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It Is Probably Too Soon for the Jets to Think About Firing Todd Bowles

NFL: New York Jets at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Doug Gabriel from Sports Illustrated published an article calling for cooler heads as it pertains to Mike Maccagnan and especially Todd Bowles. I think it is an interesting counterpoint to a number of the arguments you frequently hear in the frustration of this team’s awful season.

There are few things as predictable as a New York team getting blown out in a late-season game and the fire-the-coach screaming that ensues. Before the Jets’ 41–10 loss to the Colts was even finished on Monday night, Gotham’s tabloids were calling for the firing of second-year coach Todd Bowles and lining up possible replacements.

Memo to owner Woody Johnson: that would be a mistake. You’re the Jets, which is it’s own punch line. Do you want to be like the Browns, and be compared to completely clueless owner Jimmy Haslam? Didn’t think so.

This is a difficult sales job because the team has been so bad, and we have seen some shaky coaching. Arguing for a change is going to resonate more when things are going poorly.

If you don’t argue for a change when things are going poorly, sometimes it seems like you’re saying the status quo is all right. That isn’t always the case, though. Sometimes it’s just about giving somebody more time to fix what is wrong.

I’d like to build a bit on what Gabriel said and look at this from a few other angles.

In the excerpt I quoted, Gabriel mentions the Cleveland Browns under owner Jimmy Haslam as an example of something a team wants to avoid.

Haslam bought the team in 2012. He quickly let team President Mike Holmgren go during his third year and fired second year head coach Pat Schurmur. That isn’t necessarily unusual. Although those guys had not been on the job for long, a new owner has the right to hire his own people.

Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi were hired to run the front office during a rebuilding project, and Rob Chudzinski came aboard to become the head coach.

2013 was a rough year in Cleveland, but it was supposed to be. Then things got weird. The team fired Chudzinski after a single season. Mike Pettine was hired to replace him. Then just weeks after Pettine was hired, Haslam fired Banner and Lombardi. So they had to find a new general manager who would inherit a new head coach he was not able to hire. Ray Horton got the job.

Horton and Pettine lasted two seasons before they were fired.

The Browns hired a new front office of outsiders hoping to provide a fresh perspective and well-regarded coach Hue Jackson. While they might be heading to an 0-16 season in year one of their latest rebuild, there at least seems to be a plan in place. It just isn’t clear whether Haslam will get impatient with the plan a year from now and change things again.

That is where the problem lies in Cleveland. The team is constantly making changes. Things can’t work if you never give them the time to actually work.

If you are constantly changing coaches, the schemes are changing. The types of players a team needs are changing. If you are constantly changing general managers, you don’t have guys who know how to work together. It can take a year for a new general manager to fully overhaul a scouting department.

Stability is a good thing. Stability for the sake of stability is not.

For example, the Rams keeping Jeff Fisher for five and apparently at least six unsuccessful seasons is foolish. Fisher has been a head coach in the NFL for over two decades. While it is possible he will change for the better, he has had a long time to develop as a coach and learn. He has had more than enough time to get the Rams turned around.

Even if we look to Rex Ryan in Buffalo, there might be a case for a quick change after two seasons. The Bills were built to win immediately. Barring a late season turnaround (in which case he will deserve to stay), Ryan would have failed to deliver. While he only has two seasons in Buffalo, this is his eighth season as a head coach in the NFL. Again, we have a fairly known quantity.

So stability for the sake of stability isn’t enough of a reason to keep a coach, but the Cleveland situation surely shows us that massive instability is a sure-fire recipe for failure.

When I bring up the Browns, people frequently say, “The problem is they hire bad coaches.”

The whole issue in Cleveland, though, is we don’t know that to be the case. Can we really say Pat Shurmur is a bad coach based on two seasons? Do we know for sure Rob Chudzinski can’t coach based on one year? Can we draw definitive conclusions on Mike Pettine based on one year?

Even a very basic search of the last five Super Bowl winning coaches shows that record in the first two years of a head coaching career is definitively not an indicator of success over the long term.

