What can we learn from the failures of the 2009 head-coaching class?

Jets coach Rex Ryan… still standing (Associated Press)

My eyes opened a little bit yesterday when I read this item on MLive.com about the class of head coaches hired in 2009. Well, my eyes had to be open to read it, but you get the idea. I was surprised.

Turns out, Jets coach Rex Ryan and Lions coach Jim Schwartz are the only surviving members of an 11-person group of head coaches hired in 2009. I guess I knew this. But I just didn’t really think of it in that context. That’s kind of amazing. Of a whopping 11, just two are left standing.

While thinking about this earlier today, I was wondering what we can learn from this. It could be instructive for those looking to hire coaches. How can teams avoid making disastrous hiring decisions in the future?

So I took a look at the coaches hired in 2009.

First, start with the guys who have won — Ryan and Schwartz. Their profiles are actually similar. Both were long-time defensive coordinators for perennial winners with no previous head-coaching experience (Ryan with the Ravens from 2005 to 2008 and Schwartz with the Titans from 2001 to 2008). Both have strong personalities that draw players in, and both had charismatic and productive mentors (Buddy Ryan and Jeff Fisher, respectively). The fact that they didn’t have head-coaching experience didn’t hurt them, perhaps because both were NFL veterans. Schwartz had been in the league since 1993, while Ryan had been in it since 1999 (with two years previous thrown in).

What about the other guys?

First, here is the list: Steve Spagnuolo, Rams; Raheem Morris, Bucs; Jim Caldwell, Colts; Todd Haley, Chiefs; Eric Mangini, Browns; Jim Mora, Seattle; Josh McDaniels, Broncos; Tom Cable, Raiders; Mike Singletary, 49ers.

Let’s go through them… Five (Spagnuolo, Morris, Caldwell, Haley and McDaniels) never had head-coaching experience before they were hired. If you include Singletary and Cable, both of whom were hired as interim coaches first and then promoted, as newbies, that number grows to seven. Both Singletary and Cable impressed early, only to wear out their welcomes upon promotion. Neither, it seemed, had the demeanor to run the show.

Just three (Spags, Haley, McDaniels) were promoted from coordinator positions. All three shared a certain characteristic — they were all coordinators for teams that had reached the Super Bowl, where they got noticed (McDaniels and Spags following the 2007 season, Haley following the 2008 season). McDaniels and Spags shared another trait in that both ran their units under domineering, established head coaches who are mostly responsible for determining which systems are run. Both also took over extremely solid units and made them better. Spags was undone by a really untalented Rams roster (which is only now getting better), and by QB Sam Bradford’s injuries, which forced him to take a step back. McDaniels and Haley were undone by poor QB play and their inability to lead. Both have, um, strong personalities that didn’t always receive smiles and hugs in the building.

Two were NFL head coaching veterans (Mangini and Mora). Both of them, in fact, were failed coaching veterans, as Mangini washed out in New York with the Jets and Mora flailed in Atlanta. Yet their circumstances were different.

Mangini had looked really good early in his stay with Gang Green, but left after Brett Favre torpedoed his efforts. I am most surprised he didn’t work out as a head coach; maybe I’m blind, but I think Mangini will eventually succeed. But QB issues kinda ruined him each time (Favre with the Jets, ridiculous injuries and bad players with the Browns). As for Mora, he couldn’t win with Michael Vick, though he did reach the NFC title game in his first season. He did some career rehab by being an assistant with Seattle before they promoted him… which proved to be a mistake, as he was fired quickly. Given that he’s now at UCLA, it seems like Mora realizes being an NFL head coach isn’t for him.

The two wild cards were Caldwell and Morris. Both seem now like serious reaches made by two organizations for different reasons. Morris was just a defensive backs coach with the Bucs before he was hired, and he had never been a head coach. He was also young and, let’s be honest, pretty cool. I’m sure he was great in the job interview. He’s probably a guy you’d want to hang out with. The Bucs weren’t the only ones to show interest. And Morris did have some success, turning around that young team for a moment. But when things got serious, he seemed to be in over his head, and players stopped playing for him. Wasn’t his fault. Who would be ready to be a head coach at 35, with that level of experience? And who could be expected to win while coaching a team that spent so little money? Greg Schiano is in a much better position to do well in Tampa.

As for Caldwell, maybe he really was Peyton Manning’s pick, considering he had been his QB coach for years. Or maybe Bill Polian promoted him because he knew Caldwell would listen to him. Caldwell had been a head coach before, but at Wake Forest. He just never seemed like a leader. Either way, it always appeared that the team was being run by the front office. And when it all collapsed, thanks to the front office’s unpreparedness for Manning’s injury, Caldwell was sent packing with them.

After all this, what do we know?

That it’s hard to pick a coach who will succeed. That there is no blueprint. That head-coaching experience isn’t necessary, but an understanding of how it all works is. That having a good quarterback helps a lot. And that all the research and interviews and studying in the world don’t help if your players aren’t good enough.

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