Is Jeff Fisher overrated? Or are the challenges he has faced in his coaching career misunderstood?
Those two questions are critical to consider now that Fisher has officially been fired, per Chris Mortensen of ESPN.com and confirmed by the Rams. In what was his 22nd season as an NFL coach, Fisher tied Dan Reeves’ record for most career losses, with no Super Bowl titles for either man.
It’s worth noting that four of the top seven coaches in losses are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Tom Landry, Don Shula, George Halas and Chuck Noll).
At the same time, Fisher has twice been the coach of a team that has moved, something no other coach in NFL history has ever done. He has also worked for two owners—the late Bud Adams and now Stan Kroenke—who have track records of failing to win, no matter who they hired as coaches and no matter what sports they have tried.
So now that Fisher is officially gone, it’s fair to ask whether his legacy is more complicated than anybody cares to understand.
Or, to twist a phrase from retired quarterback Peyton Manning, there’s a lot of information represented by the dashes in Fisher’s career record—a lot of stuff that is hard to comprehend for anyone who hasn’t lived that world.
“I’m not sure if you can cut him a break, but it has to be factored into the analysis,” former longtime Raiders executive Amy Trask said of Fisher’s history of moving teams.
As for ownership, former Cleveland and Baltimore executive Phil Savage summed it up.
“It’s really hard if you don’t have great ownership,” Savage said. “Leadership starts at the top. You have to have ownership that’s ready to stomach the things that happen when you struggle. It’s the owner and all the king’s men. You can’t just jump ship.”
Yet Adams and Kroenke are exactly those men who have jumped ship when it came to moving their teams. Along the way, both have hired Fisher to help guide the players through the issues.
Does that make Fisher a uniquely talented coach who has navigated very difficult circumstances? Or do the bottom-line results, including only one Super Bowl appearance compared to Reeves’ four, make him overrated?
The Rams never had a winning season under Jeff Fisher. pic.twitter.com/ZM8yIvYmPo
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 12, 2016
Since 1980, there are 10 NFL franchises that have won multiple Super Bowls. San Francisco has won five, New England and the New York Giants have four, Washington and Dallas have three, and Pittsburgh, the Raiders, Baltimore and Green Bay have two.
The common denominator among eight of those teams? Driven ownership. The exceptions are Baltimore (current owner Steve Bisciotti was in the process of buying the team from Art Modell when the Ravens won their first title) and Green Bay, which is publicly owned and driven by the sole purpose to win.
The rest of those teams were led by men who wanted nothing more than to win, such as Eddie DeBartolo with the 49ers, Jack Kent Cooke with the Redskins and Al Davis with the Raiders. Having someone like that is vital in the modern age of the NFL.
On the flip side, distant or disinterested ownership can undermine an organization.
In the case of Kroenke, numerous people in multiple sports wonder if he has any desire to win. Is he in sports only because he can drive up the value of his portfolio?
There has been long-standing speculation in Denver that Kroenke would ultimately like to sell the Rams and buy the Broncos when Pat Bowlen passes away. That rumor led a Broncos executive to sarcastically say, "We would never do that to Broncos fans."
St. Louis fans were initially happy when Kroenke, a Missouri native, bought control of the team in 2010. After six years and a 36-59-1 record, the tide turned against Kroenke, particularly as it became clear he wanted to move the team.
As for how the team will do in Los Angeles, Kroenke lives in Malibu, which is only a short drive over the Santa Monica Mountains from Thousand Oaks, and numerous NFL executives have said they are banking on the fact that Kroenke lives there as a motivating factor to make the team competitive.
"I don't think he's going to want to be embarrassed in his hometown with the people he socializes with," an NFL owner said recently with shaky confidence.
For Fisher, Kroenke's distance gave him some autonomy over the Rams. It was Fisher who pushed for the trade to get Jared Goff. Fisher figured to get at least three years to develop the quarterback, which was a big part of the logic behind the contract extension, which was in the works for almost a year.
In the case of Adams, Fisher got more interference, particularly at the end. For most of Adams' career as an owner, he was driven to make money. By the end, he wanted revenge.
Dave Martin/Associated Press/Associated Press
At age 37 in 1960, Adams was one of the founding owners of the American Football League. He was a maverick and a pioneer in the game, and his Houston Oilers won the first two AFL titles in 1960 and 1961.
Adams then went the rest of his life (52 years) without winning a title.
Unless you count the nickname "Bottom Line Bud" as a title. That’s how employees referred to Adams over the years because of his penny-pinching ways.
Adams got into a nasty political tiff with the mayor of Houston over a new stadium in the 1990s. When Houston refused to build, Adams moved the Oilers to Tennessee in 1997. Nashville was willing to build a stadium for him.
In Tennessee, the Titans made one Super Bowl with Fisher and star quarterback Steve McNair. As McNair's career came to an end, Adams not only drafted his replacement but pushed McNair out the door in humiliating fashion. In 2006, Adams ordered Fisher and the Titans to draft Vince Young at No. 3 overall.
