FR: What makes a great NFL coach?

I was on the radio with the Open Mic Daily guys last week on ESPN 1400, and one of them (props, Smitty) asked what a coach needed to be successful in the NFL. That got me thinking, and so I wanted to create a Football Relativity comparison of the various skills a coach must have to be successful as an NFL head coach. We’re comparing these skills using a 10-point scale, with the 10 level noting the most important skills and the 1 level noting the skills that are merely marginal.

10 – Creating and organizing a system – This is the most vital thing a head coach must do. A coach, in conjunction with the rest of the football organization, must determine what kind of team he wants to have. Bill Parcells is the best of all time at this. He wants a team that is big and physical. He has physical dimensions he wants at each position. That clear plan allows everyone else in the organization to have a goal in mind and point toward that goal. Without a plan, a head coach fails. But the best coaches – Parcells, Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, Andy Reid, etc. – know what the goal is and have built a system that allows their teams to move toward that goal.

9 – none

8 – Building a staff – A head coach must delegate (more on that later), and so a coach must be able to have assistants he trusts to do what they were hired to do. A coach with assistants who are skilled at teaching and at game planning gets a leg up. Staff chemistry is also an issue. You’ve got to have guys who are pulling the same direction that you are, and you have to make changes when that isn’t happening. That’s why, for example, Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt let defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast go after last season despite a Super Bowl berth – he wanted a defense that did what his vision was. New defensive coordinator Bill Davis is on the same page as Whisenhunt, and the results look quite good right now.

8 (con’t)- People skills – A head coach needs to be able to relate to others. Just as in any other leadership position, a head coach has to treat others well so that everyone stays on the same page. This doesn’t mean being a pushover; the head coach can be firm. But the demeanor needs to be fair and consistent. When that doesn’t happen, no one in the organization can fully trust the coach, and that undermines the system.

7 – Delegation – Even if a coach builds the right staff, he still must let the staff do its job. That takes delegation. If a coach doesn’t delegate responsiblity – whether it’s running practice, teaching skills, creating a game plan, calling plays, or whatever – then he runs the risk of spreading himself too thin and compromising one or more parts of his job. Delegation is vital to the overall success of a coach.

6 – Game planning - This is an important skill, but it’s not a head coach’s primary responsibility. In an ideal world, the head coach will have input and give guidance to the overall game plan, but it’s the assistants who take a philosophy and turn it into a weekly plan. It’s also the assistants and advance scouts who will find holes in opponents that can be exploited. While many coaches who have been coordinators hold onto this responsibility, the best head coaches know what part of game planning to do themselves and how much of this task to delegate.

5 – Play calling - Like game planning, play calling is something most head coaches are good at. In many cases, it’s what got a coordinator noticed and promoted into head-coaching jobs. But often, head coaches are better off giving up play-calling duties so that they can focus on macro issues within a team and an organization. We’ve seen this to be true in Washington this season, as the Redskins’ offense has clicked better now that Jim Zorn has given up play-calling duties. The play callers can give more detailed attention to play calling than Zorn, who has far more duties, could.

4 – Game and clock management – This is the place where coaches catch reams of criticism. From Belichick’s decision to go for a fourth-and-2 to use of timeouts to many other issues, mistakes in this area are glaring. But they are actually a small part of a coach’s job. A coach can be wildly successful without good game management skills, while a coach with unbelievable game management skills but no system will quickly fail. This area seems more important than it is; it’s not a make-or-break skill.

4 (con’t) – Replay challenges – This is a subset of game management that can lead to great criticism but ultimately is a minor part of a coach’s job. In fact, a coach who makes emotional decisions with the red flag to support his players, even if he’s often wrong, can actually get players motivated and inspired. This ultiamtely is not a skill that will get a coach fired if he doesn’t have it – but it can help a bit.

3 – Motivation – Motivation skills are what fans love to see, but at the NFL level, this is a relatively minor issue. That’s because players are usually self-motivated. Money, playing time, endorsements, and more keep players preparing at a high level. So motivation doesn’t make the huge difference in the pros that it can on the college level.

3 (con’t) – Discipline – Some coaches, like Eric Mangini, take discipline to the nth degree. But in the broad view, discipline isn’t as important as organization. If you have an organized system, then discipline serves to keep players in line with it. But if your system is unclear or unorganized, then discipline won’t save it. Those two things must go hand in hand. Otherwise, you look like a self-righteous jerk instead of a disciplined head coach. But when you have a system, such as a coach like Tom Coughlin has, then discipline is how the system runs. That’s a combination that works.

2 – none

1 – Dealing with media – This is another high-profile part of a coach’s job, but it ultimately doesn’t determine whether coaches thrive or not. While it’s nice to have a coach who’s good with the media, a la Rex Ryan or Dungy, it doesn’t make that coach successful. As long as a coach can let media criticism roll off his back, his demeanor with the media doesn’t really affect the performance of a team in the long run. It’s hard for a former media member to admit, but it’s true.

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