Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Jeff Fisher is Underrated

Since Jeff Fisher has been fired, it seems everyone is talking about him like he was a really bad coach.  "He only had six winning seasons!"  "He is tied for the most losses in history!"  Both of those are true facts.  But do those facts tell the whole story?

First, let's examine those two facts.  Jeff Fisher is indeed tied with Dan Reeves for the most losses in NFL history.  And who follows Jeff Fisher on that damning list?  Tom Landry.  And then Don Shula, Tom Coughlin, George Halas, and Chuck Knoll.  Look at all those terrible, horrible, all-time great coaches.  Now this isn't to say that Fisher is the same caliber as those coaches.  Of course he's not.  But if total number of losses isn't an indictment of those coaches, then how can it be an indictment of Fisher?

Maybe because to lose a lot of games, you have to coach a lot of games.  And the truth is that a bad coach wouldn't be able to coach long enough to make that list.  Cause while it's true that Jeff Fisher is tied for the most losses, it is also true that he is 11th all-time in wins.  Yes, only ten coaches in history have ever won more games than Fisher.  Which brings me to the stat that he has only six winning seasons.  While it's certainly true, is it really as bad as it sounds?  Because if you only listed the stat that he has six winning seasons out of 22, wouldn't you assume he has a terrible record?  And yet Fisher actually has a winning record: 173-165-1.  So clearly his bad years weren't that bad, if they didn't submarine his career record.

Just examining the numbers of his record at face value doesn't necessarily tell the whole story either.  A simple win-loss record isn't the end-all be-all.  For example, let's say that Pete Carroll retired and next year his replacement won 10 games and Hue Jackson won 8 games in Cleveland (both with minimal roster differences), which performance would be more impressive?  Do you go with the 10 wins because it's more than 8?  Or do you go with the 8 wins because of what Hue had to work with?  Presumably most would choose the latter, because it's generally accepted that talent level plays a role in the success of a coach.

So the question becomes what was the talent level that Fisher had to work with?  Now I'm not gonna break down every roster he ever had.  No one wants to seriously evaluate that (especially me).  So let's take the (admittedly) simplistic route and just look at the most important position: quarterback.  First, let's take a look at Fisher's time in Houston/Tennessee.  Steve McNair had a record of 76-55.  And Vince Young had a record of 30-17.  With those two QBs, Fisher was 106-72.  A .596 winning percentage (equal to 9.5 wins).  Without them, he had a record of 36-48.  A .429 winning percentage (equal to 6.9 wins).  The lesson?  Give Fisher a competent QB and he can win.

With the Rams, here's a list of the seven quarterbacks that started games for Fisher: Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, Nick Foles, Case Keenum, and Jared Goff.  That's not exactly a murderers row.  Probably the best one of that group is Bradford, and it's not like he's a franchise QB. With Fisher, Bradford's record was 10-12-1.  Since leaving the Rams, Bradford is 13-14.  Not exactly a stark difference.  As for the other QBs, what level of success should be expected with that group?  Here's a hypothetical: if you could take their average talent level and put it into one QB and pair him with Bill Belichick or have Jeff Fisher and Tom Brady, which pairing would you take?

If your inclination is to choose Jeff Fisher over Belichick, because of Brady, then does that not highlight the importance that the quarterback plays in the success of a coach?  Because obviously Fisher is no Belichick.  And if your inclination is to choose Belichick, in spite of having an average QB at best, consider this: while Belichick does appear to have a knack for getting improved play out of sub par players, he is 54-63 without Tom Brady.  Yes, Bill Belichick has a losing record in games not started by Brady.  Maybe Belichick can do better than what 117 games would suggest.  But would he really do better than what Fisher could do with Brady?  If Fisher could average 9.5 wins with McNair and Young, then surely he could do even better with Brady right?  So if you think the answer is Fisher/Brady, then you are of the mind that talent plays a big part in success.  And if you think the answer is Belichick/average Rams QB, then either you think Brady is worse than McNair and Young or you think 182 games of Fisher's career and 117 games of Belichick's career (nearly 18 NFL seasons worth of games combined) are all an aberration. 

And if that hypothetical scenario (using factual information) is too arbitrary for you, let's just evaluate Fisher by how the Titans have done since he left and how the Rams were before he got there.  Jeff Fisher was 142-120 with the Oilers/Titans (a .542 winning percentage).  Currently, the Titans are in their sixth year since Fisher was fired and they are on their third coach and have a total record of 35-59 (a .372 winning percentage).  With the Rams, Jeff Fisher's record was 31-45-1 (a .409 winning percentage).  Admittedly, not very good.  But how were they performing before Fisher?  Since the post-Fisher sample size was (almost) six seasons, it makes sense to use the same time frame for the Rams pre-Fisher (which appropriately happened to be the season after Mike Martz was fired).  So Martz was replaced by Scott Linehan, who was then fired four games into his third season and replaced with Jim Haslett, who promptly went 2-10 and was then fired and replaced by Steve Spagnuolo the following year.  And they're combined record? A staggering 23-73 (a .240 winning percentage).

So the Titans were worse after Fisher left and the Rams were better after Fisher got there.  How much so?  The Titans went from an average of 8.7 wins under Fisher to 6 wins without him (a difference of 2.7 wins).  And the Rams went from a 3.8 win team to a 6.5 win team.  A difference of?  2.7 wins.  And the difference in each team's performance is arguably even more impressive when you consider that the post-Fisher Titans aren't competing against Peyton Manning's Colts and the pre-Fisher Rams didn't exist in arguably the best division in football.  Fisher performed better against Manning/Dungy, Carroll, Harbaugh, and Arians than his successors have performed against Andrew Luck and better than his predecessors performed against only a single season of San Francisco and Seattle being juggernauts.

For those that like numbers, here's exactly how the division competition breaks down:
While Fisher was with the Titans- the Colts, Texans, and Jags had a .544 winning percentage
Since Fisher left- the Colts, Texans, and Jags have a .429 winning percentage

Post-Martz to Pre-Fisher- the Niners, Seahawks, and Cardinals had a .462 winning percentage
Since Fisher joined the Rams until the present- the Niners, Seahawks and Cardinals have a .583 winning percentage

What does all this mean?  Obviously that Jeff Fisher is the greatest and shouldn't have been fired!  No, not at all.  In fact, a case can still be made for him being fired, based on other possible factors like personality/style, philosophical differences, or just to shake things up (like Andy Reid being fired in Philadelphia).  But unless him being 11th all-time in wins and franchises performing better when he's there (against better competition) than when he's not there (against weaker competition) are just seasons upon seasons of flukes, then he can't be a bad coach.  And that would make him underrated.