GREEN BAY – In the middle of Lambeau Field’s visitors’ locker room, George Seifert was all alone.
His players were showered and packed. Collectively, the San Francisco 49ers shuffled toward their bus, processing a 35-14 divisional playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. Another season stopped short of the Super Bowl.
Seifert stayed behind.
Even now, he remembers that feeling. Speaking into the phone on a warm, November day in California, about to take his dog for a walk, his mind returns to 1996.
“That was,” Seifert said, “the only one time I ever broke down as a coach.”
The end was inevitable, though unexpected. Seifert had an unrivaled resume. He led the 49ers to two Super Bowl titles in eight seasons. He won at least 10 games every year. His .766 win percentage was higher than Hall of Fame predecessor Bill Walsh.
He was young, too. Just 56.
None of it seemed to matter in that empty locker room. Two decades ago in Green Bay, an era died.
Seifert knew before anyone else.
“I think there was a sense,” Seifert said, “that there were a couple of Super Bowls there that we should’ve been in, and we didn’t get it done. Or, I didn’t get it done. So the rope or the string or whatever was a little shorter, and a little tighter."
With the final year of his contract coming in 1997, the 49ers declined to discuss an extension. So Seifert chose resignation over becoming a lame-duck coach.
It’s a familiar dance between coaches and executives across the NFL. Longevity is uncommon in this league. Even the best coaches find themselves on the hot seat.
“I don’t know if it started with John Madden or Bill Walsh,” Seifert said, “but between the two of them, there was always that 10-year deal. You have to be successful during that period. Some have gone beyond, not too many.”
‘There’s a lot of impatience’
Two decades after Seifert’s reign ended in Green Bay, Mike McCarthy is in his 11th season coaching the Packers.
They are 11 seasons of almost unprecedented winning, even for Titletown. McCarthy has led the Packers to a franchise-record seven straight playoff appearances. He’s won more games than Vince Lombardi. There’s a street named after him.
No, these aren’t the Glory Years. But they’re pretty damn good.
“The playoffs are a given in Green Bay,” former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher said.
Of course, Super Bowl rings ultimately measure success around here. The Packers won one under McCarthy, a sudden, glorious march to the title as the NFC’s sixth seed in 2010. They were once a potential dynasty.
Then they lost a home divisional playoff game to the New York Giants.
Then they collapsed in Seattle.
Fans are restless. Angry. There’s a "Fire Mike McCarthy" page on Facebook. An @FireMikeMcCarthy handle on Twitter. A "Fire Mike McCarthy" petition.
The last time the Packers (4-5) were under .500 this late into the fall with a healthy Aaron Rodgers at quarterback was 2008, his first year as starter. They are 9-12 in their past 21 games.
Is McCarthy’s job safe? Those who know the league can’t envision general manager Ted Thompson pulling the plug, but history brings an uncomfortable reality.
Eventually, great NFL coaches get fired.
“There’s a lot of impatience,” longtime NFL coach Dan Reeves said. “That’s why you’ve got to have good ownership. Because when you’re not being successful — just like in Green Bay now — there’s a lot of unrest. You have people who really don’t understand what a great coach they have, and what a great job he’s doing. That we’re going through some tough times now, and if you stick with it, and understand what you’ve got, and know that, yeah, we need to improve, but we’re doing a lot of things well.
“We’ve got to just keep trying to fix it.”
Those fixes aren’t guarantees. More often, long-tenured coaches get no fairy-tale ending.
Reeves' career sets a cautionary example. In 23 seasons, Reeves coached four Super Bowls. He is one of six coaches who led two teams to the Super Bowl.
Regardless, when asked about the difficulty of sustaining success, Reeves chooses a less attractive distinction to identify himself.
“You’re talking to a coach who was fired three times,” he said.
Reeves’ most successful stop was 12 seasons with the Denver Broncos. He amassed a .538 win percentage, leading the team to three Super Bowl losses. In his 10th season, the Broncos finished 5-11.
Two seasons later, Reeves was fired after an 8-8 record.
“Sometimes,” Cowher said, “I think you’re less appreciated in the city you’re in than you are from the people outside looking in. I realized that when I got out of it. I said, ‘People recognize what you’re doing, but the city you’re in, anything less than a championship is not a successful year.’”
Many of the game’s great coaches had their best years early.
