ALAMEDA — The phrase ‘successful interim head coach’ is usually an oxymoron, at least that’s how history has told it. Especially Oakland Raiders history.
With several Raiders players publicly lobbying for Tony Sparano, and nobody privately lobbying against him, what Monday holds is becoming murkier and murkier. If Reggie McKenzie and Mark Davis hold course to the history of interim head coaches, Sparano might start packing early.
It’s true that Sparano has motivated his troops, that they’ve bought in, and that despite the awful season, they haven’t given up. That fact was also true when Tom Cable took over as interim head coach, and the similarities don’t end there.
Cable went on to win three games that year. A former offensive line coach, Cable was the in-your-face personality that the team needed in order to stay afloat mentally and stick together as a team. Though he never got the Raiders to the playoffs, he bounced back as an offensive line coach for the Seattle Seahawks.
Then there’s the guy that followed, Hue Jackson, one that fans took out a newspaper ad in an attempt to sway the vote of Davis. But the fond memories are skewed.
The 2011 Jackson era held only one win against a team with a winning record, Houston. The Raiders went 8-8 on the season, not good enough for a playoff berth, not good enough for a winning record.
Jackson’s firing is what ultimately takes us into the present: Another failed full-time head coach, another interim head coach, and another potentially future-altering decision.
While the strength of schedule, and quality of wins didn’t bode well for Jackson, the opposite could be said for Sparano. No other team will finish the 2014 season with a tougher strength of schedule.
There have been some eventually successful interim head coaches, at least for a time, and Sparano was one of them. With Miami, he led a virtually talentless roster to an 11-5 season once he had a full offseason to build and prepare.
They too, though, had an easy schedule that year. Only two of their 11 wins came against opponents with winning records, and his team was held lifeless in a Wild Card game against Baltimore, losing 11-6.
The list of interim coaches who have been succesful even a few years into the future is short since the 1980s. It includes names like Jason Garrett, the Cowboys current head coach now entering his first NFL playoffs.
Ron Meyer took over the 1986 Colts after an 0-13 start, then won the final three games. Indianapolis went 9-6 the following season, and Meyer was named AFC Coach of the Year.
Running back Eric Dickerson was acquired during the 1987 season in one of the largest and most impactful trades in league history. Nonetheless, Meyer was fired after the 1990 Colts went 7-9, after three seasons missing the playoffs.
Art Shell is another interim coach who was promoted to the top job, lasting for four full seasons in Los Angeles from 1989 to 1994 with a 54-38 record.
Marty Schottenheimer was promoted from Browns’ defensive coordinator after Cleveland began the 1984 season 1-7 for his first stint as an NFL head coach. They finished the season by going 4-4.
The Browns made the playoffs in the following four seasons, and were beat twice by Denver in the 1986 and ’87 AFC championship games. Schottenheimer went 44-27, ending his tenure with the team without a Super Bowl appearance.
Cleveland would ultimately plummet without him, but Schottenheimer would never win the big one.
Jeff Fisher, current Rams coach, and Garrett, are the only other current head coach in the NFL that started while a season was underway. Fisher hasn’t coached a winning team since 2008.
While players have lobbied for Sparano, the general vibe let off in the locker room Friday is that Sparano will not be back.
Perhaps the Sinatra, a Sparano favorite, is just a sign of respect and goodwill. But given every ingredient that’s gone into the 2014 Raiders season, it may be the last time — at least for a while — the ‘Chairman of The Board’ will be heard on the Raiders’ practice field.