We are living in the Golden Age of Terrible NFL Coaching. The NFL rulebook and offensive and defensive playbooks have become so complex in the 21st century that only a hobo savant like Bill Belichick can even come close to making every right decision over the course of an entire football game. And new coaches are under so much immediate pressure to win that they are given virtually no time to figure out HOW to be an NFL head coach. They are quickly dispatched and then—because fans hate it when teams hire a retread—are often replaced by someone with even less experience, someone who is even less likely to figure out how to manage timeouts before and after the two-minute warning.
The old saw is that NFL coaches are hired to be fired, but it's more than that now. An NFL head coaching job is positively designed for you to fail. If you succeed in your position, it's probably just a happy accident of roster strength and the other coaches being worse. At any given time during an NFL game, half the people on the field and on the sidelines probably don't know what they're doing. My old line coach always told me that if you make a mistake, just go find someone to hit. That's an unofficial rule throughout the NFL as well. So long as you made someone hurt, at least you weren't completely useless.
ESPN just got done ranking the best coaches in NFL history, but what's the use of that list? We're here to present you with the list that matters: the worst NFL coaches from the post-merger era. Because hating coaches is an important part of the inner fantasy life of a fan. We hate coaches for the same reason we hate sportswriters: because we think we can do their job better than they can. You don't have to run a 4.3 forty to coach an NFL team. You don't have to be able to bench press 225 pounds 80 times at the combine. Coaches are regular physical specimens just like the rest of us. It's easier to imagine ourselves doing that job instead the job of, say, a running back. There's no illusion there. We know we'd get killed. But a coach? A coach just stands there like an asshole. Anyone can do that, right? Right?
Well, as we're about to show you, NOT anyone can do the job. In fact, pretty much no one can. But bad coaches are often unforgettable in their own, odd way. Each has a moment of glaring incompetence that sticks in a fan's craw until the day he or she dies. Denny Green will be remembered for taking a knee in the '98 NFC title game; "They are who we thought they were!"; and pretty much nothing else. Once you fuck up as a coach, that becomes your brand.
It's humbling. Whatever aura of mostly unearned authority you had as a new coach riding into town is quickly replaced with an invisible dunce cap affixed to your head for eternity. But because screwing up is almost the norm (Green doesn't even make the list!), it takes a truly special football mind to qualify as the worst of the worst. Here are the 16 coaches, ranked according to their awfulness, who embody the NFL's proud tradition of awful coaching:
16. Buddy Ryan (career record: 55-55-1)
Is any crappy coach in league history more beloved by a fan base than Buddy Ryan still is in Philly? He gave reporters entertaining quotes, often at the expense of his own players. He once put a bounty on the Cowboys' kicker. He punched Kevin Gilbride, and even if it happened when he was in Houston, the act only endeared Ryan that much more to the likes of Paulie from East Passyunk. (According to the late Dave Duerson, Buddy was also something of a racist.) "Buddy Ryan," A.J. Daulerio once wrote, "was a walking, talking version of the mythology Philadelphia fans idolize about themselves." People in Philly like Buddy Ryan because Buddy Ryan wasn't Andy Reid, never mind that Buddy Ryan, with his immensely talented roster, never won a single playoff game (something even Rich Kotite did in Philly). A month after the Gilbride punch, the Cardinals grabbed Ryan to try to rescue the franchise.* "You've got a winner in town," Ryan declared during his introductory press conference in the desert. He went on to win 12 games in two seasons before getting shitcanned again.
15. June Jones (career record: 22-36)
June Jones led the Falcons to the playoffs in 1995, in just his second year. But in Week 4 of '96, after Jeff George basically pissed in his coffee, Jones stubbornly clung to the run-and-shoot, an offense that officially died that year, at the hands of Jones and Bobby Hebert. (Augusta Chronicle headline, Dec. 24, 1996: "Falcons Fire Jones, Finally.") Jones would get another head-coaching gig two years later, even though he admitted up front that he didn't want it. "It's not my ambition to be a head coach again," he said after the Chargers fired Kevin Gilbride. But San Diego was stuck with Ryan Leaf and somebody had to be in charge. Jones played out the string and wisely took off to coach Hawaii after that.
14. Dennis Erickson (career record: 40-56)
We actually had to look it up to remind ourselves that Dennis Erickson had been an NFL head coach with two different teams. As this list proves, a lot of successful college coaches make for terrible NFL coaches. But Erickson's first NFL go-round, with the Seahawks, was merely mediocre. Only after he returned to the college ranks and won some more did Erickson's true shittiness set in with the 49ers. He lasted two seasons, winning just nine games, after which the Niners' owner was willing to fork over $7.5 million just to make him go away. A year later, Erickson got a college coaching job again—in Idaho.
