Tuesday, December 30

Dark Days in Brownstown PLUS: The Coaching Carousel

This past Sunday, the Cleveland Browns were defeated by the Pittsburgh Steelers. This is nothing new, as the Steelers have won approximately 456 consecutive games against their AFC North "rival," but this time, for this Browns fan, something was different, and upsetting: I didn't really care.

There was a time when I got super-jacked up for the biennial Browns/Steelers tilts. Sure, some of that has to do with me living in Pittsburgh for the fourteen games from 1999-2005, but regardless of location, this was a game I got crunked for, regardless of the Browns' frustrating lack of success. Yesterday: not so much. Sure, I had my TV ready to go and was sporting my Josh Cribbs jersey, but these were just perfunctory gestures. As the first half droned on, I managed to balance all my finances, organize my music collection, write a couple of blog articles, fold my laundry, and get some groceries at halftime. When Pittsburgh took a 31-0 lead, I decided it wasn't worth any more of my time and shut off the game.

Here's the thing: it really hasn't sunk in with me that the Browns lost to the Steelers again. Those losses used to sting because I thought we had a chance and it was important to me. This time, we've known for weeks how this was going to turn out, and even suspected that the Browns would post another goose egg on the scoreboard. The game was so uninspiring, so rote, and such a foregone conclusion, that it really is not registering in my mind that my favorite football team just lost once again to their arch-rivals. The Browns have inspired a lot of emotions in me over the years, but this is the first time that one of those has been indifference. That, for me, represents a nadir in sports fandom, and I don't think I'm the one to blame.

Of course, the fallout from the tragic season that has inspired this lament is that Cleveland has fired GM Phil Savage (see Nick's story from yesterday) as well as Head Coach Romeo Crennel. Neither is a huge surprise, though Crennel's departure was far more certain in the weeks leading up to the announcement. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone not in favor of the Browns organization making these changes at this time, and I am no exception. These men simply are not the right men for these positions. I say this despite the fact that I tend to be cautious in criticizing coaches and managers, and in particular calling for their ouster. The only regret I have in letting these fellows go is the ridiculous contract extensions the Browns are now on the hook for. Why management extended Crennel, I will never know. I imagine they wanted to avoid a lame-duck scenario at the end of 2008 (09? I can't be bothered to look it up) if Romeo's contract situation was still unsettled. If that was the case: nice try, but no. I don't buy this notion that players will somehow quit on a coach just because he's not signed for the following season. Players will play hard to 1) win and to 2) get new contracts, not necessarily in that order, regardless of the coach's situation. The Browns quit on the second half of this year because they knew they sucked and had nothing to play for, and would have done so whether Crennel was signed through 2008 or through 2050.

Part of the patience I try to exercise with coaches comes about because I think demanding coaching changes is often simple-minded and indicative of a lack of analytical prowess; part is because I recognize that coaching changes are frequently ineffective, particularly when the talent level on the field, court, diamond, or rink remains the same.

For the first part, I recognize that fans are frustrated with losing, and so am I, but why are people always so quick to point out every flaw with every manager and coach and are so willing to call for them to be fired? Look right here in town - people have been clamoring for the firing of both Eric Wedge and Mike Brown for years now, though the Cavs' 26-4 start has no doubt quieted the anti-Brown camp. Yet a logical assessment of the situation doesn't justify such demands. Sure, Brown has struggled at times to get the club in consistent offensive rhythm, but he's installed a solid defense-first mentality that has yielded deep playoff runs year after year and has the team poised to contend for a title yet again this year. Do you really think throwing Coach Brown overboard and bringing in a new guy is really what this team needs? Likewise with Wedge. Admittedly, his in-game strategy has taken a few years to develop, but Wedge consistently gets a lot out of his players and has Cleveland's small market baseball club ready to compete year after year. One can hardly blame Wedge for the bullpen-led disasters of '06 and '08. Sure, you could hire some other guy to manage, but who and why? This is especially true in baseball, where there's a reason why the boss is called a "manager" and not a "coach." The X's and O's of baseball managing aren't nearly as important as the other games; preparation and focus are more key qualities. I'm not saying that Wedge or Brown are perfect, and neither would they. What I am saying is that both have grown well into their jobs and replacing them (with whom?) offers little benefit to either franchise.

One can easily extend this discussion out of C-town, where coaches are being fired left and right, like it's going out of style. Look at the NFL, all of one day after the regular season ended. Sure, one can understand Detroit letting Rod Marinelli go after their historically bad campaign this year, but Eric Mangini out as Jets coach after just three years? Lane Kiffin out in Oakland after less than two? Weird, especially for Mangini. I suppose one has to consider the flipside of that, coaches who continue to stay on and get work when it's clear they should be removed, and by "flipside" I mean "Herm Edwards."

Things get even crazier when you look at the NBA, where six teams (Philadelphia, Toronto, Washington, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, and Sacramento) have already fired their coaches even though the season is barely a third over. This is insane. Does anyone really think firing these guys mid-season is going to do any good? Like installing "Scott Brooks" at the helm at Oklahoma City is going to somehow lift the "Thunder" into the playoffs? So many of these moves are simply cases of an organization doing something just to do something. Hell, Sam Mitchell of the Raptors was NBA Coach of the Year two years ago and they axed him after 17 games. Seventeen. Teams with interim or replacement Head Coaches do not win, and the move does nothing but impede team development. Just to take one example (picked at random from the list of six), let's look at how Kevin McHale firing Randy Wittman to install...Kevin McHale as the new coach has worked out:

2008-09 T'Wolves under Randy Wittman: 4-14
2008-09 T'Wolves under Kevin McHale: 1-9

Bravo! Without going to the trouble of running linear regression analysis on the various factors affecting the Wolves' performance, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Wittman's coaching wasn't the root cause of Minnesota's problems. Perhaps McHale should fire himself and try again. After seeing those numbers, I got curious and totaled up the pre- and post- coaching change records for all six teams who have made mid-season coaching changes. Ready?

Initial coaches: 29-77 (.273)
Interim coaches: 15-56 (.211)

Can we agree that this doesn't work? Are there any doubts that it's not so much the coach that is bringing down these clubs? In all cases, the players continue to suck, and it's not a big secret that NBA players don't exactly give 110% for interim coaches. The question remains: why do NBA executives keep doing this?

Look, there are only so many wins to go around in a professional sports league. Each year, approximately half of the teams are going to lose more games than they win. This is unavoidable. Yet, for some reason, pro sports executives think that coaching changes (particularly mid-season ones) are going to somehow turn things around for their teams, and they almost never do. Coaches in the NBA now last an average of less than three years, and that's even with a few long-timers (Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich) skewing it high. The main reason is owners and GM's making knee-jerk decisions to can the coach with almost no benefit to the team and at a significant cost in stability and cohesiveness. If you're the GM of a lousy team with lousy players, why not give the floor boss a few years to grow with the team as you build the roster? I mean, you hired the guy, so he must have some qualifications and talent, so why not let him hone his skills? Your players obviously suck, so you're not going to win right away no matter who coaches your club, so it's a perfect time to let a sharp coach construct his system and build a winner. Sure, there's absolutely a time to recognize when it's not working out with a coach. I just can't figure out why NBA execs seem to think that time is after 20 games of coaching sub-mediocre talent.

1 comment:

Figgs said...

Another perfect example: Mike Shanahan. I realize that they collapsed at the end of this season, but does Denver really think that their replacement is gonna be better?