Don Shula’s two Super Bowl titles with the Miami Dolphins came in his third and fourth seasons. Three of Bill Belichick’s four Super Bowl titles with the New England Patriots came in his first five seasons. Chuck Noll coached the Steelers for 23 years, but each of his four Super Bowl titles came in the first 11 seasons. Joe Gibbs coached Washington for 16 years, but each of his three titles came in his first 11 seasons.
Plenty of coaches have mirrored McCarthy’s potential trajectory.
Marty Schottenheimer, McCarthy’s mentor, had a .634 win percentage with the Kansas City Chiefs, but was fired after finishing 7-9 in his 10th season. His lone trip to the conference championship game came in Season 5.
Brian Billick had a .556 win percentage and won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, but was fired after finishing 5-11 in his ninth season. His Super Bowl title came in Season 2.
Mike Shanahan replaced Reeves and had a .616 win percentage with the Broncos, but was fired after his 12th, 13th and 14th seasons finished with records of 9-7, 7-9 and 8-8. His Super Bowl titles came in Seasons 5 and 6.
Mike Holmgren, in his second act, had a .538 win percentage with the Seahawks, but took a sabbatical after finishing 4-12 in his 10th season. His lone Super Bowl appearance came in Season 7.
Mike Ditka had a .631 win percentage and won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears, but was fired after finishing 5-11 in his 11th season. His Super Bowl title came in Season 4.
McCarthy has a .642 win percentage with the Packers. His Super Bowl title came in Season 5. In his 11th season, the Packers are 4-5.
“Let’s just state the facts,” McCarthy said this week. “I’m a highly successful NFL head coach.”
Like so many before him, McCarthy's greatest success came early.
“The 10-year mentality,” Billick said, “is one you don’t want to buy into or believe. Why would you? It puts a clock on you. But having lived it, and now being out of it and watching it, not that it’s an absolute, but I think it’s a fair observation.
“Mike McCarthy would be out of a job all of about 10 minutes if he were to be put out on the street. This isn’t about the quality and how good of a coach he is.”
No, it’s about learning from history.
‘There’s a drain on a coach’
He replaced his purple pullover with a suit and tie, retreating to a cushy studio job. It was far from the white-knuckle pressure of an NFL sideline.
Even farther from the hot seat.
People ask Billick why he never returned to coaching. He references a Sept. 23, 2012 game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals.
Billick, now an NFL Network analyst, was the color commentator for FOX when the Cardinals won that afternoon. After the game, he saw the fatigue on Eagles coach Andy Reid’s face. Reid was in the early stages of his 12th and final season with the Eagles, and he knew it.
That dread, Billick thought, is the reason he no longer coached.
Then he saw Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt’s expression.
“They just won this big game,” Billick said, “and when I saw Ken and the look on his face, I go, ‘No, that’s why I’m not coaching anymore.’ Because between the ‘big win’ and walking the length of the field going into the locker room, I guarantee he was already thinking about the next game and probably, ‘You know what? I don’t know how good this team really is.’
“So when you can’t even enjoy the wins longer than it takes to leave the sideline to get into the locker room, that wears on you.”
The Cardinals started 4-0 in 2012. They finished 5-11. Reid and Whisenhunt, two Super Bowl coaches, were fired after the season.
Billick recognized their emotional torment. This job, he said, sucks the life out of you. It chews you up, spits you out.
“There’s a drain on the coach,” Seifert said, “but at the same time it’s a motivator.”
Walsh walked away from a Super Bowl team before San Francisco’s 1989 season, citing coaches have a 10-year shelf life to keep their message fresh.
Free agency, Cowher said, has changed that in today’s NFL. There is enough roster turnover — especially for a young team like the Packers — for a coach to keep an old message new.
Challenges evolve the longer a coach stays with one team. At the start, Cowher said, they must first establish credibility. Sell their own philosophy.
Cowher, following a Hall of Famer, demanded players accept his approach after replacing Noll. After four seasons, the Steelers represented the AFC in Super Bowl XXX.
Three seasons later, the Steelers were 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
They were 6-10 the next fall.
“Once you establish success,” Cowher said, “I think the biggest thing you fight is complacency. I think that’s the biggest challenge for a coach, not thinking that all we’ve got to do is show up because we’ve been winning, and we’ll win again. That’s not always the case. Sometimes you have to tweak things, and sometimes you have to make changes.”
