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Long-Tenured NFL Coaches May Be on Hot Seat

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Mike Tomlin's star quarterback discussed another loss Sunday by repeatedly raising issues of discipline and accountability. Mike McCarthy's star quarterback, one week after criticizing the team's energy level, said urgency and focus must increase.

Guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers rarely say such things without a purpose, giving the impression they're euphemizing programmatic issues. And those ultimately fall at the head coach's feet, no matter how many times coaches might have said the same words before.

"It's accountability in the whole room, because we're falling short somewhere," Pittsburgh Steelers veteran cornerback William Gay told USA TODAY Sports on Monday. "That's it. I know when you hear words like that, you've got to reach as media. But it ain't too much reach into it."

Outcome is a dangerous starting point for any analysis. (If the Pittsburgh defense makes one more play to back up Roethlisberger and the offense in Sunday's 35-30 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, is anyone really psychoanalyzing the state of the Steelers on Monday morning?)

But the struggles of Tomlin's Steelers, McCarthy's Green Bay Packers and other long-tenured coaches this season play into the theory that, eventually, every message and every program can grow stale.

In their 10th season under Tomlin, the Steelers are 4-5. So are the Packers and New Orleans Saints, in Year 11 under McCarthy and Sean Payton, respectively. The Cincinnati Bengals entered Monday's road game vs. the New York Giants at 3-4-1 in Year 14 under Marvin Lewis. Of the five longest-tenured NFL head coaches, only one -- Bill Belichick, in his 17th season with the impossibly steady New England Patriots -- has a team above .500 right now.

Tomlin sidestepped the topic last week, saying he was focused only on this team, and Steelers players roundly say it isn't a problem. But McCarthy is among those who believe it and proactively guard against complacency from the coaching staff on down.

McCarthy shuffles and promotes assistants each offseason, delegates more responsibility to those who earn it, even changes his own role based on what he thinks the program needs. "You can't grow," McCarthy said during training camp this year, "if you're not open to change."

Sometimes, that mind-set leads to ill-fated decisions such as handing offensive play-calling duties to Tom Clements last year (only to take it back). But the Packers aren't on a seven-year playoff run because of happenstance, nor the sheer brilliance of Rodgers, the two-time NFL MVP who wasn't among the top reasons for Sunday's 47-25 embarrassment at the Tennessee Titans.

When McCarthy made headlines Monday by proclaiming himself "a highly successful NFL coach," he was speaking objectively. The Packers have won a Super Bowl, been to two other NFC title games and compiled a 108-60-1 record in his tenure.

Tomlin has taken the Steelers to the playoffs the last two years and six times total. He and Payton have Super Bowl rings, too. (Lewis, who has seven playoff appearances and zero wins, is a rare case that could probably happen only in cash-conscious Cincinnati.)

There's good reason these guys don't get fired, even taking a singular outcome (a Super Bowl win) out of the equation: not enough good head coaches available, and no guarantees the next guy is an upgrade. If there were, NFL teams wouldn't have fired 29 head coaches over the last four years.

A coach "trade" is always possible and would defray some of the costs associated with making a change, but that hasn't happened since Jon Gruden wedged his way out of Oakland almost 15 years ago. Rumors swirling around Payton last year after consecutive 7-9 finishes ended with the Saints signing him in March to a five-year contract extension.

What if you're dumping the next Andy Reid, who took the Philadelphia Eagles to five NFC title games and a Super Bowl in 14 seasons before they fired him after consecutive non-playoff seasons, including a 4-12 flop in 2012? The Kansas City Chiefs signed Reid days later and appear playoff-bound for the third time in four years, with 18 wins in 21 games. The Eagles fired Reid's successor, Chip Kelly, and replaced him with Reid protégé Doug Pederson.

Upon joining the Chiefs, Reid said, "Sometimes, change is good." Maybe things really had passed the point of repair in Philadelphia. Maybe everyone needed a fresh start.

This much is certain: The Steelers and Packers are in far less desperate straits than last year's Chiefs, who rallied from a 1-5 start. And you'd hope the track records of coaches such as Tomlin and McCarthy mean they're exactly the guys you want finding the discipline, or urgency, or whatever is lacking.

Sure, those would be highly attractive jobs whenever they open up, in part because of the quarterbacks in place. But guess who'd be among the first coaches hired elsewhere?

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November 15, 2016
 
 
 

 

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