Even More Lessons from the 1994 Broncos and Oilers

With the Cowboys starting at 1-5, this is yet another opportunity revisit the paths of two teams from the 1994 season. Several previous posts have examined Wade Phillips’ short career in Denver as well as comparisons between Phillips and Jack Pardee. These posts include:

Why Wade Phillips was Fired by Buffalo and Denver

Wade Phillips Coaching Career is Similar To…?

Have the Cowboys Become the Warren-Moon-Era Oilers?

Wade Phillips Once Had a Worse Start

The Oilers and Broncos were both playoff teams in 1993 and expected to return in 1994. Denver had stockpiled talent, including several free agents during the offseason. Meanwhile, the Oilers seemed to take a bit of a step back when the team lost quarterback Warren Moon to free agency. Houston wound up going with a QB rotation featuring the forgettable likes of Cody Carlson, Bucky Richardson, and Billy Joe Tolliver.

Both the Oiliers and the Broncos ended up starting at 1-5. Fans in both Denver and Houston predictably called for their coaches’ heads, but the firings were not immediate. Houston owner Bud Adams did not fire Pardee until the team had gone 1-9. Denver owner Pat Bowlen waited until the end of the year to fire Phillips after the Broncos and rebounded to finish at 7-9.

Here is a look at those two decisions.

Bowlen’s Meddling

Who does the following describe?

[F]ormer oilman, ironman and chairman of the bored, now majority stockholder, big cheese, president, chief executive officer, commander-in-residence, speaker of the house, general manager de facto, assistant to himself, entertainment director, beau monde ambassador, new stadium procurer, talent-scout consultant and suave-and-debonair coach-at-large….

Nope, it’s not Jerry. That description would attach to Denver owner Pat Bowlen, who in 1992 had decided to take a more active role in running his team. His decision about his role in part led him to terminate Dan Reeves, who had led the Broncos to three Super Bowl appearances in the 1980s. When the team fell to 1-5 in 1994 by losing to rival Kansas City on Monday Night Football, columnist Woody Paige took Bowlen to task:

Since Big Boss Bowlen took a lot more active role in running the Broncos, no team in the AFC West has lost more games. The Broncos are 10-13 under The Owner’s watch and dead in the division at 1-5 this season following the loss to Kansas City Monday night. Denver defeats are as predictable as school-cafeteria food. The Broncos have bowed in four straight at Mile High Stadium, once the friendliest confines in the league. Big Boss Bowlen told a Chamber of Commerce luncheon two days before the season began he expected the Broncos to have an unblemished 19-0 (including playoff and Super Bowl victories) mark. He could be off by 18 victories. The blemished Broncos are bad, which isn’t just a local assessment. A national commentator said last week the Broncos are the worst team in the NFL, although there might be some argument in Cincinnati. The brunt of the blame and the paper airplanes have been aimed at coach Wade Phillips. Phillips is a nice guy. He will finish last…

You can’t fire the owner, though. You can give him the Meddler of Dishonor Award.

As for the specific meddling:

Bowlen refused to give Mike Shanahan the freedom to rule, so he rejected an offer. Bowlen declined to pursue Steve Spurrier, opting for a loyal and affable Phillips. But warm and fuzzy doesn’t succeed in the National Football League – particularly when it is combined with poor personnel decisions, weak drafts and squandered future picks, confused coordinators, uncertainty about signing veterans, paranoia, a lack of understanding about the Broncos’ tradition throughout the organization and a lack of leadership.

In September, Bowlen gave Wade a vote of confidence, noting, “I’m just as disappointed as anybody, but it’s not time to start pointing fingers at the head coach.” Three months later, though, Bowlen said he had completely lost confidence in Phillips and the entire staff and fired all of them.

Of course, these criticisms of Bowlen became moot when Bowlen turned to Shanahan, who led the Broncos to an 8-8 record in 1995 before developing a mini-dynasty in the late 1990s.

Bud Adams’ Hiring from Within

Pardee had built a 42-22 record in his first four seasons in Houston, and each season resulted in a playoff trip. However, the Oilers had only managed one playoff win during that time.

When the Oilers began the 1994 season at 1-9, Houston owner Bud Adams had seen enough. He fired Pardee and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride (who coincidentally coached the Giants offense that destroyed the Cowboys on Monday night). Fans in Houston wanted Adams to replace Pardee with a big name like Jimmy Johnson or Mike Ditka. Instead, Adams promoted defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher, even though Fisher’s defense had been torched by the lowly Bengals one game earlier.

