Rams Coaching Candidates: Talking Jeff Fisher

jeff Fisher prowls the sidelines
Could the Rams’ foe in 1999 be their savior in 2012?

Let me start out by saying that I am not quite ready to bid farewell to the Steve Spagnuolo era in St Louis. I find it very disappointing to see the foundation of good will that he and Billy Devaney helped build completely crumble away in a single short season. But this is what happens when you have a team that, for whatever reason, can barely compete against the league’s worst teams. Fans and the fates turn against you, and it’s time to start looking over the fences at the other options out there.

One of the names that comes up consistently in conversation with disgruntled Rams fans is the guy who once coached against us in the Super Bowl: Jeff Fisher. He carries a 147-126 career record, including the playoffs, and a reputation for building smart, hard-hitting, and fundamentally sound football teams. But does he live up to that reputation, under close scrutiny?

What follows is a transcript I had of a conversation with Tom Gower, writer for TotalTitans.com and FootballOutsiders.com and longtime Tennessee Titans observer, discussing Fisher’s tenure and his tendencies in depth.

RamsHerd: Jeff Fisher was one of the longest-tenured coaches in the NFL before he was ultimately dismissed. He never won any Super Bowls in Tennessee, but did create a lengthy period of franchise stability and prosperity. How is he regarded in general by Titans fans? Does he get credit for building a contender? Or does he get slammed for not taking them to the next step?

Gower: Jeff Fisher didn’t win a playoff game in his final seven years as head coach, and his teams only made it to the postseason twice. By that time, many fans, especially Tennessee natives who’d only known the four trips to the postseason in five years after LP Field opened in 1999, were beyond ready to see him go.

As an old Houston Oilers fan who knows the history of franchise instability, I think I have a broader perspective, but by the end of his tenure, Jeff Fisher seemed to be burned out as an NFL head coach, and even if a different head coach is virtually certain to be successful in the long term, it was time for a change.

What are the hallmarks of a Jeff Fisher coached team?

Jeff Fisher went through, essentially, three different eras as Titans/Oilers head coach. First came the period of franchise instability, from when he took over for Jack Pardee midseason 1994 through 1998. Second was what I guess I’ll call the Steve McNair era, 1999 through 2004. Finally came the post-Steve McNair heydey, or I guess Vince Young era, 2005-2010. The team changed its identity some between and during each era, but there were a couple hallmarks.

Until he burned out, and except for some meaningless Week 17 action, the team always responded from setbacks. Most coaches don’t stay too long in the same place because their message gets stale, but Fisher’s combination of steadiness and his ability to keep himself fresh kept his teams on the same page. Even when his teams started slowly, as they did in 2002 and 2009, he was able to right the ship during the season. He’s somewhat conservative in his philosophical outlook, but is generally an excellent strategist and has an essentially encyclopedic knowledge of the rulebook and its quirks and intricacies.

Defensively, as a player and assistant coach, he started out under Buddy Ryan and came in with an aggressive blitz-oriented philosophy. As a head coach, he hired Gregg Williams to implement that style, including running the 46 defense. After Williams earned a head coaching gig in Buffalo, he hired Jim Schwartz, who implemented much more of a four-man rush-oriented defense; basically, what the Philadelphia Eagles are running this year, minus whatever coverage mixup nonsense they’re doing. Really, I think he’ll run whatever defense he needs to make his team successful.

His teams tended to play aggressively, with a physical edge. He started off with a reputation as a hard-hitting head coach, and his teams mostly maintained that reputation throughout. Later in his career, though, he became well-known (some fans would say infamous) for running particularly laid-back practices that rarely featured intense hitting. I think he may have changed his style a little after 2004, when a veteran Titans team had their season derailed by a ridiculous string of injuries (I think one week they had 17 players listed as questionable or worse on the injury report). And it’s worked, as the Titans late in his career were among the healthiest teams in the league in terms of games missed or players on the injury report, especially late in the season.

Another of Fisher’s trademarks is loyalty. Once you get an in with him and shown you’re reliable, you have an excellent chance of sticking around. The Titans have had some bad special teams units over the years, but Alan Lowry, who came up with Home Run Throwback (aka the Music City Miracle) is still the Titans special teams coach. Veteran players tended to play at or past their sell-by date, and young players, even when it was virtually certain they were better than the player playing in front of them, could languish in the bench (Keith Bulluck wasn’t a starter until his third year in the league, which was nonsense).

What could the Rams expect to change, immediately, if he were hired?

As to what he’ll change from the current Rams, to be honest, I’m not quite sure. A lot will depend on who he hires as offensive and defensive coordinator and what he makes of the current personnel.

Coaches and quarterbacks are invariably tied at the hip. Fisher’s time in Tennessee appeared to end in large part due to his inability to work with Vince Young. But he had sustained success with pure throwers in Warren Moon and Steve McNair. How do you think he would utilize Sam Bradford, and how would they gel?

One of Fisher’s hallmarks as a head coach is his teams have rarely featured above-average quarterback play. By the time he was head coach, Warren Moon was on the Vikings, and Steve McNair, as much as he’s rightfully beloved in Nashville, was only really a top-level quarterback for three seasons (2001-03). The most notorious example dates to the 1995 draft, when Fisher wanted to use the third overall pick on defensive end Kevin Carter and stick with Chris Chandler at quarterback, while general manager Floyd Reese overruled him and drafted McNair. What I think Fisher really wants from his quarterback is for him to make the occasional key pass and otherwise not lose the game. He grew quite close to Steve McNair, but I don’t get the sense that he will necessarily have the same relationship with his quarterback that an offensive guru like, say, Josh McDaniels might have.

Steve Spagnuolo has been criticized, often, for conservative play-calling. Fisher, like Spags, came from a defensive background before becoming a head coach. How would you describe Fisher’s tendencies on offense?

Jeff Fisher went to USC in the late 1970’s, in the heyday of Student Body Right when Marcus Allen was setting collegiate records for carries in a season. He then played for the Chicago Bears, where a lot of the offense was handoffs to Walter Payton. Jeff Fisher personally and philosophically believes in the running game, and that frequent running and occasional passing can be the hallmark of a successful offense in the NFL. I’ve written before that his ideal run-pass balance would be the 1973 Miami Dolphins, who in the playoffs threw something like 24 passes in three games. With a couple exceptions, the Titans for most of his tenure annually ranked among the teams with the most run-heavy gameplan, both with and without adjustments for game situation.

The key will be his offensive coordinator hire. His preferred offensive coordinator was Mike Heimerdinger, who passed away from cancer earlier this year. Heimerdinger was a creative playcaller in the run game, who generally preferred to use the tight ends to attack the middle of the field and threw a lot of deep outside passes, comebacks and the like, to wide receivers.

My thanks to Tom for a very insightful look at Jeff Fisher.

I think Rams fans could envision a lot of positives with Fisher at the helm, notably the fit for the key pieces of the franchise: Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Steven Jackson and potentially Sam Bradford. But reading between the lines on his loyalty to particular players, especially older players, I could also see Fisher having a “Mike Keenan effect,” revamping an already old roster with veterans who are “his” guys, to immediately change the locker room culture at the cost of a much-needed infusion of young talent.

I would still consider him a very intriguing option, though, if the Rams do part ways with Spagnuolo after the season.