Sunday, January 25, 2009

The NFL youth coaching bubble

By Rick Morris

Right about now, several Super Bowl rings are sitting on the fingers of coaches who are using said digits to scratch themselves on their couches while supremely young coordinators (and in some cases, position coaches) have been promoted to head coach. What gives?

Well, in a copycat league, teams are wildly overreacting to the success of young coaches (Mike Tomlin reaching the Super Bowl in just his second year in charge) and previously inexperienced NFL head coaches (Mike Smith and Tony Sparano finishing 1-2 in the AP Coach of the Year balloting with John Harbaugh as a strong candidate as well).

Now, this is not to say that all of the new hires are mistakes -- chances are that at least half of them, if not the majority of them, are not -- but merely that the methodology is suspect. Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers: they seemingly were not going to consider anybody not in his 30s because their egos needed to be sustained after having the whole world jock them for giving Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher their big breaks at that age and it's worked out for them. Sometimes you can make a decision for questionable reasons and still get away with it, so there's probably only a few of the teams giving in to this trend who will suffer for it. With the collapse on Wall Street in recent months, we have heard much about "bubble mentalities" and how they fuel trends like we saw with the rampant and asinine growth in the subprime mortgage industry. It would probably be appropriate to view this NFL trend as a bubble that is bound to burst at some point.

And it's true that there's a fine line between previously successful coaches and retreads. So a Brian Billick doesn't necessarily deserve the benefit of the doubt over these young guys just because he lifted the Lombardi Trophy as a head coach eight years ago. But when the league appears to be surrendering to groupthink in terms of who should and should not get an opportunity, then you've got to wonder a bit.

Take Tampa Bay for example. Weeks ago, the Bucs decided that Raheem Morris would be the perfect choice to fill the big shoes of Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator. When some teams subsequently came sniffing around after Morris as a head coaching candidate, the Glazer family then panicked, weeks after the season had ended, and blew out Coach Chucky and GM Bruce Allen to start completely fresh with this youngster. Could it turn out to be a good move? Quite possibly. Do the Glazers deserve the benefit of the doubt, going back to when they prematurely got rid of Tony Dungy? Not at all.

I always believe firmly that teams should do exactly what is right for their own situation regardless of any wider trends in the league. For that reason, as a Browns fan, I am disappointed that the feeble Lerner ownership rushed to hire Eric Mangini as head coach before retaining a new GM (and after mistakenly firing Phil Savage, but that's a whole other rant). But hey, he fit the bill! Young guy in his 30s, albeit with some previous head coaching experience.

I do like the idea in theory of giving talented no-names a chance, because ultimately what matters in that equation is the talent as opposed to the Q rating of the name. But I fear that groupthink on the other extreme will prevail if enough of these young guys fall flat on their faces and that would be even worse. Not to diminish what they did before, but the world doesn't need to see Jerry Glanville or Sam Wyche polluting any NFL sidelines any time soon. Unfortunately, we could be headed for a world like that if NFL owners continue to cling to a youth fetish that would put Michael Jackson to shame.

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