The comeback coaches

Mike Beacom
The comeback coaches

One thing fans can expect this offseason is to hear a lot of ‘old’ names whispered in slumping NFL cities. It already has been suggested that should the Cowboys drop out of the NFC playoff picture Mike Holmgren would become a leading candidate to replace Jason Garrett (assuming, of course, Garrett is given his walking papers). Bill Cowher is always a popular first candidate, and Jon Gruden seems to be rumored for every opening.

All three of those men have a Super Bowl ring, but they also all have been out of coaching for at least four years. Even so, clubs like to hire winners and fans get most excited by a name they know.

Most coaching legends that retire or take an extended leave from the game never return; those that do often struggle to adjust to changing trends or experience personality conflicts with players. Very few succeed, although in the past two decades several big-name coaches have tried …

Joe Gibbs — No coach was more successful from 1981-92, during which time Gibbs delivered three championships (and four NFC titles) to Hog Nation. Following his retirement, Gibbs built one of NASCAR’s most successful racing teams. Everything he touched turned to gold, so it was probably too tempting for Gibbs when Redskins owner Daniel Snyder sold the coach on returning in 2004. But football had changed, and so had the players. The organization gave him a workhorse running back (Clinton Portis) and a veteran quarterback (Mark Brunell) — two Gibbs’ staples — but the veteran coach managed to win just 30 of 64 games in four seasons.

Mike Ditka — The contentious press conferences; the Ricky Williams trade, complete with wedding photos … nothing went right for Ditka during his three losing seasons in New Orleans. The fiery coach left Chicago a legend, complete with his own "Saturday Night Live" skit. But after a four-year hiatus — a time of much speculation as to whether he would ever return — Ditka left NBC to take the reins to a franchise that had never won a playoff game. In 1999, his final year in the Big Easy, Ditka dealt all of his picks for Williams, drawing league-wide criticism. The move backfired, costing Ditka his job and leaving a dent in his legacy.

Art Shell — Shell was probably doing owner Al Davis a favor when he returned to coach the Raiders prior to the 2006 season. The team hadn’t won more than five games in any of the previous three years and was in desperate need of repair; Shell told reporters his incentive for taking the job was “coming home to finish what I started.” In 1989, Davis had made Shell the game’s first black head coach, and over the next six years the Hall of Fame offensive tackle made the most of the opportunity by posting a .587 winning percentage. It’s safe to say his success helped break down barriers and change the coaching landscape forever. Shell had only one losing season (7-9 in 1992) in his first stint with the team. The 2006 Raiders went 2-14 and Shell resigned.

Dick Vermeil — If there is an exception to the rule it’s Vermeil, who left the Eagles in 1982 at age 46 and returned to the NFL, with St. Louis in 1997, at 61. Many believed the game had passed him by, and his team’s record in the first two seasons seemed to support this (a combined 9-23). But two things happened in 1999: The Rams traded for Marshall Faulk and Trent Green suffered a season-ending injury, opening the door for Kurt Warner. Almost two decades after his Eagles had lost to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV, Vermeil finally got his ring.

Time will tell whether Holmgren, Cowher or Gruden return to the game. We do know that whenever a job opens, no matter how many times they deny their interest, their names will be attached to the opening. That’s the upside to having a reputation as a winner. The downside is that a reputation built over a period of years — decades even — can become tainted when a coach accepts a job and fails to live up to his own legacy.

Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mikebeacom.