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Sports Then and Now

In the NFL, and in Buffalo, it’s the Year of Living Hypothetically

Posted on October 24, 2009 by John Wingspread Howell

The Bills dramatic victoy over the Jets is the lone highlight of the young season.

The Bills dramatic victoy over the Jets is the lone highlight of their young season.

So far, at least, it’s been a very strange season in the NFL. Some have called it bizarre.  I think that adjective applies.

The one thing that distinguishes the NFL from other major professional sports is its parity. That is no accident. The league has gone to great lengths from its straight bottom up draft (compare to the NBA’s lottery draft) to revenue sharing to salary caps, the league has done everything other than working a handicap into game scores to establish and maintain relative balance. The result is that the NFL is the most watched professional sport in the United States, and pro football has supplanted baseball as America’s pastime.

That being said, what’s going on this year? We’ve had a string of lopsided victories, including a 59-0 routing of the Tennessee Titans by the less than peak-performing Patriots. And what’s more, how have the Titans gone from winning 13 games last year to being unable to score 13 points this year? In addition, we have as many as five other teams that threaten the maxim that on any given day any given team can beat any other. More than once, sportscasters have said of the game they were reporting, “this doesn’t even resemble the NFL.”

It isn’t that there has been any great re-shuffling of league talent over the off-season. It does seem, though, that there was some questionable coaching last season that has continued to deteriorate this year, to epidemic proportions. Every year a few coaches are on the bubble, but I can’t recall any season in which there’s been so much talk about the likelihood that more than one head coach might be fired midseason.

Specifically we can cite franchises such as the Raiders, Browns, Redskins and Bills where the play has been worse than bad– more like abominable– in certain games, if not throughout, and in each case, one can cite a coach at great risk. Until recently, Washington’s Jim Zorn and Buffalo’s Dick Jauron seemed to be in greatest jeopardy, but the Redskins have announced that Zorn will finish the season. That leaves Jauron. Bills Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson has been more equivocal in his comments about Jauron’s job security. A group of fans raised $1,100 to for a huge billboard on Buffalo’s busiest expressway calling for Wilson to clean house now. But the only coach Wilson has fired mid-season was Hank Bulloch, thirty-some years ago.

The other factor that adds to the strangeness of this season is that the number of proven top tier coaches is in direct reverse proportion to the number of struggling teams.

No wonder every football fan whose team is underperforming is having dreams of Cowher, Holmgren, Shanahan, Dungy and Gruden. With marquis names like that doing color commentary or just spending their severance below the radar, someone like Zorn, Mangini or Jauron is a stick in every fan’s eye.

Moving from the global to the local now, I will continue as a Buffalo native living in Chicago who has had to suffer through two Jauron administrations. There are several parallels between the two.

In both towns, Jauron took over teams that were coming off an era of greatness only to take them further

Dick Jauron was not embraced by fans in Chicago and doesn't have a fan club in Buffalo either.

Dick Jauron was not embraced by fans in Chicago and doesn't have a fan club in Buffalo either.

and faster from greateness  than anyone could have imagined. In both cities, he engendered fierce loyalty among his players, despite outcomes ranging from disappointing to diabolical. And in both situations Coach Jauron was and is hated as much by the fans as he was and is loved by his players.

So is it any wonder that Bills blogs, discussions, chat rooms, anchor booths and stadium seats are abuzz with what if’s and if only’s: the laments of fans with coaching challenged teams? Let’s face it. It is damn frustrating to watch Dungy, Gruden, and Cowher in the pundit role on TV every Sunday when Dick Jauron is wearing the Bills cap and the headset. I have no doubt that Browns, Redskins, and Raiders fans, among others, could say the same thing. Just fill in the blank with their unwanted coach’s name.

So, the what-if’s and if-only’s abound. All kinds of hypotheticals circulate as to changes any of the aforementioned coaching geniuses would make, and how even with the existing talent and assistants, the Bills (or, again, fill in your team) would make a heroic run for the playoffs, or at the very least, provide a fertile field in which to experiment in preparation for next season.

It would be nice if it were that easy. It seems simple enough to conclude that Dick Jauron isn’t best suited to the head coaching role, but who should replace him is much less apparent. Even the grand coaching ayatollah, Bill Parcells, the Tuna himself, wasn’t able to work his magic in New York or Dallas. (Although as a General Manager, he’s making some noise in Miami.)

And what about Mike Holmgren. If he came to Buffalo, or (_____), would he be the Green Bay Holmgren or the Seattle Holmgren?

Then there’s Jon Gruden. At best he’s a one hit wonder. At worst, he rode his predecessors coat tails to the Superbowl victory at Tampa Bay. He certainly didn’t repeat the act in Oakland, and would he be any more successful with the Bills?

Bill Cowher had plenty of good teams in Pittsburgh, but only won the big one once, and it took him long enough to reach that mountain top.

Mike Shanahan did well with the Raiders before his prolific run in Denver, but underwhelmed in his final years.

Tony Dungy may have the best credentials of any of the potential replacements, as he created a system that excelled in Tampa Bay, and was even more successful in Indianapolis, where it was finally perfected.

So, even where the men who have the view from the mountaintop are concerned, there are legitimate questions. Were they one-hit wonders? Were they yesterday’s genius? Do they have at least one more trick in the bag? And if none of these are right, or willing, what are the alternatives?