Commentator Dale Robertson’s thoughts on the firing:

Twenty-four hours after Houston’s defense gets picked apart by an apprentice quarterback and a lousy team, Adams rewards his defensive coordinator with a huge promotion. It figures, though, you must be thinking, seeing as how five of Adams’ last seven head coaches have been plucked from within.

Each was the defensive coordinator. Bum Phillips. Ed Biles. Chuck Studley. Jerry Glanville. Now Fisher.

A weird fixation, right? Or perhaps a sad indictment of the Oilers’ offense over the years.

Now, having said all that, let me tell you how I personally feel about Fisher’s ascension.

First, I think Adams screwed up by not blitzing Johnson, the well-coiffed, obviously credentialed ex-Dallas Cowboys renaissance man. Adams admits he never attempted to discuss the position with Johnson, the reason being, said he: “Jimmy is happy doing what he’s doing (TV analysis for Fox). I’m not so sure he wants to get back into coaching.”

For cripes’ sake, Bud, how could you not at least pick up a phone and satiate your curiousity — ours, too — by asking him? Jimmy’s pretty big, but, shoot, he’d take your call.

Anyway, Adams didn’t contact Johnson, so that’s that, a moot point. Unless Fisher bombs completely between now and Christmas Eve, when Houston hosts the Jets to mercifully end the season, he is the Oilers’ leader for the foreseeable future.

Was giving the 36-year-old former Chicago Bear his chance of a lifetime — albeit under less-than-opportune circumstances — simply another in a long-running series of Bud-head decisions, or might Fisher actually be a brilliant hire — the savior we’ve been waiting for since Adams’ ambush of Phillips on New Year’s Eve 1980?

As long shots go, Fisher seems a good gamble. I say that despite his age and glaring lack of head coaching experience. His, in fact, has been a name that was starting to be bandied about by other organizations when coaching changes were being contemplated.

And, while I don’t pretend to know him well as a person or a coach, what I do know I applaud.

Fisher’s Oilers/Titans have not won a Super Bowl, but his teams have generally been competitive, and Fisher has shown an admirable resilience throughout his tenure.

What Are the Lessons for the Cowboys?

Many Cowboys fans want to see Wade Phillips gone immediately, including a growing number who know that the move won’t improve the season (I am one of them).

Bowlen avoided the temptation to sack Phillips in 1994, and Phillips was able to turn the ship around just enough that the Broncos entire season wasn’t a disaster. Of course, that Denver team still had John Elway, who played in 14 games that year. For the 2010 Cowboys to duplicate what the 1994 Broncos did, Dallas will have to hope that Jon Kitna is able to shake the rust off his arm. It’s hard to be confident.

It’s possible that Jerry Jones will get so impatient that he finally cuts ties with Phillips before the season ends. Jason Garrett isn’t as young as Fisher when Adams promoted Fisher, but his coaching experience now is comparable to that of Fisher in 1994.

A big question in Dallas right now, though, is whether the team needs a big-name hire to turn this mess around. Neither Bowlen nor Adams went that route, but both ended up with results that Dallas fans would like to see eventually.

Shanahan had lasted less than two full seasons as a head coach with the Raiders before rebounding as the offensive coordinator with Denver and San Francisco. Even then, his 1995 Denver team only managed an 8-8 record, and his 13-3 team in 1996 lost to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. Shanahan was hardly a legend at that time but finally became one by leading Denver to wins in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII.

As for Fisher, the Oilers suffered through a 7-9 season in 1995 followed by three straight 8-8 seasons. It wasn’t until 1999 that Fisher’s Titans team improved to 13-3 and won the AFC Championship. Think about this realistically: if Jason Garrett were the head coach of a Dallas Cowboys team that went 7-9, 8-8, 8-8, 8-8, does he last until season 5 to make a Super Bowl run?

No.

And the answer to that question may be part of the dilemma. Most fans are convinced that the Cowboys are built and ready to win now. Jerry Jones is convinced of the same thing. Wade Phillips isn’t getting the job done, and his successor had better do so.

Maybe common sense would suggest that a head coach with a ring provides the only logical solution to finding someone who can win right now (or next season, as the case may be). But in making such a demand, the Cowboys would ask that a Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden do something that no coach has ever done before—win a Super Bowl with two different franchises.

This will be the subject of a subsequent post, but I think we are in for quite a bit more frustration before we see that title.


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