It’s fair to say the NFL head coaching career of Jeff Fisher is an enigma wrapped in, well, an enigma.
It’s also clear Fisher is the poster boy for the tried and true belief that a head coach needs consistency at the quarterback position to be successful.
As Fisher enters his 21st full season as an NFL head coach (he was 1-5 as the interim coach of the Houston Oilers in 1994) as the leader of the Los Angeles Rams, he will be trying to figure out a way to rise out of the mediocrity that has defined his coaching career, with Case Keenum potentially the placeholder at quarterback until first overall pick Jared Goff is ready to play.
History also tells us that whenever Goff does takes the reins, instant success will likely be an illusion.
In 20 seasons – 16 with the Oilers/Titans and four with the Rams – Fisher’s teams have had a winning season a meager six times. Four of those occurred during the halcyon days of 1999-2003, when the Titans compiled a 56-24 regular-season record. That tied for the league’s best record over that span with the Rams, the team Fisher’s Titans lost to in Super Bowl XXXIV.
The constant during those years for Fisher was the presence of Steve McNair at quarterback. Although McNair did miss some games in that five-year period, the Titans were 49-22 when he started. Notably, after coming to the Titans as a first-round pick in 1995, McNair didn’t become the full-time starter until 1997.
The Titans were 8-8 in both 1997 and 1998 before breaking through with a 13-3 record in 1999. The philosophy then was the same as it is now for Fisher’s Rams: Build the offense around a running game (Eddie George was the Titans’ first-round pick in 1996, and Todd Gurley was the same for the Rams last year) and play defense at a high level.
Still, even with those elements, consistency at quarterback is paramount. The one constant in Fisher’s career has been a lack of stability at the position, save for the McNair years. In fact, aside from McNair, Fisher has never had the same starting quarterback for more than two consecutive seasons in his career.
There was Chris Chandler for his first full two seasons in 1995-96. Billy Volek and McNair each started eight games in 2004 when the Titans were 5-11. Then he had Vince Young for three seasons in 2006-2007 and 2009 and Kerry Collins for two in 2008 and 2010.
In St. Louis, a job Fisher took largely because of the presence of Sam Bradford, he got only one full season from the current Eagles quarterback, who helped the Rams go from 2-14 to 7-8-1 in Fisher’s first season in 2012. But Bradford suffered a torn ACL in the seventh game of the 2013 season and then tore it again in the summer of 2014 and missed the entire season. He was traded for Nick Foles in March 2015.
During the past three seasons, the Rams have had starts from the likes of Kellen Clemens in 2013, Shaun Hill and Austin Davis in 2014 and Foles and Keenum last year.
The results shouldn’t be surprising. For his career, Fisher’s teams have finished 8-8 five times and have had losing records in nine seasons. Overall, his regular-season record is 169-156-1, not including the interim year.
Even more glaring is his record without that impressive five-year run. With the Titans, it’s 85-91, and overall, it’s 112-127.
Only two head coaches in history with at least 100 regular-season victories have as many losses as Fisher, who has coached 320 games: Dan Reeves lost 165 in 355 games and Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, lost 156 in 484 games.
Which brings us full circle to 2016. The Rams have Gurley and a good defense, but just how good is to be determined following the release of team leaders in middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive end Chris Long, as well as the departure in free agency of starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins and safety Rodney McLeod.
The truth is, the Rams can be competitive with Keenum or possibly Goff, but expecting them to be better than 7-9 or 8-8 is unrealistic. The Buccaneers were 6-10 with Jameis Winston last season, while the Titans were 3-9 in games started by Marcus Mariota. In last year’s draft, Goff would have been selected after both those quarterbacks.
In the first episode of Hard Knocks on HBO, Fisher let his team have it after making an example of far-down-the-roster wide receiver Deon Long, who was cut for having a woman in his training-camp dorm room.
Peppering his diatribe with expletives, Fisher said, “Little things are important, you follow me? I am not f—ing going 7-9 or 8-8 or 9-7, OK? Or 10-6 for that matter. This team is too talented. I am not going to settle for that, OK? I know what I am doing. We had some 7-9 bulls— this morning. Now, Deon’s gone. That is 7-9 bulls—. We don’t need it.”
Does he truly believe his team is talented enough to be 11-5? That’s delusional, at least with the quarterback depth chart as it is currently constituted. In a few years, maybe, if Goff turns out to be as good as the Rams believe.
For now, though, it appears to be the same ol’ same ol’ for Fisher and the Rams, which is more than likely “that 7-9 bull—-.”