The latest installment of our series on "coaching all-stars," showcasing the best player-seasons in the history of some of the NFL's best and/or most experienced coaches, features Jeff Fisher.
Fisher's football career began as a player at the University of Southern California, where he was part of one of the most talented secondaries in college football history (with Joey Browner, Dennis Smith, and Ronnie Lott) on one of the most talented teams in college football history, the 1979 Trojans squad profiled this offseason in The Athletic. His NFL playing career with the Chicago Bears was significantly less decorated than that of his defensive backfield teammates, but he did get a Super Bowl ring in 1985 as an injured player/pseudo-defensive assistant to Buddy Ryan. He then followed Ryan to Philadelphia as a defensive assistant, rising to defensive coordinator and nearly being hired as Buddy's successor instead of Rich Kotite. Instead, he spent a year as the Rams' defensive coordinator working for his old college coach John Robinson, then two years with the 49ers as a defensive backs coach before succeeding Ryan (who was hired as the Cardinals' head coach) as the Oilers' defensive coordinator in 1994. He took over as head coach on an interim basis that season, got the permanent job in the offseason, and spent the next 16 years working for Bud Adams in Houston, Memphis, and Nashville. Following a year off, he then served as the Rams' head coach in St. Louis and Los Angeles from 2012 until he was fired during the 2016 season.
Fisher is a natural fit for this series, ranking eighth in NFL history in games coached. He made a Super Bowl only to suffer an agonizing loss. His teams several times had the league's top record in the regular season. His squads featured an MVP quarterback, multiple All-Pro running backs, and plenty of defensive talent, including a couple that DVOA considered the league's best. No team won more regular season games from 1999 to 2003 than his Titans, and he performed the rare feat of leading a different core group of players to the postseason after a salary cap-induced bottoming out. After it ended in Tennessee, he took over a moribund Rams team that had won just 15 games in the past five seasons and set the stage for Sean…
Oh, forget it. The idea for this column was proposed on March 27 and accepted on April 1, and we chose to run it on 7/9 because, well, you know the deal. No coach in league history has lost more regular-season games (Dan Reeves is tied with 165). Fisher's two squads that finished 13-3 and gained homefield advantage each lost their first playoff game despite hugely outgaining their opponent, the Ravens. He won three playoff games to make it to the Super Bowl as a wild card in 1999, and only two others in his other 19 seasons as head coach. His Rams stint topped out at 7-8-1, and his career record is barely over .500 at 173-165-1. Looking at coaches by most games in charge, you have to go all the way down to Norv Turner at 26th to find a coach with a worse winning percentage. Stated most generously, his background with USC in the era of Student Body Right and his early NFL days with the Walter Payton Bears and then the Buddy Ryan Eagles led him to focus on defense, special teams, and the running game as the right way to win, often seemingly putting him at odds with the focus on the modern pass-oriented NFL. Going out with Jared Goff putting up some of the worst numbers for a rookie in league history seemed fitting. But with that much time in the league, there is still some talent to choose from, so let's see what we can do.
QB: Steve McNair, 2003 Titans
RB: Chris Johnson, 2009 Titans
FB: Lorenzo Neal, 1999 Titans
WR: Derrick Mason, 2003 Titans
WR: Drew Bennett, 2004 Titans
TE: Frank Wycheck, 2001 Titans
One of the hallmarks of Fisher's tenure was mediocre or worse quarterback play. McNair had brief stretches of fine performance, highlighted by his work from 2001 to 2003. He shared MVP honors with Peyton Manning in that last season and finished slightly behind him in DVOA (37.1% to 36.3%). The Titans led the league in third-down passing DVOA that year as McNair repeatedly bailed the Titans out from third-and-longs an older Eddie George put them in. Naturally, McNair's late-season injury woes meant George was the one who led them to their playoff victory over Baltimore.
George was a tempting pick because his bruising style and ability to take as many carries as a coach could give him without seeming to tire was a natural fit for Fisher's preferred style of play. His All-Pro season of 2000 ranked just 13th in rushing DYAR, though. That made Johnson's 2,000-yard season an easy selection, as he led the league in rushing DYAR by a wide margin and also ranked sixth in receiving DYAR.
