The Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns are playing on Christmas Eve. The result is irrelevant for the 2017 season, but the game itself is notable since these two teams make up 66 percent of the teams that Jeff Fisher is reportedly “eyeing” during his big comeback to the coaching ranks. The third team is the Indianapolis Colts.
Each of these teams is currently coached by its own version of Jeff Fisher, and the idea of replacing a Jeff Fisher knockoff with the original Jeff Fisher is one of the absolute grimmest outcomes possible for an NFL franchise.
And yet here comes Fisher. CBS reports that Fisher is “contacting potential staff members as teams get set to start interviewing coaching candidates next month.” Our own Mike Lombardi said not to rule him out as a candidate because of his extensive contacts in the league and because the league office will help him. (Fisher was a longtime competition committee member and Mike Florio said his status as a favorite son of the commissioner’s office is “very real.”) Bleacher Report linked Fisher to the Bears job as early this past summer. Meanwhile, my colleague Robert Mays has registered his intention to relocate to the moon should this happen.
The problem here is that the NFL teams, despite comprising what is a $60 billion-plus industry, cannot be trusted to hire someone who’s good for the sport. Many NFL teams are, as an executive once told ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, run like billion-dollar lemonade stands: woefully short-sighted.
That Fisher’s self-professed candidacy is not immediately dismissed as a joke at worst and performance art at best says more about NFL teams than just about anything you can imagine. These reports reflect reality: NFL teams might hire Fisher because teams have hired Fisher in the past and because teams hire coaches who are like Fisher all the time. John Fox is tolerable when he’s riding Peyton Manning to a Super Bowl, but he can’t make a team better than it should be. The same can be said of Chuck Pagano, who was acceptable when Andrew Luck was dragging him to an AFC title game but whose lone contribution to the progress of the sport was a fake punt so funny it is one of the most memorable plays of the decade. The CBS report says Fisher wants one more shot because his career ended on a sour note in Los Angeles. Fisher’s last winning season occurred during the second term of George W. Bush, in 2008. Sour notes don’t last a decade. That’s just a bad song.
When we talk about the quarterback crisis in the NFL, we are mostly talking about Fisher and those like him—conservative and unimaginative coaches who actively harm the sport. The careers of players like Mitchell Trubisky hang in the balance, at the mercy of who the Bears hire this offseason. But that’s not all that’s at stake: Quality of play matters to NFL ratings, so bad coaching is not just a self-inflicted wound for a team. It sucks for everyone who likes the sport.
It’s not clear any of the teams that Fisher is “eyeing” are eyeing him back, but they should all shut the curtains and move to another room. Ultimately, there’s probably a system of checks and balances against a team hiring Fisher. He’s become enough of a national punchline that if word leaked he was even interviewing with a team, there’d likely be a fan revolt. An unconfirmed rumor of Fisher being a candidate at UCLA sent fans into a tailspin. On the other hand, NFL teams have made so many obviously disastrous hires—Eric Mangini to the Browns, Lovie Smith to the Bucs, etc.—that we just cannot trust their judgment.
When I pointed out last month that two of Fisher’s quarterbacks last season, Jared Goff and Case Keenum, are now powering high-octane offenses, former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky tweeted an explanation at me: “Archaic offensive schemes,” Orlovsky said. “‘Hey let’s call this play, maybe it’ll work’?” The plays, of course, did not work.
For the sake of the sport, the Fishers of the world need to be kept out and the Sean McVays of the world—smart, creative, adaptive—need to be let in. When the Rams hired him this past spring, McVay was seen as a wild card because of his lack of experience. Instead, he essentially fixed Jared Goff and created a really cool offense that controls defenses by going uptempo despite not being a prototypical “spread” offense and that finds ways to get playmakers the ball in space. This is not to say that all new coaches need to be in their early 30s, as McVay is, but they do need to have a sense of what the sport has become: fast, efficient, and quarterback-driven.
If this really is going to happen, the NFL should spruce up the Bears-Browns snoozefest by making the loser hire Fisher. NFL ratings crisis solved. From a football perspective, Fisher would make the most sense for the Browns, since seven wins (which Fisher achieved in three of his four full seasons with the Rams) would be an upgrade for Cleveland, which has won seven games exactly once in its past 10 seasons.
Beyond Fisher, this offseason will say plenty about how teams across the league view quarterback development. It’s not that teams looking for a new coach must hire quarterback gurus as head coaches—Ben McAdoo and Hue Jackson were supposedly brilliant offensive minds who then, uh, struggled to implement their ideas in the head-coaching position—but teams at least need a good support system in place.
The Eagles surrounded Carson Wentz with former quarterbacks Doug Pederson and Frank Reich; the Rams hired McVay; the Vikings, despite being coached by defensive wizard Mike Zimmer, built a great supporting cast around Keenum and found creative ways for him to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers.
Fisher and his ilk are not the problem. They’re just symptoms of a total lack of creativity and flexibility across the league despite the sport changing quicker than ever due to liberated passing rules, spread offenses in college and high school, and players that are more athletic than ever.
Fisher himself had many chances to create a modern NFL team and every time, well ...
COACHING MATTERS:— Emmanuel Acho (@thEMANacho) December 17, 2017
W/ Jeff Fisher as coach
Foles: 7td: 10int (4-7 record)
Goff: 5td: 7int (0-7 record)
Keenum: 13td: 12int (7-7 record)
Foles: 44td: 12ints (15-4 record) #Eagles *since ‘13
Keenum: 20td: 7int (9-3) #Vikings
Goff: 24td: 7int (10–4 record) #Rams
It’s not a new idea that teams should hire a staff that will maximize its quarterback’s development. The Bucs tried it with Dirk Koetter, who was Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator previously, and it’s not working just yet. On the flip side, former quarterback coach and offensive coordinator Adam Gase, in his lone season with a healthy Ryan Tannehill, made the playoffs with the Dolphins.
It’s not a sure thing that hiring a quarterback-friendly coach will always work out, but if there’s one sure thing in football, it’s that hiring someone like Jeff Fisher won’t.