Firings Punctuate The End Of The NFL Season

The NFL's 2008 regular season was marked by the crowning of the worst team in history — the Detroit Lions — and the spectacular collapse of Brett Favre's New York Jets. With failure on the field came firings of coaches from the front office of four teams.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. 2008 not such good year for employment. Lots of layoffs in the past year and in the field of professional football coaching. The National Football League's regular season ended Sunday. And since then, four head coaches have been fired and possibly more to come. Joining me now, NPR's Mike Pesca, and I assume they were fired because their teams lost.

MIKE PESCA: Well, for the most part, yeah, but not always. I go back to the words of the famous defensive coordinator Leo Tolstoy, who said happy football teams are all alike. Unhappy teams find their own reasons for firing the head coach. So Romeo Crennel never brought his Cleveland Browns to the post season. He was fired. Rod Marinelli of the Detroit Lions presided over the worst team in history, 0 and 16, of course, he was fired.

Then you look at Jets coach Eric Mangini. He coached for three years, had winning records in two of the three years, but he was let go. His team collapsed down the stretch, and his career highlight was a guest-starring role on "The Sopranos."

BRAND: (Laughing) And the cover of the New York Post a couple days ago, "Don't Let the Door Hit You."

PESCA: Yeah. So sensitive is the New York Post. This was a guy whose first year, his nickname was the Man-genius, and that quickly came undone.

BRAND: Devolved. OK, but what about Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos? I mean, he was there for 14 years. He won two Super Bowls. Why was he let go?

PESCA: It's amazing. For about 10 years, you couldn't say the name Mike Shanahan without saying offensive genius. And I don't know if a lot of people thought that he lost the offensive genius, but there were circumstances to his firing. His team lost its last three games. If you end the season .500, you know, with eight wins and eight loses, it's better to do it on an uptick than a downtick.

His team had not made the playoff for three years, and his defense was awful. Now, you could say, Mike Shanahan, he's supposed to be good at offense. But as the head coach, it's your responsibility. And also, Mike Shanahan was the GM, the general manager of his team. So he was in charge of picking all the players.

Sometimes, when a coach is both the GM and the coach, an owner will say, we're going to strip you of that GM responsibility, and the coach usually chafes. A famous coach, Bill Parcells, once likened it to, they want me to cook the food, but they won't let me buy the groceries.

Romeo Crennel had about a three-sentence statement about his firing. He was the former coach of the Browns. One of the sentences was this. It says it all. I did not win enough games. So I must move on. That's it.

BRAND: I wonder if Leo Tolstoy could have written that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: All right. This is an idealistic question, but, I mean, is it fair?

PESCA: You're right. There's something to be said for a certain illogic to it. Every Sunday, the 32 teams go out, and they play, and half the teams win, and half the teams lose. Are we to fire all the losers? Even Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, was seen as unsentimental for advocating just firing the bottom 10 percent of performers. In the NFL, about a quarter or a third of the head coaches are let go each year. So that's the abstract.

But in each case, you could go over the individual situations and make the case that Mike Shanahan hadn't been getting the job done for three years, and Eric Mangini lost too many games down the stretch. And every individual situation, fans are clamoring for the head coach's firing. And football is a business where you have to please the customer, and so firings happen perhaps more often than they should.

BRAND: And as another wise man once said, it's not personal. It's just business.

PESCA: Oh, god. And the big thing that is said over and over again when a head coach is fired is, it's not any one thing. It's not any one thing. And then you look at the records of, say, Rob Marinelli in Detroit, and you can say, yeah, it was probably 16 things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: NPR's Mike Pesca covering sports. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: Oh, you're welcome.

BRAND: And Mike writes a weekly column on the NFL more on the style of Dostoyevsky, I think. It's at npr.org.

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