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MORNING BRIEFING : COMMENTARY

Fisher is the steady hand that guides Titans to success

November 05, 2008|DAN POMPEI | Pompei is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

NASHVILLE — What separates Jeff Fisher is lasting power.

It is appropriate that he once ran a marathon, because his coaching career is the ultimate long run. It also is appropriate that on the wall behind his desk is a portrait of former teammate Walter Payton, one of the most enduring players in NFL history.

The better part of 15 years with the Titans. That's longer than any current head coach has been with his team.

Two hundred thirty-two games coached with one team. That's more than all but nine men in NFL history.

One hundred twenty-eight victories. That's more than all but 21 coaches in NFL history.

It's no wonder Fisher, once a standout at USC and Woodland Hills Taft High, is one of the most respected coaches in the NFL at the relatively young age of 50. It is a wonder that he has survived and thrived in a business that chews up and spits out coaches as if they were pumpkin seeds.

Fisher is a leading candidate for coach of the year this season, and he'll come to Chicago on Sunday with the NFL's only undefeated team. He has done it with a 35-year-old quarterback who had not been a starter since 2005 and a team that did not inspire grand expectations. One NFC personnel man said he thought probably 10 teams had more talent than the Titans.

But Fisher regularly gets more from his team than anyone has a right to.

How does he do it? As well as anyone, Fisher creates an environment conducive to winning. He tells of wanting to see his players hurry into the Titans' practice facility -- because they are excited to be there.

"They know they're permitted to have fun," he says. "I want them to look forward to coming to work, even after the toughest losses. A lot of coaches make it harder than it should be. Some are too hard on themselves, obsessing about controlling everything, not trusting their assistants, worrying about time. When you have trust, it gives you a better chance to be successful."

General Manager Mike Reinfeldt says Fisher was a main reason he was so interested in joining the Titans.

"He's one of five or six coaches in the league who give you a chance to win a Super Bowl," says Reinfeldt.

Center Kevin Mawae, who joined the team as a free agent, and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis also say Fisher is a key reason they are Titans.

"Jeff gets it on so many levels," says McGinnis, who has turned down multiple opportunities to interview for defensive coordinator jobs. "He is fabulous to coach for. Nobody is tight here. There are no hidden agendas. Everybody enjoys being here. He treats you so well, you want to do well for him. He creates loyalty."

If Fisher ever sweats, only his workout partners see it. He speaks with a soft, understated voice.

"Jeff is very even-keel," said Mawae, who has played for six NFL coaches. "There are no peaks and valleys. With Bill Parcells, one day he's up, one day he's down. You didn't want to catch him when he was in the valley. Herm Edwards was always high-strung. Tom Flores was always low-strung. Jeff is in the middle, and guys appreciate that."

When the Titans started 1-4 in 2001, Fisher's demeanor was the same as when the team won 11 of its next 12 games. Fisher didn't panic, nor did his team. Fisher's consistency is "by far the best thing he does," says defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

This season he found a way to make his team feel good about losing starting quarterback Vince Young in the season opener.

He told his players it was a chance to get veteran leadership from Kerry Collins and an opportunity for Young to learn and grow -- good for the short run, good for the long run.

Fisher says he believes distractions are the No. 1 reason teams fail. So he finds ways to minimize them.

"It amazes me how he sees any potential negative as an opportunity," Reinfeldt says. "He conveys it that way to the team. He believes, so they believe."

Nothing illustrates Fisher's calm better than his 47-2 record when the Titans have a fourth-quarter lead on the road. The only coach in history with a better record in that situation is Vince Lombardi at 38-1-1.

"He is prepared, he's calm, he isn't a big risk-taker and he knows all the rules," Reinfeldt says.

Of course Fisher knows the rules. He has written many of them as co-chairman of the NFL's Competition Committee since 2001.

But he breaks the rule that says coaches can't deviate from their blueprint. When it comes to finding ways to win, Fisher is as flexible as a gymnast.

On defense, the Titans have gone from a blitzing, man-to-man team to one that plays a lot of zone. On offense, they usually have been a run-oriented, conservative team. But when Fisher realized he had a quarterback at the top of his game in 2003, he allowed Steve McNair to open up, and the Titans won a dozen games with the fifth-ranked passing game and the 26th-ranked rushing game.

Fisher does not depend on acquiring players who fit his schemes perfectly. He is more willing than most to tailor his schemes to his players' abilities. One of his cardinal rules: Never ask a player to do something he can't do well.

He also knows when and how to push his players' buttons, having what McGinnis calls "an innate feel" for changing things up. Fisher frequently changes the team's meeting and practice schedule and the manner in which he addresses players.

"You want to keep them captivated," Fisher says.

It's all a part of what keeps his run going.

And going.

And going.

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