Fisher’s attempt at humor could backfire
You can follow Charles Robinson on Twitter at @YahooSportsNFL.
It’s rare that an accomplished NFL head coach does something so off the wall that you have to question whether he’s actually daring his owner to fire him. And it’s almost unthinkable that coach would be the Tennessee Titans’ Jeff Fisher.
The moment happened during a charity event for Rocketown, a Nashville area non-profit. While doing his setup for keynote speaker and former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, Fisher stripped off his jacket and tie, then pulled away his dress shirt to reveal Manning’s No. 18 Colts jersey. He then punctuated the attire by taking a little poke at himself and the Titans’ 0-6 record, quipping: “I just wanted to feel like a winner.” In video taken at the event, the crowd laughs before a few spectators give an “Ohhhh” when Fisher drops his “feel like a winner” line.
As in, “Ohhhh, I can’t believe he just said that.”
Not since Mike Ditka’s dreadlocked wig has a coach’s attempt at humor had such lasting potential to backfire. Ditka, with the New Orleans Saints at the time, mugged in his dreads after trading his entire selection of picks for the right to select Ricky Williams(notes) No. 5 overall in the 1999 NFL draft. And 10 years later, that image is still synonymous with the beginning of Ditka’s end in New Orleans. Only time will tell if Fisher rocking the jersey of a division rival has the same wincing effect in 10 years that it will surely elicit in Titans fans this week.
I don’t want to be the heavy here. I get the joke. I understand that it was a little gallows humor by a respected 15-year head coach who was just trying to lighten an otherwise crushing season. But of all the weeks and all the gags, why Fisher decided to pull it now is beyond me. His team is 0-6 and spiraling. It just endured an embarrassing 59-0 blitzkrieg at the hands of the New England Patriots. The quarterback position is a smoldering heap. Certainly the last thing any Tennessee fan (or season ticketholder) wants to see right now is Fisher wearing the jersey of a hated rival – let alone a quarterback playing out of his mind for a team that is off to the kind of start we anticipated from the Titans.
It will be defended in some quarters as no big deal, that it was just a throwaway joke in an abysmal year. And I don’t honestly believe that Fisher is trying to draw the ire of the fan base or owner Bud Adams. But think of the other long-tenured coaches in the NFL. Can you imagine Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid in an Eli Manning(notes) jersey? Knowing Eagles fans, he might not make it to work the next day.
And honestly, it’s getting harder for me to believe that Fisher isn’t moving toward shaky ground in Tennessee. If Mike Shanahan – who delivered two Super Bowl wins for the Denver Broncos – can be fired after 14 years with that franchise, I certainly don’t think Fisher falls into the untouchable class.
It’s not as if his moves are all beyond doubt. Regardless of what you think of Vince Young(notes), the move to Kerry Collins(notes) was ultimately Fisher’s choice. If he gets credit for Collins and the Titans’ success in 2008, then he also shoulders ultimate responsibility for the failures of ’09. And even with the wide swath of injuries in the secondary, this team is too good to lose any game 59-0 – and it very well could have reached 80-0 if New England had no conscience whatsoever.
I still don’t understand Fisher’s decision with defensive end Jevon Kearse(notes), who packed up and went home when he found out he was a healthy scratch before the team’s Week 5 game against Indianapolis. Fisher declined to fine Kearse, whose departure upon finding out his inactive status is far from typical behavior. On some teams, it wouldn’t be tolerated. One AFC executive, who has been in the league for more than 20 years and worked for several teams, told Yahoo! Sports that he’s never seen a player go unpunished for leaving the stadium after being designated a healthy game-day scratch.
But Fisher insisted Kearse is “a good teammate, he’s had a great career and he’s still got a lot left.” So he gave him the benefit of the doubt for making a poor decision. It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, except that it will inevitably resonate in the minds of Kearse’s teammates that some Titans are put into a different class than others. And those divisions undermine a locker room. Just ask Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley about the mess he and general manager Scott Pioli are cleaning up in Kansas City. Issues with the “star system” and “favorites” ran rampant in that franchise, and it could take years of roster-churning to cleanse the attitudes it fostered.
Make no mistake: Fisher is in the midst of a mess. Whether it’s the quarterback issue, injuries or the collapse against New England, the Titans suddenly have significant long-term concerns. And Fisher can either work toward solving those concerns or make himself one of them. On Tuesday, he did the latter.
Here are some of this week’s other inconvenient truths:
If the NFL had an MLB-esque trade deadline …
One of the underrated points of entertainment in Major League Baseball (and even the National Hockey League) is the excitement generated late in the season when postseason contenders load up for a championship run. Indeed, the NFL has a salary cap and an early trade deadline partially for that reason, so that also-rans such as the Oakland Raiders can’t dump talent and salary and throw the league’s balance out of whack. But if the NFL did do it like big-league baseball, and teams did load up on key players late, here are five trades I’d love to see.
1. Seymour to the Steelers
If there truly was a fire sale going on, and everyone was on the block except for cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), I would have given anything to see the Pittsburgh Steelers make a run at Richard Seymour(notes) and then plug him into Aaron Smith’s(notes) defensive-end spot. Can you even imagine that front seven? Opponents would need restraining orders to keep their quarterbacks safe. Seymour would be a fantastic fit in the locker room, too. And for once, those tortured Pirates fans would get to see a hometown team raid someone else at the deadline.
2. Merriman to the Patriots
Shawne Merriman(notes) needs a fresh start the same way Braylon Edwards(notes) did before getting dealt to the New York Jets. He’s at odds with the front office, and general manager A.J. Smith is never going to give him the long-term deal he desires. And I think the Chargers are in dire need of some additional first-day draft picks to devote to other parts of that defense (like some depth behind Jamal Williams(notes)). I’d love to see Merriman land in the paradise of fresh starts, where at the very least he’d be with a coaching staff that knows how to get the best out of his current physical state. And let’s face it: the Patriots’ pass rush can use all the help it can get right about now.
