Coaching decisions by Lions and Jets defy logic

ON THE NFL

January 08, 1995|By VITO STELLINO

The Detroit Lions and the New York Jets have several things in common.

Both have low-key owners who like to stay in the background (William Clay Ford of the Lions and Leon Hess of the Jets), both have gone decades without a championship team (the Lions last won in 1957 and the Jets in the 1968 season), and both had frustrating finishes this past season that featured a critical loss to the Miami Dolphins.

The Lions went to Miami on Christmas night for their regular-season finale, needing a victory to clinch their division title. They lost, settled for a wild-card berth, and then lost their first-round playoff game to Green Bay even though the Packers were without their best player, Sterling Sharpe.

The Jets were 6-5 when they lost the "clock game" to Miami, went into a tailspin and lost their last five games to finish 6-10.

Oh, yes, there's one more common thread. Their owners both made inexplicable moves last week that defy the imagination. Ford didn't make a change that he should have made and Hess made one that makes little sense.

Ford decided to give coach Wayne Fontes a two-year extension, even though he's been on the job since 1988 and the team isn't close to being of Super Bowl caliber. Ford's now committed to Fontes through 1997. By then, running back Barry Sanders will have been in the league nine years. He's in danger of being a great player who never made it to the Super Bowl.

Hess, by contrast, decided to fire Pete Carroll after just one year on the job. That would seem to indicate he was ready to make a dramatic move, to bring in a Jimmy Johnson, a Joe Gibbs, a Bill Walsh, or, at the very least, a Dennis Erickson.

Instead, he brought in Rich Kotite. Rich Kotite? Yes, the same coach who went 0-7 in his last seven games in Philadelphia before being fired.

In New York, the tabloids loved it.

The New York Post ran pictures of Kotite and Carroll on page one with the headline: "Dumb and Dumber." The overline was "Jets pick one loser to replace another."

On top of that, Hess left the rest of the organization in place. General manager Dick Steinberg has stomach cancer and Hess didn't want to fire him when he was ill, but he left open the question of who's going to run the team now.

The problem is the Jets simply don't have enough talent. They need a rebuilding job and, at age 80, Hess is going for the quick fix.

The penalty

When the NFL took second- and sixth-round draft picks away from the Carolina Panthers for tampering with assistant coach Dom Capers of the Pittsburgh Steelers, league officials stressed it was the first time they'd taken away two picks for an infraction.

But the Panthers didn't get the toughest penalty. The late Carroll Rosenbloom got a first-round pick from the Miami Dolphins in 1970 for the Baltimore Colts when the Dolphins hired Don Shula even though Rosenbloom's son, Steve, had given the Dolphins permission to talk to Shula.

Considering how flagrant the Panthers' violation was, they should have lost their second first-round pick. The general manager who pulled it off, Bill Polian, was the man who helped to write the tampering rules when he was in the league office. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue had recommended him to owner Jerry Richardson, who was supposed to be the kind of owner the NFL wanted in the expansion process. But Richardson sanctioned the skirting of the rules.

Polian tried to argue that the Panthers were worried Capers might take a college job if they didn't contact him.

Coachspeak

Nobody in the NFL took Dennis Erickson seriously a week ago when he said he was staying at the University of Miami.

Surprise, surprise, once the Orange Bowl was over, he not only was setting up an interview with the Seattle Seahawks, but was suing the university for legal fees he incurred in the Bryan Fortay case. Fortay was the quarterback who sued after he said he had an oral commitment to be a starting quarterback.

A coach suing a school doesn't sound like one planning to stay.

The strangest development in the coaching derby, though, is that Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie now seems to be having second thoughts about hiring Dick Vermeil as both a coach and general manager after Vermeil had decided to take the job.

Vermeil is so popular in Philadelphia, though, that Lurie may have to give him the job even if he's now wondering whether it's the right move. Lurie interviewed other candidates, including Erickson, while Vermeil was making up his mind.

Looking back on Howell's Giants

Jim Lee Howell, coach of the New York Giants in the 1958 title game against the Baltimore Colts, died last week at age 80.

Although he won a championship in 1956, he is remembered most for having Hall of Fame offensive and defensive assistants -- Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. Has anybody ever held two assistants of that caliber? Sid Gillman may have come close with Chuck Noll and Al Davis on his Chargers staff in the early 1960s.

Howell retired after the 1960 season, but he would have changed pro football history if he'd quit two years earlier.

Lombardi was offered the Green Bay Packers job in 1959. When he left, Giants owner Wellington Mara asked the Packers for permission to bring him back if he needed a coach in the future. But by 1960, Lombardi had the Packers in the title game and didn't feel he could leave.

Since he couldn't get Lombardi, Mara hired Allie Sherman, who took the team to three division titles, but the club then collapsed until George Young was hired in 1979.

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