Wide receiver was "pick a Derrick Mason season, then see what else is on offer." 2001 and 2003 were the leading contenders, and with 2001 represented elsewhere and 2003 his more prolific season in terms of volume, it was the choice. The leading contenders for the second spot were Bennett and Kenny Britt in 2010. Britt had the better season by our numbers, coming in second in DVOA and ninth in DYAR thanks in part to one of the best games of the past decade, but I ultimately decided 775 yards was just not enough. I also considered 2003 Justin McCareins (seventh in DYAR, second in DVOA, just 813 yards as a clear secondary option), but, really, for a couple decades as a head coach, Fisher just didn't give us much to choose from here.
Wycheck was a key part of the offense for a young McNair, and McNair as he got older, and even Chris Chandler before McNair took over. He had three seasons in the top ten in both DVOA and DYAR, and I went with his top DYAR season of 2001.
I considered squeezing a third receiver season on there, or a second tight end season, but ultimately decided there was not enough of a statistical case for either, notwithstanding terrific blocker Erron Kinney ranking 11th in DYAR in 2003. Plus, adding a pure blocking fullback like Neal just feels right. I went with his work as part of 1999's third-ranked rushing offense DVOA over 2000's 18th-ranked unit.
LT: Michael Roos, 2008 Titans
LG: Bruce Matthews, 1999 Titans
C: Kevin Mawae, 2006 Titans
RG: Benji Olson, 2002 Titans
RT: David Stewart, 2009 Titans
The offensive line continues the monopoly of Tennessee on Fisher's offensive squads. I hope that is more than just my Titans fan bias, as he inherited a disaster of a unit with the Rams and seemed to get it only to mediocre. Rodger Saffold's All-Pro season in Los Angeles was in the future, so all two-tone blue it is.
The entirety of Fisher's Oilers/Titans tenure saw either Roos or Brad Hopkins at left tackle. Without going back and watching tons of Hopkins film, and freely admitting my pro-Roos bias, I had to choose from a number of consistently strong Roos seasons. 2008 feels like as good a choice as any given the team's overall excellence saw him chosen to the All-Pro team. The other tackle spot came down to a toss-up between Stewart and Jon Runyan, with Big Country leading the way for CJ2K the choice thanks to the Titans' strongest run direction being right end and right tackle the season.
The interior offensive line selections were difficult. The Titans were good running left in 1999, the offense was good enough it deserves more than just Neal, and Matthews was an All-Pro selection that season, so that filled left guard. Fisher's Titans seemed to alternate between cast-off centers and veterans used to support a young line. Mawae made the All-Pro team in 2008, but he meant more to the line in 2006, plus he played all 16 games that year. Olson was a mainstay at right guard for years; 2002 was chosen to recognize that season's offensive performance. I could well be underrating Kevin Donnalley or Jake Scott here.
DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN
DE: Jevon Kearse, 1999 Titans
DT: Albert Haynesworth, 2008 Titans
DT: Aaron Donald, 2015 Rams
DE: Robert Quinn, 2013 Rams
OLB: Keith Bulluck, 2004 Titans
MLB: Randall Godfrey, 2000 Titans
OLB: David Thornton, 2007 Titans
Note to opposing quarterbacks: good freakin' luck. This defensive line will tear you to shreds. Kearse's 14.5-sack, eight-forced fumble rookie season is too legendary to leave off the list. Opposite him is Quinn, who had 19.0 sacks, 21 hits, and 43 hurries per Football Outsiders Almanac 2014. Honorable mention to Chris Long (11.5 sacks, 33.5 hurries in 2012) and Kyle Vanden Bosch (12.0 sacks in 2005, 12.5 in 2007).
