In typical fashion, coaches and general managers across the league were handed a pink slip as week 17 of the NFL season marked the end of a rigorous, unique season for 18 teams. Coaches such as Bill O’Brien, Doug Marrone, and Anthony Lynn were just a few of the coaches fired during or after the 2020 season. While each of these coaches were given upwards of four years to prove their worth to their teams, many other coaches are often fired within one or two seasons which begs the question: How much time should a coach be given to maintain their job and what grants an appropriate firing?
Let’s begin by examining the careers of head coaches who were fired prematurely, what led to the firing, and what went wrong from a prospective standpoint.
Upon entering the head coaching job in 2006 with the Houston Texans, Gary Kubiak brought in decades of experience both as a quarterbacks coach but also as an offensive coordinator. In Kubiak’s 11 seasons as an offensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos, the Broncos dominated offensively, accumulating 465 touchdowns and over 66,000 total yards, the most during that time period. Given the context, there’s no question that Kubiak was both qualified and attained enough experience for the role he was given with the Houston Texans. So, how did it go in Houston?
Kubiak’s tenure in Houston began with a couple unimpressive records, as he went 6-10, 8-8, and 8-8 once again in his first three seasons, respectively. However, context to the situation is key. Kubiak, only the second head coach in Texans franchise history, led the expansion team to their first non-losing season despite having an underwhelming amount of talent. In his fourth season, Kubiak led the team to a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs due to a tiebreaker with the New York Jets. Clearly Kubiak had proved his worth and Texans management granted him a three year extension the following offseason.
During the following 2010 season, the Texans saw a decline in their performance. Despite having a top five offense in the league, their defense remained dead last and they finished the season last in passing yards allowed and tied for last in passing touchdowns allowed. However following numerous defensive changes, both coaching and personnel, Kubiak’s success and coaching ability began to shine.
In 2011, despite having star players such as Arian Foster and Andre Johnson embattled with injuries, Kubiak showed his true resilience. The Texans starting quarterback Matt Schaub, who was also having a great year, suffered a season ending injury on November 13, 2011. With pieces falling all around the team, the Kubiak led Texans secured sole possession of the AFC South, marking the first division title in franchise history. In their first playoff game, Kubiak coached the rookie TJ Yates-led Texans to a win over the Bengals in a 31-10. The following year, the Texans started off 5-0, finishing the season with yet another AFC South Championship and advanced past the Wild Card Round.
By this point in Kubiak’s coaching tenure at Houston, it became clear and obvious that he was the right coach for the Texans future. Yet one year removed from the 2012 season, Kubiak was fired midseason. Well, what went wrong?
In a year where the Texans started 2-0, things were looking great for the future of the franchise. However, after a blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens in week 3, things for the Texans took to a turn for the worse. In weeks four and five, Matt Schaub threw multiple pick sixes and injuries to core defensive players began to pile up. Sitting on a 2-3 record in the season, it became evident that the Texans’ chances at a playoff run were minimal. In week nine of the regular season, the Texans stormed off to a 21-3 lead against the 5-2 Colts. However, while leaving the field during halftime, Kubiak suffered a Transient Ischemic Attack and was transported to a nearby hospital. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips took over duties as the Texans blew their 18 point advantage and lost 27-24.
After going 2-11 on the season, in week 14 Kubiak was fired despite multiple previous winning seasons. Was this the right call? After inheriting the struggling Texans, Kubiak helped turn around the franchise with his explosive offensive scheme and showed the ability to address major offseason issues time and time again. Simply put, the Texans organization overreacted greatly to a single season and frantically made changes hoping it would resolve their countless issues as a franchise.
Meanwhile, other teams recognized and jumped on the opportunity to hire Kubiak as he received loads of interest from multiple teams wanting to hire him as an Offensive Coordinator. After accepting the job at Baltimore, Kubiak once again displayed his dominant scheming abilities and led Baltimore to their most successful offense in over two decades. Quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Justin Forsett achieved career records numbers in single season yards and touchdowns. Thanks to Kubiak’s restructuring of the offense, the Ravens were able to return to the playoffs once again. The following season, Kubiak was hired as the head coach of the Denver Broncos and led the team to a victory in Super Bowl 50 in his first season.
Too many times in the NFL, teams overreact to a losing season and don’t give their newly employed head coaches enough time to develop a culture, scheme, and acquire personnel. Many head coaches are thrown into a messy situation and it takes time to mature and bring together a successful team. Many organizations must learn to trust their coach and not react disproportionately to any singular season without examining the proper context. In this article, we examined the career and seasons of Gary Kubiak as an example of what happens when a coach is fired prematurely. While it might seem like he’s an exception to coaches who are fired, there are many others all around the league such as Bill Belichick’s season with the Browns, Todd Bowles with the Jets, and Jim Caldwell with the Lions. These types of unreasonable firings leave losing teams in a constant process to find a head coach without giving them time to develop. This constant cycle of hiring and firing inevitably decreases the chances of finding a successful long term head coach and ultimately leaves losing teams in a stagnant position.