Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 13, 2019

A Busy Week For The Coaching Carousel

They are high-profile and pressure-packed positions. They are also precious few, which helps explain their desirability. Counting the top professional leagues of the four major North American sports – the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, there are less than 125 jobs with the ultimate responsibility for guiding a team’s play on the biggest stages of our games. Add the WNBA and the top men’s and women’s soccer leagues into the mix, and the number still does not begin to approach 200, making what is often referred to as the coaching fraternity an extremely exclusive club. Whether the title is head coach or manager, whether one’s office is the sideline or the tight confines of the back row of a team box or the top step of a dugout, the job of field general is one of the most coveted in sports.

Then again, as the past week reminded fans everywhere, while these positions can and often do lead to a fair measure of fame and decidedly comfortable fortune, one attribute they lack is permanence. No matter the league or team, the first rule of a managerial or coaching opening is that candidates for whom job security is important need not apply.

On Monday Jay Gruden, who somehow managed to survive for more than five seasons the seemingly permanent dysfunction that characterizes Washington’s NFL franchise, was fired after his team began this campaign by dropping its first five games. At the end of the week Gabe Kapler, a surprising choice when he was named manager of the Philadelphia Phillies two years ago, was told he need no longer report for duty at Citizens Bank Park. In between, proving that not sacking the field leader can sometimes be as controversial as doing so, word leaked out of the Los Angeles Dodgers front office that Dave Roberts would be back next year, despite what many pundits and more than a few fans saw as one more year of costly managerial decisions at the most critical time of the year.

During his five full seasons in charge of Washington’s football fortunes, Gruden provided little evidence that he was the second coming of Joe Gibbs. Actually that should read “third coming,” since among the long list of head coaches who have spun through owner Dan Snyder’s revolving door in the two decades he’s owned the team was the great man himself, back for a four-year stint during which Washington qualified for the playoffs twice, or once more than it had in the eleven years since Gibbs’s first retirement. But in fairness to Gruden, whose previous head coaching experience was in Arena Football and the short-lived United Football League, he did manage to guide his charges to a couple of winning records while having very little say over roster decisions.

Then in 2018, with Alex Smith at quarterback and the seemingly endless soap opera of contract talks between Washington’s front office and QB Kirk Cousins finally over, Gruden’s team won six of its first nine games. The promising start included home wins over the powerful Green Bay Packers and hated division rival Dallas. But Washington fans had barely started to hope when fate, in the form of the inherent brutality of America’s favorite sport, intervened. Smith suffered a devastating injury in Week 11, and backup quarterback Colt McCoy went down with a leg broken nearly as badly as Smith’s just two games later. Washington limped to a 7-9 record, and with no established presence over center this season, the bitter beginning was almost inevitable.

What is interesting about Gruden’s dismissal is not that it occurred – the coach himself told the media he had assumed it was coming for a couple of weeks – but that he leaves town as almost a sympathetic figure. So despised are Snyder and the owner’s front office henchman Bruce Allen that fans in Washington have come to expect disarray and defeat. That’s why FedEx Field looked like Gillette Stadium during a Patriots practice when New England visited for what proved to be Gruden’s last game, with the stands mostly empty and fans who were there wearing Tom Brady jerseys by the hundreds. The center of Washington’s sports world has moved from the Maryland suburbs back downtown, where the NHL’s Capitals and WNBA’s Mystic play, and where the Nationals have come home from St. Louis with a 2-0 lead in the NLCS.

Three hours up the I-95 corridor, the dismissal of Kapler after two seasons in the Phillies dugout was also not surprising, but for very different reasons. This was not a case of a head coach taking the fall for a front office that failed to provide a contending roster. In fact, it was just the opposite. After forcing fans to suffer through three straight years of ninety-plus losses, team president Andy McPhail and GM Matt Klentak believed they had the nucleus of a contender built on youth and a handful of veteran free agents when Kapler was hired in the fall of 2017.

Philadelphia finished 80-82 in 2018, but that was a fourteen game improvement over the prior season, and both the front office and fans realized that the team was still a piece of two away from being complete. That led to a busy offseason, with trades for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto and the signings of All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson. Then the Phillies won the biggest offseason prize of all, giving Bryce Harper 330 million reasons to love the City of Brotherly Love.

But all that money and all that talent failed to coalesce into a contending team. McCutchen and Robertson suffered season-ending injuries, Segura hit below .300 for the first time in four years, and Harper’s first year in Philly made his seven-year deal look very, very long. After a season of exactly .500 ball, it was a classic case of not being able to fire the entire team, so the manager had to go.

The width of the country away, fans couldn’t possibly complain about the regular season performance of the Los Angeles Dodgers since Roberts took over as manager four years ago. L.A. has won more than ninety games each season Roberts has been filling out the lineup card, and this year’s team set a franchise record with 106 wins. After back-to-back World Series appearances ended in disappointment, this was the year that was going to be different.

That proved correct, but not in the way fans had hoped. The Dodgers didn’t make it back to the Series, or even to the NLCS, instead losing the divisional round in five games to the Washington Nationals. The Game 5 defeat was especially bitter with L.A. surrendering a 3-1 lead in the 8th and then losing in the 10th. Roberts’s decisions to let Clayton Kershaw pitch the 8th, and to send Joe Kelly out for a second inning in the 10th, were both lambasted as particularly bad calls.

Of course, if Kershaw hadn’t yielded consecutive home runs, and if Kelly hadn’t loaded the bases before serving up a grand slam ball to Howie Kendrick, the popular view might be different. But given what happened, fans and pundits quickly pulled out their lists of other real or imagined miscues by Roberts in the postseason. But to their disappointment word quickly came that Roberts would return.  It was somewhat surprising, given the usual focus on immediate results, but perhaps proof that at least sometimes the baying mob does not get its way.

While Dave Roberts lives for another day in Dodger blue, Gruden and Kapler wait for their phones to ring. That they will is really not in doubt, with Kapler already scheduled for an interview with the Giants. The coaching fraternity is elite and gaining entry is difficult. But once granted membership few ever really leave. Like itinerant preachers or the traveling salesmen of pre-internet days, they just move on to some new town.

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