3. Portis to the Colts
It’s mind-blowing to me that the Colts just can’t seem to find a running back who will consistently give them around 4.5 yards per carry. I actually don’t have any problem with the long-term prospects of Donald Brown(notes) and Joseph Addai(notes). But if this were a baseball-style situation of getting a piece to put you over the top, the Colts getting Clinton Portis(notes) would be like the New York Yankees renting one more marquee starting pitcher for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. Even without a fullback, I think he’d tear it up against defenses which are consistently backed off by Manning.
4. Bowe to the Ravens
I just don’t get the feeling Dwayne Bowe(notes) is going to make it with the Chiefs. I think he has gotten better since Coach Haley has gotten his hands on him, but the more I watch Bowe, the more I get the feeling that he’s always going to be just a little soft. In turn, I think Haley is going to be crawling the walls trying to get the most out of him. And while I’m not sure you can take a weapon away from quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) at this stage of his career, I am sure that GM Pioli needs as many draft bullets as possible with which to rebuild. As for the Baltimore Ravens, Derrick Mason(notes) isn’t going to be around much longer, and there isn’t another No. 1 on the roster.
5. Rogers to the Jets
The loss of Kris Jenkins(notes) is devastating for the New York Jets. Even with cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes), Jenkins may have been the most important player on that defense. Well, Shaun Rogers(notes) is basically a Jenkins clone. And Rex Ryan is exactly the kind of emotional, fiery coach that he’d respond to on a regular basis. Knowing the personalities of both, they might even be best friends. One thing is for sure: When you’re running a 3-4 defense, you can never have too many top-flight 350-pound anchor nose tackles. We’ll see that demonstrated in San Diego and with the Jets the rest of this season.
If Dumervil breaks the season sack record, it’s karma
Certainly, the team success is paramount, but you can’t measure the amount of personal vindication Denver Broncos linebacker Elvis Dumervil(notes) will feel if he can sustain a major run at Michael Strahan’s(notes) record. NFL history says he won’t (see Joey Porter’s(notes) fade last season), but Dumervil’s own history says otherwise. Other than maybe Drew Brees(notes), there might not be another starring player in the NFL right now who had his college dominance pooh-poohed more than Dumervil. And it can’t look good for personnel evaluators that those two players are now tearing the league up at their respective positions.
But unlike Brees, Dumervil didn’t even get the benefit of being a second-round pick. Despite notching 30 sacks in his last two seasons at Louisville, setting the single-game sack record (six) and the NCAA record for forced fumbles in a season, he was summarily dismissed by NFL teams until late in the fourth round. This despite winning almost every major defensive award he qualified for, and facing consistent double-teaming late in his senior season. I can still remember milling around the NFL’s scouting combine in 2006 and hearing the dismissals: He was too small to be a defensive end. He wasn’t athletic enough to be an outside linebacker. He’d be a liability against the run. He’d get devoured in pass coverage.
Well, midway through his fourth season, Dumervil has 35½ career sacks. And now that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has him rotating between 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end (in passing downs), he’s endlessly terrorizing opposing offenses as a rusher – a point that illustrates why the right defensive coordinator can make a player’s career. With 10 sacks in six games, Dumervil is off to a blazing start and might even have a shot at Strahan’s record of 22½.
There may not be a guy who deserves it more. Not after setting high school sack records in Miami and then being told by his college of choice, the Hurricanes, that he could never play defensive end for them. Not after being told by NFL evaluators that his skills didn’t translate to the pro level. And certainly not after sitting home on draft day and watching 125 other players go in front of him. Like Brees before him, Dumervil is on a payback tour, and he deserves everything that’s coming to him.
Lewis and the Ravens miss Scott
Remember that string of 40 games without allowing a 100-yard rushing game by a running back? Yeah, that sure was great, wasn’t it? Well, Baltimore has now allowed back-to-back 100-plus rushing performances to Cincinnati’s Cedric Benson(notes) and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson. Worse yet, the Ravens gave up 309 rushing yards in those two games – both losses.
Eventually, people are going to start to recognize that, for all his speed, Tavares Gooden(notes) isn’t doing the same amount of dirty work between the tackles that Bart Scott(notes) was taking care of. Indeed, if you look at the film last season, it was Scott who was taking a lot of the punishment in between the tackles and allowing Ray Lewis(notes) to scrape off and clean up the running backs. At this stage, Gooden isn’t that type of bruiser, and it’s going to hurt Lewis over the long run. Lewis is going to take a lot of punishment as the season goes on, and it’s going to become more apparent that he isn’t nearly a sideline-to-sideline linebacker anymore.
It’s already apparent in spots. Lewis seems to get caught up in more trash near the line of scrimmage than in past years. And while the media (and television analysts in particular) continue to laud him as if he’s still at the top of his game, he has gotten washed out on a few big running plays the past two weeks. You could see it clearly against the Bengals on Benson’s 28-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. On that play, Gooden was overwhelmed on the backside, leaving Lewis alone to fend off guard Evan Mathis(notes), who merely guided him away from the play as Benson broke through the left side of the line.
While it may not be a consistent problem, Lewis and the lighter physique that he has been so proud of will wear down as the season goes on. And the physical play and dirty work which were Scott’s forte will only become more glaring. It’s food for thought every time Ravens fans watch cornerback Dominique Foxworth struggle in the secondary, and wonder if his $16.5 million in guaranteed money might have gone to a more productive place.