Gary Kubiak: 14-18

Bill Belichick: 13-19

Pete Carroll: 16-16

John Harbaugh: 20-12

Tom Coughlin: 13-19

Yes, we’d all love the John Harbaugh start, but in many cases there are lean times at the start of a coaching career. Just look at the coach of the best team in the NFL right now, Jason Garrett. He missed the Playoffs his first three full years as a head coach. There were plenty of calls for his dismissal. Now he’s on the road to a second division title in three years.

This brings up another argument I hear a lot. It is something along the lines of, “Yeah, some guys get better, but they show you some ability. They aren’t as totally lost as Bowles.”

The problem is it ignores the positives Bowles has displayed in the last two years. Last season the Jets won 10 games. That’s a positive. The response to that is to say it isn’t impressive because of the schedule. Isn’t the point of playing bad teams to beat them, though? Wouldn’t a hopeless coach find a way to lose more to bad teams? Wouldn’t he at least finish .500?

There was a fairly marginal wide receiver prospect the Jets had a year ago. The coaching staff envisioned him in a new role where he could use his blocking skills and athletic tools to create mismatches. Quincy Enunwa is now a rising contributor.

Eric Decker had a tremendous year out of the slot.

I could name other things, but there have been some positive things to say. It may not be accurate to say this coaching staff has succeeded to the point where we can be satisfied with their work, but it is a bit much to say Bowles and his staff have shown no positives.

That’s important to consider because there are cases where somebody looks totally hopeless, and a quick change is necessary. The Jets did that two years ago when they fired second year general manager John Idzik.

Another question I get about keeping Bowles pertains to Idzik. It goes, “If you want to avoid instability, doesn’t that mean the Jets should have kept Idzik?”

I find this to be an overly simplistic line of thinking. With Bowles I can name things that give me some degree of hope going forward. With Idzik, I struggle to see what he was doing in the short-term or the long-term. I think a lot of talk in the NFL is mistakenly built around the narrow and false choice between a team winning now and building for the future.

Many people screamed about Idzik hoarding salary cap space. I thought this was mistaken. It isn’t a bad thing to keep some space in reserve.

Others defended Idzik’s vision by saying he was thinking about the future. I also found this difficult to buy into. There were many reasons. Let me name one.

Idzik’s plan clearly was thinking about building a winner well past 2014. The issue was how much his plan seemed to be built around Geno Smith developing into a franchise quarterback. Idzik had opportunities to bring in alternatives in 2014 and chose not to so I think it is fair to say he believed in Geno. It isn’t that Geno was a bad prospect. It was how he went about his business with Geno.

It’s one thing to not break the bank, leaving some extra money for a rainy day. You can do that, however, and still surround your quarterback with necessary tools. The Raiders did that a year ago. They weren’t ready to win big, but they invested a first round pick in a top receiver prospect, Amari Cooper and made a smart, low risk signing in Michael Crabtree. Beyond that, they had spent a few years investing in their offensive line, building it into a high quality pass blocking unit. The 2015 Raiders weren’t going to win a Super Bowl. They ended the season with around $13 million in spare cap space. They made sure that they invested in their future by giving their quarterback the resources necessary to succeed.

Compare that with what Idzik did. He signed Eric Decker. That was good, but he pretty much called it a day after that and left his quarterback without other resources. Would Geno have had success otherwise? You might argue yes. I have seen enough flaws in his game independent of outside variables to have significant doubts. What isn’t in much doubt is he had poor resources and was put in a position where it was going to be difficult to have success.

You might say not spending is “building for the future” but I’d argue not investing in a quarterback’s development is the worst kind of not building for the future.

I could probably name like ten other inconsistencies. I didn’t see a lot of good. With that in mind, I felt like it was probably in the team’s best interest to make a change.

It happens. Denver saw it wasn’t working out with Josh McDaniels and made a quick move. Seattle did the same with Jim Mora, Jr.

If you run a company, sometimes you know a mistake hire when you see it. It isn’t working out, maybe it is best to make a quick move.

It becomes a problem, however, when you are constantly making moves like this. It means one of two things.

  1. You are hiring terribly incompetent people at an alarming rate.
  2. You’re overreacting and bail on people at the first sign of trouble rather than letting them learn on the job.

It also could be both. In the Jets’ situation, we would be entering the Cleveland zone. Firing a second year coach two years after firing a second year general manager would most definitely put them into “constantly making moves like this” territory as it pertains to the NFL.

