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NFL head coaching searches are flawed

New York Jets v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

At best, the Adam Gase Era is off to a bad start for the Jets. At worst, hiring Gase was a mistake ownership should have been able to foresee.

The Jets’ struggles in hiring a head coach aren’t unique, though. Every offseason multiple teams look to hire new coaches. Over half of these hires ultimately fail, sending the team back into the cycle a few years later.

With that in mind, it is a bit surprising to see how little teams have altered their approaches to the process through the years.

Candidates tend to fit one of two templates (if not both).

Template #1 The “hot” coordinator

Who tops the list of head coaching candidates every year? Look to the coordinators of the teams with the best records in the league.

These candidates’ qualifications are typically related to their proximity to winning. If the unit they run ranks near the top of the league statistically, that is all the better.

On one level it makes sense. There is a natural career trajectory from entry level job to position coach to coordinator to head coach. Many great coaches have taken this path.

The way NFL teams view this progression leaves much to be desired, though. Searches tend focus exclusively on coordinators for the top teams. The coordinator is likely part of their employer’s success, but successful franchises aren’t built on one person. Even if they were, that one person would not be the coordinator.

To win in this league, your team needs a lot of great players, a staff full of quality coaches that work well together, and a team in the front office that works just as well.

But when a head coaching job opens, coordinators on the top teams get the first look.

Some coordinators are ready to take the next step, but most aren’t. There is a big difference between being a head coach and running one side of the ball. Head coaches oversee the entire operation. They are responsible for hiring and supervising a full staff of assistants. They provide the big picture vision on the direction the team should be headed. This vision dictates the types of players the team will target and what traits these players should have. This is speaking in terms of tangible playing skills, locker room presence, and character. Head coaches are responsible for motivation. They set the schedule and agenda for meetings. They decide what the players are responsible for knowing. As much as anything, they are charged with creating an overall atmosphere where players and coaches alike are willing to work hard and grow into something better.

It is a very different job from being a coordinator. The best coordinators and the best head coaches have different traits. How do NFL teams hire, though? They look for the most successful coordinators.

But their methods of identifying the best coordinators seem spotty. Fixating on a team’s record or a unit’s ranking in one year doesn’t necessarily indicate the quality of coaching. The unit’s entire performance is typically attributed to the coordinator, but there are numerous other factors that could help drive it.

Even more oddly, in a league where much changes from year to year, the previous year’s performance is viewed as the only thing that matters. If your offense or defense had a great year, surely it will stay that way forever so you become a hot candidate.

Hot coordinators better get the job before the performance declines, though. If their team’s and/or unit’s fortune falls the next year, they cease to be the hot coordinator. If your offense or defense had a poor year, surely it will stay that way forever so you are clearly not head coaching material.

It doesn’t matter that this is the exact same coach who was such a great candidate just one year early. It doesn’t matter that even great coaches have down years and bad coaches sometimes have good years.

Much of the process is driven by media narrative. Most owners want a hire that will be universally praised by members of the media. The media tends to gravitate to hot coordinators. The really smart ones have agents who push their clients to friendly writers.

Little attention seems to be paid to leadership, vision, planning, and organization, which are essential to the top job.

All of this leads to a process where the wrong assistants are frequently targeted. The hot candidates aren’t necessarily the best-equipped assistant coaches to lead an NFL franchise. The traits NFL teams value in assistants are different from the traits successful head coaches have.

Template #2 The Next....

The second template is the clone of a new star coach.

Last decade teams sought “The Next Bill Belichick.” New England’s staff was raided as teams hired Belichick proteges Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, and Josh McDaniels. Another Belichick disciple, Charlie Weis, landed arguably the highest profile job in college football, head coach at Notre Dame.

A few years back, Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh emerged from college football to lead NFC West teams into contention. This led to a two year stretch where Chip Kelly, Bill O’Brien, Doug Marrone, and Greg Schiano were lured from college football to lead NFL teams.

The new trend in the NFL has been to seek “The Next Sean McVay.” McVay took over a Rams team mired in mediocrity with a struggling young quarterback. Within two years, they were in the Super Bowl.

Teams saw McVay’s traits. He was a young coach with an offensive pedigree. Surely this was the new template for success as a head coach.

Trying to recreate the Patriot Way without Belichick didn’t work.

The NFL’s college phase was a bit more successful. Only Schiano could be called a total flop, but the other college coaches are/were inconsistent. None have reached the heights of Carroll or Harbaugh.

So it goes with attempts to find “The Next Sean McVay.” McVay is young, and he is a good offensive mind. Those traits alone don’t make him a great head coach, though. They make him a good offensive coordinator.