At defensive tackle, flip a coin between Haynesworth's consecutive All-Pro seasons that earned him the big free-agent contract from Washington. He terrorized opposing defenses, and the E-T stunts with Vanden Bosch saw offensive linemen get embarrassed. Donald did not earn Defensive Player of the Year honors until the McVay era, so we have to settle for 11.0 sacks, 27 hits, and 33 hurries (I chose that over 2016's 8.0-sack, 24-hits 44-hurry partial Fisher season). There is not the same sort of star second tier here that there is at defensive end, just a bunch of really good players. I could be underrating an older season like, say, Gary Walker in 1997, but not enough to displace either starter.
Bulluck was a lock at one outside linebacker spot, and I went with 2004 over 2003 largely for personal reasons. I did not have a candidate I loved for the second outside linebacker spot. Alec Ogletree with the Rams was an attempt to replicate the same college safety-to-star weakside linebacker conversion, with not nearly the same results. Thornton in 2007 gives DVOA's top defense some recognition; as Ned Macey wrote in FOA 2009, he was a "very-good-but-not-quite-Pro Bowl level of player." Middle linebacker was rarely a signature position in a Jeff Fisher defense. The arrival of Godfrey was a key part of the leap from 1999's mediocre defense to 2000's better-than-the-heralded-Ravens (by DVOA, regular-season version).
CB: Samari Rolle, 2000 Titans
CB: Cortland Finnegan, 2008 Titans
FS: Marcus Robertson, 1997 Oilers
SS: Blaine Bishop, 2000 Titans
Rolle was a terrific corner for a number of seasons, and seven interceptions (including a spectacular half-ending touchdown return on Monday Night Football against Washington) made 2000 his standout season. Finnegan, a seventh-round pick and safety at Samford, was likewise an All-Pro member of a 13-3 team that lost to the Ravens at home in the playoffs. I was tempted to make room for E.J. Gaines' surprisingly strong 2014 rookie season to give us another Rams representative, but cannot displace an All-Pro season for that. As the primary Tennessee charter, I was probably a bit too kind in charting Pacman Jones' 2006 campaign (plus his name will appear soon).
When I started thinking about this exercise, I was not sure where I would go with safety. Chris Hope was a personal favorite for his versatility and exceptional work as an alley player, a revelation to me when I started breaking down games in detail and a key to strong run defense in Jim Schwartz's two-high looks. Ultimately, though I wanted more of a pure strong and free safety fit. Dr. Z's 1997 All-Pro Team put Robertson over the top, while hitter Bishop was a perfect fit for Gregg Williams' 46.
K: Rob Bironas, 2007 Titans
P: Johnny Hekker, 2016 Rams
KR: Marc Mariani, 2010 Titans
PR: Pacman Jones, 2006 Titans
Kicker comes off our numbers. The best FG/XP season was by Al Del Greco in 1998, but punter Craig Hentrich kicked off that year. The second-best was 2009 by Bironas, but he did not do well on kickoffs that year. The third-best was by Gary Anderson in 2003, who excelled at kicking the ball just far enough to go over the crossbar but also ceded kickoff duties to Hentrich. 2007 offers the best combination of both in the Fisher era.
In the 35 years of the DVOA era, the best punting season was by the 1986 New York Jets, who accumulated 30.7 points of net punt value. The second-best total was 29.4 points by the 2016 Rams. The third-best total was 22.4 points by Hekker and the 2013 Rams (who were also terrific on kickoffs, though Greg Zuerlein was only average by FG/XP). Honorable mention to Hentrich's league-leading total in 1999.
By our numbers, the best kickoff return season was by Mason on the 2000 Titans. Since he is already on the team, Mariani gets the spot for the clear second-best season (11.9 points to Mason's 12.4). At punt returner, fun fact: the league's most valuable punt returner by our numbers in 2006, Devin Hester's breakout rookie season, was Pacman Jones. The Titans had 12.4 points of punt return value that year to Chicago's 11.7, including Jones' remarkable return against the Eagles (no, off-the-field issues were not a consideration in this selection).
If you coach for a couple of decades in the NFL, even if your overall performance is only average, you can end up having coached a bunch of good individual players! The worst players on this team were strong players but not quite Pro Bowlers. The best are genuine stars and record-setters, highlighted by a fearsome defensive line and a secondary full of All-Pros.
Previous coaching All-Star Teams: