Putting Down Lame Duck Coaches

At a time when being laid off is at the top of many Americans’ list of fears, many find discussions of dismissals something between callous and inhumane. And we treat coaches like people, even when we’re being mean to them.

We sure as hell don’t treat them like players. Who worries about being inhumane with them when it’s never been a problem before?

You’ve got to wonder why teams aren’t the same with coaches, though. Maybe it’s the guaranteed contracts, or the fact that trading them for other commodities rarely happens. But in a cold, unfeeling business — where the adage is to drop a player one year early rather than one too late — touchy-feeliness and egos tend to buy coaches a little extra time.

Maybe that’s why September feels too early to talk about firing coaches. Nothing says “knee-jerk” like looking to move out the boss before players start wearing long sleeves. But this season, more than any other, we see more coaches that came into 2013 looking to save their jobs who already have no chance of surviving. Maybe they can hang around for the year. Maybe they — or their powerful agents — will talk their ways to chances at another season. But no one’s ever confused a stay of execution with survival.

That’s where Mack Brown, Lane Kiffin and Rex Ryan stand. Each coach is hobbling toward the end, undercut by the fact everyone knows it’s over. Each mistake they make might be the last straw. Encouragement from their bosses are second-guessed. The howls from the peanut gallery are amplified. Oh, and their teams aren’t any good.

It’ll be like that every week for Texas, USC and the New York Jets. It’s driven Brown to fire his defensive coordinator, taken Kiffin from being polarizing to a flat-out laughing stock, and robbed Ryan of his trademark confidence and optimism. They’ve become what they, as football coaches, fight so hard to eliminate — distractions. Each has been protected by their bosses — Brown and Kiffin by their athletic directors, Ryan by his owner — and none of them have justified the faith placed in them. Each team in question looks to be worse off for delaying what seems inevitable, and anyone with even the most remedial tea-leaf literacy could have seen it coming. Not even Johnny Manziel has been as noisy as the fates of these coaches, and he’s only tolerated by his coaches because he’s so damn good.

No one’s said such a thing about Brown, Kiffin or Ryan this decade.

You can’t help but wonder how much better off programs and organizations would be if they treated the labor in slacks the same way they do those in cleats. Players are always aware that what they did stops mattering as soon as it’s done, and what they might do later only matters if their contracts are cheap. Friendships take their rightful backseat behind business, and your last name won’t mean a thing when they’re taking it off your jersey and stitching on your replacement’s.

Texas is stuck because important administrators and boosters — the real bosses — still find Mack lovable, as if that’s ever been the best thing you want to say about your football coach. Inexplicably, USC athletic director Pat Haden has put on his cape to save Kiffin from all critics, even though he was hired by the previous (and tainted) regime. And Ryan…I have no idea why Jets owner Woody Johnson would put him in such an embarrassing, emasculating situation, with a hopeless roster and a rookie general manager who says more to the press about coaching decisions than even Jerry Jones.

It’s the sort of patience all of us would like from our bosses, and it’s the patience many receive. But few of us work in a business where success is defined unambiguously. Sports, as the idealists would have you believe, is such a place.

In such a place, when failure is ignored, a circus will almost certainly follow. Either get it done or not, but it’s not hard to tell which has taken place. That outlook works well with players. It would work well with coaches, too.