One thing we know for sure is that even the most successful college coaches don’t translate well to the NFL. There are a couple of exceptions, of course, but think of the two biggest busts in recent years: Pete Carroll and Nick Saban. Neither lasted long, accomplished much, or was very happy. Both went quickly back from whence they came to renewed and even greater success.

Historically, the best NFL coaches come up through the ranks. Most of the current top tier, it seems, worked for Parsells, or his protégé Bill Belichick. We will mention Josh McDaniels as the most recent Belichick disciple to ascend (at least for the time being). The only problem is trying to figure out which coordinators are the next Belichick or McDaniels and which ones are the next Jauron.

The "Music City Miracle" is as painful as "Wide Right" for Buffalo Bills fans.

The "Music City Miracle" is the second most painful memory for Buffalo Bills fans, behind "Wide Right" .

Buffalo has not had good luck with rookie head coaches culled from the coordinators’ ranks, whether from inside or out. That would include their three most recent head coaches. Levy’s successor was his defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips. It was Phillips’ second shot at the top spot. He had underwhelmed in Denver. He managed to get the Bills to the playoffs his first year in Buffalo but made the infamous decision to bench Doug Flutie in favor of Rob Johnson. The result was what is known in Tennessee is the “Music City Miracle.” More like the Music City debacle if you’re from Buffalo.  The memory lingers in the post-traumatic memory of Bills fans the world over just below “wide right,” in severity.

The next two to take a turn at the headphones in Buffalo are now on the list of potential Head Coaches again: Gregg Williams whose defensive schemes may be the most significant factor behind New Orleans’ progression from perennial pretender to premier contender, and Mike Mularkey, who has had a similar role with the offense in Atlanta. Both of these men were not well-liked during their respective tenures in Buffalo, but in hindsight Bills fans would gladly welcome either back in lieu of Jauron.

Whether Williams or Mularkey have learned from their experience in Buffalo to make them better candidates for a second crack at the top job in some other city is yet to be determined, but for obvious reasons neither is an option for the Bills job, and they seem to be the best of the coordinator class, presently.

This may or may not be reason for hope in places like Cleveland, Oakland or DC. There is no doubt that Williams and Mularkey will both have another opportunity to run a team next season if they want to, but there’s plenty of doubt that either will fare much better a second time. There is also no doubt that if either or both turns another team around, it will be one more reason for Bills fans to self-mutilate.

That being said, it would not be a wise move for Buffalo to gamble on another coordinator, and certainly not another head coach who has not demonstrated an ability to take a team to the top in a short period of time. But that presents a problem, at least in the perception of the typical Bills fan.

You can see it all over the blogosphere. “We’d never get Cowher, or (fill in the blank with any of the other larger-than-life’s previously mentioned).” And this phrase is always followed by, “…the best we could do would be (again, fill in the blank with someone like Marty Shottenheimer, who by the way is a former Bill, or maybe Jeff Fisher.

Now the Jeff Fisher option is interesting as well, though as far as we know he is and will be otherwise engaged.

Titans coach, Jeff Fisher may be out in Tennessee, but would look great in Buffalo.

Titans coach, Jeff Fisher may be out in Tennessee, but would look great in Buffalo.

He has more tenure than any current NFL coach. He’s been to a Superbowl. Just last year his Titans team was looking like they could go 16-0 until they went 13-1, ending up 13-3. Someone of Fisher’s caliber, it seems, can only be imagined in Buffalo, after going 0-5 while also setting the record for the most lopsided loss since the mid sixties.

So what is that supposed to mean. Buffalo doesn’t deserve better, can’t afford better, could never attract better? Does anyone remember Chuck Knox?

It’s true that Marv Levy and even Lou Saban established their credentials in Buffalo, that when they came to Buffalo the jury was out as to how successful they would be, but the same is not the case with Chuck Knox.

After striking out with a series of forgettable head coaches, promoted from within, Bills owner Wilson finally opened his wallet for Chuck Knox. Having built the (then) Los Angeles Rams into a divisional dynasty, Knox arrived in Buffalo as one of the NFL’s elite. While his Bills teams never made the Superbowl, he was able to turn the team around in one year, and kept them competitive after that.

So to those who say Ralph Wilson won’t put out for the best, I say, Knox. For those who say Buffalo can’t attract the best, I say, money talks, as does tradition. I would venture to say even the likes of a Cowher or Dungy would be happy to take their place behind Saban, Knox, and Levy as a great franchise’s next great coach, with the right offer. And as much as there may be a few question marks on the tested veterans’ ability to repeat their magic, I don’t think Buffalo can afford to roll the dice with another unknown, for anything more than an interim job, should there be a mid-season opening.

The chances of Jauron being fired mid-season have lessened as a result of last week’s win, but unless the team continues to build from there, he still could be and should be dispatched at the Bye week.

So here’s my hypothetical. The Bills lose their next two games. Jauron is sent packing. Bill Cowher is hired as General Manager. He convinces Tony Dungy to join him as Head Coach. Dungy brings Marvin Harrison out of retirement to further stack the Bills receiver corps. The Bills go 8-0 after the Bye. They finish 10-6, squeaking into a Wild Card game. They nearly win it. The following year, they never lose, including the Superbowl. The following summer, the Cubs Win the Series.

John Wingspread Howell is a financial consultant, novelist, columnist and sportswriter. He publishes the online sports magazine Underdog Sports ( and is a syndicated writer and scribe for Bleacher Report and Sports Then and Now. He writes about underdogs, Buffalo sports, American soccer and women’s sports.

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