Is it possible that after 16-plus years, someone could walk away and leave unfinished business?
Yes, it turns out.
We all learned as much late last week with Jeff Fisher’s departure as head coach of the Tennessee Titans.
The winningest coach in franchise history, the longest-tenured coach in the National Football League at the time and the only professional football coach Middle Tennessee has known finally moved on in what was termed a mutually agreed upon parting (we all know there’s no such thing). In so doing, Fisher left a lot questions and few answers about matters that ranged from the reasons for the problems of the last two seasons to his own legacy.
When Fisher won the battle with quarterback Vince Young for the support of owner Bud Adams days after the Titans finished 2010 with a 6-10 record, blame for the team’s struggles fell squarely upon the quarterback and his petulance. That meant we all were to believe that without Young, Fisher could — and promptly would — fix things.
Now we’ll never get to decide for ourselves. We can only wonder about what Fisher would have done when he was freed of a 6-foot-5, 232-pound weight on his back.
It’s the same thing with all those 8-8 seasons — and there were plenty of them. For the most part, we are expected to believe that they all were bright, shiny 8-8s, seasons that could have been so much worse if not for Fisher’s steady hand and unfailing resolve.
The first came in the franchise’s final year in Houston, where no one cared about the team or its players. The next was the following year, when “home” games were played in Memphis, where no one cared about the team or its players. A third straight came in 1998, when home games were played at Vanderbilt, where precious few local football fans cared to go.
No one ever has guided a team through a similar set of circumstances before or since, so there’s no way to know for sure whether it can be done better than that. Two other times (2006 and 2009) the Titans managed to overcome woeful starts and clawed their way to 8-8.
That’s all well and good, but there also were two times that he guided his team to the best record in the league and promptly lost in the playoffs.
Are we to think that Fisher knew how to get more out of a team than was reasonable to expect? Or did he consistently fail to take advantage of good teams either by stumbling through stretches of the regular season or at the start of the playoffs?
This is what Fisher leaves us. Uncertainty. He never accomplished enough to prove that he was a top-echelon head coach. He also never failed miserably enough to show unequivocally that Adams stuck with him for too long.
As it stands right now, no one ever will weigh his merits against those of Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, Tom Landry or Bill Belichick. The debate about his legacy will linger, though. It will go something like this: Did he do as much as he could with what he had?
After 16 full seasons (and six games of another), there is nothing that ultimately will sway the argument one way or the other. There is no single piece of evidence that trumps all others.
Maybe one more year would have done it. Maybe in 2011, things finally would have gone his way, he would have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy and cemented his place in NFL coaching history. Or maybe the Titans would’ve stumbled once again, and we would’ve known once and for all that his time had come and gone.
Instead, we’re all left to wonder.