Len Pasquarelli

Message Board
NFL en español
NFL Draft
Photo gallery
Power Rankings
NFL Insider

ESPN Auctions
Tuesday, April 1
Updated: April 3, 4:23 PM ET
Pressure of winning provides short tenure for coaches

By Len Pasquarelli

In a drive-through world, NFL coaches are being driven out of jobs quicker than at any other time in history, and the instability of the profession mirrors the lack of basic continuity precipitated by the era of free agency.

Never before has the old bromide, that a head coach is hired to be fired, been more appropriate.

Herman Edwards
"There's definitely an 'instant gratification' (mindset) now, but I think that most guys understand that, at least the newer coaches," said New York Jets coach Herman Edwards at last week's annual league meetings. "Everybody wants to win now. If you don't, the owner is going to find someone else he thinks can get it done, that's just a fact of life."

In fact, the numbers indicate that owners are less patient now, with coaching tenure dramatically reduced over the last two decades.

Entering the 1980 season, NFL coaches had been with their current teams an average of 4.61 seasons. Going into the '03 campaign, the current contingent of head coaches has logged just 2.75 seasons of previous experience with his current franchise.

That represents a reduction in tenure of 40 percent since 1980.

And despite the notion that the "good ol' boy" network continues to flourish in the league, a presumption that most coaching hires are just retreads, 19 of 32 sideline bosses in 2003 are in their first NFL head coach jobs. Only four of the current head coaches have had more than two NFL jobs.

Led by Bill Cowher of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who is entering his 12th year with the team, there are five coaches who have been with their present club for more than five seasons. Conversely, 18 coaches have fewer than three seasons of seniority with their franchises.

Most coaches cite two elements -- the introduction of free agency and the near-instant success of the Carolina and Jacksonville expansion franchises - for the fact pink slips are now issued at seeming warp speed.

The Jaguars and Panthers both advanced to their respective conference title games in 1996, only the second season of existence for the franchises, and the ripple effect has been undeniable. Owners surmised that, if a start-up franchise could achieve such speedy success, there was no reason their more established teams shouldn't be able to emulate it.

The result: The owners' patience became shorter and, unfortunately for the head coaching fraternity, so did the average tenure.

There are, of course, exceptions. The Steelers, for instance, have employed just two head coaches, Chuck Noll and Cowher, since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. On the other hand, the Indianapolis Colts (formerly the Baltimore Colts), have had 15 different head coaches in the same period.

Everybody wants to win now. If you don't, the owner is going to find someone else he thinks can get it done, that's just a fact of life.
Herman Edwards, Jets coach

Much of the current itinerancy is attributable to free agency, which does not permit a coach the luxury of continuity and cohesiveness on his roster, with the average franchise turning over nearly one-third of its depth chart every season. The system was implemented in 1993 and, ever since, coaches are being shown the door with alarming frequency.

In the 11 seasons of free agency, there has been an average of seven head coach changes per year, up nearly 40 percent from the 11 seasons preceding the advent of wholesale player movement.

A system that some coaches originally regarded as a panacea, because of the opportunity to quickly rebuild with veteran players, instead has turned out to be more of a plague.

"When we started shuffling players in and out the door, what it basically did was create a situation where more coaches are going out the door," said one current AFC head coach. "The way the game is now, you just can't sink the roots very deep any more, you know?"

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

 More from ESPN...
Pasquarelli: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Wins help define coaches, but ...
Clayton: Quick study
Jack Del Rio's quick rise ...

Garber: Methods of success
While winning is the bottom ...

Garber: Edwards, the preacher
Herman Edwards must have been ...

Garber: Fassel, the scientist
Jim Fassel has occasionally ...

Garber: Gruden, the (consummate) salesman
Jon Gruden knows when and how ...

Garber: Schottenheimer, the teacher
Marty Schottenheimer has been ...

Question of the Week: Best head coach
Who is the best NFL head ...

Len Pasquarelli Archive

 ESPN Tools
Email story
Most sent
Print story
Daily email