13. Kevin Gilbride (career record: 6-16)
Kevin Gilbride has bounced around the league for so long as an offensive coordinator it's hard to remember he actually spent more than one season as the Chargers' head coach, and that his brief tenure in San Diego was an unmitigated disaster. Just how bad did things get in those 22 games? Gilbride immediately went into petty-autocrat mode with the press, forbidding reporters from watching practice and limiting the media's access to players. He proceeded to go 4-12, which earned him the opportunity to draft Ryan Leaf. Just six games into Gilbride's second season, with Leaf already shitting the bed as his QB, the Chargers couldn't take it anymore and fired Gilbride. He's openly lobbied for multiple head coaching gigs since, but no one seems to want him.
12. Butch Davis (career record: 24-35)
This list might as well be lifted straight from the Browns' media guide, huh? Fresh off a Sugar Bowl win with the Hurricanes, Butch Davis was pretty hot shit when he came to Cleveland in 2001 to carry on the franchise's legacy of dropping a bowling ball on its foot. In Davis's second season, the Browns actually made the playoffs. And in their only postseason game since their return to the league, Kelly Holcomb threw for more than 400 yards, and the Browns still gagged on a 17-point second-half lead. Against Tommy Maddox. That would be as good as Davis's days on Lake Erie would get: Two years later, when Davis was finally dismissed with five games to go, the Browns had just given up 58 points in a loss to the Bengals. Davis was thus free to eventually get his ass fired again as a scandal-ridden college coach.
11. Romeo Crennel (career record: 28-55)
Remember how everyone had a hard-on for Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis in 2005, when they were plucked like overripe fruit from the Parcells-Belichick coaching tree to take over the Browns and Notre Dame, respectively? Now remember how long it took for everyone to figure out that Weis was just a blustery asshole and that Crennel was nothing without Belichick. Crennel coached five full seasons on his own with the Browns and the Chiefs. He lost at least 10 games in four of them, and his face assumed the expression of a man eternally on the cusp of a deep, existential wince.
10. Bruce Coslet (career record: 47-77)
Bruce Coslet is the guy you think of when you think of shitty NFL coaches from the 1990s. You know he was with the Jets, and you know he was with the Bengals, but you can't remember which stint came first, or whether he somehow plopped both franchises into the toilet at the same time. Then you look it up and you realize someone actually hired him after his Jets tenure. Then you're surprised to learn he went 7-2 after taking over the Bengals for David Shula in '96. Then you're reminded that he cast his lot with Neil O'Donnell in 1998, and that he finally quit three games into the 2000 season, at which point the Bengals had been outscored 75-7. The very idea of Bruce Coslet is somehow reassuring because he unfailingly managed to disappoint.
9. Marion Campbell (career record: 34-80-1)
Just a remarkable resume. Fired by the Falcons just five games into the 1976 season, Marion Campbell went back to being a defensive coordinator with the Eagles, helping them get to Super Bowl XV. He then took over for Dick Vermeil in 1983 and didn't win more than six games over the next three seasons. But! The Falcons hired him back in 1987 because Vermeil and then-UCLA coach Terry Donahue—their first two options—turned them down. When Campbell eventually retired after a 3-9 start in ‘89, he issued the following word salad of a statement: "I have chosen this avenue to clear the picture for the ownership to get on with the future of their franchise." Only Bert Bell and David Shula have a worse winning percentage among coaches who worked more than three seasons.
8. Rod Rust (career record: 1-15)
In 1990, the splendidly named Rod Rust was finally hired for his first head-coaching job at the age of 61. It felt like a prank. The Patriots basically made him captain of a raft of shit over which Rust would have absolutely no control. His quarterback options were Marc Wilson, Tom Hodson, and 37-year-old Steve Grogan. Reporter Lisa Olson was sexually harassed by several players in the locker room. Irving Fryar and Hart Lee Dykes got the shit kicked out of them outside a nightclub, an incident that resulted in gun charges against Fryar, though a grand jury declined to indict him. Rod Rust won his second game. He didn't win another. After the season, the Pats hired a new CEO, who promptly fired Rod Rust.
7. Steve Spurrier (career record: 12-20)
Perhaps no individual better epitomizes Dan Snyder's penchant for treating the Redskins like his personal toy box. Can't you just see it? Snyder getting out a stepladder and climbing to the top and hissing in some poor, harried minion's ear, "Pay any price! We must have him!" and then climbing back down and disappearing into a tiny cloud of sulfur. Snyder gave Spurrier $5 million a year for five years, whereupon Spurrier glanced at the schedule and realized there were no Kentuckys or Vanderbilts around to make Danny Wuerffel or Shane Matthews look good. He spent two years grimacing from beneath his visor, looking like a man suffering a severe sports hernia, then he went back to college.
