Let’s all just be honest with one another. A coach or manager’s job, while difficult in an application sense, has a pretty simple description. Put your team in the best possible position to have a chance at winning the game, and pretty much stay out of the way. This means you game plan, strategize, encourage, discipline, train, cheer, substitute, and face the media. But essentially, it’s the players that have to play the game, and why the teams that win championships at the end of the year are the teams that have a preponderance of the best players, not a bunch of scrubs with a great manager. However, time and time again, you see teams with an abundance of talent that consistently underachieve. Often, the finger can be pointed to sub par (or incompetent, if we’re speaking truthfully) leadership.
Who the hell are you, Torsten? What makes you the authority on good coaching and lousy coaching? Good question, I suppose. I can only say this: I’m a guy with an opinion. I guy that observes. And in three and a half decades of watching sports on a daily basis (sorry, ladies, I’m married), I’ve seen a lot of great, good, bad, and ugly. And most often, what looks like a duck and quacks like a duck turns out to be a duck.
Remember one thing before we continue. This column contains the word “overrated” in the title. This isn’t to imply that the coaches/managers mentioned herein should be unemployed. It just means they’re constantly having praise heaped upon them by fawning and starstruck members of the media when the reality is, they’re far from the best in their profession. Some of the names may surprise you, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if you disagreed with me. It would only mean that you’re wrong. That’s fine. Without further ado.
Phil Jackson – What’s he won, eleven NBA Championships as a coach? Wow, he must be the greatest coach ever!!! I bet you think you know what’s coming. Anyone can coach Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to titles. No, no. BUT, as we determined earlier, championship teams generally have the best players. Let’s look at the last few championships across sports. Who has won them? The Blackhawks, The Heat, The Cardinals, Manchester United, Baltimore Ravens, Novak Djokovic. These are teams with some of the greatest talent collections in their sport in the World, or in Novak Djokovic’s case, the most talented player currently playing. So it stands to reason that a team with players like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, etc. would have a reasonable shot at winning a title, right? You could say the same for the Lakers of the Kobe Bryant Shaquille O’Neil era. In Jackson’s case, his shortcomings really come to light when you see him in instances where hurdles and challenges had to be overcome.
Let’s go back to 2011. The Lakers were coming off of back-to-back championships and expectations for a third were high. The roster was stacked. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, pre-substance abuse issue Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest. But something happened. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle and his team saw something, a way to break down the Lakers’ defense and a way to combat their triangle offense. What they did was put the onus on the Lakers to make an adjustment, and in four games they never did. As each game moved closer and closer to a loss, cameras repeated focused on Jackson and all he could do was stare wide-eyed and sullenly at the court. He literally had no answers. Now, could he have tried a different approach, changed things up at half time in a desperate attempt to reverse the course of the game and get his team back in it, and still have failed? Of course. But the point is, he had nothing. He has the triangle offense, which wasn’t even invented by him. That was Tex Winter. And when that isn’t working, he had the two greatest one-on-one players in the history of the game in Bryant and MJ whom he would look to to just take over. JJ Barea, Dallas’ tiny point guard in this series was nearly unstoppable. Did they try to neutralize him by posting him up when on offense and get him in foul trouble? Did they attack the offensively brilliant but defensively vulnerable Dirk Nowitzki at all? Did they try any real drive and kick to free up their sharp shooters? No. Is there a guarantee that any of it would have worked? Of course not. But we’ll never know, because the thought of attempting to change it up never crossed his mind, evidently. Carlisle turns out to be a master strategist, as you can see how the Mavs shocked everyone by toppling Miami and LeBron James. And Eric Spoelstra DID try to change things up, and the Mavs just won. Jackson, he’s just, well, a Zen Master I suppose. He does have a way of nurturing harmony, excising petulance in young stars, and manipulating referees. He’s not the worst coach in the world, and would deserve to have a job if he was looking for one, but is he the best like everyone is so quick to anoint him? Not even close. Need more proof? He started Smush Parker at point guard in MULTIPLE NBA games. Smush Parker. And 97-year-old Derek Fisher. Seriously. Started. Games that mattered.
