NFL Coaching Candidates Need To Rely On Competence, Not Bravado When ‘Leading Men’: Terry O’Neil

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Of all the comments uttered by NFL coaches in the past few months, this fantasy from Jeff Saturday stands alone:

“I know I can lead men… I spent 14 years in a locker room. I went to the playoffs 12 times. I’ve got five dudes in the Hall of Fame that played with me. You don’t think I’ve seen greatness?”

Contrast that with the words of Jack Del Rio, former Pro Bowl linebacker, former head coach of the Jaguars and Raiders, now defensive coordinator of the Commanders, regarding today’s NFL player:

“I think because I’ve worn a helmet, I have been in those pads before, there’s part of me that can relate to what they’re going through. But the longer you’re removed from the game, the less they know about you. Now players are like, ‘Oh, you did play? That’s great.’ That buys you about five minutes, and then if you know what you’re talking about and can help them be better, and they know that, then they’ll listen longer.”

Jeff Saturday looked lost coaching.
Colts coach Jeff Saturday struggled in Indianapolis.

Jeff Saturday failed to meet Del Rio’s standard in his eight games with the Colts. He stood mostly silent and alone on the sideline. During timeouts, his quarterbacks walked past him, huddling instead with their offensive coaches. Saturday complained about being left with “half a staff,” as if unable to fix the team himself.

History Can Judge Coaching Choices

Before that train wreck in Indianapolis, the worst recent head coaching hire was Joe Judge. At his introductory news conference, Giants’ co-owners spoke of Judge’s poise, confidence, leadership, character. John Mara said, “I have to tell you that this was perhaps the best coach interview I’ve ever been part of. He’s somebody who commands and demands respect.”

All good. Except Judge was a special teams coach. What did he know about the other two phases of the game? When he couldn’t immediately produce an offensive coordinator, Mara suggested out-of-touch Jason Garrett. You know the rest of that story.

So now we come to this year’s hiring season with five openings to be filled.

Offense Remains The Key In Coaching

As always, a premium must be placed on offensive expertise. Offense is so much harder than defense to engineer. It’s unique physical skills, exquisite timing, precisely synchronized movement. Defense is merely disruption.

In last year’s cycle, six of nine hires were offensive coaches. Four of them – Brian Daboll, Mike McDaniel, Kevin O’Connell and Doug Pederson – qualified for the playoffs this year. (Daboll and McDaniel are consensus co-favorites for Coach of the Year.) The three defensive hires – Dennis Allen, Matt Eberflus and Lovie Smith – had a combined record of 13-37-1.

Of the eight head coaches in last weekend’s divisional playoffs, no coincidence, seven came from offensive backgrounds. And the eighth, Buffalo’s Sean McDermott, is riding the five-year continuity of an attack developed by Daboll.

Sean Payton is one of the biggest available names in coaching
Former Saints coach Sean Payton (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Once Sean Payton, everybody’s preference, is hired this week (what club needs him more than Dallas?), owners and GMs will be asking themselves: Who is the next young offensive guru? Who’s next in the lineage of Sean McVay (36), O’Connell (37), McDaniel (39), Zac Taylor (39), Nick Sirianni (41), Matt LaFleur (43) and Kyle Shanahan (43)?

The mania of this search is embodied in Mike Kafka (35). As recently as 2017, he was a quality control coach. But he spent five years under Andy Reid in Kansas City so he’s got pedigree. This season, his first as coordinator, he successfully merged his vision with Daboll’s in New York. Three of the five clubs have asked to interview him.

If Kafka is deemed not ready, OC Shane Steichen (37) may be. His Eagles ranked second League-wide in scoring offense and he’ll get a big stage Sunday in the NFC Championship game.

On the other side of the ball, the era of the grizzled, old defensive hard-nose – Todd Bowles (59), Ron Rivera (61), Bill Belichick (70) – is ending. (Notice all three are struggling this morning to find an offensive coordinator.) Some bold-face names — Steve Wilks, Wink Martindale, Raheem Morris – are going to be disappointed in the coming few days.

Dan Quinn is coaching the defense in Dallas.
Dan Quinn is the defesnive coordinator in Dallas

Dan Quinn and DeMeco Ryans are likely to be hired, but they’ll face the same question asked of all defensive coaches: Whom will you bring as your offensive coordinator? The best answer may come from Ryans, who can reply: “Shanahan will help me identify the correct OC.”

Ultimately, the way to “lead men” – and the way players want to be led – is by sheer competence in teaching, scheming, finding an edge.

John Mara’s instinct for poise, confidence, leadership and character is also worthwhile. But in the transition from Judge to Daboll, he’s learning that without coaching excellence the personal qualities have no impact.

Written by Terry O'Neil

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