Dawn had barely broken on Black Monday before Mike Smith, Rex Ryan and Marc Trestman were officially dismissed and Jim Harbaugh released of his contractual obligations. So Harbaugh could coach at his alma mater, the U of Michigan, which knows how to treat a coach of his achievements. He saw the love for Bo Schembechler.
Why would the 49ers want to lose Harbaugh? Can he really be such a diva and a distraction that he jeopardizes the team’s Super Bowl potential? Why did there have to be a “mutual parting of the ways,” as the team’s front office phrased it?
The thinking by the 34-year-old owner Jed York apparently was that Harbaugh might not be the best bet to win a Super Bowl. Under his coaching, the franchise quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, regressed the past two years. Was Harbaugh being polite or delusional when he proclaimed Kaepernick “is great” when his production is in fact very average.
More and more, Harbaugh was looking foolish – too often out of control on the sidelines. His move to Michigan makes sense, because his ground-based offense is suited to the freezing gales of the Great Lakes. It never truly was a West Coast Offense, and perhaps it had become obsolete in the increasingly aerodynamic NFL.
York and general manager Trent Baalke said they had “philosophical differences” with Harbaugh but offered no details.
It may be that Harbaugh at his own power-football game was overmatched by Pete Carroll, who accomplished so much more with his dual threat quarterback, Russell Wilson, who’s not as big or fast as Kaepernick, seemingly not as talented.
Carroll seems to have established an edge over Harbaugh – beating him four of the last five times they’ve faced. Never mind the three conference championships Harbaugh won for San Francisco. They don’t count much more than Mike Smith’s three division titles or a 55-40 record for his last six seasons in Atlanta.
It’s all about Super Bowls. Everyone is searching for the next Carroll or Belichick. So maybe a Harbaugh or Smith is deemed not good enough. Over the years Smith skipped a few beats of clock management, and if you saw him in Hard Knocks last August he looked like anything but an inspirational leader.
Smith’s team had losing records both of the past two seasons, and the defense couldn’t stop a grocery cart. Owner Arthur Blank could endure one losing year but not two in a row.
Blank couldn’t even wait for the start of the Falcons’ final regular season game before assembling a committee to search for a new coach. Interesting motivational psychology to let the players find out their coach is a lame duck before they take the field.
If the players cared about saving their coach’s job, they didn’t show it by losing 34-3 to Carolina. Who could blame the players for giving up if the owner had already done so?
Still, the fact that the Falcons entered the last week of the season favored to win a playoff berth would cause some to sympathize with Smith, who’s clearly better than the average NFL head coach. With a roster that’s short on talent, his successor is likely to have less success than he did.
Speculation has begun that Rex Ryan might get a shot in Atlanta on the theory that he can improve any defense and he would have a true franchise quarterback in Matty Ice.
Meanwhile, fans in Miami are asking, “How did Mike Smith get fired and Jim Harbaugh pushed out and not Joe Philbin?”
Washington insiders who think they understand the complexities of the Middle East can’t fathom Dan Snyder inviting Jay Gruden back for a second season.
Indeed, the Blackest Monday was not in New York, Atlanta. Chicago or San Francisco, but in the cities where unsuccessful coaches remain. The real sense of doom hovers over Miami, Washington and pockets of Cleveland where doubts persist that Mike Pettine will coach Johnny Football more and better in 2015 than he did in ’14.
Philbin showed how out of touch he was when he was oblivious to the 2013 bullying scandal that ripped apart the team’s offensive line. The Dolphins this season still felt the effect of his misplaced trust in Richie Incognito, the veteran leader who turned out to be chief bully.
Philbin showed some more dubious judgment last month when he told the media he was considering benching his starting quarterback, first-round draft pick Ryan Tannehill, in favor of undistinguished backup Matt Moore.
Tannehill felt Philbin undermined his leadership, that he created “a bunch of distraction in the locker room.”
It was not the sort of thing a Jim Harbaugh would do, or even a Rex Ryan, though it’s not so different from how Trestman cut the knees out from Jay Cutler. Whatever he and his staff did (offensive coordinator Aaron Kromar admitted to knifing Cutler to media), Trestman would hardly be blamed for the uninspiring performance of a quarterback who’s more interested in styling his hair than in studying football.
The only NFL coach able to mentor Cutler into playing well is Mike Shanahan. Perhaps the Bears will call on him, forgiving his 3-13 record last year in Washington, which followed a playoff season.
Gruden improved the record to 4-12 but saw the team divided about its quarterback. The coach contributed to the division by repeatedly going public to call out Robert Griffin III for his inadequacies.
Nothing in Washington seems more dysfunctional than the Redskins, and yet, Gruden gets a second chance, which may have something to do with Snyder owing him $15 million guaranteed.
As for Pettine, he was looking like Coach of the Year when the Browns jumped to 7-4 with Brian Hoyer quarterbacking, only to lose their final five games with a combination of Hoyer and two rookies, Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw, sharing the quarterbacking.
Pettine recently reflected on that promising start: “I said it then, you’re just a couple Sundays away from being a coach of the year candidate to being Village Idiot Hall of Fame candidate.”
No one should call him a village idiot – nor for that matter, any other villager. The Browns owner, Jimmy Haslam, like Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, was happy that his team was showing improvement, even if it wasn’t playoff-worthy.
Perhaps Haslam and Ross are thinking of the Dallas Cowboys, whose owner Jerry Jones stayed with a floundering young head coach, Jason Garrett. This year the patience is rewarded. Garrett has matured, along with his team, which can make for a strong bond, everyone together overcoming adversity and criticism.
The Cowboys finished the regular season 12-4 with three of the most dominating players in the sport: quarterback Tony Romo, running back DeMarco Murray and receiver Dez Bryant. All three had been underachievers until this year. Now they give hope to all underachieving teams and coaches that their time may come, as it has for Jason Garrett.