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Which Coaches Don't Deserve the Axe (and a Few That Do)

Finding that magic combination of coaching and talent requires a skillful touch... and the discipline to sometimes let things run its course.

Stephen Dunn

Heading into week 17, there's little doubt that we'll see the first axe fall this coming Tuesday when teams fail to make the playoffs, fail to meet certain criteria of progress, their management normally sees their quick end. General Managers and Owners are quick to dispense blame, fight through the fact that parity exists, and becoming a great team is not only the right amount of luck, but hard work and effort, good coaching, and a building a strong roster.

One thing I've been critical of in management of teams is the inability to look at the team with context. Dan Pompei wrote this morning this salient quote which I feel all GM's in the league need to look at and accept as reality.

Has Phil Emery shown his hand at all regarding his feelings for Lovie Smith? @Joey FAV, from Twitter

Yes, he has shown his hand repeatedly. Emery has a lot of respect for Smith. And he wants Smith to remain as head coach of the Bears as long as Smith is getting the team to do what Emery believes it is capable of. Emery did not come to Chicago with an agenda of firing the head coach. He came with the idea of making it work. He’s still trying to do that.

I talk a lot about 'context', about achieving what you're capable of doing, and not doing less. Being able to prognosticate what you are capable of is a tough, mentally challenging exercise. You can't expect a couch potato to be able to go run a 10k well, but you would expect someone who exercises regularly to be able to run a 10k without much of an issue. If the person who exercises can't run a 10k, you'd probably say they underachieved, and if the couch potato limped past that 10k mark, you'd probably say they overachieved a bit. But, team presidents, CEO's, and GM's too often look only at the bottom line: did they run the 10k?

It's unfortunate that the NFL is such bottom line league, and levies coaches and staffs with expectations that are too great for one season, given the context of the place it's in. Just look to the Kansas City Chiefs or the Cleveland Browns as teams that constantly shuffle coaches in and out, and before that Washington Redskins, the Detroit Lions? Arizona? Oakland? Management too often looks for the 'right combination', instead of building it. Alchemy doesn't solve every ill, especially roster issues.

Coaching changes aren't successful if the infrastructure to build and run a team aren't in place. Management then looks at coaching and says, we're not in the playoffs, and it's the coaches fault, even if the roster's average age is 25 and a half, and the team looks to be progressing. The line 'we're not winning enough games, so we're going to stop you right here' leads teams to find someone else who's going to have the same troubles of installing their system in a short period of time, management lose patience, and the cycle repeats.

Pat Shurmur, of the Cleveland Browns is one of those coaches who I feel isn't going to get a fair shake this offseason. His team is young, and looking at their roster, how young they are, expecting them to be a team that must win X games in a tough division isn't helpful. You have to look at how the team is developing with smaller metrics than just a simple record. Look at Brandon Weeden, how he's improved from week 1 to week 14, how Greg Little is taking that step up, how the defense, with few big name players is putting up average results. A team of no names that are performing average, that's played toug? In Cleveland, that should be a sign that the team is trending upwards. Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville is also in the same straits with Blaine Gabbert.

How about Ron Rivera? Certainly, they underachieved this year, but part of that comes with the second year of coaching. That's not necessarily a sign of regression, but a sign of how you adapt, how you finish the season. Jerry Richardson and the FO of the Panthers have indicated that a change may be in order after starting the season 2-7, even with an extremely rough schedule, but finishing 3-x definitely should put the firing talks on hold, with a team that's starting to find its own identity on both sides of the ball.

Ken Whisenhunt is another who's hampered by his teams inability to put pieces around him. An offensive line that's arguably worse than the Bears, a QB who is most likely worse than most teams second stringers, injuries all around, and a defense that has been healthy and playing in the top 5 the entire season. Looking at the beginning of the season, with that line and their injured, but admittedly not very good, starting qb, and slid into mediocrity. They need to put pieces in front of what's a highly capable coach, to return to success as he demonstrated with Kurt Warner and a mushy defense. But, given the history of the Bidwell's, they don't tend to stick with the loser, even if the loser is the rosters.

