April 13, 2024
What makes a good NFL head coach? Apparently working under Bill Belichick has nothing to do with it.

What makes a good NFL head coach?

Few things are more elusive than an accurate formula to answer a question that has been around since the league was founded 103 years ago.

College coaches — even the most successful ones — are hit and mostly miss. So teams tend to look to former NFL head coaches or, more likely, hot young coordinators in hopes of taking a losing franchise and leading it to the promised land.

In the end, it’s still a roll of the dice because of myriad factors that determine success, such as the coach/general manager relationship, how much interference comes from ownership and even blind luck when it comes to injuries to key players.

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is six years in along with general manager John Lynch and has lost three assistants to head coaching jobs: former defensive coordinators Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans went to the New York Jets and Houston Texans, respectively, and former offensive assistant Mike McDaniel was hired by the Miami Dolphins.

It’s too soon to tell how that trio will fare as head coaches: Saleh is 11-23 with the Jets, though they appear poised to finally reach the playoffs in his third season; McDaniel’s Dolphins went 9-8 in his debut a year ago and lost in the AFC wild-card round, but it was the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2016; and Ryans inherits a Texans team that is coming off a 3-13-1 season and facing a major rebuild after going 11-38-1 in the past three seasons.

But let’s face it. History suggests hiring hot coordinators isn’t a road to the Super Bowl and the Lombardi Trophy when it comes to success.

The Philadelphia Eagles were good enough in winning the NFC Championship last season that both of their coordinators are now head coaches. Offensive coordinator Shane Steichen was hired by the Indianapolis Colts, and the Arizona Cardinals lured away former defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.

But Steichen won’t have Eagles star quarterback Jalen Hurts. Gannon no longer has the NFL’s most dominant front seven, responsible for 70 sacks last season, at his disposal.  No amount of pointers Steichen and Gannon picked up from Eagles head coach Nick Siriani — who was the Colts’ offensive coordinator before he got the head job in Philadelphia — can replace talent and a front office that procures talent.

Still, there is a growing obsession with the influence of coordinators. But it’s fool’s gold. It is the leadership of head coaches and their ability to coach their coaches that determines success or failure. This is, after all, a position that is perpetually on the hot seat. The turnover rate for NFL head coaches is about 25 percent each season. There are five new head coaches this season, and only 10 of the league’s 32 head coaches were hired before 2020.

Even working side-by-side with the NFL’s most established head coaches is a guarantee for future coaching success.

The longest-tenured head coaches in the NFL are New England’s Bill Belichick (23 years), Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin (16 years), Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (15 years), Seattle’s Pete Carroll (13 years) and Kansas City’s Andy Reid (10 years).

Bill Belichick has seen seven assistants become head coaches without much success. A.P. Photo

That coaching Big Five has been associated with 22 offensive coordinators and 20 defensive coordinators. (If that total seems a little low, it is because there were years where Belichick didn’t name an offensive or defensive coordinator.)

Belichick has guided the Patriots to six Super Bowl titles, But none of his former assistants who went on to head coaching posts ever had Tom Brady as their quarterback — or flourished calling the shots.

Seven Belichick disciples became NFL head coaches, and only one produced a winning record. The roll call: Romeo Crennel (32-63 with Cleveland, Kansas City, Houston), Bill O’Brien (52-48 with Houston), Josh McDaniels (17-28 with Denver, Las Vegas), Matt Patricia (13-29-1 with Detroit), Eric Mangini (33-47 with the Jets and Cleveland), Judge (10-23 with the Giants) and Flores (24-25 with Miami).

McDaniels is the only member of that group still holding a head coaching position. He took over a Raiders team coming off a 10-win season and a playoff appearance and promptly coached it to six wins in 2022. Former New England exec Dave Ziegler is the Raiders general manager, but McDaniels could be out again if he doesn’t turn things around quickly in the desert.

Belichick’s former assistants have produced a winning record just seven times in a combined span of 30 seasons, and O’Brien has five of those. Their combined record as NFL head coaches is 181-263-1 for a .407 winning percentage.

O’Brien, after getting run out of Houston midway through the 2020 season, is back on the New England coach staff with Belichick. He’ll serve as the Patriots’ quarterback coach and … offensive coordinator.

Reid and Tomlin are the only Big Five coaches to have a former coordinator win a Lombardi Trophy.

After serving on Reid’s staff from 2013-15 with the Chiefs, Doug Pederson took over in Philadelphia and beat Belichick and the Patriots in the Super Bowl after the 2017 season. Even at that, Pederson, who wasn’t the play-caller or designer under Reid, was fired by the Eagles after the 2020 season. But, in an example of teams giving former head coaches new life, he was hired by Jacksonville last season and guided the Jaguars to the playoffs.

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Bruce Arians was Tomlin’s offensive coordinator from 2007 and 2011 and was nine years removed from the Steelers when Tampa Bay won the championship in 2020.

Shanahan’s coaching tree has produced three seemingly strong branches around the rest of the NFL.

That may bode well for Saleh, McDaniel and Ryans, but history suggests it’s well down the list of factors that will ensure success.

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