Black Monday and the NFL’s War on Entertaining Coaches

Rex Ryan and Jim Harbaugh spent the season failing on the field, but they were still successful modern skippers.
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Rex Ryan and Jim Harbaugh spent the season failing on the field, but they were still successful modern skippers.
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Black Monday, the NFL’s annual bloodletting, which sees palace intrigue turn to outright revolt, is underway and the first two men two lose their heads (and Head Coach gigs) provide further proof that the drivers of America’s prominent roadshow doesn’t really understand entertainment at all. In theory, Jets owner Woody Johnson and 49ers owner Jed York have given the proletariat what it wanted, skulls on spikes, but quick catharsis is anathema to prolonged drama - which is what fans truly demand. Rex Ryan and Jim Harbaugh (who left without actually receiving walking papers) were two of the most compelling characters in the league; their tactical failings never outweighed their theatrical triumphs. They coached in the version of the NFL that people actually want to watch.

Never were two coaches better tailored to their teams. Ryan, a brash loudmouth will an ill-advised tattoo of his wife (she of the beautiful feet) wearing an ill-advised first-round draft pick’s jersey, gave great press conference and constantly reasserted his manhood - going so far as to run with the bulls in Pamplona. On the other coast, Harbaugh, who graduated to his position from a liberal Bay Area university, demanded frictionless progress, putting in a peerless, two-year audition for the role of Steve Jobs in the endlessly upcoming Sorkin biopic. The 49ers coach became one of the nation’s foremost thrower of man-child tantrums, behind only executives in Silicon Valley.

In losing Rex and Jim, the league loses two remarkably inspiring rodeo clowns and demonstrably competent coaches. Neither Rex nor Jim lost the games - they had terrible players to do that for them - but both proactively shared that responsibility, holding the banner of their respective franchises and running at the bayonets of take-down pieces filed sharp with quotes from owners.

That’s why firing them sets a terrible example. In the age of sabermetrics, Monday morning quarterbacking has been replaced by Monday morning coaching. Coaches are stars and these men were fantastic at playing that role. In letting them go, their bosses (rich men who like to watch wins) have sent a very clear message to the league’s other coaches: Being interesting can get you fired. Rex and Jim were fired because it was easy to conflate them with their teams and their teams did badly. They were let go for presiding over middling seasons and great television.

Tom Coughlin won’t be fired. The Giants Head Coach spent the season leading his team to nothing in particular and being so profoundly uninteresting that no one even bothered to come for him with pitchforks. It was easier to blame Eli because Eli, who is hardly the game’s most compelling guy, has a public profile. No one could mistake Tom Coughlin for the New York Giants so the failure of the team didn’t reflect on him in the same way Kaepernick interceptions nailed down Harbaugh’s coffin. Coughlin gets to stay because of his failings away from the field.

The league is uncomfortable with losing coaches having personality. That’s awful for fans. Ryan may have lost a lot of football games for New York (50), but he kept the crowd engaged. There are always going to be losers - the structure of the system demands it - so the importance of that skill can’t be overstated. It offers something when there is nothing - football speaking - on offer. Owners appear to be living in a perpetual eighties-of-the-mind in which players are the source of story lines both on and off the field. The players don’t like it (ask Marshawn Lynch) and injuries as well as free agency makes this staging awkward. Coaches need to be in the spotlight and their desire to headline should be celebrated, not scapegoated, when they provide added value for fans and franchises.

All that said, Mike Smith lost his job today as well. Smith is both personally boring and professionally ineffective. He should be fired. He should be the college coach that Harbaugh has become. Here’s hoping the Falcons replace him with Rex Ryan. They won’t.

Photos by Jim McIsaac / Getty Images