Black Monday Is Forever

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To watch football is, for most of us, to watch the ball. I blame the play-calling when plays don’t work and credit the quarterback when they do work. I rarely follow blocking schemes or coverage schemes; the “scheme” aspect of football is pretty well lost on me, because I am focused on watching the very fast guy running away from the also-fast, slightly bigger guy, and so less on the other twenty big, fast guys on the field. This is fun, naturally, but something is lost. I was pretty sure Ron Rivera should no longer be the Carolina Panthers’ head coach a year ago, and was not alone in that opinion. It seemed reasonable at the time. His team was not winning. That’s ordinarily enough.

The Monday after Christmas and before the New Year is when all the important people at the unimportant franchises get fired. Almost all of these moves are defensible; the Black Monday Class of 2013, like its predecessors, mostly had it coming. Mike Shanahan’s baroque public pissing contest with Dan Snyder came to a merciful end. Jim Schwartz’s performance art gig, in which his team lost close games in new and hilarious ways on the weekly, has also concluded. Rob Chudzinski, who sure seemed to call a lot of draw plays on third-and-long for the Panthers, got fired by the Cleveland Browns. They will now need a new head coach who is okay with Brandon Weeden. And so on: the Buccaneers and Vikings and Texans relieved variously deserving men of their jobs; some have already been replaced.

But not Ron Rivera. Ron Rivera is and will continue to be gainfully employed, the head coach of a 12-4 team that looked like one of the NFL’s best during the last half of the season; he’s the owner of a cool new nickname. After spending most of his first two seasons wearing a vacant stare behind his Transitions lenses, Rivera spent 2013 winning close games and talking about analytics and, in the most bizarre transformation of them all, going for it on fourth down with striking and fearless regularity. And the Carolina Panthers, who are traditionally mediocre and sometimes much worse than that -- a team that, pretty recently and according to smart football people, had glaring holes at defensive tackle and wide receiver, with no cap space to fix its manifest problems -- will enjoy not just a home playoff game but also a first-round bye.

So I and many others have revised those earlier opinions; we now believe that Ron Rivera is qualified to coach the Panthers, because he has now done so successfully, after previously doing so unsuccessfully. This is all it takes. There’s an easy and not unconvincing case to be made for the firings that came so quickly on Monday. There is also the possibility that next year’s Ron Rivera is among those presently polishing his C.V.

***

Out of hand, we can probably reject the idea that teams fire coaches because they think they can do better with different coaches. The Browns are in talks with Josh McDaniels, an offensive coordinator-turned-failed head coach, to replace their last offensive coordinator-turned-failed head coach. Andy Reid, who was apparently a bad head coach in 2012 in Philadelphia, is now a good head coach in Kansas City, because… brisket, maybe? Gary Kubiak, who as recently as two years ago was a good head coach in Houston, is unemployed; Lovie Smith coached the Chicago Bears to a 10-6 record and second place in the NFC North last year, then was fired to make room for Marc Trestman, who coached the Bears to an 8-8 record and second place in the NFC North. Their teams got worse, although it’s not clear that the coaches did.

And yet Kubiak and Smith will almost surely fill two of the six coaching vacancies, as will Ken Whisenhunt, another dude who has a history of being bad at the job he’ll probably be hired for. They might have been losers somewhere else, but they won’t be losers for us, which, really, is the only credential that matters.

This is classic reactive fan illogic, the kind espoused by people who don’t follow blocking schemes and blame the play calling when something doesn’t work; you hear this on the radio from people who begin sentences with the words “long time, first time.” What’s so curious about Black Monday is that this same goofy, fingers-crossed knee-jerkery is heard not just from radio callers and die-hards, but the well-paid professionals working in NFL front offices.

And this happens every year! Serious football people at a handful of variously screwed NFL franchises suddenly and collectively forget that a new head coach isn’t more likely to be successful than the current head coach, even if the current head coach is an asshole or a Schiano Man or both.

Maybe, instead of viewing the annual coach-purge in strict football-team-improvement terms, we should think of Black Monday as an exercise in simultaneous giddy optimism and small-minded spite. It certainly must be frustrating to be Dan Snyder, with all that money and all those lawyers and no one to lead your football team to consecutive playoff berths while doing precisely what you say at all times. Firing the person who fails at that task is the spiteful part; believing the next person will be different is the optimistic part.

So maybe we should think of Black Monday as the NFL’s enactment of New Years’ resolutions, a faulty and eternal commitment to the idea that a new year will make us somehow new people. For football franchises and human beings alike, there’s something intoxicating about the possibility of a clean slate and a 0-0 record, even and perhaps especially if your quarterback is Mike Glennon and you’ve been eating Christmas cookies with furious gluttony for the past two weeks. The devil you know is demonstrably a devil, or at least someone incapable of leading a Matt Cassel-coached team to the playoffs. The devil you don’t know -- well, who knows? You don’t know him yet. He might not be a devil at all, and he might even be Chip Kelly. And if/when he’s not -- when he is, instead and quite predictably Ken Whisenhunt -- we can do it all again, same time next year.

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