Black Monday came a few weeks early this season, with perhaps the most serious casualty being the reputation of Bill Parcells.
Two of the legendary and notably itinerant former NFL head coach's disciples were both handed their walking papers in moves that were surprising only in when they occurred, with the Kansas City Chiefs pulling the plug on the highly- contentious Todd Haley era on Monday and the Miami Dolphins following suit with Tony Sparano just hours later. The embattled duo will wind up sharing more than just a corresponding termination date and a connection to Parcells (both Haley and Sparano were on the Big Tuna's staff in Dallas from 2004-06), however, as dysfunctional working environments and their own inability to comfortably mesh with organizational philosophy were as influential to each's departure as any other factor.
Despite having produced a pair of losing seasons during a three-year stint, Haley's firing just one day after the Chiefs' dismal display against the New York Jets wasn't so much based on performance. The fiery 44-year-old was able to guide Kansas City to a surprise AFC West title in 2010 despite having probably the least talented roster of all of last year's playoff entrants (and that includes a 7-9 Seattle team), and kept the Chiefs in the division race for much of this season in spite of devastating injuries to cornerstone players such as running back Jamaal Charles, young safety Eric Berry, tight end Tony Moeaki and eventually starting quarterback Matt Cassel. But his constant personality clashes with general manager Scott Pioli deteriorated a relationship to the point of beyond repair, while several head-scratching decisions in regards to utilizing the available personnel wound up hastening the inevitable split.
The final straw came in Sunday's 37-10 fiasco at MetLife Stadium, in which a lifeless Kansas City offense was reduced to a pathetic four total yards and one first down in falling behind 28-3 to the Jets at halftime. The unraveled Chiefs were also whistled for 11 penalties totaling 128 yards on the day, with five of those infractions (including an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Haley for badgering an official) coming on a 90-yard touchdown drive by New York in the third quarter.
Such meager outputs as that one had been all too common for a team being directed by a head coach with the distinction of being an offensive mastermind. The Chiefs were held to 10 points or less for the sixth straight game with Sunday's setback and have mustered a paltry 45 points over that 1-5 stretch, and both Cassel and the unit seemed to take a step back when former coordinator Charlie Weis announced he'd be leaving his post to return to the college ranks prior to the team's playoff loss to Baltimore last January.
Haley's refusal to insert rookie Ricky Stanzi in place of marginally-talented journeyman Tyler Palko, who delivered a fourth consecutive ineffective start subbing for an injured Cassel against the Jets, was a classic example of the grating, obstinate behavior that caused a marriage with Pioli that was never a perfect match to begin with to turn horribly sour. And the Chiefs' three offensive coordinators in his three seasons spoke volumes of the lack of continuity that was emblematic in the team's play, particularly this season. Kansas City has had two losing streaks of three or more games in 2011, had a 4-0 record in October, and endured five defeats by a margin of 27 points or more.
Sparano's dismissal had been a foregone conclusion despite Miami's four victories in a five-week stretch -- which began with a 31-3 dismantling of Haley's Chiefs in Week 9 -- prior to Sunday's 26-10 setback to Jekyll-and-Hyde Philadelphia. That loss ensured a third straight losing season for the Dolphins under his watch, and he no longer had the unequivocal support of the team's brass once Parcells -- who had hand-picked his former underling for the job -- left his front-office gig at the conclusion of the 2010 campaign.
He can at least exit with his head up high, as the Dolphins' persisted in playing hard even after a hard-luck 0-7 start had all but wrecked their playoff plans by Halloween. The team's determined effort was considerably more dignified than the behavior of spotlight-seeking owner Stephen Ross and general manager Jeff Ireland back in January, when the two launched a covert courtship of then-Stanford on-field CEO Jim Harbaugh that was rebuffed by the likely NFL Coach of the Year and forced a humiliated Ross to give Sparano a phony two-year contract extension afterward.
While the timing of the decision may seem curious, it's in reality probably best for all parties involved. Sparano's credentials for future positions won't take a hard hit due to his team's commendable recent showing, and Ross gets a three-week head start on his grand plan to lure a marquee head coach such as Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden or Jeff Fisher in hopes of re-energizing a fickle fan base that's turned its interest to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as well as the made-over Marlins. The clearly audible chants of Eagles fans that had taken over Sun Life Stadium in Sparano's swan song was a damning piece of evidence to the notion that his archaic, Parcells-influenced brand of football wasn't striking much of a chord on South Beach.
And Pioli, an integral part of New England's dynastic run of the 2000's, can turn his attention to finding a suitable replacement in the mold of "the Patriot Way," an ideal the free-thinking Haley never fully embraced and which made his hire back in 2009 such a strange fit. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, a past cohort with Pioli in both Cleveland and Baltimore, would be a natural candidate, and Bill Belichick wannabe Josh McDaniels' name has even surfaced in spite of his single-handed demolition of the Denver Broncos just a year ago and an uninspiring subsequent stint as the offensive coordinator of the woefully anemic St. Louis Rams. It's possible new interim head coach Romeo Crennel would have a reasonable opportunity to state his case as well, being a longtime confidant of both Pioli and Belichick.
What direction either of these two franchises take in their search can't yet be determined, but there's little doubt that Haley and Sparano (and the recently- canned Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville) won't be the only members of the NFL's 2011 head coaching class to be seeking employment in another city in the coming months.
Fasten your safety belts, Ladies and Gentlemen. We're in store for one wild offseason.