Adams wanted Young as revenge against Houston, which had since built a stadium and procured the expansion Houston Texans. Young is from Houston and had been a star at the University of Texas.
The owner was so infatuated with Young that Adams could recite the QB's college statistics and achievements by heart.
Adams wanted Young. Fisher was forced to take him, and the result was five erratic seasons that eventually led to the forcing out of both Young and Fisher.
Of the top 38 coaches in NFL history in terms of longevity, Fisher is the only one to have moved a team, let alone do it twice. The only coach close to Fisher in terms of that achievement is Tom Coughlin, who started the Jacksonville Jaguars from scratch in 1995 as an expansion team.
But even Coughlin didn't have as many issues to worry about as Fisher.
The travails of moving a team are millions of overlooked details.
One Rams employee joked this summer about looking for a place to live. He and his family had owned a home in St. Louis. They decided to rent in Southern California for the time being and toured several homes.
"I saw the rent and said, 'Where's the rest of the house?'" he said with a chuckle.
The issues are seemingly endless, from helping players, coaches and staff with buying and selling homes to replacing staff members who don't want to move to hiring and training new people to replace them to operating in temporary facilities to learning how not to kill your players.
That's right, how not to kill your players.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
In 1995, the Rams moved from Southern California to St. Louis. The team hired Steve Ortmayer as vice president of football in mid-January that year to handle the move, which wasn't technically approved until March. Ortmayer hired Rich Brooks from the University of Oregon to be the head coach.
Brooks had more than 30 years of experience as a coach, starting immediately after he graduated from college. There was one problem: Brooks had never played or coached for teams outside the West Coast. He had spent his entire life living and working in either Oregon or California. He had never gone through a training camp that featured Midwest humidity.
So when the Rams started training camp that year at Maryville University in St. Louis, Brooks had to be instructed on some things. About two weeks into training camp, team doctors and the training staff had a sit-down with Brooks.
"It was about 95 degrees at the start of training camp and then it got into the low 100s," Ortmayer said. “Our training staff and doctors told him, 'If you don't back significantly off on these guys, somebody is going to die.'"
Ortmayer, who described the entire process as "chaos," wasn't joking.
That was part of overall experience that then-Rams defensive coordinator Willie Shaw called "a nightmare."
"I don't wish that on anybody who's trying to run a team. You almost need to take the season off to really do it right," Shaw said. "It was September, October and even in November, we were still looking for things in boxes. ... We never got out of the boxes the whole year because they were building our new [training] facility that year, so we weren't going to unpack everything and then repack it.
"You feel like a vagabond the whole time."
In the grand scheme, that kind of distraction may be small, but things like that add up. The Rams spent half the 1995 season playing in since-closed Busch Stadium before the downtown dome opened. Figuring out where to go and where to park was one of the many details the team had to work through.
Now back in Los Angeles, the issues are similar. The Rams have been training out of a hotel in Oxnard while they wait for a training facility to be finished in Thousand Oaks. That facility is roughly an hour from where the Rams play at the Los Angeles Coliseum and where they will eventually play in a new stadium in Inglewood.
Harry How/Getty Images
In 1996, the Baltimore Ravens made the dramatic move from Cleveland. The Ravens initially moved into a police training facility that amounted to barracks with a couple of substandard fields. That's only the football portion of the equation.
"We had people to help us with the initial move and, in hindsight, we probably should have kept them around with us longer," said Kevin Byrne, the Baltimore Ravens senior vice president of public and community relations. Byrne has been with the team for 35 years, dating to when the Ravens were in Cleveland and shocked the NFL world by moving after the 1995 season.
The Ravens weren't prepared for the large number of new people who also started to surround the team.
"When players move and have a lot of money, people find them," Byrne said. "You get bad people around your players. People you don't know. They will literally follow a guy from the [team] facility after practice to a restaurant and say, 'Hey, you're new in town, let me help you.'"
Byrne paused for a second.
"I can only imagine what that's like in Los Angeles," he said. "There are a million things that happen and the players are left holding the bag, especially the veterans who maybe just signed a longer contract, bought a house and then discovered there was a shift in expenses."
When then-Ravens owner Art Modell told the players about the move, he promised to make the players "whole" on any housing costs. While well-intentioned, Modell essentially lied. Under NFL collective bargaining agreement rules, Modell couldn't pay any of the difference in housing costs.
Worse, while he could have paid for some of the moving expenses, he eventually didn't.
"Salving those wounds and helping that process is way more important than you think," Byrne said. "You've got guys at practice, trying to get them to focus and, oh, by the way, they still have a house back in another town they're trying to sell or rent. A head coach can't solve that. He can't do it. It's hard enough to keep a team together, whether you're winning or fighting for your life."
Perhaps that's why Fisher deserves some credit.
"I do think it's important to have in place a coach who is mature, adult and reasonable to handle all of the issues that come up," Trask said. "I know Jeff is all of those things."
No doubt, but does that mean that he's a good coach?
"To get a team moved is a real tribute to a coach," Ortmayer said when asked about Fisher specifically. "But he has been a coach an awful long time, and the results aren't that great."