Jeff Fisher – After a positively mediocre tenure in Tennessee, highlighted by one Superbowl appearance despite a talented roster with a lock-down defense for much of his career there, Fisher took his talents to St. Louis, after some time off. The Savior of St. Louis football, they screamed. The Rams finally had that coach to lead them out of a decade that was one of the worst in professional sports history. So in comes Fisher, in comes a new general manager, and the Rams immediately improve by 5 wins, including impressive performances twice against the 49rs and twice against the vaunted Seahawks, including in a losing effort on the last day of the season in Seattle, where no team but the Seahawks won a game last year. The Fisher Effect, they called it. See? All this team needed was a coach who knew his ass from a hole in the ground, a bit of a roster overhaul to get rid of the excess baggage, and a personnel department that actually knew what a football was. Sure, all of that helped a little. It also helped that the Rams had sucked for so long, every team expected a walk-over when they saw St. Louis on their schedule. They weren’t used to a Rams team that had a roster of over 50 NFL players instead of 12 NFL players and over 40 pretenders. In the midst of all this improvement, however, was a disturbing pattern. Fisher is incredibly predictable.
Most NFL coaches add wrinkles to their playbook and play calling as the weeks go on. They incorporate new things, review tapes from previous weeks to make sure that they aren’t giving things away by falling into too much of a pattern. By all appearances though, you would think Fisher looks at game tape and thinks, We absolutely must find what was a total disaster last week, and do that on every play this week. Of course that’s not the case, but look at the tape. Look at the highlights. Not only does Fisher, much like Jackson, seem painfully unable to attempt any kind of adjustments when things aren’t working, he consistently calls plays with incredibly low probability of being successful. On top of that, even, he makes the defense defend only the minimum part of the field.
Allow me to digress for a moment into football philosophy 101. A football field is 120 yards long counting both endzones, and just over 53 yards wide (we’re going to round down because math…well, math is hard.) The maximum distance a defensive team will ever be responsible for is just under 110 yards since they don’t defend the end zone they’re trying to score into. That’s 5,830 square yards of field to defend. Since the average quarterback can probably throw the ball 60 yards past the line of scrimmage (just to use a round number because math…well, I’m just not very good at it.) you can postulate that the defense will be responsible for actively defending 3,180 yards at a given time, provided there’s enough field left to defend. That works out to just under 55% of the field. 11 guys have to defend that vast expanse of field. It’s not much of a surprise that it’s an offensive league these days, is it? Well, Fisher and his braintrust simply refuse to attempt any pass play more than 8 yards down the field. Despite Sam Bradford attempting more passes than any quarterback in the league so far this year, his passes travel an average of something like 6.7 yards in the air. (we’re going to round up to ten because math… I’m running out of math jokes.) When the defense knows with near certainty that any play attempted is going to be less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage, it means they only have to be responsible for 530 square yards. That’s only 9% of the field. And the actuality is more like 7% because we rounded up. There’s an entire formulaic process that goes way more in depth than this, and I think I’m going to write about it at a later date, because I’m still shocked about the fake punt attempt against the Cowboys two weeks ago. The probability of that play on fourth and 8 had maybe a 5% chance of success where a regular old “let’s go for it” play on fourth down sat around 35%, even with Fisher’s unwillingness to try pass plays of longer than 7 yards. Anyway, moving on.
Can some of Fisher’s futility be blamed on an offensive coordinator who is completely inept, and a defensive coordinator who appears far out of his depth, and a personnel department that somehow looks every bit as incompetent as the previous regime, demonstrating shocking profligacy with high draft picks and head scratching idiocy with free agent signings? Sure. But since Fisher has input in those decisions too, he really is mostly to blame for how God awful of a team he has. There’s still hope for him though. To be fair, he has the reputation of being a likable guy and player’s coach, that his guys like him, play hard for him, and will do what he says. Now, he just has to say things that aren’t moronic.
