• There are far more coaches being fired for failed 2018 seasons than general managers. In the NFL, that’s nothing new.
By Jenny Vrentas
January 02, 2019

Within 24 hours of the 2018 regular season ending, eight teams had vacancies at the head coach position. The number of general manager openings this year? One.

Every situation is different, but the fact that blame was unequally assigned to coaches over personnel executives for failed seasons raised eyebrows around the league.

In Arizona, Steve Wilks was one-and-done after a season with a rookie quarterback and a flawed roster, while GM Steve Keim will hire his third head coach. Vance Joseph was dismissed after two seasons with Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Case Keenum as his quarterbacks—each brought in by John Elway. In Tampa Bay, Jason Licht will search for a replacement for Dirk Koetter, who was let go because he couldn’t win enough games with Jameis Winston, the quarterback that Licht picked No. 1 overall in 2015.

With one-quarter of the league looking for new head coaches, you’ll hear a lot of discussion in the coming days about whether there are enough candidates to fill these openings. Over the past decade, an average of seven head coaches have been hired and fired each year, thinning the pipeline. Teams may, as a result, cast wider nets this year, making harder pushes to lure top college candidates or (hopefully) being spurred to adjust their criteria of what matters in a head coach, valuing a person’s leadership abilities over a specific amount of play-calling experience.

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But this year in particular raises another question: Why are GMs—not head coaches—getting more chances to steer a team in the right direction? Both Keim and Licht will be working with their third head coach, and Elway his fourth. Over the past five years (not including this one) there have been 34 head coaching changes compared to 20 GM changes, by unofficial count. (We should note here that in Dallas and Cincinnati the club owners also serve as de-facto GMs, and in New England, Bill Belichick is both the head coach and GM).

If, as is so often said at season-ending press conferences, accountability for a lost season is shared by all, why are head coaches disproportionately bearing more of the consequences? GMs are usually in a position to build a closer relationship with the owner, who ultimately makes the firing and hiring decisions; in failed arranged marriages between a coach and a GM, it’s more often the GM that’s given a chance to hire his own head coach, rather than vice versa. And coaching mistakes like poor clock management or bad play calls are more glaring and painful in the here and now than a flawed team-building approach, which may take years to reveal itself. But if Elway will have several tries at picking a quarterback, or Keim will have multiple opportunities to hire a head coach, why aren’t coaches given more time to learn on the job and get better at aspects of the job like game management or building a coaching staff that they are never asked to do until they are sitting in the head coach’s chair?

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You can understand why many coaches want personnel control—who wants to waste what might be their only chance at a head-coaching job trying to win with someone else’s players? But for less-experienced coaches or those who have been waiting a long time for an opportunity—including many minority candidates who have faced hurdles to advancement starting at the lowest rungs of the coaching ladder—that demand may be prohibitive to getting hired. That’s particularly true when so many head coach openings (including all eight openings this year) are attached to a sitting GM.

Beyond Oakland, two other teams will have a change in their top personnel executive, with Eric DeCosta taking over in Baltimore for the retiring Ozzie Newsome after this season, and Dolphins GM Chris Grier taking over all football operations with Mike Tannenbaum being re-assigned.

But the story of this year’s hiring cycle is yet another game of coaches’ musical chairs. Meanwhile, most of their partners in team-building never have to rise from their seats.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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