The “Black Monday” that followed the 2012 NFL season was unprecedented. Seven head coaches and five general managers got the axe. A week later, the Chiefs were looking for a new GM, and nine days later, Mike Mularkey of the Jaguars became the eighth head coach fired, after one year on the job. We are living in a new era of pro football in which five-year plans are ancient history and teams are expected to win now. I get it: With the right leadership and enough talent, things can change fast.
What I’m not sure about is why it’s so hard to find the right head coach to get the job done. As I pen this column, four of the six GM openings had been filled, but only three of the eight head-coaching vacancies were closed. Why is it seemingly taking so much longer than usual to fill the openings?
There is one truly great head coach working in the league today — Bill Belichick. There are six — John and Jim Harbaugh, Sean Payton, Mike Smith, Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy — who may be following in his footsteps. Jeff Fisher, Tom Coughlin, Pete Carroll, John Fox, Andy Reid and Mike Shanahan would be welcome in most cities, but all come with a question mark or two.
What makes Belichick so unique? He has an incredible eye for talent, perhaps more so in existing NFL veterans who can fit what he wants to do than drafting rookies. He is a leader rather than follower in innovation on both offense and defense, capable of adjusting his schemes to fit his talent and seeking specific talent to execute his favored schemes. Belichick is always laser-focused on what it takes and what he needs to win. Absolutely nothing leaks out of his front office or coaching staff he doesn’t want leaked. He believes there is no place for sentiment in pro football, and his two greatest loyalties are to winning and the man who signs his paycheck. And it appears he believes the only rules that matter are his. Personally, I really like the guy, but I am writing here about Belichick the head coach — not the man. Almost every player in the league wants to play for him — not because of the kind of coach or man he is — but because of the kind of winner he is.
Did the Ravens, 49ers, Saints, Falcons, Steelers and Packers identify all these Belichickian traits in their guys before they hired them? I doubt that. But it can’t be coincidence that all six seem to be traveling similar if not parallel paths to the Patriots’ icon, and are succeeding a great deal as a result. So, do the Cardinals, Bears, Eagles, Jaguars and Chargers understand this is what they should be looking for in “their guy”? And do the Browns, Bills and Chiefs believe Rob Chudzinski, Doug Marrone and Reid can be one of those guys?
One of the things that bothers me the most about recent and current head-coaching searches is the number of teams who seem to be restricting their searches to “offensive-minded” or “defensive-minded” candidates to meet either what they believe to be current trends in the league today or the personnel they currently have on hand with which to compete. That is just dumb. It is no fluke that the defensive-trained and accomplished Belichick is the most brilliant offensive mind in the game today. He is the best head coach in the league — not a coordinator. Jim Harbaugh is a former quarterback who’s winning with defense and Smith is a former defensive coordinator who’s winning with offense.
Mike McCoy and Bruce Arians are two of the hottest offensive coordinators and head-coach candidates out there. If they can’t talk defense as well as offense, they shouldn’t be hired for the top job no matter what defensive coordinator candidates they’re selling. Ditto for Ray Horton and Mike Zimmer on the other side of the ball. Any of these four might be the next great head coach, but it will only happen if they have all or most of the traits I described above — not because of the one specialty they’ve already proven.
Finally, could it be that the Pats, 49ers, Packers, Saints, Falcons, Ravens and Steelers appear to have gotten it right because they have the best owners, GMs or both whose egos aren’t threatened by the kind of control and respect they have to give to support their head coaches?
Something to think about, isn’t it?