The NFL has one leader and 31 followers. Who the leader is changes constantly depending on what exactly pertaining to the league is being discussed, as the NFL is annually mercurial. When Bill Belichick decided to implement a Matrix-esque 3-4 defense using hybrid players including speedy DEs that rush the passer from the OLB spot("tweeners" used to be the derogatory term for guys who lacked the prototypical qualities for one position), and wound up winning three of four Superbowls on the back of its dominant defense, the idea caught like wildfire. Currently, the double-headed rush attack is chic thanks to the success teams like Denver and Kansas City have had balancing a power and elusive outside runner together. But those fads change only the games themselves, coming-and-going rapidly (in fact, both of the aforementioned changes in strategy were hardly brand new, just reinvigorated after years of dormancy) . The NFL is undergoing a far more significant revolution that branches beyond the players to the brains behind each Sunday, one that may stick around for a while.
NFL head coaches are getting one shot to succeed at running a team, and that chance is usually brief. Teams are attracted to the idea of hiring young (or, at least, fresh) coordinators and guys from college to serve the role of head coach. This trend is killing the life of an NFL head coach -- if you don't make a solid enough impression within the first three years of your first job, you might not get one again.
Everything has a good and bad side to it, and parity in the NFL is no different. It has inspired a fair share of rags-to-riches stories for morbid franchises in recent years, including the Chargers, Ravens, Patriots, and Bengals. This keeps fan interest at constantly high levels due to hope that every year their team can rebound from a below-average season to double-digit wins and a division title. As a Saints fan, I know this better than anyone (although despite the levels of hope each summer, I'm still waiting for that turnaround). The bad side is that without being able to rely on long transitionary phases as an excuse to lengthen their careers with a given team, coaches are getting a much shorter leash to win. The average career span with one team for a head coach hired since 2000, not including coaches currently under contract, is 3.5 seasons. With all of that turnover, you'd think coaches were getting chances for retribution left-and-right, to prove they could do the job their previous team didn't think they were capable of. The trend is proving that coaches are typically one-and-out.
In the last two years, there have been 13 coaching changes in the NFL. 10 of those 13 new hires have been first time coaches at this level (only one, Nick Saban, was hired from a head coachng position in college). If that weren't surprising enough, two of those three exceptions seem to be aberrations -- Art Shell, who was hired this year by the Raiders, previously served as head coach with the same team, under the same owner. This was after the Raiders got rebuffed by a number of top candidates (including college coaches and coordinators who opted against a promotion because of the general ineptitude and malaise that is the Raiders franchise).And really, Shell was only fired in the first place because Al Davis has a twitchy trigger finger and replaced him prematurely. Herm Edwards, who was "traded" to the Chiefs from the Jets this offseason in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick, was hand-picked by previous coach Dick Vermeil to replace him. The front office's hands were tied on that hire.
Dating back to 2000, there have been 48 coaches hired across the league -- 31 were first-timers at the time of hire. Only six of the 32 teams (the Ravens, Steelers, Titans, Broncos, Eagles, and Seahawks) have kept stability at head coach since 1999. That means 26 teams have hired 48 coaches in the new millenium. And though GMs are valuing older, more experienced coordinators, even that's changing. Eric Mangini, the Jets coach who replaced Edwards, was only 34 at the time of hire. The Jets have 10 players over-30. If Mangini is a success, and even if he isn't, teams are going to start looking younger and younger in their candidates in hopes of finding the next hotshot young success like recent upstarts Jack Del Rio (40 at the time of hire), Jon Gruden (35), and Jim Mora Jr. (43). Again, good news/bad news. Good news: if you're an aspiring NFL head coach currently working in college or as a position coach/coordinator in the NFL, chances are you'll get your shot earlier than you expected. Bad news: the success rate for this pool of coaches in general will be far lower, leaving teams with a list of past head coaches that could fill the gap between Qwest Field in Seattle and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. For example, three teams (the Bills, Jets, and Raiders) have had three coaches since 2000, and one (the Lions, of course) have had four. That's absurd when compared to the old-guard of NFL regimes with coaches like Bill Cowher (entering his 15th year as Steelers coach) and Mike Shanahan (12), who've been given the opportunity to work through the lesser years instead of getting the pink slip at the first sign of trouble.
Like any trend, this will change eventually, if only for the reason that a lot of work goes into hiring a coach. Teams will eventually realize that they had more success sticking with a guy they know and maintaining a semblance of stability than continuously reaching at straws for a solution that's tougher to find than they'd expected. But how much damage will be done by then? Changing a system every couple of years isn't good for the psyche of players, who grow into stars and develop after mastering the nuances of a certain system. Trying on schemes like shoulder pads is the quickest way to fill a players head with confusion. A few of these new coaches have proven to be smart hires -- Marvin Lewis comes to mind immediately, while guys like Romeo Crennel and Lovie Smith seem to be making serious strides with their teams -- but for every one of these there's 10 Marty Morninwhegs, Bill Callahans, or Mike Mularkeys who will fall flat on their faces. Let these examples be the cautionary tale because they're the rule, not the exception.