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Monday, December 31, 2012
The logic of Black Monday

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

Black Monday is the NFL's parallel to the fiscal cliff, the difference being that this particular hazard is never averted. Coaches in the league are very essentially hired to be fired, and come some Monday or another, almost all of them eventually are. General managers, too. Call it a tradition.

Pat Shurmur
Nine wins in two seasons, regardless of the roster, don't give Pat Shurmur or any coach much security.

On the final Monday of 2012, for example, sweeping change was already understood to be under way. Norv Turner in San Diego, Andy Reid in Philadelphia, Romeo Crennel in Kansas City, Pat Shurmur in Cleveland -- names big and small alike fall on Black Monday.

Year after year, the practice holds. And what of it? Are there larger lessons to be drawn from the NFL's practice of devouring its own?

There may be. (They have almost nothing to do with actually winning games, mind you, but they're there all the same.) Let's take a look.

Owners are, by and large, insane.

This is closer to the truth than one might imagine. I've been fortunate enough to know dozens of sports franchise owners in my time as a writer, and I can tell you without fear of being contradicted that almost none of them were in their right minds for more than a couple of hours per day when it came to their teams.

Make no mistake: Some owners are simply terrible at this particular trade. But most of them are wild successes in other phases of their lives and are slowly being driven mad by their inability to replicate that success in the arena.

What makes owners crazy? That's easy: franchises that refuse to behave like the rest of their moneymaking businesses. Sports' cost/production models are screwed up beyond all belief. They require long-term investment with absolutely no assurance of long-term success (at least not on the field). They are top-heavy. They can be undermined by a single injury, or a contract dispute, or a great athlete who derails his own career by being an off-the-field fool. They are subject to the domino effect when things begin to go wrong.

In short, sports franchises are exceptionally human enterprises, and that drives many, many owners batty. Solution? Well, "fire the coach" has a certain ring to it, which is one reason you see it happen again and again. It doesn't often work as a franchise-altering strategy, but that's unfocused frustration for you.

The NFL's parity era has made fools of us all.

The grand experiment with the salary-capped, level playing field has produced a strikingly flawed corollary: It suggests -- to owners, coaches, players and fans alike -- that any team should be able to vault from cellar-dweller to playoff titan in a year.

Andy Reid Fans
These two Eagles fans understand better than most owners (and other fans) how hard Andy Reid's job was.

Not so fast. Bad teams are so often the product of bad organizations that a single coaching change has little chance of such a rapid reversal. Over the past two years, 16 NFL teams (including, by force, the Saints) have begun the new season with a different head coach than the one who began the season before. Exactly three went on to produce a plus-.500 record.

Franchises are huge ships; with the occasional notable exception (the 49ers a year ago, the Colts this season), they turn slowly even in open water. But that's not what today's NFL suggests. It suggests that anyone should be able to go in and effect immediate change.

When that doesn't happen, even first-year coaches are on the line -- and two years now are considered more than enough to judge them. Combine that mentality with shifts at the ownership or GM level, and you get, for example, Mike Mularkey already in the Black Monday conversation in Jacksonville, or Shurmur ejected via new owner in Cleveland.

And if the league follows its profit-centered idea of expanding the playoffs to 14 or 16 teams, look out below. The number of in-season firings surely will jump dramatically (there were none this season, a very unusual development) as teams suddenly see 8-8 as a desirable -- and attainable -- postseason gateway that is slipping away in, let's say, Week 7 or so.

Remember, owners are generally unreasonable when it comes to winning, playoffs and timetables. That 3-5 start is going to get somebody fired if .500 means an almost certain wild-card spot. And when I say "somebody," I don't mean the quarterback.

You signed on for this, Coach.

This is, finally, the deepest truth. Any coach surprised by his impending doom hasn't been paying attention -- and even if he has, he isn't about to give the job back.

Arriving at an "average" salary for an NFL head coach is a task complicated by several factors, but let's put it fairly comfortably in the $3.5 million range. There are 32 such positions in the league. Precious jobs.

The turnover rate? About seven per year over the past several years, just a shade under a quarter of the happy horde. That is life in the bigs. Good money, high risk, high reward, high exposure.

Coaches sign on to terrible situations all the time; it's often how the jobs come open in the first place. If you're Dennis Allen, do you really bypass the Raiders position because the turnover rate has been 100 percent in the past few years? Of course not. You take the job, work with the grim realities and hope and plan for a better future.

And then, once a year, that future looks a little like this: Black Monday. Welcome to the NFL's coaching cliff. There is no legislating around it.