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Opinion: Why Jeff Fisher Lasted As Long As He Did

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It took Jeff Fisher tying Dan Reeves for the number of all-time losses (165) this past Sunday for Rams owner Stan Kroenke to realize that he needed a new coach.

Fisher’s ousting was a firing that was overdue five minutes after the hire was made official because Fisher has been an NFL fossil for the past 13 seasons.  He never should’ve been hired as the Rams head coach and should not have been the Titans head coach past 2003. It is an over-enhanced reputation coupled with uninformed uneducated owners that has prolonged his career in the National Football League.

Understand something; the fact that Jeff Fisher has 165 career losses does not make him an unfavorable coach and it’s not what makes him an NFL dinosaur. A record like this is acquired by longevity not by ineptitude. Reeves, the guy Fisher is tied with, went to four Super Bowls and was Coach of the Year in two different cities. Tom Landry is arguably the greatest coach of all-time and he has 162 losses. Don Shula has the most career victories (328) and has 156 career losses. Historically, the game is so competitive that any head coach, given enough time, will accumulate 100+ losses (Bill Belichick has 115 by the way).

No, what makes the 165 losses such a morose topic is their correlation to the number in front of them that is 173.

173-165.

173 wins to 165 losses. A mere half-season more wins for a grand .512 winning percentage.

Delve in beneath the numbers and you’ll see that 10/20 or half of his full seasons as a head coach, he finished 8-8 or 7-9. Furthermore, Fisher was 5-6 in the postseason and lost Super Bowl XXXIV on the goal line so he has only a runner-up ring that most players and fans dismiss as the “loser’s ring” to hang his hat on at the end of the day;  basically a half in half career for his cup of coffee.

How the heck does someone stay employed with results that are, at best, a C- grade?

Because the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Jeff Fisher was a great coach, a true elite. The 1999 season alone proves that. In the Music City Miracle, Titans tight Frank Wycheck threw a cross-field lateral to Kevin Dyson on a last-second special teams return touchdown that won a playoff game for them in route to the Super Bowl; that was not some last-second rabbit out of the hat play. Fisher actually made the special teams unit PRACTICE that play beforehand.  How many coaches do that?

Then in the Super Bowl, the Titans were down in the second half 16-0, safety Blaine Bishop had been carted off on a stretcher on a devastating injury, the entire bench was catatonic and enervated. But here comes Jeff Fisher, roaring at his players, telling them to look at the Rams sideline, “THEY’RE CELEBRATING! THEY’RE CELEBRATING RIGHT NOW LOOK AT ‘EM! GO WIN THE GAME!”

And by God, it worked. The Titans came back from 16 points and it took a perfect pass from Kurt Warner to Isaac Bruce and a clutch tackle from Mike Jones to keep Jeff Fisher from hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Despite this, Jeff Fisher was easily considered one of the best coaches in the league and he was.

So if Fisher is a “great” coach then why did he only get marginal results?

There’s a compound answer to that and the first part lies in understanding that while sports have statistical databases, number-crunching, and billions of dollars swirling in the midst of it all, they are still games featuring teams owned by billionaire novices and played and coached by people.

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Who Jeff Fisher, the person and coach, is vital to understanding how he was able to be a familiar sideline face for 20+ years. Jeff Fisher the man is quite the guy. Handsome, cool, players’ coach, a leader, well-spoken, attention to detail, disciplined, no-nonsense, and universally respected.

John McClain stated in an interview for NFL Films: “One NFL executive told me if Jeff Fisher ever got fired he’d have a new job by sundown. I asked, ‘Well what if he’s fired in the late afternoon?’ and he said [Fisher]‘d have a new job by sundown.”

This man could interview for any head coaching job in the NFL and impress any owner because he really is a great coach…and that leads to the second part of the answer which is Fisher’s a great coach who has just been in the wrong decade for the last decade because conservative coaches can’t flourish in this NFL now.

Allow me to elaborate. There are two main coaching philosophies that encircle all the minor details like formations, specific plays, personnel choices etc. They are Aggressive and Conservative. The best way I’ve found to give a summary evaluation of a head coach is by weighing how aggressive they are in proportion to how conservative they are.

Aggressive coaching traits include airing it out, going for it on fourth down, onside kick, fake punts and kicks etc. gambling essentially like a commodities broker does with pork bellies. Their teams often score a lot of points and don’t need to trust defense or special teams as much. Because if they score a lot of points, which is quite hard to do, but if they pull it off, they are basically independent of their other units in determining game outcome because it comes down to who scores the most in the end. They don’t neglect the defense per-say, but a true “aggressive” coach is more focused on the offense typically.  Sean Payton and Mike Martz are two great examples.

Conservative coaching traits are typically cautious. Playing it safe, running the ball a lot, trusting the defense, don’t give up the big play, control the clock, limit opponent possessions and snaps, well-coached on special teams, and don’t rely on (or want) the quarterback to do everything. Some of them actually do point-blank ignore the quarterback like Buddy Ryan, George Allen and Bill Cowher. They are almost always defensive minded coaches; the one exception I can think of off the top of my head is Jim Caldwell, currently with the Lions.

Jeff Fisher’s coaching makeup is almost entirely conservative and he belongs somewhere between the 60s to late 90s era of coaching where there was either a heavy influence on the run or a greater balance between run and pass; which is not this era where scoring via air is paramount. This fact is easy to deduce. Just look at Fisher’s teams over the years.

In his 20 years as a head coach, Fisher’s had a team that finished in the top 10 in both offensive yardage and points just once. The 2003 Titans were 8th in yardage and 5th in points and easily his best team. That was the year that Steve McNair was co-MVP with Peyton Manning and ironically the last year that I’d argue that Fisher was a coach who had a realistic chance of winning a championship.

