On Monday, seven NFL coaches got the axe: Lovie Smith (Chicago Bears); Romeo Crennel (Kansas City Chiefs); Chan Gailey (Buffalo Bills); Andy Reid (Philadelphia Eagles); Pat Schurmer (Cleveland Browns); and Norv Turner (San Diego Chargers). The national media seems uninterested in all firings except for Smith.
Here’s the truth: Smith was a decent coach. Not great. Not terrible. Decent. Smith will have no trouble getting a job elsewhere – he’s got four other interviews lined up for today alone.
But Smith lost his job for a reason. Smith was given a very expensive, very talented young quarterback, Jay Cutler, over the past two seasons; his offensive line leaked like a sieve, leading to Cutler’s repeated injuries. The Bears started 7-1 this season, then limped to a 10-6 record and missed the playoffs. This is the sort of stuff that coaches in the NFL routinely get fired over. This was a historically bad collapse. 52 teams have started 7-1 since 1990. Only one missed the playoffs. Until this year’s Bears team.
Yet the media defenses of Smith are overwhelming. Today at Deadspin, Josh Levin called Smith’s firing “The Black Monday Firing That Doesn’t Make Any Sense,” noting, “Lovie Smith, then, was fired after leading a team to a record better than that of last year's Super Bowl winner because a bunch of teams he didn't coach happened to have good seasons. Also, he failed to prevent Jay Cutler from getting a concussion.” Doug Farrar at Yahoo! Sports writes, “The move is questionable at best, in our opinion, and we're not alone.”
Most of these columnists point out that Smith went 81-63 with the Bears (winning percentage: .563). But few columnists have suggested that Andy Reid of the Eagles shouldn’t have been fired (he’s 130-93 over the last 14 years, a winning percentage of .583, and took the Eagles to the playoffs 9 times in that span); none have suggested that Norv Turner of the Charges be retained (56-40 over the last 6 seasons, a winning percentage of .583).
Let’s assume these columnists are right, however – assume the firing is questionable. Why the outrage?
It could have something to do with Smith’s race. The media has a habit of going nuts every time a decent black head coach gets the axe (they don’t complain about Romeo Crennel, because it’s inarguable what a rotten coach he is; career record 28-55, winning percentage: .337).
That habit has consequences. When Johnnie Cochran went insane over the firing of Tony Dungy from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001 after Dungy went 9-7 as head coach, the league instituted the so-called Rooney Rule, requiring teams to interview at least one black candidate for every coaching position. The result has been an absurd system of token interviews and systemic oddities. Meanwhile, Dungy went on to have a successful career in Indianapolis – before the Rooney Rule was instituted – and the year after Dungy left Tampa Bay, Jon Gruden took over and led the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl. The model “racist” firing wasn’t racist. It was business, Sonny, not personal.
The facts are these: Smith was fired for doing a mediocre job – and this season, an almost unprecedentedly-awful job. It can’t be stated enough. He started 7-1; he finished 3-5. His team was not killed mid-season in a tragic fruit truck incident. Tom Coughlin is on the hot seat every year for similar numbers. The difference is that he wins a Super Bowl every so often. Lovie Smith’s teams win a playoff game every so often.
But the media is playing the decision as though it’s utterly inconceivable. Hence these results of an ESPN poll from around the country: every state but Illinois thinks, by wide margins, that Smith should have been retained. As for Illinois – where most Bears fans live – they wanted Smith gone by a margin of 62-38.
The hubbub over Smith has been deafening compared to the non-hubbub over Reid and Turner. The media outrage over the firing of Smith will likely intensify this week because of his race; after all, Michael Wilbon said last year, “Don’t spit in my face and tell me it’s raining. Progress will be when 65 percent of coaches are African-American, not 20 percent.” Don’t look for the media to stop playing the perpetual outrage game every time a decent black coach is fired. And the more often the media plays that game, the less likely that teams will consider good black candidates for head coaching positions, knowing that the media will blast them for firing them if they believe it is the right football decision.