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What Makes a Good Head Coach?

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Yesterday I wrote about the necessity for NFL teams to hire head coaches who are focused on the entire team.

I think this speaks to a larger issue. Teams don’t really know what to look for in head coaches. It is striking to see the extent to which head coaching searches are driven by media hype. It’s rare that you see candidates who are unknown or come with unorthodox backgrounds.

Broadly speaking, I have noticed that most head coach candidates fall into one of two categories. You have coordinators on good teams. You also have coaches who resemble a successful coach in some superficial way.

Over the last few years NFL teams became obsessed with finding “the next Sean McVay.” McVay was hired by the Rams shortly before turning 31. Within two years his offensive wizardry had built the Rams into a power and taken them to the Super Bowl.

In the time that followed, teams across the NFL tried to hire young offensive coaches to try to recreate that Rams magic. If a coach had actually worked with McVay, all the better.

While many of these hires were praised at the time, most of them have unsurprisingly failed. There aren’t any shortcuts to the top in the NFL.

There was plenty of talk in the media about the need for teams to have cutting edge offensive minds in head coaching positions. However, as we discussed yesterday a head coach who only cares about his offense is likely destined for failure.

The tunnel vision on finding a head coach with an offensive background struck me as odd for another reason. The league isn’t static. Yes, offenses have developed innovations over the last few years discovering new ways to move the ball. Defensive coaches weren’t about to sit around and get destroyed by these concepts until the end of time. When offensive coaches innovate their way to success, defensive coaches come up with their own innovations to counter. Over the last few years if your focus was on finding the head coach with the next great ideas, it seems just as likely to me you would have found them on the defensive side of the ball. Defenses are now developing answers to the run-pass option and other advanced offensive concepts.

But the focus on finding the next McVay in the media has shown a broader lack of understanding about what makes a good coach. The coverage of many coaches searches revolves around whether the next head coach should have an offensive or defensive background. If you have a bad defense but a good offense, the logic tends to be that the next head coach should be a former defensive coordinator to straighten out that unit. If the defense is a stronger unit, conventional wisdom dictates a hire with an offensive background.

I spent extensive time discussing this yesterday so I won’t go into too much detail, but this thinking misses the things that actually matter. You aren’t hiring merely an offensive or a defensive system. Of course these things matter but only in the context of the head coach making strong coordinator hires.

Needs change from year to unit. The success of offenses and defenses ebb and flow. It seems awfully shortsighted to hire somebody who will ideally lead your franchise for the next decade based only on the immediate needs of one side of the ball.

The faulty logic carries into more areas than offense vs. defense. The media also fixates on exterior personality traits. If a losing coach is emotional on the sidelines, the logic goes that the team needs to replace him with a steady hand. If a losing coach is laid back on the sidelines, the opposite is said. The team needs a new coach with passion. I’m not sure the last time points in a game were awarded because a coach did or didn’t pump his fist on the sidelines, but it doesn’t stop this kind of logic.

Why is analysis about coaching searches so superficial? The things I mentioned are the most visible aspects of a coach’s job. Even though the jobs of coordinator and head coach are drastically different, it’s easy to draw conclusions if somebody ran one of the league’s best units on a winning team. If a team is unsuccessful, it is easy to attach meaning to sideline demeanor.

What are the things that actually matter for a head coach in the NFL?

I’d say near the top of the list would be the ability to hire the right staff and properly delegate. But most assistant coaches in the NFL aren’t well known, and the media isn’t in the team facility when the game planning is done. So this is impossible to judge.

I think an openness to new ideas matters a lot. Today’s NFL is constantly changing. New schemes are popping up all over the place. There have been major advances in sports science teaching us ways to optimize player training. An analytical revolution has turned the conventional wisdom of in game strategy on its head. Again, these things aren’t easily accessible or noticeable for those outside the building.

The ability to connect with and motivate players also seems critical. Again this is something that can’t be quantified. I’d highly recommend reading the stories Nate Jackson told about his brief tenure playing under Eric Mangini with the Browns for greater context. The media loves the narrative of “the disciplinarian coming in to straighten things out” but there’s no way of knowing for sure how effective a coach will be connecting with players.

I could offer more thoughts on this and more important attributes for coaching, but I think you can see the main point.

It isn’t a very comfortable point. During this interview process we really don’t have a way of knowing how good or bad most of these candidates will be. After somebody is hired, it might be years before we figure out whether or not they can coach. Sure, after some time the results will speak for themselves, but that won’t be for a while. The things that are visible to us just don’t matter that much. Meanwhile the things that do matter are total mysteries.

Think back to the Todd Bowles Era. If you asked somebody why Bowles failed as a head coach, they might talk about his boring press conferences, his lack of passion, and his defensive background.

Adam Gase’s most famous moment as Jets head coach was his introductory press conference which featured his eyes moving in weird directions.

Neither Bowles nor Gase failed because of their press conferences, though.

Bowles put together a coaching staff with a striking number of coaches who had been out of the NFL for years and hadn’t been exposed to the new ideas taking over the league. He was stuck in the past, focused on running the ball in a league increasingly built on passing games. He even reportedly made an offensive coordinator change in part because John Morton wanted to throw too much.

Gase’s failures had less to do with his eyes than his inability to connect with his players and figure out ways to utilize them properly.

I am sure much of the immediate focus on the next head coach of the Jets will be based upon their resume and personality. That might be all we have. These things ultimately won’t determine success or failure, though. That will be determined by what we can’t see.