As for the 1999 team that lost the Super Bowl? They were 7th in points, but 13th in yardage.

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Whereas Fisher’s defenses (as a head coach or coordinator) have finished in the top 10, nine times in yards given up and five times in fewest points allowed. Fittingly, the Los Angeles Rams are currently 10th in yards given up while dead last in points scored and yard gained. Not to mention that Jared Goff is trying (and failing at this present time) to convince fans he’s not a future draft bust after being held out over half the year.

It’s obvious Fisher gets these defensive conservative traits from virtually every coach he played for before picking up a headset. As a defensive back at USC, he was part of John Robinson’s 1978 UPI National Champion Trojans that featured Charles White in his Heisman Trophy year and a freshman Marcus Allen. Robinson eventually left and coached the Los Angeles Rams in the 80s with an offense that was featured around feeding NFL legend Eric Dickerson the football.

After college, Fisher was a 7th round draft pick, a special teams’ defensive back mostly, and played on the Walter Payton Chicago Bears and earned a Super Bowl ring in 1985 behind the Monsters of the Midway defense. He was a defensive backs coach and eventual defensive coordinator for Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia. Then he is hired by John Robinson as a defensive coordinator for Robinson’s final year in Los Angeles before ending up in Houston with the Oilers where he eventually became head coach.

See a pattern with all these great running backs? Fisher was educated to believe in the run game and strong defense. After all the success he saw with that strategy, of course he would incorporate it in his coaching philosophy. And it did work since they did get to the Super Bowl, so where did everything go wrong?

Well, point blank, the game kept evolving and Fisher didn’t evolve with it. This is not a new tale by any means. The game evolves every decade or so and the changes always favor high scoring and passing offenses. This is because audiences love high scoring games and since it’s quicker/more exciting to throw a 50-yard bomb to the end zone than to run around/through tacklers for 40 yards.

It was 2003 that finally did Jeff Fisher in, when the illegal contact rules were implemented, further limiting defensive backs abilities to play bump-and-run defense or any kind of contact with the receiver. By 2004, the NFL first saw just how big a change the new rule would be when Peyton Manning broke Dan Marino’s single-season touchdown record by throwing for 49 touchdown passes. Only Dan Marino and 1999 Kurt Warner had ever thrown 40 touchdowns in a season before the 2003 rule change.

Now it is nearly impossible to win without having a better than average offense. Since 2004, Manning, Tom Brady, Matt Stafford, Andrew Luck, and Drew Brees have all hit the 40+ mark and Manning and Brady have hit 50+. Only once in all of Fisher’s tenure did a quarterback throw for 30 touchdown passes in ironically 2003. Look at the Super Bowl winners for the last decade. Only the 2015 Denver Broncos and the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers had scoring offenses below average (19th & 20th respectively) and still won the Super Bowl because they had two amazing defenses with at least one future Hall of Famer at a key position making an impact, something that Fisher never did have.

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It’s simple logic. If the passing game becomes even easier, then try to develop it to offset the struggles the defense is going to encounter. You’d think that this is where Fisher or the general manager would’ve woken up, hired an aggressive coordinator, and had the front office draft some wide receivers.

That did not happen. Fisher has always had a major role in personnel and drafting decisions in the front office and he kept sculpting his team into the 70-80s run game, strong defense format that was doomed to fail, barring some miracle because the handicap was too great. The Titans did what medium teams do. They’d scrape out wins against bad or average teams. Occasionally they’d upset one of the elite teams and even make the playoffs. But the Titans were never going to have the best team in football no matter what the record said. The 2008 Titans were a 13-3 fluke that were upset by the Ravens in the year Tom Brady tore his ACL and the Colts porous defense dug the team into a pit that even Peyton Manning had trouble digging them out of.

Further hurting the Titans was the relationship between Vince Young and Fisher. Fisher didn’t draft Young in 2005, Adams insisted on that pick. While there can be questions as to the intellectual ability of Vince Young, there are also plenty of questions as to why Fisher went his own way and didn’t develop Young or build around him using talented receivers outside the oft-injured Kenny Britt or let Young be the focal offensive role as a passer versus the run game.

So why did the two owners put up with this? Well, simply put. Owners for the most part, know jack squat about football.  These men understand economics, capitalism, contracts, taxes and anything financial. That’s not the same as popping in a tape and dissecting how the team you own, operates on offense or defense. Just look at how the Redskins have done whenever Dan Snyder interfered to prove my point.

Kroenke gets that he doesn’t understand football and Adams was the same (except for insisting that Vince Young be drafted) before he died, so what they did is they fully trusted an “expert,” a GM/Team president to run the team. Fisher was that guy to a great degree in Tennessee and he shared a joint role with Les Snead in his Rams tenure.

From this scenario forms a perfect storm where the stubborn coach who won’t catch up with the times is basically in charge and as long as the team isn’t a catastrophe, then he won’t get fired. And Jeff Fisher managed to somehow keep his team competitive over the years. This is the guy who coached the Titans to a wild-card berth in 2007 when Young threw only nine touchdown passes in that season. Nine passing touchdowns! How the heck is that possible?

That’s why Jeff Fisher kept his job. He was fantastic enough to make miracle seasons happen but simultaneously was mediocre because he never woke up and realized he was just making the job harder on himself by not developing a passing attack.

Fisher is living proof of the phrase, “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and this old dog’s dogmatic approach to the game’s natural evolution has cost the Titans and the Rams and finally him in the end.