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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Second Acts in NFL Head Coaching (Super Bowl Level)

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that "there are no second acts in American life." Which means, of course, that it won't necessarily follow that the investment banker who's opened up new markets will be a success as a real estate developer, or that Michael Jordan would become a Major League baseball player after his championships with the Chicago Bulls. It also doesn't mean that a head coach who won a Super Bowl with Team X is likely to win one with Team Y.

Put differently, no coach has won Super Bowls with 2 different teams.

That's right, no one. A few have been there with two different teams -- Don Shula (Baltimore, Miami), Bill Parcells (New York and New England) and Mike Holmgren (Green Bay, Seattle), but no coach has won the Super Bowl with 2 different teams. Which means, of course, that the next one, will be the first one.

Think about that. And then consider this:

For example:

1. Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls with his Redskins' teams of the 1980's but has not been successful in his second act (and let's not even talk about Super Bowls, let's talk about making the playoffs, despite having the highest-paid assistants and lots of expensive free agents).

2. Bill Parcells will join Gibbs in the Hall of Fame, but after his two Super Bowls with the Giants, he didn't win a third with any of the Patriots, Jets or Cowboys. True, he made it to the Super Bowl with the Pats, and, true, he got all three teams to the playoffs, but he didn't win another Super Bowl (and during that time many other coaches did).

3. Mike Holmgren won his Super Bowl in Green Bay, but he struggled for a while in Seattle before getting the Seahawks to the Super Bowl two years ago, only to lose. In fairness, he improved the product and brand in Seattle, but he didn't win a Super Bowl.

4. Mike Ditka won a Super Bowl with that outstanding Bears team in 1985, but he didn't fare well in a subsequent gig with the Saints (and made that awful trade in which he gave up all of the team's draft picks for a first-round pick who became the enigmatic running back Ricky Williams). Put blunty, Ditka was not a success in the Big Easy.

5. Jimmy Johnson excelled with Dallas in the early 1990's, winning 2 Super Bowls (the Cowboys of that era won their third title under Barry Switzer). Then he moved to the Dolphins, and they didn't get to the Super Bowl under his leadership.

6. Dick Vermeil won his Super Bowl in St. Louis (he had perhaps the biggest "Rip Van Winkle" period in the NFL, going something like 15 years from when he last coached the Philadelphia Eagles (early 1980's)) to returning to the Rams (late 1990's). But he subsequently moved to the Chiefs, and he didn't win a Super Bowl in Kansas City.

7. George Seifert, who succeeded Bill Walsh as the head coach of the 49ers and won 2 Super Bowls, was a washout in Carolina.

You can look up pertinent Super Bowl information, including who coached which teams, here.

So what do you make of all of this? If John Gruden has a falling out in Tampa Bay, do you want him to resurrect your program? True, he, like some of the others, above, can bring your program into respectability, the playoffs and perhaps even to the Super Bowl (Parcells, Holmgren), but can he take them the whole way? Because the next one who does will be the first one. Which means that if you think Bill Parcells will coach again or if you want Bill Cowher to come out of self-imposed exile to return to the sidelines for your team, you'll be bucking history if you think he can take your team all the way.

Of course, there's always a first time, and whoever accomplishes this feat will be feted mightily. Someone will do it, but in the meantime it's silly for franchises to always been on the hunt for a former championship coach. The reason: history hasn't been kind to them in terms of Super Bowl wins. That said, the fraternity of men who coached in Super Bowl games is rather exclusive, and you might have a better chance to rebuild and get to the big game than you would with the head coach of Boise State (who, by the way, would field some kick-ass, exciting NFL teams and, if I owned a franchise, would consider him immediately for his creativity if nothing else) or, say, a Marty Schottenheimer, Dennis Green or Nick Saban. But those Boise State guys metaphorically could be gems, and the Belichicks, Seiferts, Reids, Levys, Shanahans got their start somewhere. So, if you're an owner who's great at mining and developing coaching talent, you may be better off finding that "next great one" than recycling someone who's been there and done that already.

It's funny, because a few years ago the head coaching roster of the NFC East read: Parcells, Gibbs, Tom Coughlin and Andy Reid. The first two had won 5 Super Bowls between them, and Coughlin had taken a young Jaguars team to the AFC Championship Game (and Reid had been to the NFC Championship Game, I think, once by that time). Some pundits, though, thought that the Eagles would be at a big disadvantage because of the relative inexperience of Reid and the outstanding resumes of the other three. To the contrary, he proved to be (despite some of his personnel and play-calling gaffes) the best sitting coach in the NFC East. Perhaps he was more innovative, perhaps he was more hungry, whatever the reason, he was better. He might not make the Hall of Fame, but during the past 5 years he's been the best in that division. Just look up the teams' overall records and playoff experience, and you'll see why.

So whom do you hire? Who do you pursue?

It's a tough question to answer, but if I had a good nucleus and was looking for a coach to put my team over the top, I'd probably tend toward hiring the next rising star than the guy who's had the Gatorade dumped on him and hefted the Rozelle trophy.

That's pretty harsh, huh?

But right now, that's what history tells us a team should do.