Joe Torre – Torre’s 12 year stint as Yankee manager is still reasonably fresh in most people’s minds, and his defenders will vehemently shout that he led the pinstripes to the postseason each of his seasons in charge, and won 4 World Series titles with the Yanks. A closer look though reveals that during the Yanks’ run of three straight titles, and four of five, they had such an advantage over the rest of the MLB field that it’s shocking they won only four with Torre in charge. Bottomless coffers allowed them to sign any player they wanted, and George Steinbrenner’s complete disregard for the luxury tax reinforced that. Yet somehow, after 2000, this team just couldn’t make it happen in the postseason. Sure, there was the heartbreaking loss to Arizona on Luis Gonzales’ duck snort single off of Mo Rivera. But really, none of it should be a surprise. Why? Because Torre treated his bullpen like sweatshop workers. Scott Proctor, Paul Quantrill, Ramiro Mendoza, Luis Vizcaino, Joba Chaimberlain, Ron Villone. He found one or two guys not named Mariano in his bullpen that were throwing reasonably well, and pitched them in what seemed like every game. That goes great, and all, for the first few months of the season, but when the post season rolls around and your top relievers have already thrown nearly 100 innings, they’re spent. Especially when you consider how many times they must have gotten up in the pen to warm up but never actually entered the game. In some cases, these guys recovered by the next year and pitched well, or ok… until September anyway. In other cases, like Scott Proctor, he was never the same. His arm was toast, and by the time he was on the Dodgers (along with Torre, incidentally) he was cooked. Joba Chaimberlain and his malevolent arsenal of pitches was one of baseball’s biggest future stars. But years later and still a Yankee, he’s mediocre at best. The trend continued when Torre took over the Dodgers. Veteran Chan Ho Park, still with excellent stuff but a delicate body, was run into the ground and was essentially useless down the stretch. It’s a miracle that Mariano Rivera never had arm problems in his career, and I’m firmly convinced it’s only because he hasn’t thrown a breaking ball in 15 years. That’s the only reason I can think of that Mo survived Torre’s overuse.
Now, is this because Torre just hated relievers? Was it trust issues, as he alluded to in his memoir/autobiography, The Yankee Years (featuring also the outstanding Tom Verducci)? Unless I’m way off, bullpen guys who aren’t closers have always seemed to me to be treated kind of like the kicker or punter of a football team. Yeah, they’re kind of necessary to have around, but they’re not really treated like the other guys on the team. Anyone remember Tony Cogan? He was a promising lefty in the Royals organization who made his major league debut in 2000. Cogan got off to a good start, but faltered and was demoted. Allegedly, Cogan told a coach on the team that his arm was hurting and was told, paraphrased, you’re a piece of meat to us and your job is to go in there and pitch when we tell you to.
I got that story years ago from someone close to Cogan, and at the time, to me too. Was that Torre’s philosophy also? Relievers are interchangeable parts that, much like brake pads, should just be discarded when worn too thin, replaced by shiny new ones? Nothing would indicate that. I’ve scoured the internet from top to bottom looking for any possible instance of Torre hearing from a reliever, “Coach, my arm is hanging, I don’t think I have it today,” and Torre firing back, “Awww, you’re arm is hanging? Well, here’s a nice warm glass of shut the @#$% up and get out there and pitch.” I didn’t find any. So rather than disregard for the human being, it can only be a lack of ability to comprehend that throwing a baseball overhand is not a natural motion, and that the arms that do it fatigue eventually.
Want a simpler reason why Torry is overrated? He’s won 53% of the games he’s managed in his career, counting the 12 seasons he was with the Yankees and their highest-in-sport payroll. Joe Girardi inherited an older version of that team with stiffer AL East competition and has won 57% of his games as manager.
Roberto Martinez – Long considered one of soccer’s brightest managerial rising stars, Martinez currently plies his trade with Everton in the English Premier League. Before that, he was with since-relegated Wigan Athletic, and before that, since-PROMOTED Swansea. So let’s get this straight, he leaves Swansea for Wigan, and then Swansea gets promoted to the top flight. Wigan eventually gets relegated a couple seasons later. Again, he leaves a place and they improve. He joins a place and they regress.
Martinez is not an incompetent soccer mind. He actually has ideas. He doesn’t just throw 4-4-2 formations on the field and hope for the best. He wants his team to play with style, attack, control the ball, and possess a bit of panache. It makes for entertaining soccer, that’s for sure. But is it effective?
Wigan Athletic is a tiny team when compared to others in the Premier League. To attempt to play the same style of soccer as Manchester United or Arsenal with 1/100th of the budget, not to mention even a smaller percentage than that of appeal to potential players, is lunacy. To compare Wigan to Stoke City, a similarly small team in the top flight who has consistently battled for and secured mid-table security, is as close to fair as I can come. Stoke’s philosophy is simple. Turn their home stadium (The Brittania) into a fortress, defend resolutely, and be effective on set pieces. For years, the Wigan philosophy was the same. When they first came up under manager Paul Jewell, they held a hard line with rugged defenders, Arjan De Zeeuw, Stephane Henchoz, and Matt Jackson. Later on with Steve Bruce, it was the same with the burly Titus Bramble, towering Paul Scharner, and other notable tough guys, Kevin Kilbane and Emerson Boyce. Fast forward to the Martinez era, their defensive players included Boyce, Antolin Alcaraz, Maynor Figueroa, and Gary Caldwell. These guys have one thing in common, and it’s that they’re tough guys who are willing to do the dirty work. Yet Martinez insisted that these guys, ill-skilled to do so, play their way out of trouble in the back rather than hammer the ball to safety. And predictably, Wigan’s defense was among the league’s leakiest for Martinez’ entire tenure in Wigan.
