The key to thriving as an NFL head coach is surviving.
Stable organizations don't panic at the first sign of a decline and the better ones restrain their worst impulses at the second and even the third. If the right man is in the right job, the franchise's slide should be temporary and reversible.
It's a matter of survival. Patience is the lost virtue.
Mike Shanahan is at Redskins Park because his last three seasons with the Denver Broncos produced a 24-24 record, no playoff berths and whetted the owner's desire for change. Would Shanahan have turned the Broncos around again had he been able to stay? We will never know.
What we do know is that slumps are almost a given for any long-tenured coach and a three-year skid is about par for a lengthy course.
Often the down cycle is related to the loss of the quarterback. This one lies at the heart of the major criticism lobbed at Shanahan, that he won only one playoff game without John Elway in 10 years. It is true, of course. The Bubby Brister experiment failed, Brian Griese enjoyed a bit of good fortune, Jake Plummer never quite got over the hump and the search for the next franchise quarterback lasted until Shanahan drafted Jay Cutler in 2006.
It is true but it is absurdly routine.
How many playoff games have the Dallas Cowboys won since Troy Aikman retired following the 2000 season? None. How many playoff games have the Miami Dolphins won since Dan Marino hung it up following the 1999 campaign? One. How many playoff games have the Buffalo Bills won since Jim Kelly departed after 1996? None.
Anyone seeing a pattern here? A Hall of Fame quarterback retires and the franchise reels? Don't think it's easy to replace a great player with an average one at that position, or even a better than average one. Conversely, look at the Minnesota Vikings now with Brett Favre and how they struggled before. Of the eight teams active in this weekend's opening playoff round, which lacks star power at quarterback? The New York Jets, with rookie (and No. 1 pick) Mark Sanchez and the Baltimore Ravens, with second-year Joe Flacco (also a No. 1 pick).
Four teams earned a bye. First-round winners move on to play the Indianapolis Colts (Peyton Manning) and San Diego Chargers (Philip Rivers) on the AFC side, Minnesota (Favre) and the New Orleans Saints (Drew Brees) in the NFC bracket. No misfit "game managers" in that lot.
Every starting quarterback in the AFC playoffs was a No. 1 pick except Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. He has already established his credentials. The Patriots missed the playoffs last year when he was injured in the opener and won the AFC East this time around with him. There's an argument to be made for the franchise quarterback's value.
That time between the great quarterback's curtain call and the rise of his heir creates gaps (and stopgaps). A program peaks, it recedes and regroups, it rises again. Injuries have an impact. So does free agency. Three years is not an unusual resting period for teams enjoying a successful run. The question is whether the coach gets a fourth.
In the three seasons spanning 1998-2000, the Pittsburgh Steelers were 22-26 under Bill Cowher. The NFL had figured out Kordell "Slash" Stewart and the Pittsburgh offense labored. Stewart had quarterback ratings of 62.9 in '98 and 64.9 in '99. The Steelers as a team passed for 12 touchdowns in 2000.
What happened in 2001? Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress developed into 1,000-yard receivers, rookie nose tackle Casey Hampton emerged to start the final 11 games and the Steelers went 13-3, won the AFC Central division and reached the conference championship game.
They made the playoffs three of the next four seasons, capped by a Super Bowl victory following their electrifying tear in 2005.
The Tennessee Titans, who hired Jeff Fisher in 1995, stuck with him through lean days. He was 7-9 his first year, 8-8 each of the next three. Then the Titans put together back-to-back 13-3 seasons that included their only Super Bowl appearance (1999 season).
From 2004-06 they did not have a winning season (17-31). What happened after the three lean years? A 10-6 mark in 2007 and a league-best 13-3 in 2008. Titans owner Bud Adams did not let hard times force his hand.
"He's a great owner. He knows there's going to be years when injuries don't let you get it done and so heal up and give it a shot next year. He also understood we found ourselves in some salary cap situations we had to work ourselves out of but that we're putting it together not just for the short term but the long term," Fisher said during the '08 training camp.
The short term can be awfully short. So can the long term. There's always a pressure to produce and three down years exact a toll.
"This is the worst job in the world when you're losing," Shanahan acknowledged.
Winning can be right around the corner. The right man for the job is often the one who holds it.
*Larry Weisman covered professional football for USA TODAY for 25 years and now joins the Redskins Broadcast Network and Redskins.com to bring his unique viewpoint and experience to Redskins fans. Larry also appears on Redskins Nation, airing twice nightly on Comcast SportsNet, and on ESPN 980 AM radio, all in the Washington, D.C. area. Read his blog at redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.