ORCHARD PARK — A year or so ago, one of my sports writing students at St. Bonaventure, a long-time Titans/Oilers fan, and yours truly had a good-natured disagreement about the credentials of Jeff Fisher as an NFL coach.
I maintained he was one of the league’s elite, the member of my class countered Fisher was an overrated underachiever that Tennessee should fire.
To settle the issue, I did some research and the results were a revelation to both of us.
After 17 years as a coach at Houston and Tennessee, Fisher ranks fourth among active NFL coaches with a record — including playoffs — of 147-126, behind only Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan and Tom Coughlin.
That seemed to make my case.
But in those seasons with the Oilers/Titans, Fisher had six winning seasons (making the playoffs each time), five 8-8s and six sub-.500 campaigns.
In short, statistically, Fisher is a slightly above-average NFL coach.
When he joined what was then the Houston Oilers’ franchise in 1994, he had two losing seasons, then three straight 8-8s before making the playoffs.
Then, after a .500 mark in 2009 and 6-10 mark a year later, Fisher, whose six playoff appearances came in a 10-season span, was fired.
Part of it was playoff failure.
He had two 13-3 teams that went out in the first round.
BUT AS SOON as Fisher was axed, after a year off, he was hired, this time in St. Louis, a franchise that had gone 15-65 the last five seasons with either one or two victories in four of them.
The change has been dramatic.
St. Louis comes into Sunday’s soldout game at “The Ralph” with a bizarrely-crafted 5-6-1 record.
The Rams are a gaudy 4-0-1 against their division, the NFL West, with an overtime win and tie against leader San Francisco while beating Arizona twice and Seattle once.
In short, St. Louis is still alive in the NFC wild-card race.
During a conference call with the Bills’ media on Wednesday afternoon, Fisher admitted of the issues he faced, “I can’t identify a single challenge ... there was an assortment of them.
“Twenty-four players on last year’s roster are not (now) in the National Football League to start with. They’ve not won a lot of games here (the last five years) ... to say the least.
“It’s been a fun experience. We started with the coaching staff very early in the spring (former Bills’ coach Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator, is suspended indefinitely as part of the New Orleans bounty controversy), then met with the players and things took off.”
Fisher’s first chore was mindset.
“You have to teach them — and they’ve been very receptive — how to be consistent week-after-week, regardless of the outcome on Sunday,” he said.
And when reminded the Bills’ last playoff appearance 12 years ago, ended with the ignominious “Music City Miracle” loss in Nashville, Fisher was gracious.
“Sometimes things get hard,” he said of Buffalo’s dozen-year absence from the post-season. “They’re obviously a marquee franchise with great history and tradition and sometimes as you go through coaching changes and you have injuries ... it’s hard to get back.”
Now he has his own team bidding for it first playoff berth in eight seasons.
“There’s no reason to talk about those things at this point,” he maintained. “Those kind of discussions only become distractions. Our focus is on this week.
“Realistically, players know, but if we can just keep our focus on familiarizing ourselves with the upcoming opponent ... I think most coaches take that approach.”
Now his team will be tested by the Bills on what will likely be a cold, snowy, rainy and windy afternoon Sunday at “The Ralph,” especially the ground game.
“We’re going to find out a lot about ourselves over the next couple of weeks,” he said. “For example the 49ers offense is second in the NFL in rushing, the Bills are third, per rushing attempt, and we play the Vikings the following week, who are first (in rushing). If you want to compete in the National Football League, you have to compete with the best with what they do best.”
And Fisher is wary about facing the 5-7 Bills.
“I have tremendous respect for the AFC East,” he said. “We’re 0-3 against them right now, so at 4-0-1 in our division, I think the AFC East is a difficult place to play,”
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)