Jeff Fisher and I sat in his office one day a few weeks after the NFL’s 2004 season had ended and discussed a bunch of topics related to the Tennessee Titans, including his search for an offensive coordinator.
Fisher would not say so on the record, but he was decidedly unimpressed with Mike McCarthy, who had been New Orleans’ offensive coordinator the previous five years and was making the rounds, interviewing for jobs.
In particular, the Titans head coach was befuddled by the Saints’ offensive game plan in a 2003 meeting between the teams. Fisher thought New Orleans’ approach was completely wrong and a big reason Tennessee won 27-12 that day. He eventually hired Norm Chow.
Maybe McCarthy was not the best offensive coordinator in NFL history — although he has been involved with some pretty productive units at Kansas City, Green Bay and New Orleans — but he’s turned out to be a pretty good head coach.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the challenge facing the Titans in the wake of Fisher’s departure. There’s no clear-cut criteria that identifies someone who will be a successful head coach.
Five years into his tenure, it’s safe to say McCarthy, who had no experience as a head coach at any level, is successful. He has taken the Green Bay Packers to the playoffs three times in his first five years, capped by Sunday’s Super Bowl appearance, and he’s won more often than not when he’s gotten there.
Maybe that means Mike Heimerdinger is eminently qualified for the post. Currently the team’s offensive coordinator, Heimerdinger was interviewed for Fisher’s job last week.
McCarthy’s counterpart in the big game, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, had one year as an NFL coordinator (defensive in his case) before he was hired. The bulk of his NFL coaching career was limited to work as a position coach.
Perhaps that speaks well for Mike Munchak. Tennessee’s offensive line coach was the first to formally discuss the opening with the franchise’s top brass.
Then again, New England’s Bill Belichick is widely regarded as the best in the league. That notion was reaffirmed last week, when he won his third NFL Coach of the Year award. Belichick failed in his first try as a head coach, with Cleveland. Chances are, he didn’t learn a lot more about football after that, but that experience taught him how to do the job.
The Titans asked for, and received, permission to talk to Atlanta’s Mike Mularkey, who had a completely forgettable two-year run as Buffalo’s head coach. Perhaps he was primed by those struggles to thrive once he’s given his next opportunity.
Then again, maybe none of them are right for the job.
What’s certain is that it’s not necessarily going to take Bill Cowher or John Gruden or Bill Parcells to make the Titans a perennial playoff team. The franchise does not have to pay big money for a big name.
Good coaches are out there, but they’re not always easy to find.
Bud Adams has hired 15 of them since he founded the Houston Oilers in 1960, and six of them won fewer than three out of every 10 games on average, all but five lost more often than they won, and not one has delivered him an elusive Super Bowl title.
In his farewell press conference, Fisher tried to offer assurances about the future of the Titans when he said, “You should have all the confidence in the world in Mike [Reinfeldt] and Steve [Underwood] and the decisions they make moving forward, because they allowed me to be successful here with the confidence they had in me and vice versa.”
It sounds nice. Then again, he didn’t think much of McCarthy, who a year later became a head coach in his own right — and a pretty good one at that.
Guess it’s good news that Fisher didn’t get to pick his successor. But that doesn’t mean those who do so will get it right.