Story of the Year
For many NFL coaches, 1996 will be remembered as the Year of Living Dangerously. The Monday firings of June Jones (Falcons) and Dan Reeves (Giants) brought to six the number of coaching changes that were made during or after this season. And with coaches' futures hanging in the balance in at least four other cities as SI went to press on Monday, the single-season record for coaching changes—nine, in 1991—was in jeopardy. What's with all the upheaval?
For starters, the Jaguars and the Panthers have startled their adversaries by making the playoffs after only two seasons in the league. As a result, the front offices of other teams feel more pressure than ever to produce postseason contenders overnight. Take the Rams. Along with the Jets they are the NFL's losingest team of the 1990s and are without a winning record since their 1989 playoff season. This year coach Rich Brooks went 6-10 with a young team that started rookies at quarterback, fullback, running back and one wide receiver spot. In two seasons he won 13 games, five more than Jimmy Johnson in Dallas and Bill Walsh in San Francisco did in their first two years as NFL coaches. On Sunday, Brooks was fired.
In justifying the dismissal, Rams president John Shaw mentioned the win-now mentality that is pervasive in today's NFL, as well as the progress made by the two expansion teams.
Successful coaches are feeling the pinch as well. More and more of them are losing control to personnel men who are charged with assembling the roster, and in some cases a coach's job is threatened by his players. This year Bill Parcells coached the Patriots to their first AFC East title since 1986, but he may abandon ship, in part because he no longer has the final say on draft day. The Chargers' Bobby Ross is one of the most respected coaches in the game, but his job is in jeopardy two years after taking San Diego to the Super Bowl because management wants him to replace at least one coordinator. Giants management balked at giving Reeves, the 10th-winningest coach in NFL history, the authority to make personnel decisions.
The fate of embattled Lions coach Wayne Fontes may have been sealed when quarterback Scott Mitchell recently spurned a $20 million offer, saying he wanted to see who would be coaching in Detroit in 1997 before he re-signed. In Atlanta, Jones put himself on the spot when he suspended quarterback Jeff George following a sideline shouting match with him in Week 4 against the Eagles. George never played another down for the Falcons, and Atlanta's already shaky fortunes plummeted without a marquee quarterback.
Coaches may feel as if they've got choke collars on, but they apparently will have to live with them. "There are very few Caesars in this business now," Giants general manager George Young said on Monday, in announcing the firing of Reeves. "Owners own, general managers manage, coaches coach."
Expansion, Schmansion. The Panthers and the Jaguars deserve kudos for going a combined 21-11 and making the playoffs in their second seasons, but enough of this talk about the remarkable building jobs they pulled off. The availability of unrestricted free agents and the additional draft picks the two teams were awarded over their first two years in the league had as much to do with their success as anything. "We as a league probably screwed up for their benefit," says Buccaneers general manager Rich McKay. "In 1976 the expansion teams were given enough ammunition to fire a pop gun. In 1994 the teams were given enough ammunition to set off a neutron bomb."
Home on the Range. The Cowboys may have won their fifth consecutive NFC East title, but they made bigger news with their off-the-field activities. In March wideout Michael Irvin was arrested in a hotel room in which was found 60 grams of cocaine, almost three ounces of marijuana and two "self-employed models." The boyfriend of another woman was subsequently arrested for trying to hire a hit man to kill Irvin. Irvin later pleaded no contest to a felony charge of cocaine possession. It was also revealed that in recent seasons some players had leased a home near the club's headquarters and turned it into a party house, where reportedly alcohol, drugs and women were readily available. Defensive tackle Leon Lett received a one-year suspension for violating the league's drug policy. "Outside of murder, you can't do too much wrong on our team," said guard Nate Newton.