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The NFL’s Head-Coaching Carousel Is a Crisis

Through a combined lack of patience and lack of creativity, NFL teams have managed to burn through head coaches at a faster rate than ever before while also shrinking the hiring pool at the same time. The result: a league where Ben McAdoo somehow gets a job in the first place and then loses it two years later.

Ben McAdoo, Sean McDermott, Jeff Fisher, Hue Jackson Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most remarkable thing about the Ben McAdoo situation is not that he was hired by the New York Giants in January 2016; it was that if the Giants hadn’t hired him, the Eagles probably would have. A year after a playoff berth, McAdoo is well on his way to getting fired — not even a shock win over the Chiefs on Sunday is enough to save him, apparently — because of his inability to lead the locker room or uh, well, do much of anything. But just last season, there were teams racing for his signature — even though he’d called plays for just two seasons prior to getting the head gig in New York.

After making a mistake on McAdoo, the Giants will likely dip into the NFL coaching market again this offseason. Three coaches in four years might seem like a lot for a franchise, but it’s not remarkable in the context of the modern game. There are six teams who’ve made four or more coaching changes in the past decade — double the number of the previous 10 years. Last season, the 49ers became the first team in NFL history to fire their first-year head coach in two consecutive offseasons. We live in historic times.

Last week, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk set the over/under for open jobs this offseason at 7.5. There were six coaches hired last year. When Florio started to list the names that could be departing at the end of this season, he wound up with an astounding 14 coaches.

There are not, of course, seven coaches who would fix teams that make a move; there may not be two. In 2016, the Eagles hired Doug Pederson, who’s been an unqualified success. But that same year, McAdoo, Hue Jackson, and Dirk Koetter were all hired, and they all have a chance to be fired after Week 17.

When you talk to executives around the league, they’ll privately grumble at how watered down the coaching market has become, but in many ways, this is self-inflicted since they not only fire coaches often but replace them in uncreative ways. It’s impossible to objectively say that coaching is worse than ever. What we can say is that coaching is more important than ever, but the coaches haven’t improved with the higher demand. Since Bill Belichick was hired by the Patriots in 2000, NFL teams have hired 146 coaches. How many of them have made their teams better?

There are a lot of issues in the league: There’s a quarterback shortage, an offensive line problem, a tackling problem, a play-calling problem, and the list goes on. But the issue with the coaching problem is connected to all of the other ones: A good coach can resolve those issues, and a bad coach can create them.

A few months ago, I had a conversation with Rick Spielman, the general manager of the Minnesota Vikings, and we talked about the increasing rawness of the athletes in the NFL. Players are coming into the league at a younger age than ever before, they are less familiar with pro schemes after playing in the now-ever-present college spread offenses, and they’ve practiced less than generations of players before because of college practice restrictions. So, Spielman suggested, coaching is more important than ever.

And yet: John Fox is in charge of Mitchell Trubisky, Dirk Koetter is in charge of Jameis Winston, Mike Mularkey is in charge of Marcus Mariota, Jeff Fisher was in charge of Jared Goff, and Chuck Pagano is still in charge of keeping Andrew Luck alive. With so many retreads and mediocre head coaches helming so many teams across the league, is it that surprising that the quality of quarterback play has hit an ebb?

At the same time, franchises are making this harder on themselves. All at once, teams shrunk the hiring pool and started churning through coaches quicker than in years past. A coach without NFL experience hasn’t been hired from the college ranks since Chip Kelly in 2013. (Bill O'Brien was hired by the Texans from Penn State but had previously spent four years with the Patriots.) This, of course, is especially rich, as college spread schemes are now having more of an impact in the NFL game than ever before. In addition to O’Brien, there’s only one other NFL coach who came directly from a college gig, Pete Carroll, and he’s widely considered one of the best in the league. Of the past 20 NFL head-coaching hires, 19 were NFL offensive or defensive coordinators, and the lone outlier was his team’s interim coach the prior year. At this point, if you are an NFL coordinator and you have not been briefly employed as the head coach of the Bills or Browns, you should be offended.

Sean McDermott is the fourth Bills coach since 2012. He took over a team armed with an awkward pairing of win-now players from the Rex Ryan era and then made a series of moves designed to build for the future, but that led to one of the most embarrassing quarterback episodes in league history Sunday. Despite his team sitting in a playoff spot heading into Sunday, McDermott benched Tyrod Taylor for convoluted reasons. (McDermott specifically praised fifth-round rookie Nathan Peterman’s maturity at the time of the benching.) Peterman, then, promptly threw five interceptions in the first half of a game against the Chargers. If you want to see the fallout from years of coach churn, watch the Buffalo Bills organization. Even if the coach is good (and McDermott was doing a nice job before the Peterman-Taylor decision), the previous stops and starts of the organization make it nearly impossible for them to ever succeed. Teams that win find a plan and stick with it. Teams that don’t? They find plans and abandon them at the first sign of struggle, and the constant change adds up over the years. Oh, and there’s this:

This closed loop of hires limits your possibility of success, too. If Coca-Cola hired only executives who were the top lieutenants at the other soda companies, the bench would dry up quickly.

Bad coaches are funny only in spurts. If there are too many or if they reign over players important to the league, their incompetence actively hurts the sport. You would not give Blood Meridian to the guy who made Suicide Squad, and you shouldn’t give Odell Beckham Jr. to Ben McAdoo. Great athletes are the league’s resource, and bad coaches ruin them.

A league full of bad coaches — or good coaches who don’t get enough time — can wreck young players, especially in an era of limited practice time due to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. There’s plenty of talk about the league’s lack of superstars, but maybe there just aren’t enough coaches to put them in a position to be superstars. Consider these two bits of information. The first, from last week:

And this, from Monday:

The NFL needs good coaches because good coaches can manufacture fun. Bad coaches take things that could be fun and turn them into, well, the 2017 NFL season.

Former Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman once told me that a major firing in an organization sets the team back about six months, which means that it’s not impossible to win in the first year after firing a coach, but it’s going to take a lot of extra effort. ESPN analytics guru Brian Burke suggests firing a coach doesn’t do much good, and any notable improvement typically comes because teams that bottom out and fire their coaches can’t do much worse and do better with new coaches simply because they have to.

But even if you want to buy the idea that new coaches are always better, the constant coach churn hurts the league in other ways. Evidence suggests that coaches are more risk averse when they fear getting fired, and if you fear getting fired all the time, you are always going to be risk averse.

Which brings us to where we are now, with the NFL stuck in a conservative feedback loop. Everyone’s risk averse. NFL owners, arguably the most risk-averse figures in the league, have created a closed system where only a handful of candidates pop up despite there being what looks like another full slate of vacancies this offseason. However this problem can be fixed, we know how the owners will try to solve it: by firing everyone.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Chip Kelly was the last college coach hired in the NFL. He was the last such coach hired with no NFL experience, but Bill O’Brien was was the last college coach hired in the league, in 2014.