Left out in the cold
NFL hiring rules keep hot prospects on backburner
Updated: Friday February 02, 2001 12:40 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
Lewis and Fox were both bypassed Thursday by the Buffalo Bills, who hired Tennessee defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and filled the last remaining NFL head-coaching vacancy.
But the greatest injustice might be that Lewis and Fox only got to interview with one of the nine teams that sought a head coach at some point since the start of the 2000 season, thanks to an NFL rule prohibiting assistants from interviewing for other jobs while their teams are still alive in the playoffs.
"It's clear that those guys that have to wait are disadvantaged," said Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy, a member of the league's competition committee, which is responsible for anti-tampering rules. "And it's clear when you look at this situation that something needs to be done about the way we do things."
Lewis and Fox aren't the only assistants whose career opportunities have been hurt because teams won't or think they can't afford to wait until after the Super Bowl to hire a head coach, but they're the latest. And their plight this week seems certain to provide the impetus for the NFL to re-examine that portion of their anti-tampering regulations.
While Lewis was widely considered the most coveted head-coaching prospect this season, and found himself at one point atop the wish list of at least four teams, one by one, all but the Buffalo job filled before he even got a chance to interview. Teams just weren't willing to wait for him.
In recent weeks, the Jets, Lions, Browns and Bills have all had Lewis in their sights. At least three of those teams had Fox under serious consideration. But only Buffalo, which didn't fire head coach Wade Phillips until Jan. 8, managed to hold off long enough to talk to both Lewis and Fox.
Had they been eligible to interview with suitors even two weeks ago, Lewis most likely would have touched off a multi-team bidding war, and Fox might also have landed his first head-coaching job.
Butch Davis, the University of Miami head coach who withdrew from Browns consideration weeks ago, would never have had the time to get back into the Cleveland picture. San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg would have had some very stiff competition for the Lions' job he eventually landed all but unopposed. Williams? His name really didn't even start to warm up until well after the conference title games. He only interviewed with Buffalo on Friday.
But in the upside-down world of NFL head-coaching hires, the losers are the winners and the winners are the losers. At least in terms of playoff success. All for the lack of a few more weeks of patience in January. Or the chance to talk to all interested parties during the playoffs.
"The rule is very, very unfair," said new Detroit president and CEO Matt Millen, who himself didn't see fit to wait for either Lewis or Fox. "It prevents a lot of good coaches from getting a fair shot at the biggest jobs in the league. I know it affected what we wanted to do."
Dungy said debate on how to not penalize success comes up every year at the league's annual meeting in March.
"Everyone knows the rule is unfair," he said. "Everyone knows the inequities. But no one has come up with a good solution for it. It's a tough call. The spirit of the rule is definitely good. You don't want the tampering or the distraction in the playoffs or just before the Super Bowl.
"But by the same token, the reality of it is those guys do lose out. People aren't patient enough. People get concerned about the candidate pool or the staff pool drying up. So they think they better work fast and that leaves some winning candidates behind."
Dungy is a perfect example of the benefits of losing. He was hired to his first head-coaching job by Tampa Bay in January 1996, after annually going unemployed on the league's list of "hot" assistants. The 1995 season was the only time in his four-year tenure as Minnesota's defensive coordinator that the Vikings didn't make the playoffs.
"Maybe it had something to do with it," Dungy said. "You do get that head start. You get to talk to people three weeks before maybe some of the other people do."
Dungy was hired on Jan. 22, almost a week before that year's Super Bowl.
Free agency in part was pushed back from a mid-February to a March 2 start this season in order to allow teams to make changes and conduct more of their offseason business before delving into that all-important period. Not that it seems to have made a difference in the head coach hiring game.
"All I know is for eight of the nine teams to not at least talk to Marvin Lewis, that's not right," Dungy said. "We had nine jobs open and eight of those changed hands without him even getting a chance to be considered. And in everyone's estimation he was one of the better candidates in the NFL.
"And it's because everyone's under time pressure. That's one of the things that I think is wrong with the way we do things. But every GM and owner you talk to really talks about that, that tremendous sense of time pressure. So they end up feeling like they have to move quick, and many times, the best candidates get the short end of the stick. And that's not good for the NFL."
Brian Billick, head coach of the Super Bowl champion Ravens, and Lewis' boss, was in a similar situation two years ago. The then-Vikings' offensive coordinator was the hot assistant commodity in the league, and was being sought by both Baltimore and Cleveland.
While the NFL gave expansion Cleveland a special one-time dispensation from the anti-tampering rule in order to interview Billick in the bye week before Minnesota began its playoff drive, the Ravens had to wait until the Vikings were upset by Atlanta in the NFC title game. Narrowly avoiding the Super Bowl proved invaluable to Billick, who signed a six-year, $9 million contract with the Ravens two days after the Vikings lost.
Billick is in favor of lobbying the competition committee to turn the decision-making power regarding head-coaching interviews over to each club.
"I'd be in favor of letting each club decide how it wants to deal with its assistant coaches in this manner," he said. "And we'll handle it properly. I understand the mentality that if they can't talk to them, it's not a distraction. You don't have to worry about the focus being taken away from the game at hand. But we know that's not what happens in reality.
"All this does is give a huge advantage to college coaches and coaches who aren't in the playoffs, because they can go seek those jobs. There's the thinking that if you're in the playoffs, you're on a better team and you're more of a commodity. But that's not the reality either. I think we need to find a better structure than exists now."
One likely suggestion will be to allow Super Bowl assistants to interview selectively in the bye week that precedes the week of the game. The only problem with that is that the NFL's schedule doesn't always include a two-week buildup to the Super Bowl. Last year's game in Atlanta was played without a bye week, as will next year's Super Bowl in New Orleans.