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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Coaching Parabola in Effect?

Sometimes you have to we wary of the big names, especially the big names of yesteryear, and especially in sports. There comes a point in time that a big name -- take Shaq, for example -- just doesn't have the meaning that it did say six years ago. Six years is a long time in sports, especially for players. For coaches, it's probably a little bit longer.

Not every player or coach starts out at the top, and it's well-documented that it took coaches like Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells, Tom Landry and others to get established and reach the pinnacles for which they will be remembered. Bill Belichick, for example, will be remembered for his coaching exploits in New England much more so than he'll be remembered for either his bad record in Cleveland or for whatever happens for the remainder of his career should a) he not win another Super Bowl again and b) nothing egregious happen on his watch. The sports fan's memory tends to remember that excellent and the notorious, and it's somewhat forgiving about any other record so long as it's within acceptable parameters on the continuum of winning and losing. Yes, the '62 Mets are remembered for their futility, but the '63, '64 and '65 teams gather little conversation unless you're from the area and watched them closely. They were bad, but they weren't the worst.

Like the careers of outstanding players, the careers of outstanding coaches do not last forever. The reasons are analogous, if different. With players, a combination of the atrophying of skills, injuries, getting tired of the travel (for all but NFL players, for whom travel is much less) and having enough money combine to end careers. The money is so good today in baseball that seldom do you see the one-time stars hanging on for five years at the end of their careers as a reserve the way you might have thirty years ago. In football, the pounding can be so brutal given the size of the players that the average NFL career is less than four years. Ultimately, the Marinos, Elways and Kellys fade away, and just when you think there's no replacing, a new crop of players emerges. Sure, there might not be another Elway, but the first Brady, the first McNabb and the first Roethlisberger are exciting in their own right. Part of the compelling aspects of these sports are watching the established stars negotiate their twilights and the emerging ones breaking through the barrier that separates a career's infancy from its "established star" category, and these dramas co-exist simultaneously each year.

With outstanding coaches, there are a few factors, the most obvious of which are fatigue, scrutiny and burnout. Most competitive coaches, like competitive athletes, would pursue their vocation forever if they could because there's no substitute for the competition. (See this link regarding Charles Barkley's gambling problem because the hoops all-timer hasn't been able to find a sufficient replacement for the thrill of competiting). The problem for the coaches is that the hours they're expected to keep -- especially in the NBA and the NFL -- are very long. Serious sacrifices are made. Spouses become virtual widows on account of the sport, and kids grow quickly without getting to know their fathers well, all because of a life the fathers chose. These hours lead to sacrifices -- familial, physical and mental -- that few can understand unless you've worked in a job that's required a similar commitment. That commitment is tiring -- it's hard to sustain a pace of getting to the office before sunup, leaving after sundown and watching endless tapes of games, for decades. The high compensation these coaches draw remunerates them not only for the commitment that they are supposed to make and the excellence they are supposed to achieve, but also for the sacrifices they make and for the fact that it's not easy to get a comparable job (in terms of prestige or compensation) if they fail at this one. In other words, they'll be set for a while, win or lose, even if they fail. That's the concession that the system makes to them, a safety net of sorts, as it were.

If coaching were so easy, you'd see coaches at the pro level coaching for decades. For the winners, the pressure to win and the perception that you just have to outwork and outprepare (and, yes, outsacrifice) the other guys can become waring. For the losers, well, you don't get to stay long if you don't produce results. The average tenure of sitting NBA and NHL coaches is testimony to perhaps the biggest lack of patience team owners have shown -- ever.

But back to the title and the point -- the coaching parabola. The concept of a parabolic existence could apply to other careers, too, as it's hard to say that people perform at a plateau over a 15- or 20-year period. At the beginning they're learning their crafts and aren't as good as they should be at the middle, and there can be ups and downs in between. From the middle onward their might be a peak period, and then, as they advance, they'll either opt to go out on top and then do something else or ease out of their careers into retirement -- if they're permitted to do so. The latter, perhaps, is a two-way street. Some of the top performers probabably could stay on for longer if they were willing to accept less pay for the lesser amount of work that many invariably seek. Some stay on for too long because the money is just too good. Properly done, the older careerists can stick around in outstanding if subordinate positions and pass along knowledge to subsequent generations. In the world of sports, witness, among others, Pete Carril and Dick Harter, one-time outstanding college coaches who are in the NBA in their mid-70's, and, at the collegiate level, George Blaney, a 60-something who is Jim Calhoun's top aide at UConn and once was the head coach at Holy Cross and Seton Hall.

There is a difference, though, between those who accept lesser roles (and, when I write lesser, I mean, lesser in terms of title, because, especially in Pete Carril's case, the respect remains paramount) and those who simply don't have the same passion, intensity and, yes, skill set, that they once did. They're more mellow and more forgiving, and, perhaps, they're skill coaching to a norm that existed when they were at their peaks as opposed to know. It also may be the case that they haven't adapted their skill sets to the changes in the game, or, on the other hand, they have adapted too much.