6. Lou Holtz (career record: 3-10)
ESPN pays him to mutter and mumble and spit at you because he won a national title at Notre Dame, but Lou Holtz was a spectacular failure in the NFL whose lisping cornpone routine lasted less than a full season in 1976. Even on the Jets' grand roster of colossal mistakes, Holtz is still in a class by himself: He managed to beat the bumbling Bills twice in addition to shutting out the expansion Bucs—and that was it. He quit with one game remaining in the season, famously telling the press, "God did not put Lou Holtz on this Earth to coach in the pros." Yeah. No thit.
5. Rich Kotite (career record: 41-57)
The amazing thing about Rich Kotite is that, once he was fired by the Jets, he never returned to coaching. He just fell off the face of the Earth. That's virtually unheard of in the profession. Even Rod Marinelli, who went 0-16, was rewarded with a cushy coordinator gig after his ouster. There's always an NFL team or a college team willing to give you a second chance. And yet, Kotite never coached again, not even in a goof league like the XFL. It's like he died. Either Kotite decided that the job wasn't for him and left football of his own free will—which would be rather noble—or he was SO awful during his time in New York that he was essentially exiled from the sport at every conceivable level. We'd like to think this is possible. We'd like to think that NFL executives and college presidents got together after Kotite's firing and said, "OK, let's all agree to NEVER hire this man again, not even as the equipment manager."
4. Bobby Petrino (career record: 3-10)
Bobby Petrino is a special kind of asshole. With three games to go in the 2007 season, he informed his players he was high-tailing it for the University of Arkansas by leaving them a handwritten letter. The move blindsided everyone in the organization, including owner Arthur Blank, who had told a national TV audience Petrino was staying, but only because that's what Petrino had said to him a few hours earlier. The Falcons spent the rest of the season telling any reporter who asked that Petrino was "disloyal" and a "coward." But in the end, everything worked out for the best: The Falcons wound up with Mike Smith. Petrino wound up with Ozark Chappaquiddick.
3. Les Steckel (career record: 3-13)
Les Steckel was a disciplinarian with a military background. You knew this because he said so, constantly. "I know I'm young and following the legend of Bud Grant," he told a reporter on the eve of his first and only training camp as the Vikings' head coach, in 1984. "But I've led 210 Marines and 80 Vietnamese soldiers into combat, so don't talk to me about being a head coach." He was the embodiment of all the ridiculous football-war analogies that get draped over the sport like so much red, white, and blue bunting, and his one season now looks all the more ridiculous for it. "My involvement in the Marine Corps made a lasting impression on me," Steckel said. "So it's immediately a great area to use analogies." Well, war was hell that year. In Steckel's last six games, all losses, the Vikings gave up an average of 40 points, and after he was sent packing, the team, ah, fragged him in the media. "He tried to run a professional team with a high school attitude," said one player. Another: "I sense a huge sigh of relief." Even Max Winter, then the Vikings' owner, didn't sugarcoat anything: "Les may not have been ready for a job like this at the time." The next season, kindly old Bud Grant was back on the sideline.
2. David Shula (career record: 19-53)
Coach Fredo. As a son of Don, he was destined to enter the family business, and as an utter incompetent he was destined to fuck up the family's good name. He spent seven seasons as a position coach on his father's staff before Jimmy Johnson took him in for his first two (dreadful) seasons with the Cowboys, an arrangement not unlike Moe Greene taking in Fredo out in Vegas. David finally got his chance to run the Bengals in 1992, and in his four-and-a-half seasons, he managed to lose 50 games faster than any coach in league history. (The fact that he got four-and-a-half seasons might be even more amazing.) Shula then left football to help run the family's chain of steakhouses, which is where he's been ever since.
1. Marty Mornhinweg (career record: 5-27)
When Matt Millen took over as the Lions' GM in 2001, his very first bad decision was to hire Marty Mornhinweg as head coach. Mornhinweg's brief time in Detroit will forever be defined by that time he won a coin toss to start overtime and elected to kick off. The Lions lost without ever getting the ball, and his decision that day—"WE WANT THE WIND!"—became synonymous with a sort of proud, headlong stupidity. Well, to everyone except Mornhinweg: "It was the right call then, it's the right call now, and it's the right call 10 years from now." It wasn't, it isn't, it won't be.
Other notable head coaches who sucked (listed alphabetically): Bill Arnsparger, Leeman Bennett, Ed Biles, Joe Bugel, Cam Cameron, Hugh Campbell, Dave Campo, Rod Dowhower, Dick Jauron, Chan Gailey, Frank Gansz, Abe Gibron, Harvey Johnson, Lane Kiffin, Frank Kush, Dick MacPherson, Rod Marinelli, Josh McDaniels, Mike Mularkey, Mike Nolan, Bill Peterson, Richie Petitbon, Mike Riley, Jim Ringo, J.D. Roberts, Darryl Rogers, Steve Spagnuolo, Paul Wiggan, Bud Wilkinson, Gregg Williams, Richard Williamson.
* This post has been updated to reflect the proper timing of the Cardinals' hiring of Buddy Ryan.
Photo credits: Associated Press and Getty