I think many people have prematurely reserved McVay’s spot in Canton (and the Rams’ inconsistency this year shows why), but there are other reasons he’s had success in his young career.

McVay made a lot of smart assistant hires. One of them was making Wade Phillips his defensive coordinator.

His call for inclusiveness extends to coaches of all ages. His first hire for the Rams was Wade Phillips, a 71-year-old defensive coordinator who had been coaching in the N.F.L. for 10 years when McVay was born.

Phillips said he was somewhat familiar with McVay, then the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins, before his hiring, but that it was a call from Phillips’s son, Wes, who had replaced McVay as Washington’s tight ends coach, that set the whole thing in motion. Wes Phillips asked his father if he would be interested in joining a McVay staff should the opportunity arise.

“I said, ‘You know he’s 30 years old; you think he’s going to get one?’” Wade Phillips said on Thursday. “He said, ‘Dad, if he interviews for one, he’s going to get it.’”

He added that the first call from McVay was straightforward: “He said, ‘Would you interested in going with me if I got a job?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’”

In addition to his hires, people across the Rams organization have lauded the accountability his leadership brought to a franchise that had previously lacked it. They are open about how much it meant in turning them into a winner.

The great head coaches in this league are leaders and builders. Wizardry on one side of the ball is secondary.

Yet numerous teams this offseason seemed to believe that any young coach with an offensive background would automatically turn into the next McVay.

Some of the logic was truly confounding. We have established that the skills of a successful head coach are different from those of a successful offensive coordinator. It should be fairly obvious that having a good head coach is more important than having a good offensive coordinator.

Still a weird mindset emerged among NFL fans, and it seems like teams bought in as well. If you hire the young offensive mind as offensive coordinator instead of as head coach, in a few years he might get a head coaching job with another team. You might lose him. It’s better to hire him as head coach, even if he doesn’t have the right traits for a job.

In other words, to avoid a problem that might or might not come in a few years, teams need to create an even bigger problem right now.

That’s the mistaken lesson people took from the success of McVay. Teams, especially those with young quarterbacks, put the most value on pairing that quarterback with a playcaller who could never be poached by another team. But this misses the point.

The best way to support a young quarterback isn’t to provide him with a never-changing playcaller. After all, practically every great quarterback to ever take the field has had his playcaller change at some point in his career.

The best way to support a young quarterback is to pair him with a coach who is capable of building a strong franchise around him.

McVay’s youth and offensive background are really superficial characteristics when discussing the quality of his coaching. Good head coaches come from all types of backgrounds. Some are strong on the offensive side of the ball. Some aren’t.

When youth and offensive experience are the traits teams seek, they don’t find “The Next Sean McVay.” They find a bootleg version of Sean McVay, similarities on the surface but much lower quality product overall.

Adam Gase is the Sean McVay you buy for $10 off a folding table on the corner of 42nd and 6th in Midtown Manhattan.


Year after year when hiring season arrives we hear about, “The job X coordinator did with his unit.” It doesn’t matter that success with one unit does not necessarily equate to having the ability to build an NFL franchise.

During last year’s coaching cycle, one of the things that took me aback was how dismissive some people were when the Jets interviewed Matt Rhule for their opening. In all honesty I wasn’t sure how I felt about Rhule running an NFL team. I still am not.

That said, I didn’t understand why it was such a crazy proposition. At the very least, he has shown that he can build and lead a program. Sure, he has done it at lower levels of football. Here’s the thing. A coach at a lower level isn’t necessarily inferior to an NFL coach. In many instances the lower level just never networked with the right guy willing to help him get his foot in the door with an entry level NFL assistant job.

For any head coach coming from college or another pro league, dealing with NFL athletes and personalities would be an adjustment. It’s a challenge.

NFL assistants have their own challenge, taking on a job that is nothing like they have experienced before.

Would Vince Kehres, Jeff Monken, Mike Leach, Chris Petersen, or Dave Dickenson be successful NFL head coaches? I can’t say. I don’t know whether they could make the adjustment. But they had shown the chops to handle being the top guy on a program.

Are the questions about the ability of these coaches and others like them to take a step up any more profound than the questions about the capabilities of NFL coordinators ascending to a top leadership position for the first time in their careers?

Of course NFL assistants should be considered for the top spot, but I keep going back to how poorly the league identifies assistants with the traits to have success as head coaches. Being the “hot coordinator” does not necessarily equate to being the best coach.

Take the case of Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub. Toub’s ability to lead is respected across the league.