Of course, evaluating the context of coaches who shouldn't be fired should only be tempered by those who should. Here's a few teams out there who would do right by firing their coaches. Coaches who've lost the locker room, who've drastically underperformed the talent on the team, who've led poorly, even if they've had mediocre or OK results, those who fail to develop young rosters and get the most out of veterans. Those are what I think GM's need to look at more when they evaluate coaches.

Rex Ryan hasn't ever met reasonable expectation, even though he might lead a .500 team that gifted a few games to its opponents on the back of Mark Sanchez, he's failed to capitalize on his decent defense, failed to run the ball with Shonn Green, and let Mark Sanchez single handedly blow game after game. His defense, while gifted with some of the best defensive backs in the game and with fresh, talented men on the front 7, can't seem to defend the run, or elevate themselves to an elite team, if anything, it's just been regression. Jason Garrett and Norv Turner also fit the description of teams that just don't seem to have 'it', like they've never had 'it', like, even when they're playing well, can't ever seem to look like they're playing good ball.

Chan Gailey, who the Jets play this week, also fits on Rex Ryan's boat. While both Ryan and Gailey may be talented coordinators, their teams have great talent, and their teams play less than what their potential is. You could also look at Jim Schwartz as a Head Coach who's team is less than the sum of their parts, with that potent defensive line, Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford? There's a lot of talent to go around, but in Schwartz's case, there's also the inability to control his players on the field that puts them in a position to win games. How can you look to the future and say: the Lions are going to be a more disciplined team with Jim Schwartz at the helm. There's just times you can't see it improving, that the status quo is going to remain the same, that regardless of roster changes, coordinator changes, there's just the inability to move past what is breaking the team.

And then there's Andy Reid. The regression his team has had can be traced in a short circle right back to his moustache. A team that was explosive on offense last year, even without Michael Vick at times, this year has looked nothing short of pedestrian. The defense that was somewhat flourishing under Juan Castillo, strangely, was yanked out from him after an undisciplined play call lost them the game. Where has LeSean McCoy been? Have you checked your fantasy rosters? Reid built the team in the past 11 years, only to destroy it. As Napoleon once said: "Between a battle lost and a battle won, the distance is immense and there stand empires." There's no longer an empire in the NFC East, just a hollow shell of a team looking for stability and it's identity. The backbone in the management, and in himself, that allowed Andy Reid to be an excellent head coach in the NFL isn't there, and to find it, which he will, he'll need to find it somewhere other than Philadelphia.

Looking at these coaches, both those who are probably going to get the axe but shouldn't, and those who deserve it, I can't help but think of Lovie Smith, and where he fits in. I compare him to Rex Ryan, both focused defensive minded guys, but where Rex Ryan fails at fielding a top half defense, Lovie succeeds. Maybe I look at Norv Turner, who's been in San Diego forever, and is established, but, when you remember how talented some of his teams were, and how LaDanian Tomlinson was unstoppable, but he couldn't even win a playoff game during his tenure? Lovie's done more than that. Lovie Smith's teams are rather consistent, unlike Jim Schwartz who has a different team that shows up every week, nay, every quarter of every game. I also look at Pat Shurmur, and see the development of Melton, of Wootton, Jennings, Conte, and Wright, and think, he's actually developing guys who can be the next face of the team in a few years. Even with Whisenhunt, who just needs a few pieces to get to the next level, a quarterback and a few linemen, so does Lovie, a few linemen, another receiver, a tight end, and another cornerback.

I know, Bears fans, we deserve teams that win games and strives to be better. But there's going to be ups and downs, and you're never going to be a perpetual contender without stability. The success that New England, New Orleans, Baltimore, the Giants, Pittsburgh, Green Bay. They all come with stability, they all trend up and down, and get better and worse in small cycles. But they have stability, and a plan, and can work around organizational weaknesses to build consistency. When you introduce turnover and great change, it takes time to trend back upwards, we're watching Pittsburgh, New England, and the Giants go through it right now, and we're watching the Bears go through the same tribulations as those teams as they turn over some old identities to what sits right with the team today. Those looking to fire coaches need to look hard at what their expectations are in their next leadership and make sure they're not as unrealistic as Rex Ryan running a 10k.