I recall a few seasons ago when Joe Gibbs gave up managing his auto racing team and returned to the NFL after a hiatus that was almost as long as the one Dick Vermeil had before he returned to the Rams. There was all this talk that the NFC East would become more competitive than ever, that it could become the most competitive division, and that the Eagles had better watch out because one could argue that with Gibbs' returning to the Redskins and Tom Coughlin taking the helm in New York, the perennial champion Eagles might have the worst head coach of the bunch (Bill Parcells already had joined the Cowboys). Clearly, for Eagles' fans, it was a concern, because Gibbs has won 3 Super Bowls and Parcells 2. Coughlin got the expansion Jaguars to the AFC title game quickly, and his no-nonsense style is a favorite of the abundant media pundits out there. (I'll argue that you couldn't really have put Coughlin ahead of Reid, but many put Reid as low as third in this pecking order).

Gibbs' first year was a disaster; his second year was pretty good, and it helps that he has in owner Daniel Snyder a modern-day Croesus who, if he doesn't win something soon, should have a relative go to court and put his assets in a football-only spendthrift trust. Parcells' teams have had more movement than a high-tech stock on the NASDAQ, up one year, down the next. Coughlin had a rough transitional year in the Big Apple, a good one last year, even if his team looked about as good in the NFC playoffs as the average New Orleans beignet the first day after Hurricane Katrina. Reid, meanwhile, has consistently produced excellent teams in Philadelphia, that is, he did so until last season. Part of last year's 6-10 record was his own fault -- he managed the Terrell Owens situation poorly and it hurt the team. Part of the record was just dumb luck -- 13 Eagles went on injured reserve, included their motor, QB Donovan McNabb, who wasn't that healthy when he was playing. The Birds passed the ball 64% of the time, the most in the NFL, and it is a priority of Reid's to balance the playcalling more so this season. Given the ability of NFL teams to bounce back from bad seasons rather quickly, I would look for the Eagles to return to the playoffs this season the way Carolina did last year after a poor post-Super Bowl year two seasons ago.

I don't think that Reid is on the downward side of his parabola, but I wonder if Bill Parcells is. The Cowboys haven't emerged as a real power in the NFC, and Parcells' most recent statements leave the average fan scratching his head. Is Coach Parcells on sedatives? Does Jerry Jones have something on him? Read this and tell me what you think. Strikes me as someone who remembers Mike Ditka's comment about Terrell Owens: "If you have a rattlesnake as a pet, odds are that someday it's going to come up and bite you" that Bill Parcells sounds like someone who is tap-dancing around the rattlesnake. The Tuna of old would probably have told Jerry Jones that he would have quit rather than worry about coaching Terrell Owens. The Tuna of old would have been more vocal about teamwork and fitting in. The Tuna of now seems resigned to the owner's power, making public statements that smack of someone told what to do than someone showing active, positive leadership.

Then again, the Tuna of old had Lawrence Taylor, who had behavior problems of his own accord. LT did many outlandish things and has had many problems, but he always came to play on Sundays. While LT might have been pushing his self-destruct button too often, his was a neutron bomb that seemed only able to hurt himself. Admittedly, if his behavior affected his performance he could have hurt the team's performance, but in LT you didn't see a player who caused team disharmony and who threw his teammates under the bus. My guess is that if LT's behavior ever crossed that line, Parcells would have acted quickly and decisively. In Terrell Owens, he has a totally different player with a distinct set of issues.

It may be that Bill Parcells is adapting to the times and making the best of a difficult situation between him and his owner. Or it may be that Bill Parcells is wont to ride out this contract and $5 million per a year, put in his normal Parcells-like effort, and hope that it's enough to get this franchise back to the Super Bowl. If the former is the case, the Cowboys have a chance. But if the latter's the truth, then Bill Parcells, like many successful coaches at the end of their careers, is demonstrably not only on the downward side of his parabola, but near the end of it too.

The odds are that Terrell Owens will act badly in Dallas as far as locker room harmony is concerned. The odds are that he'll question the playcalling and publicly spat with his quarterback. Drew Bledsoe is not, at least now, as good as Donovan McNabb, even if he might be slightly better than Jeff Garcia. The Cowboys also have other targets, and T.O. might not get the ball as much as he wants. He's spoken out both in San Francisco and Philadelphia; what's to say he won't complain in Dallas too?

And when that happens, how will Bill Parcells act? Will Jerry Jones let him take the stand that the Eagles did?

If he doesn't, then the irony will be that one of the most heralded coaches in the history of the game will find himself getting thrown under the bus by a hyperactive owner and a player who clearly will be publicly urinating way a Hall of Fame career.

Bill Parcells' career will come to a natural end, but it's up to Jerry Jones to make sure that it comes to a dignified one. Because if you think things were ugly in Philadelphia last year, they could get a whole lot worse in Dallas this season. Sure, T.O. is out of chances and might be on his best behavior. But he's also a guy on the edge, and he's playing for a coach who doesn't have that many seasons left in his career, wants to win badly and is used to getting things his way. And the thing about guys like T.O. is that even if they don't have other chances left, they sometimes can't help themselves.

Football is a collision sport. And in Dallas, you could have a few collisions in the locker room before the season even starts.

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