A personnel exec who used to work with Toub, 54, said: “If Dave Toub can’t get a job in this league, then I give up. Talk to other coaches in the league. They know who is for real and who is horseshit or the flavor of the month. This guy can coach a football team. He’d be the first guy I’d talk to, and it isn’t even really close.”

Even though he gets interviews, his status as a special teams coach seems to be held against him.

Around the league, analysts will line up to suggest that a special teams coordinator cannot elevate to the head coaching gig anymore. It’s hard for them to accumulate an offensive and defensive staff. It’s hard for ownership to sell the hire. It won’t drive season ticket sales. The push to find the next 31-year-old wunderkind is on.

If you are trying to develop a young quarterback, he’ll have the most success if paired with a young offensive mind, right?

That might sound good, but what are the actual results in the league. Has a young quarterback made a bigger step forward this year than Lamar Jackson? His head coach isn’t a hot young offensive coordinator. It happens to be the last man hired directly from a special teams coaching job to become a head coach, John Harbaugh.

Harbaugh was a bit of a mold breaking hire. So were many of the NFL assistants who grew into successful head coaches. Andy Reid was never a coordinator. Doug Pederson was mocked by one media member as the least qualified head coach in recent memory. Mike McCarthy was the coordinator of one of the worst offenses in the league. McVay himself evoked some skepticism about whether he was too young.

But these things are easily forgotten.


While I can identify some of the problems, I struggle to come up with solutions.

The Jets famously hired Charley Casserly and Ron Wolf to run their parallel searches for a head coach and a general manager in 2015. Bringing in former executives to run such searches has become a trend in the NFL. Owners want experienced hands who have managed these searches before. Former Colts, Browns, and Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi is also regularly hired by NFL teams looking to make hires.

This doesn’t guarantee success, though. Experienced football men can strike out on coaching hires.

The Jets also learned a different pitfall of this approach the hard way. Casserly’s protege Mike Maccagnan was hired as general manager. Maccagnan proved to be ill-suited for the job, lacking the leadership skills and strategic mind necessary to be an effective general manager. I know Maccagnan isn’t a coach, but it isn’t really that big of a leap to see how the exact same thing could happen in a coaching search with one of these consultants. They recommend people they know and like.

Did Casserly operate like a proud parent, unable to see the flaws of a prized pupil? Did his main goal resemble that of certain Hall of Fame quarterback, making a job recommendation purely based on a personal friendship? We will never know, but the pitfalls here are clear in hindsight.

Back in 2013, the NFL set up a Career Advisory Development Panel to help owners running a search. A group of former coaches and executives vet potential candidates for head coach and general manager positions. The panel holds workshops for potential candidates, compiles information teams can use for a search, and recommends candidates.

Again the concept of experienced football men making recommendations sounds great in theory, but you run into the exact same problems. Guess who one of the recommended candidates for general manager was in 2015. You are correct. Mike Maccagnan was a recommended candidate. You’ll never guess one of the former executives on the panel, Charley Casserly. Again it isn’t difficult to see the same situation playing out on the coaching side.

Another issue with the panel is that it is full of former NFL coaches and executives. While these people do have experience, many have been out of the day to day operation of an NFL team for years. They might not be attuned to how successful franchises are built in the NFL of 2019.

Bill Polian has been part of the Career Advisory Development Panel.I have a lot of respect for what Polian accomplished in his career as a team builder. He was a legendary executive in his day, but does this sound like a guy who understands how the modern NFL functions?

While I think the panel is a noble idea, it is full of Polian types, respected figures, but figures whose methodologies and mindsets might be outdated. These aren’t necessarily the people to provide advice of how to build the thriving NFL team of today.


In a few weeks, Black Monday will come. A new group of NFL teams will be in the market for a new head coach. These teams will all express initial enthusiasm. Most of the coaches hired will ultimately fail.

At some point teams it might occur to teams in the NFL that conventional wisdom for the right way to hire a coach has a low batting average.

It hasn’t yet.


To conclude I’d like to preemptively rebut a few comments that I am sure this article will provoke.

“What about young successful head coach X with an offensive background?” Stop. I didn’t say an youth and an offensive background make it impossible to be a good head coach.

“What about successful head coach X who was an NFL assistant?” Stop. I didn’t say NFL assistant experience makes it impossible to be a good head coach.

“What about successful head coach X who was once the hot coordinator ?” Stop. I didn’t say being the hot coordinator means you automatically lack the traits of a good head coach.

“Coach X you named would stink in the NFL as a head coach.” Stop. I didn’t guarantee anybody would succeed in the NFL as a head coach.

“What you unconventional past hire X that failed?” Stop. I didn’t guarantee any unconventional hire will work.