It’s the ultimate truth in athletics: There’s always going to be a loss.
Sometimes the defeats come in bunches. Sometimes they happen in the most heart-wrenching fashion. Chances are the next one is never very far off.
After 15 full seasons (and part of another) as an NFL head coach, Jeff Fisher understands the certainty of defeat as well as anyone. It’s part of what keeps him coming back year after year after year.
The challenge of facing up to failure holds a certain allure for the 52-year-old, who’s spent nearly half his life as a coach. Because no two defeats are alike, dealing with each one tests him — and others like him — in new, sometimes unexpected ways.
“Anybody can come in on Mondays and handle wins,” Fisher said. “It’s how you handle losses and can put losses into perspective. You don’t go out to lose games. You don’t prepare to lose games. You prepare to win. Unfortunately, you can’t win every single one of them. So how do you deal with that?
“Fundamentally, players are over the loss before they wake up Monday morning. They stay with coaches for a long time. So you have to deal with them immediately and put them in perspective, be able to identify why and be able to move on to the next challenge.”
It is Fisher’s persistence and consistency in the face of losses that, in many ways, defines his tenure with the Titans, currently the longest of all active NFL head coaches.
After all, he has been to the Super Bowl just once, his teams have won only one division championship in the last seven years and have not won a playoff game since 2003. In the volatile world of coaching, many in the NFL (or any professional league or major college program, for that matter) have been fired for comparable — or better — levels of performance.
Yet time after time, Fisher refuses to allow losing to become a divisive force among his staff or players. He placates an owner who employed six different head coaches for his team in the 15 years before Fisher was hired. And he retains the basic trust of the fan base, even one that has — on occasion — openly questioned his approach.
“I’ve been around him for two droughts and two [good] runs,” offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said. “ … I think the great thing about playing for Jeff or working for Jeff is that he’s the same all the way. You don’t know any different.”
It was Rudyard Kipling who wrote, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same; … Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,/And — which is more — you’ll be a Man my son!”
Fisher has been the man at the forefront of the franchise since it relocated from Houston in 1997. His is the dominant face and the primary voice and has been since Day One.
Owner Bud Adams has maintained his primary residence and business interests in Houston. Multiple people have filled the roles of team president and general manager. Star players have come and gone.
A little more than a week into the current training camp, Fisher made it clear he has no plans to move on anytime soon.
“It really feels like my first training camp,” he said. “I’m recharged. Because of the [roster] turnover and the challenges and everything on a yearly basis, every year is a different challenge, it’s a different team. You have different strengths and weaknesses on your team. It’s a combination of how good can we really be. You carry that into every season with high expectations.”
The 2009 season was no different.
Having won 13 games the previous fall before a startling defeat at home in the playoffs, Fisher found many reasons to believe the losses would be limited. He had an established veteran quarterback and a dazzling young running back. His defense was filled with Pro Bowlers.
Then it happened. Defeat — over and over again. Six losses in the first six games, and with each, the team looked less competitive. The margin was three points in each of the first two. Then it was seven points. Then 20 and 22.
Then there was the 59-0 loss at New England on Oct. 18, which had many wondering if it was Fisher’s final act. Instead, it might have turned into one of his finest hours.
“He still wanted us to have fun,” running back Chris Johnson said. “He still wanted us to go out and have fun even if we were 0-6. We knew it was going to be tough for us to make the playoffs, but he just wanted us to go out there and play like we were still 0-0, like it was the beginning of the season. At 0-6, he told us that’s behind us, and we have new season ahead of us.”
Following a bye week, Fisher’s team won its next five games and eight of its final 10. That made the 2009 Titans the first team in NFL history to finish .500 or better after having started 0-6.
“I think we can take pride in winning eight of our last 10,” Fisher said. “I don’t think 8-8, by no means, is a sense of accomplishment.”
It was similar to 2002, when they started 1-4 but rallied to finish 11-5 and eventually made it all the way to the AFC championship game. Or in 2000, when they came off one of the most dramatic defeats in Super Bowl history to post the best regular-season record in the league.
The only time in Fisher’s 15 seasons as coach that the Titans had losing records in back-to-back seasons was 2004 and 2005.
“Last year, when we were 0-6, he wasn’t any different than when we started out 6-0 and we had the winning run [in 2008],” Heimerdinger said. “Guys don’t get uptight, and he does a good job of keeping them even-keel. So I don’t think the pressure, either way, gets on you, because he’s the same either way.”
That’s because, when it comes down to it, Fisher rarely, if ever, sees big differences between winning and losing.
To hear him dissect the reasons for defeat sometimes sounds like spin or rationalization. Even looking back at the start of last year, he is adamant that at least three of the first six games — “maybe four of them” — could have gone the other way.
The truth is, though, that as he examines the hows and whys of losses, there are times he is inclined to a radical response.
“One of the things you typically try to do is you say, if whatever we’re doing here is not working because it’s not translating into wins, then you work harder,” he said. “But you have to be careful, because if that results in a tired — dog-tired — coach on Wednesday when you’re selling the new game plan, you can’t sell a new game plan. You need your rest. You have to do that.”
So rather than spend time dreaming up new ways to inspire his team when things don’t go as planned, he rests assured that he knows best. He has yet to realize the best-case scenario (a win in the Super Bowl), but when it has seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, he has seen to it that they haven’t.
He has celebrated his victories and studied his defeats with equal vigor. Never has he wavered.
“It’s part of the responsibility, and it’s part of my job duties and functions to put both winning and losing in perspective and move on,” Fisher said. “They go out there and bust their butts with every intention of trying to win the ball game. If you don’t, there’s that disappointment after and in the locker room, but basically players already have moved on.
“You have to kind of establish the program and the system and the philosophy and stick with it, knowing that you’re eventually going to come out of it.”
Even so, he always knows there’s another one on the way.