The Epoch of Stagnation: The mediocrity of NFL coaching

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During the reign of Leonid Brezhnev as general secretary of the Soviet Union, the world’s largest country experienced an “epoch of stagnation” that it would never recover from.

After the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev from Communist Party leadership in 1964, Brezhnev ushered in an era that would come to be defined by social, cultural and economic stasis. Soviet citizens no longer believed in the illusions of keeping economic pace with the United States, and Brezhnev had no interest in pretending to either.

Khrushchev defiantly threatened the West, “We will bury you!” Brezhnev told the West, “We will bury our heads in the sand,” and then went for a nice, cool nap.

Full employment was guaranteed, but sobriety on the job was not. Employees spent nearly as much time waiting in lines for basic consumer goods as they did on the factory floor. The government did not expect much from the people and didn’t provide much for them, either.

Brezhnev would rule for 18 stable but frankly mediocre years.

NFL head coaches, like former Soviet leaders, lead with an iron fist and exercise near-absolute power, but for every ambitious autocrat, there are a few content fat cats who’d rather maintain the status quo.

They probably won’t win a Super Bowl, but they’ll make sure the team is just competitive enough to keep it interesting to fans and nonthreatening to rivals. They make sure to keep the club profitable but also utterly forgettable.

Apparently, that’s good enough for some franchises.

What does that say about the NFL? More importantly, what does that say about our relationship with leadership?

Jason Garrett has been head coach of the Dallas Cowboys for nearly a decade and has failed to make it past the Divisional Round of the playoffs during his entire tenure. He’s amassed a winning percentage of .553 (68-53) but is 0-2 in the postseason.

Two playoff appearances. Eight years.

He was astoundingly average his first three full seasons, finishing 8-8 from 2011 to 2013. He finally led the Cowboys to a 12-4 record in 2014 before free-falling to a 4-12 mark in 2015 only to bounce back to 13-3 in 2016. Dallas was just above average last season, finishing with a 9-7 record and no playoff appearance to show for it. The Cowboys are 1-3 so far this year.

The fact that Jason Garrett hasn’t been fired at this point is staggering. He’s not just the coach of any football team; he’s the coach of “America’s Team.” His boss, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, is an infamous narcissist who just happens to own the most valuable sports franchise in the world.

Wouldn’t Jerry Jones demand more than Jason Garrett?

Marvin Lewis has been head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals for 16 years and has won four division titles. He has the third-highest winning percentage in team history but hasn’t led his team past the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

Sixteen years. Zero playoff wins.

Still employed.

Mike McCarthy has coached the Green Bay Packers since 2006 and has delivered only one Super Bowl with arguably the most talented quarterback to ever play the game in Aaron Rodgers.

Hue Jackson has won exactly TWO games since taking over the Cleveland Browns in 2016. The Browns finished 0-16 in 2017. Jackson is still cashing checks as I type this.

What explains this tolerance for mediocrity in the NFL, and how does it relate to an extinct empire?

It speaks to the importance of context and how competence is often all that people really ask for in their leaders.

People were content to leave Brezhnev in charge because he presided over a time of relative peace and calm while the people were just beginning to recover from the cultural trauma of the Stalin era.

It turns out that the public was willing to give Brezhnev the benefit of the doubt for not being a demented despot.

Jason Garrett provided stable leadership to a franchise that had begun to replace head coaches every three to four seasons. Marvin Lewis took over for a team that hadn’t produced a winning record since 1990. Mike McCarthy gained control after the team had gone 4-12 the year before. Hue Jackson… OK, yeah, I cannot figure that one out.

The point is that leadership is more about perception than it is about performance. Whether you took over from a boss who had nearly started nuclear war or one who hadn’t won a playoff game in a few seasons, people’s satisfaction with their leaders is often informed not by what they accomplished but by what they inherited.

Sometimes the bare minimum is better than what came before.

And sometimes you have Hue Jackson.

Rory O’Toole writes the Thursday column on the transformation of athletes and sports media into the cultural conversation. Contact him at [email protected].