Thursday, January 3, 2013

Coaching Gambles and Plain Old Gambles

  The NFL season ended last Sunday and the playoffs will begin on Saturday. The New York Giants, my favorite team and defending Super Bowl Champions didn’t make the playoffs. After a 6-2 start, the Giants went into cruise control and couldn’t flip the switch when they needed to come up with a win against the Falcons and Ravens in the final weeks of the season. The Giants lost the division title to the Redskins, who beat the Cowboys in the Sunday Night season finale when Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo’s on field performance once again failed to live up to his celebrity status.

  On Monday, 22 percent of the NFL coaches were fired. Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles saw an end to his 14 year coaching tenure after a career worst 4-12 season. Reid took the Eagles to the playoffs in 9 of his first 12 seasons but missing the playoffs two seasons in a row was enough for him to lose his job. Most of the other firings were predictable. The Chiefs’ Romeo Crennel had a record of 4-15 and Chan Gailey’s 16-32 record for the Buffalo Bills weren’t remotely good enough to stay on. Ken Whisenhunt took the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl 5 seasons ago, but that is an eternity in the NFL and he lost his job after going 18-30 in the last three years. San Diego let Norv Turner go after missing the playoffs the past three years despite a 24-24 mark and new owner Jimmy Haslem of the Cleveland Browns cleaned house after their fifth straight season with 10 or more losses.

  I was surprised that meddling owner Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys kept his head coach Jason Garrett after his second straight 8-8 season. The Cowboys have won only one playoff game in the past 15 years and Jones isn’t known for his patience with head coaches with none lasting more than 5 years since he took over ownership 24 years ago. The other coach that I was surprised to see keep his job is Rex Ryan of the New York Jets. After getting the Jets to the AFC Championship game in his first two seasons as head coach (losing both), the Jets have regressed the past two years to an 8-8 mark last season and a 6-10 record for this year’s undisciplined mess of a team. The Jets did fire General Manager Mike Tannenbaum and if the past is indicative of the future, the new Jets GM will fire Ryan next year and bring his own coach in.

  The most controversial of the firings was Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith’s dismissal after nine seasons. Smith was the only coach with a winning record to be fired. The Bears had a 10-6 season and only missed the playoffs when the Minnesota Vikings upset the Green Bay Packers late Sunday afternoon.

  Smith took the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006 and the NFC championship game in 2010 so why did he lose his job? Last year the Bears started 7-3 but when quarterback Jay Cutler was knocked out for the season, they faded badly and finished 8-8. The blame for not having an adequate backup quarterback cost General Manager Jerry Angelo his job and Smith now had to work for General Manager Phil Emery and not the man who hired him (Angelo). This year, the Bears started 7-1 and after getting their fans dreaming of another Super Bowl appearance lost six of their next seven games. They rallied to win their last two games but not making the playoffs gave Emery the chance to make his mark on the franchise by installing his own head coach.

  Smith was the victim of relative success. He won three division championships in his nine seasons. The Bears won one division championship in the 13 years before his tenure. The Bears lost 11 games in his first season and never again lost 10 games under his watch. In the 13 years before his hiring the Bears lost ten or more games six times. I listened to the Chicago Sports radio station 670 – The Score on Sunday and Monday. Callers, commentators, and ex-players alike thought that Smith was a good coach but was not the man needed to take the Bears to the ‘next level’.

  I can agree with the premise that Smith was not going to lead the Bears to the ‘next level’ which I presume means constant playoff appearances and the occasional Super Bowl. I just think that Bears management is missing a big point. There are very few NFL coaches that take their team to the playoffs on a consistent basis along with an occasional Super Bowl and those coaches are very rarely available. Tom Coughlin has been the head coach of the Giants for nine years (the same as Smith). Coughlin’s record is two games better (83-61 vs. 81-63), has been to the playoffs five years as opposed to three for Smith, but has won both Super Bowls he led the Giants to (Smith lost in his only appearance). Tom Coughlin is the next level type of coach that the Bears are looking for, but despite occasional rumblings after a disappointing Giants season, he isn’t going anywhere and neither are other recent Super Bowl winning coaches like the Mike McCarthy of the Packers, Mike Tomlin of the Steelers, or Bill Belichick of the Patriots. This leaves the coaches who had past success and traded it in for the executive suite or the broadcasting booth like Mike Holmgren, Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, or Tony Dungy that are waiting to be lured out of retirement for total control of the football operation and huge bucks besides. Firing a coach that isn’t winning is a no-brainer. Getting rid of a successful coach not for winning but for not winning enough is a very risky proposition unless that ‘next level’ coach is already waiting in the wings.

  Speaking of risky propositions, since I was so prescient in my prediction of the Lakers troubles not being a product of their coach (The Lakers have gone 14-12 after firing coach Mike Brown who had a 1-4 start) , I will be using my prognosticating skills on this year’s NFL playoffs. I’ll be picking against the money line instead of the point spread because I’m much more comfortable picking the winners and giving or taking the odds than taking or giving points and losing my bet because of a late score. I’ll be using the odds at from the Yahoo odds page. Please keep in mind that this is all in fun and I'm not betting real money - not even any of Bethany Carson's trillions of Zimbabwe dollars!

Bengals (+185) at Texans (-215)
The Texans had the best record in the conference until last week when they lost to the Colts and slid to the #3 seed and lost their week off. The Bengals were a poor team until winning seven of their last eight games. Despite the trend, I’ll bet $215 on the Texans to win at home and I’ll win $100 if I’m right.

Vikings (+300) at Packers (-360)
This is a rematch game of last week’s epic matchup that the Vikings won on a last second field goal in a game they had to win to make the playoffs. I don’t think they can upset the Packers two weeks in a row and certainly not in Green Bay. I’ll bet $1080 to win $300 that the Packers win the third matchup of these teams this season.

Colts (+245) at Ravens (-290)
The surprising Colts will be rolling into Baltimore to take on the Ravens. The Ravens will be emotionally charged up by the announcement of team captain Ray Lewis that he will retire after the playoffs. I think the Ravens are likely to win the game but I like the odds on the Colts (who did have the better regular season record) and will wager $100 to win $245 on a Colts upset.

Seahawks (-155) at Redskins (+135)
Both these teams are red hot entering the playoffs with the Redskins winning their last seven games by mostly close scores and the Seahawks winning their last five in dominant fashion. The game will be in Washington and I think the home crowd’s energy will propel the young Redskins to continue their string of dramatic victories. I’ll wager $200 to win $270 on the home town ‘Skins to pull off the upset over the favored Seahawks.