You’re hearing a lot of this. You might even be someone who agrees with it. There was a movement to fire McD that started seemingly the day he was hired, so this isn’t exactly virgin territory. But, let’s say that you do feel this way. The candidates? I’m sure that there are many, but I keep hearing the names Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden. With great respect for what each has done in the past, I’d like to suggest that one is impossible and the other would be a disaster. Let me explain.
Cowher has turned down interviews for coaching jobs, so this is a pretty ‘out there’ scenario. He wants to be around his family, and they aren’t in Colorado. He’s accomplished everything a coach could, and left a solid, complete organization behind when he moved on. I have complete respect for Mike Tomlin, but it’s not unreal to suggest that he has won with a team and with systems that Cowher - and Dick LeBeau, as well as Dom Capers - put together. And, it took time.
When you look at Pitt, Chuck Noll was the head coach from 1969 to 1991. Cowher took over, and saw immediate success. Part of that is that Cowher was and is a heck of a coach. Part was that he inherited defensive stalwarts like Rod Woodson, Greg Lewis, Hardy Nickerson and Carnell Lake. They had a good offense and a good defense. Dom Capers helped to design the zone blitz that Dick LeBeau now runs to perfection. It took years to develop that. This bears no resemblance to the Broncos’ situation in any way, and that’s probably a good thing to consider. Denver is rebuilding from the ground up. Year after year, Cowher’s defense was a force. The team made the playoffs the first 6 years he was head coach, and the defense was ranked in the top ten for 14 of his 15 years, in either yards or points allowed (often both).
Even so - a SB victory was a mirage until the team truly came together in 2005. QB Ben Roethlisberger came into the perfect situation, and the team won its first championship since the 1979 season. But you need to look at what they had that Denver doesn’t - like a functioning defense. Keep in mind the number of players that Denver has to continue to replace just to get even with the elites. How does any coach replace 40-50 players in less than 3-4 years? It’s a question that’s at the heart of much of this situation. You only fire a coach if you have a reasonable expectation of better success. Right now, if you fire McD, you start over yet again. I’d like to avoid that if possible. But I’m willing to talk about the possibility. It’s just that these two are not going to work out in Denver.
Cowher has stated that he’s only going to even listen to a situation if it’s about perfect for him. He’s based on the east coast. He has no ties to Denver, and the team is a mess. It’s a fun thought, and I love the guy, but he’s not going to be interested, and that’s pretty much it.
The other name I keep hearing is Jon Gruden. I’d suggest that we follow his history - he’s great on camera, he’s fun and funny and he knows the game - as an announcer. But I love to read, and what I’ve read and what I’ve personally seen has convinced me that Gruden would be a disaster. Surprised? Let me explain.
Overall, his coaching record is 95-81 (.540) - not great, and not bad. Most of the fuss around him came from his time in Oakland, where he did take a 4-12 team up to 8 wins in his first and second years, rose to 12-4 in his third and then dropped to 10-6. Not a bad record at all, and it got Tampa Bay excited about the chance to have him coaching there. That left him embroiled in a bitter situation that ended with him in Tampa Bay. His first year there, he won the Super Bowl (over Oakland), and his legacy was pretty much established. But as Paul Harvey used to say, this is the rest of the story…
It started with Tony Dungy putting together the ‘Tampa’ defense, a gift that Gruden also received coming into town. Gruden’s ego has to be huge - it goes with the job, and that’s not meant as a putdown. However - that shouldn’t have to interfere with his ability to deal with the people around him. It did, however. Rich McKay built the team through good FA moves and through the draft and player development, while Dungy built a defense that is still being used around the league. Gruden substantially won the SB with a team that McKay, and Dungy, put together. Gruden also felt very threatened by McKay’s status within the organization. Gruden put substantial pressure - and coming off a SB win, that’s not all that hard to do - and McKay was let go at Gruden’s insistence.
That began the years of collecting quarterbacks. Perhaps some of you recall that Gruden would have 6-8 QBs in camp each year, and rarely made a decision as to who was going to start before the beginning of the season. He tried two seasons with Brad Johnson as the team’s record fell, then Brian Griese for a season (well, sort of - Griese was pulled at times), tried Chris Simms for a season and a couple of games until he was injured, then went with a year of Bruce Gradkowski and two of Jeff Garcia. One effect of that was to leave the team hanging each training camp, something that adds pointless stress to the situation. No QB ever felt that the Bucs were ‘his’ team, nor did the team really know that a guy was going to be their guy. A second effect was obvious - when you have 6-8 QBs in camp and tend to change QBs each year, you are not developing any of them. In a league that is as QB-dependent as the NFL, that’s not smart football. He had also demanded a bigger say in the draft: that had been a major reason for the rift between him and McKay, but Gruden really didn’t draft very well.
So, what happened? The team fell to 7-9 a year following the SB, then 5-11. They had a single good year at 11-5 in 2005, and then crashed to 4-12 the next. He played out his string with a couple of 9-7 years, and has since become a very effective announcer for ESPN. People tend to think of a guy who has some experience, did win a SB and ended with a winning record as being someone who can come in and turn around a franchise. He did, twice. In Oakland, he did take a poor team and turn them into a winner. He, like nearly all head coaches in that environment, had issues with Al Davis, but he performed well. However - he came into Tampa Bay, won with the players and defensive scheme that others had put together, demanded more power, and under his control, the franchise eventually tanked. He had indeed turned around the franchise, but not in the right direction. Much of the carnage became obvious after he left, and others tried to put the team back together. By the way - please don’t just take my word for any of this. Read Pete Williams’ very fine book, The Draft. He covers this in some detail.
There’s a point and a lesson here. Gruden left a mess - Raheem Morris came in and had a 3-13 year in 2009. They’re playing better this year, in part due to a helpful schedule and less issues with injuries. You also have to give the organization, and Morris, credit. They may be turning things back around. But you have to ask yourself something - is Gruden the kind of guy who can come into a terrible situation and turn it around? Can you imagine another three or four QBs in camp in addition to Orton, Tebow and perhaps Quinn, and no decision on who starts until the end of camp? “Love you, Bro” was funny, but in the end, Gruden left the franchise in far worse shape than he found it. Cowher did the opposite - he took a franchise in good shape and left it in great shape. Neither of them did what Denver needs and is doing - rebuilding a team that was an unconscionable mess.
Look, I’m not saying that Josh McDaniels will be successful in Denver. I think that he is incredibly smart, is learning on the job (like all first-time HCs) and he may or may not make it. I do think that the injury situation this year has cost Denver games. Lacking the pass-rush skills of Elvis Dumervil, having Robert Ayers out, losing Kevin Vickerson (who seems to be, with Justin Bannan, the best two players on the DL), they all hurt. McD’s got another couple of years to show us, one way or the other. If McDaniels fails, I’d just like the team to look for the qualities in a coach that fit where the team is. They aren’t even a mediocre team at this point - they passed that a while back. I think that they became a very bad team and are going in the right direction - others reasonably disagree. Either way - when we look at the possibility of changing coaches, perhaps we should look at ones who fit the needs of the team.
And, as always - Go Broncos!