If it’s number 1, I’m not sure how anybody could trust Woody Johnson to hire a capable alternative.

I think it would likely more more number 2. When you hire a first-time head coach, it should be with the understanding that there will be some growing pains, perhaps greater and more pronounced than you would like. There might be a terrible season where things look lost. When you hire the guy, it is because there are traits you believe in. Yes, if we reach the Jeff Fisher zone in a few years, and we can definitively see those traits aren’t there, you should change your opinion. Your opinion shouldn’t change at the first sign of trouble, though. You have to give people a chance to work through those problems.

Two years ago I argued vehemently with some people who argued just that for John Idzik. As time has gone on, I have come to appreciate their perspectives. I don’t necessarily agree that Idzik himself deserved more time since it was such a singular case, but I also think I failed to appreciate their arguments. They weren’t arguing that Idzik was the next Ron Wolf as much as they were arguing for the general idea that you have to give people time to learn, and a rough stretch can cause us to lose perspective and demand somebody be fired too soon.

The last thing I’ll say about Bowles is I have noticed how much venom has been directed his way just over his handling of the quarterback position.

There was a school of thought that Ryan Fitzpatrick shouldn’t have been brought back. Geno Smith had a legion of fans who at least wanted to see him get one more chance with a supporting cast better than the one we discussed above.

Bowles kept Fitzpatrick in the starting job to start the season. This frustrated many people. One theory was that since the Jets would not likely be a Super Bowl team, they should play younger quarterbacks.

This wasn’t necessarily a realistic hope. Nor was it totally fair to get on Bowles for this. There were 52 instances over the last decade where a quarterback threw for at least 30 touchdowns in a season. Every single time, that quarterback was presumed the starter for the next season. No coach would have made that move.

Here’s the thing. If you felt that way, you actually got what you wanted. This wasn’t a 10-6 season where the team got bounced in the first round of the Playoffs.

I saw a lot of talk about how Bowles was exceptionally loyal to Fitzpatrick. If we’re talking about doing what coaches did the other 51 times a player had a season like Fitzpatrick did last year, maybe.

Bowles also had a pretty quick hook when Fitzpatrick struggled. Geno Smith was named the starter before the seventh game of the season. This weekend’s opponent, the San Francisco 49ers benched Blaine Gabbert before the sixth game of their season...and he’s Blaine Gabbert. So it took Bowles a game longer to bench Fitzpatrick than it took Blaine Gabbert to be benched. Compare that with the Rams. They had the number one overall pick in the Draft on their bench, and they didn’t bench Case Keenum until the tenth game of the season. That team put up 20 or more point twice with Keenum in the lineup so it isn’t like he was playing great.

Of course, Geno Smith got hurt so Fitzpatrick was forced into the lineup. Even then, Fitzpatrick has now been benched a second time.

I say this because I keep seeing an excess of loyalty to Fitzpatrick should be part of the rationale for firing Bowles. I don’t really agree with this to begin with. I think he had a lot of terribly flawed options. Even so, there isn’t a lot of evidence here that he would go with Fitzpatrick to the end. He has benched Fitzpatrick twice for Heaven’s sake.

Could he have made a move quicker. I guess, but does it really make a big difference whether Bryce Petty starts four, five, or six games? Was keeping Geno Smith on the bench for one or two extra game such a great sin? Are we not entering into knee-jerk NFL fan zone for complaining about the starting quarterback not being benched four games into the season?

There isn’t much argument that Bowles has to get better. If we continue to see more efforts like Monday’s over the final quarter of the season, his job will be in real jeopardy. I tend to agree with Gabriel’s assessment, though.

As he noted, easy to forget we are in the second year of what was a huge undertaking.

Jets fans are frustrated, I get it. You see your team so close to the playoffs last year, and now it seems like they are years away from competing. Would it have been easier on everyone if the Jets were 2–14 in 2015 and 4–12 this year? Maybe, but they’d still be in the same place. Not because of problems with Bowles and Maccagnan, but because of the poor decisions made before they arrived (QB Geno Smith and the fact that from 2007–14, Jets drafts produced just five starters that have remained with the team: LB David Harris, DTs Muhammad Wilkerson & Sheldon Richardson, G Brian Winters and S Calvin Pryor).