A coach doesn’t make it to 10 years unless he wins, Cowher said, but success can bring bad habits.
Winning breeds confidence. Human nature turns confidence into arrogance. After a while, arrogance can become complacence. Complacence isn’t far from stubbornness.
Obstinacy is the barrier preventing so many coaches from sustaining their program past 10 years.
When he studies Green Bay, Cowher sees urgency. He looks at all the injuries. He points to McCarthy’s creativity, moving receiver Ty Montgomery to running back.
It would be easy, Cowher said, for McCarthy to cling to the three-receiver, one-running back offense the Packers planned when they broke camp. In recent weeks, McCarthy turned to more spread formations, more personnel changes, an entirely different system.
No complacency here.
“I think he’s been pretty resourceful,” said Cowher, now an NFL on CBS analyst. “There’s a lot of challenges they’re going through right now. At times, it becomes the backbone for which a championship is built. ... The season takes so many twists and turns, and I think how you navigate through all those challenges can create a bond to bring your team even closer, and grow to a higher level.”
It also can tear a team apart.
The 10-year deal has few exceptions. Only six Super Bowls were won by a coach employed longer than a decade. Only two were won by a coach tenured longer than 12 years.
Cowher is the one outlier. A decade after his first Super Bowl appearance, the Steelers returned. Cowher became the only coach to win his first championship after 10 years on the job..
But even he struggled.
‘Green Bay is unique’
After a dozen seasons in Pittsburgh, Cowher looked like another victim of the 10-year deal.
His Steelers were plummeting. They finished 6-10 in 2003, missing the playoffs for the fourth time in six years.
“Nine out of 10 clubs,” Billick said, “he would’ve been gone.”
Then he got lucky.
Ben Roethlisberger fell to the Steelers in the next spring’s draft. They went 15-1 with an AFC title game loss to the Patriots in Roethlisberger’s rookie season. They were Super Bowl champs one year later.
Cowher doesn’t diminish Big Ben’s importance. The quarterback revitalized a franchise. But it took more than one player, Cowher said, to recover from 6-10.
Over time, Cowher explained, he built a culture strong enough to withstand one bad season. Nobody was happy with 6-10. Everybody understood it was unacceptable.
He sees the same resolve with McCarthy’s Packers.
“Mike wears his emotion on his sleeve,” Cowher said. “You see it in his press conference. I love it. He reminds me of myself. He’s a western Pennsylvania guy. He’s not happy either when they’re not winning. Trust me on that. I’ve seen that in him.”
Assessing blame for the slipping Packers is difficult.
Rodgers hasn’t been the same quarterback since his 2014 MVP season. Injuries only thinned a roster already riddled with holes. Around him, Thompson built a faulty roster.
“It’s not like they’re a dominant personnel,” Seifert said. “They’re a good personnel, certainly, but it’s not like they’re dominant. And he keeps on keeping them in the hunt. So I think that’s the sign of a pretty damn good coach.”
McCarthy’s plight isn’t unique. Around the league, contemporaries are wrestling with the 10-year deal.
Sean Payton, hired the same year as McCarthy, hasn’t led the New Orleans Saints to the playoffs since 2013. The Saints have a 4-5 record.
Mike Tomlin, hired a year after McCarthy, entered this season coaching a Steelers team expected to be Super Bowl favorites. They also have a 4-5 record.
Their longevity isn’t by accident. McCarthy, Payton and Tomlin are among the league’s best coaches. Deep into their tenure, they’re plummeting.
“It’s wear and tear on a coach,” Billick said. “That’s heavy lifting. Sometimes, it’s easier on the coach to start anew and start that message new and rebuild that culture someplace else, simply because you’re not fighting that conventional perspective of, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s hit the 10-year mark. What does that mean?’”
Usually, it means termination. Separation. The end.
Rare is a team that employs the same coach 10 years. Rarer is the coach who sustains success beyond a decade.
Billick thinks the Packers are different. He sees in Green Bay the same, rare patience that exists in Pittsburgh, a franchise that has had three head coaches in 47 years.
“I think Green Bay is unique in that way,” Billick said. “My bet is they’re smart enough, because of structure, that they don’t (fire McCarthy). To me, it would be a mistake to make a change, but I think Green Bay has always proved to be a little unique that way.
“Anytime you let a guy like that (go), it’s like any quarterback. Good coaches are hard to come by.”