It reminds me of when my dad was my AYSO coach. My dad played soccer at pretty high levels in Germany, South Africa, and eventually here in the States with the Hollywood Kickers and Hollywood Stars. Anyone who knows anything about AYSO knows that generally speaking, each team ends up with a few good players, a handful of decent players, a couple mediocre ones, a bad one or two, and one or two kids who are so out of place on a soccer field that it’s evident their parents just wanted a babysitter for a couple hours a week. One of these kids was Sean V., a nice kid…and really really overweight. Sean could barely run but AYSO rules made you play him somewhere for half the game, so my dad slotted him in at right fullback and prayed. Valiantly, my dad attempted to teach Sean and the other kids how to control the ball at the back and play it to a teammate, rather than just boot it. Some of the kids got it a little bit, but Sean repeatedly fell on the ball, had it hit him in the nutsack, deflected it into the path of an onrushing opposing forward, just about everything bad that you could imagine. Finally, my dad gave up and told Sean, “Buddy, forget the control and pass thing. If you have that ball come to you, give it good whack back up the field.” Sean cheerily replied, “No problem, coach!” And you know what, it worked. No, Sean did not all of a sudden become a good soccer player, or a good defender. But about 90% of the calamities he committed on the field went away, and more often than not, when the ball came to him, he successfully slugged it back where it came from.
The moral of the story is this. You can’t shoehorn your philosophy into a roster that is ill-equipped to handle it. You can pick certain guys who are good fits, and install pieces of it. You can have your attackers take creative approaches and try inventive things because if they foul it up, it’s no big thing. But you can’t take a collection of tough guys who are best at and used to hard-nosed defending and turn them into Franz Beckenbauer. It just doesn’t work that way. He’s off to a good start at Everton, but it’s a small sample size so far so we shall see.
Dusty Baker – The real shocker here is that Baker continues to be employed by teams that should contend. Take this year’s Reds, how could that team not perform better? Big time hitters, a legitimate pitching staff with a legitimate ace and a big time closer, yet they squeaked into the wild card game…and lost. Somehow, Baker managed to work it out so that Mat Latos, the team’s best starter, couldn’t pitch the biggest game of the year, and decided to give the ball to Johnny Cueto, who although talented, spent most of the season on the DL with lat issues. It’s easy to speak in hindsight, but you know, veteran Bronson Arroyo was there too.
That’s just the most recent example. While with the Cubs, he managed to put together a couple of good seasons, but in the process, managed to destroy Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, two of the most talented right handed pitchers to come along in generations. Is it all his fault? Probably not. In Prior’s case, alleged steroid use may have had something to do with it. But both guys threw incredibly hard with ridiculous sliders, one of the pitches that is hardest on the arm. When guys like that are at the top of the league in pitch count per start, isn’t there something wrong? Look, I don’t buy completely into pitch count, but guys that throw 40+ 90mph sliders per start should probably be monitored a little bit, no?
Additionally, I’m not all in on Moneyball like some guys, but I’m also not dismissive of on base percentage. Sure, I’d rather have a guy that has a higher batting average (sure, call me old fashioned) because that guy is more likely to get a hit with two outs and a guy in scoring position, where a walk won’t really accomplish anything. However, let’s go back to this year’s Reds. When you have sluggers like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce (to say nothing of the very good Brandon Phillips), how is OBP not a priority at the top of the line up?
I’m not saying that Baker has nothing offer as a manager. Put him in charge of a young team that isn’t necessarily expected to compete, and let him teach those players something. He was, after all, a very good player who always gave his best. And he’s not completely useless when it comes to decision-making, just when the health of his pitching staff and the production of his offense is at stake. Ok… so he is kind of useless. But he can still teach young players a thing or two about playing the game. Apart, of course, from “toothpicks being an excellent source of protein.”
Did I miss anyone? Let me know in the comments. Coming soon, the other side of the coin. Coaches who are underappreciated for their contributions and abilities to lead. And maybe another fantasy tip sheet, but I have to win again before that happens. It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Until then, cheers.