There are a lot of worthy candidates for Coach of the Year in the NFL. You have Sean Payton, New Orleans' rookie leader who injected life into a foundering franchise and a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
Marty Schottenheimer has San Diego playing the best football in the league. Lovie Smith has led Chicago to the best record in the NFC. Brian Billick has built a Super Bowl contender in Baltimore. Eric Mangini transformed the New York Jets from doormat to playoff contender in his first year. Even Dick Jauron deserves consideration for engineering the Buffalo Bills' late-season surge.
But no Coach of the Year list is complete without Tennessee's Jeff Fisher. Despite having the youngest team in the NFL and a lack of veteran playmakers, the Titans have won seven of nine games after an 0-5 start and are mathematically in playoff contention going into today's game against the Bills.
Fisher has pulled this off with a rookie quarterback (Vince Young) who has a funky throwing motion but also has a 7-4 record as a starter, a castoff running back (Travis Henry) who can reach 1,000 yards today against the team that discarded him, and a low-rated defense that finds a way to get the job done.
Fisher has been one of the NFL's finest coaches for most of his 12 years with the franchise formerly known as the Houston Oilers. He has four seasons of 11 or more wins. He has taken teams to the playoffs four times and led the Titans to a Super Bowl.
This season may be Fisher's finest work. Three years after a major salary cap purge, the Titans were supposed to be among the league's also-rans. But if not for close losses to the Jets (23-16), Miami (13-10), Indianapolis (14-13) and Baltimore (27-26), the postseason would be more than a faint possibility.
Fisher's team has gone through a lot on and off the field. It began during the offseason when quarterback Steve McNair was barred from the Titans' facility during a contract dispute that ended with a trade to Baltimore. A quarterback shuffle followed, from Billy Volek to Kerry Collins to Young.
Cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones and linebacker Robert Reynolds were disciplined for running afoul of the law. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth drew Fisher's ire for stomping Dallas center Andre Gurode in the face, which resulted in a five-game suspension, the longest in NFL history for an on-field incident.
And then the Titans' 0-5 start on the heels of two straight losing seasons led to speculation that Fisher's tenure was coming to an end.
But here they are, fighting and clawing their way out of the depths of mediocrity. No wonder this has been one of Fisher's most enjoyable years as the Titans' coach.
"Well, I've had a lot of fun years, but this one ranks right up there," he said. "This has been fun for a unique set of reasons. To watch a young team deal with so much. We had distractions week after week, drama week after week, whether it was the quarterback situation or an off-the-field incident or a suspension. These guys just turned their back to it and went on and kept playing. They love to practice, they stuck together.
"It's been a very rewarding, fun year. After the 0-5 start to still be breathing here at the end says a lot about the guys."
And about the coach.
Fisher has a knack for getting the most out of his players, a mark of a great coach. He does a good job of identifying his team's strengths and limitations, then finds ways to maximize the former and cover up the latter.
Former Bills special teams great Steve Tasker, who worked the CBS broadcast of Tennessee's 24-17 win over Jacksonville last week, called Fisher the best game-day coach he's seen.
During the Titans' slow start, Fisher never wavered from his plan. He kept telling the players that if they maintained their effort, concentration, focus and commitment, they would be rewarded.
"He just kept telling us that we're a good team and we just started believing," Henry said. "Guys are now making plays, and it's just contagious week in and week out."
Fisher's reported $5 million contract is up after this season, but the Titans hold the option for 2007. After last Sunday's win over Jacksonville, Tennessee owner Bud Adams said Fisher "isn't going anywhere."
If Adams is smart, he'll put his money where his mouth is and give Fisher a contract extension. Given what he's done with this team, Fisher has earned it.