Though Thursday’s divorce between the Tennessee Titans and Jeff Fisher caught most of the NFL world by surprise, people close to the man who just surrendered his title as the NFL’s longest-tenured head coach had been noticing the warning signs of a potential breakup for the past two months.
Even after Titans owner Bud Adams announced nearly three weeks ago that Fisher would return to coach the Titans in 2011 – two days after the franchise issued a statement saying that quarterback Vince Young(notes), with whom Fisher had feuded, would not return to the team – an unsettling amount of organizational tension remained.
“After all the dust settled,” a source close to Fisher said Thursday night, “it was clear that it wasn’t going to work the way anyone thought it would.”
Specifically, Fisher’s contract situation set him up for a potentially nightmarish lame-duck season akin to the 2-14 campaign experienced by John Fox in Carolina in 2010 and Mike Holmgren’s 4-12 swan song with the Seattle Seahawks two years earlier. With just a year remaining on his deal, Fisher was faced with the unwelcome prospect of possibly having to fill three coaching vacancies while offering candidates little in the way of security.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil was fired last week, a day after longtime defensive line coach Jim Washburn left to accept a similar position with the Philadelphia Eagles. Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger is battling cancer, and it’s uncertain whether he’ll be able to continue in that capacity.
Though Adams said he was keeping Fisher, the franchise’s head coach since he replaced then-Houston Oilers coach Jack Pardee on an interim basis in 1994, the owner didn’t offer a raise or a contract extension – and the support he offered publicly was far from resounding.
“With what I am paying him,” Adams told the Tennessean, “I am not going to let him go and pay him a lot of money. I was thinking we could get him and Vince together, but it wasn’t going to work, so I had to stick with Jeff and let Vince go.”
If Adams, 88, was trying to make his coach feel supported, he failed miserably. Then again, given the way the owner reacted after Young disrespected his coach while storming out of the locker room after a November defeat to the Washington Redskins, this was consistent with Adams’ recent behavior.
Numerous witnesses were stunned by Young’s outburst, which included his yelling at Fisher: “I’m not walking out on my teammates. I’m walking out on your [expletive] ass.” Yet Adams, who demanded the Titans draft Young with the third overall pick in 2006 and twice in three seasons forced Fisher to play him ahead of veteran Kerry Collins(notes), all but sided with the quarterback, telling the Tennesseean that he hadn’t given up on Young and that he and Fisher “are going to have to work together.”
In the wake of Thursday’s announcement by the team that Fisher is out as coach, shortly after a report by si.com’s Don Banks, it’s unclear whether the franchise might reverse course on Young. It’s believed general manager Mike Reinfeldt would prefer to move on without the fifth-year quarterback, who is due a $4.25 million roster bonus on the 10th day of the 2011 league year. Though that date will likely be delayed because of an expected lockout in early March, Reinfeldt and Fisher’s successor undoubtedly hope to resolve the quarterback situation as quickly as possible. Then again, with Fisher out of the picture, Adams could insist that Young remain with the team and resume his role as the starter.
As of Thursday night the Titans and Fisher had yet to finalize a contract settlement that, according to a foxsports.com report, will likely pay Fisher $8 million. He was due $5.6 million in base salary for 2011, along with a $4 million bonus.
Fisher, who is immensely respected in NFL circles and regarded as one of the league’s top coaches by many prominent front-office executives and owners, will undoubtedly be a hot commodity for the 2012 season. In the meantime, the personable 52-year-old is likely to be sought after by multiple television networks.
On Thursday night Fisher and several family members went to dinner to celebrate the birthday of his daughter Tara, an Auburn University student. A press conference is scheduled at the Titans’ facility for noon ET Friday, at which point he, Reinfeldt and Adams are expected to shed further light on Fisher’s departure.
Realistically, however, Adams’ earlier statements told Fisher all he needed to know.