As Stan Kroenke goes about deciding the job status of his head coach, Steve Spagnuolo, there are a lot of things he has to look at: The job of this regime in coaching and roster construction, the construction of the staff and development of players, and the history of how coaches do after sluggish starts, among several other factors.
When looking at the head coaching job, we must give Spagnuolo credit for the team not quitting on him. There have been instances in the past when players in dreadful situations quit competing and began to mail it in. This year’s Chiefs under Todd Haley are a prime example. That hasn’t happened here. On the flip side, we must look at the way games unfold and ask questions. How is it that the Rams have continually allowed return men like Patrick Peterson, Leon Washington and Ted Ginn Jr. to burn them? How can a game plan with an offensive line in tatters against Seattle feature five receivers and an empty backfield on a regular basis? Why do we see a wildcat formation on first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, and a naked bootleg with a quarterback that can barely walk because of a high ankle sprain?
Additionally, why do we continue to see false starts from veteran offensive linemen? Why has a front-seven pretty much immune from devastating injuries ranked 32nd against the run? And why have so many players failed to ascend?
If you’re Kroenke, don’t you have to ask why the staffs in Seattle and Arizona keep their teams competitive despite so many injuries? Why do we see the Seahawks lose three offensive linemen and have Marshawn Lynch take off, yet the Rams lose three and their offense goes into even more of a shell? Why are guys like Lance Kendricks and Rodger Saffold better on the day they arrive than they are well into their careers? Why do veteran players like Jason Brown, Mike Sims-Walker and Harvey Dahl play well before they get here, but then regress? Along those lines, why is it that Daniel Fells, Laurent Robinson, Bobby Carpenter and Ryan Fitzpatrick go other places and perform better than they did here? Chris Ogbonnaya had 90- and-115-yard games for Cleveland, but couldn’t make the team here. Larry Grant is a beast against the Rams for San Francisco, but was cut here. Why?
Why haven’t young players been kept and developed? Is it coaching, or talent? The Packers take a tackle like Marshall Newhouse in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, and have him available to use for a dozen starts in 2011. The Rams have to re-sign Adam Goldberg and try to pick up waived players and practice-squad guys. The Steelers take Antonio Brown with their second sixth-round pick in 2010, and by 2011 he’s good enough to catch 63 passes for more than 1,000 yards, and to supplant Hines Ward. The Philadelphia Eagles, a perennial playoff team, start two rookie offensive linemen, plus a rookie and two second-year players at linebacker, get better throughout the season and are in the playoff hunt until the final week.
Why didn’t players like Jermale Hines, Jabara Williams, Mardy Gilyard, George Selvie, Fendi Onobun and Mikail Baker get a chance? Why is a Rams seventh-rounder like Jonathan Nelson starting and getting an interception for Carolina, rather than St. Louis? Those are questions of coaching and roster composition that must be asked.
As poor as Spagnuolo’s record has been, there are coaches who have started slowly and then succeeded. Not as slowly as Spagnuolo, who will tie Rod Marinelli for the worst three-year-plus winning percentage in more than 40 years (.208) with a loss to San Francisco, but slowly nonetheless.
Of the 48 head coaches that have led their teams to Super Bowls, there have been five that didn’t have a winning record in their first three full years, like Spagnuolo.
Weeb Ewbank started with the Colts in the 1950s, and began his career with records of 3-9, 5-6-1 and 5-7 before going 7-5. Ewbank won NFL championships with the Colts in 1958 and 1959 before moving on to the Jets in 1963. He had back-to-back-to-back 5-8-1 seasons in New York, and added a 6-6-2 season before finally breaking through with a winning year in 1967, and then a Super Bowl Championship in 1968.
Tom Landry didn’t get the expansion Cowboys over .500 until their seventh season. Dallas went 9-28-3 in their first three seasons, a winning percentage of .262. Once the Cowboys did get rolling, of course, they kept rolling. When Landry led his club to a 10-3-1 mark in 1966, it started an NFL record string of 20 consecutive winning seasons.
As Chuck Noll started out with the Steelers, he went 12-30 in his first three years, a winning percentage of .285. The Steelers showed gradual progress, going 1-15, 5-9 and 6-8 before breaking out in Noll’s fourth year with an 11-3 mark and a division championship. Two years after that, Pittsburgh started a run of four Super Bowl wins in six seasons.
Marv Levy actually started his coaching career in Kansas City, going 4-12, 7-9 and 8-8 in his first three years. He took the Chiefs to 9-7 in his fourth year, but was fired after a 3-6 strike season of 1982. When he returned in Buffalo, Levy led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls.
Jeff Fisher went 7-9 in his first year with the Oilers, then took the Oilers to three straight 8-8 seasons in their final year in Houston, a year in Memphis in which the team trained in Nashville, and their first year as an entity in Nashville. As the club changed its name to the Titans, Fisher took the Titans to a 13-3 mark and the Super Bowl in 1999.
So there is precedent for a coach to start slowly with a franchise and then take off. However, if the Rams plan to allow Spagnuolo a chance to take off, there are some serious questions that have to be answered. The individual coaching needs to be better, young players need more of an opportunity to get better and play, and more logic must apply to preparations for Sundays. If there aren’t assurances of those things, then it’s best to simply move on to the next guy. Continuity can be a good thing, but not if it’s to preserve play as horrible as the Rams’ play has been in three seasons under Spagnuolo.