggish start into post-season contention, but it was headed toward a completely lost year under Philbin. Now, there's at least some hope.
Panic level: Minimal, understandable.
Lions fire offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi
Lombardi, the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi, was cast off as one of the fall guys for Detroit’s 1–6 start. He didn’t even make it to the halfway point of his second Detroit season, having been hired out of New Orleans prior to the 2014 campaign.
But even during the Lions’ playoff run a year ago, the offense never met expectations—it was Teryl Austin’s defense that paced an 11–5 record and a near-miss in the playoffs at Dallas. Under Lombardi’s watch, the Lions finished 22nd in points and 19th in yards; they’re even closer to the bottom of the barrel this season, thanks to the league's worst rushing attack and 22 sacks allowed.
The Lions handed Lombardi a depth chart featuring Stafford, top receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, 2014 first-round tight end Eric Ebron, '13 rookie standout guard Larry Warford and '12 first-round tackle Riley Reiff. This off-season, Mayhew drafted running back Ameer Abdullah and another promising lineman, Laken Tomlinson. Somehow, the Lions still found themselves incapable of a) blocking for Stafford and b) finding space for Johnson.
Jim Caldwell made the decision to fire Lombardi, likely in an attempt to save his own job. It's worked, at least temporarily.
Panic level: Desperation, mixed with an urge to throw someone under the bus.
Titans fire head coach Ken Whisenhunt
There are two camps here: one that feels Whisenhunt’s performance in his past five seasons as head coach going back to his time with the Cardinals made his firing justifiable, and another that contends he did not receive nearly enough time to pull off a successful rebuild in Tennessee.
On the latter point: Marcus Mariota was supposed to be the key to the timeline of that rebuild. When the Titans used the No. 2 pick at the 2015 draft on the Oregon product, much was made of Whisenhunt’s background coaching up QBs. Mariota did display progress from the preseason to the regular season, until a knee injury sidelined him for multiple games. That still wasn't enough to save Whisenhunt, who was let go with a record of 3–20 in Tennessee—he was 1–20 in all non-Week 1 games.
Somehow, Ruston Webster still has his job as general manager, a development indicating the front office felt there was more talent here than Whisenhunt’s coaching showed. That’s probably true, but his firing was one born of impatience, even if there was evidence to support it.
Panic level: Directionless chaos.
Colts fire offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton
The 2013 Colts’ offense was above average, even with Trent Richardson starting eight games at running back. Last year’s unit boasted the NFL’s top passing attack (305 yards per game) and scored more 30-plus points six times.
So, was Indianapolis’s first-half regression merely a product of Andrew Luck’s injuries and decision-making, or did those factors just highlight Hamilton’s inadequacies? The Colts chose the latter, in the process all but admitting that Luck had been far more responsible than Hamilton for the offense’s successes in ’13 and ’14. And ... that’s probably true.
Hamilton’s dismissal, like Lombardi’s, is another case of higher-ups cutting a cord in hopes of maintaining their own positions. Both GM Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano enter the second half in tenuous spots themselves. The Colts, though, do have the benefit of promoting Rob Chudzinski to Hamilton’s old role—Chudzinski flopped as Cleveland’s head coach in 2013 but does bring ample NFL play-calling experience to the table.
The Colts planned to compete for the Super Bowl this season and instead find themselves at 3–5, treading water in the AFC South. Was this a panic move? Absolutely. That doesn't necessarily make it wrong.
Panic level: AHHHHHHHHH DO SOMETHING!!!
Lions fire team president Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew
This feels like a panic move—axing both the president and GM midseason is almost unheard-of. The reality is that the groundwork for the switch had been laid out over a long stretch.
Lewand had been with the organization for two decades, the past six as team president. Mayhew actually was an internal promotion, taking over as general manager during the 2008 season after Detroit fired his predecessor, Matt Millen. Mayhew did succeed, briefly, in pushing the Lions beyond the Millen wreckage, even overseeing two playoff appearances. But the franchise continues to fail in its quest for sustained success and now again finds itself on the verge of a massive rebuild.
Owner Martha Ford has had the franchise’s reins to herself for just a year since the death of her husband, William Clay Ford. However, she is very familiar with both Lewand and Mayhew, so it’s hard to call this a rash judgment.
That said, the moves did come as a surprise, both in timing and in breadth. Cleaning house in early November hints at a desire to find a new president and new GM soon, before other teams jump into the waters. The options early on will be limited to people not under contract with other NFL teams.
Regardless, the Lions are headed toward a complete reconfiguration.
Panic level: Appropriate for a 90-year-old owner.