Bill Belichick’s 24 season tenure with the Patriots is over, ending not on top of the mountain but with a whimper. 2023 marked the third time in five seasons that Belichick had failed to make the playoffs; he had not won a playoff game since winning the Super Bowl in 2018. If he coaches somewhere next season he will be 72, tied for the oldest head coach to start a season in the history of the league. Even if he had returned to the Patriots for another season, performance and time were not on his side.
Pete Carroll, had he also been retained, would have been the oldest coach in NFL history next year at 73. This season was the second time in four seasons that he failed to make the playoffs; he has won one playoff game since 2016. For him too it was just a matter of time, and like the man who replaced him in New England, that time is now.
Mike Tomlin, who will be a comparative baby at 52 next season, his 18th, has also not won a playoff game since 2016; reportedly if someone were to call about trading for him, the Steelers would listen.
The era of The Head Football Coach, culture building men who preside over generations of players as the face, heart, brain, and soul of a team is coming to an end. In its place the NFL is operating as any other league in any other sport does, hiring coaches to provide short term solutions and then discarding them at the first sign of trouble. Five year plans are no longer valid, rebuilding is a two year operation at best, with limited exceptions for a star QB suffering major injury or a team in the seventh level of salary cap hell, but that just buys everyone one additional year. Life happens fast in the NFL, and coaches are not immune from the rapid passage of time. Case in point, Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll were head coaches when I started writing this.
Arthur Smith was just fired after his third season, Brandon Staley was fired during his third season, Josh McDaniels during his second season with the Raiders, and Frank Reich during his first season with the Panthers.
Welcome to the normal of other leagues. 25 NHL head coaches have been in place for three or fewer seasons, 24 NBA head coaches have also been in place for three or fewer seasons, and 18 MLB managers have been in place for three or fewer seasons. At least 19 NFL coaches will be in their third or fewer season in 2024.
Doug Pederson, Super Bowl winner, was fired after one losing season in Philadelphia and now, after two winning seasons in Jacksonville, looks to need to make the playoffs in 2024 to keep his job, sacrificing his defensive coordinator this week. Brian Daboll, who unlike the three Giants head coaches who came before him made it to his third season, almost certainly needs to make the playoffs to keep his job for a fourth, sacrificing his defensive coordinator and potentially his offensive coordinator. Matt Eberflus likely needs major improvement in 2024, his third season, to keep his job in Chicago, sacrificing his offensive coordinator. Robert Saleh, entering his fourth season, probably needs to win a playoff game to keep his job in New York, he can’t sacrifice his offensive coordinator for fear of alienating his crackpot quarterback. It seems that when things get tough, it’s easy to replace the guy calling plays opposite the side of the ball you came up coaching before it’s your turn to get replaced.
The reigning Coach of the Year winner, Brian Daboll, is already on the hotseat. Mike Vrabel won it in 2021 and is already out of a job. 2020 Winner Kevin Stefanski, currently in his fourth season with the Browns, was the first Cleveland coach to make it to his third with the team since Romeo Crennel in 2007. The six coaches before him were fired after their second, second, first, second, and in their third seasons. DeMeco Ryans is the fourth Texans coach in four seasons. One of them may win Coach of the Year, but what happens next? What happens if they lose in the playoffs this year? If they miss the playoffs next year? Stefanksi missed the playoffs in the previous two seasons, and they can’t fire his QB. More accomplished coaches have been fired for winning just one playoff game in four seasons–and Stefanski wasn’t even at that game due to COVID–it just happened to Pete Carroll. Ryans only made the playoffs on the final week of the season, and he could very well lose his offensive coordinator this coaching cycle. The next coach to be unable to replicate success without a key assistant won’t be the first. Doug Pederson and Brian Daboll won playoff games in their first year, it’s not going to help them much in their third.
No one is safe in the NFL. Last year’s credit only buys you so much. Embarrassing losses, painful losing streaks, extremely disappointing seasons, or just plain vibes, owners can and will fire head coaches for whatever reason they want. The next great coach is out there ready to be hired to turn things around. Until they don’t.