Experience is the Best Teacher, But a Fool Will Learn From No Other

January 22, 2008 | Thyrl Nelson

I’ll begin by saying that I think that hiring John Harbaugh was a great move. Although I am still not convinced that this will be the most stable of teams going forward, or that firing Billick was the right move in the first place, I liked Harbaugh the best of all of the candidates that seemed to get serious consideration.
It seemed that experience was a factor in the Ravens decision-making process, as all of the names who seemed to get serious consideration were guys without previous NFL head coaching experience. Bisciotti, I believed all along was looking to begin to forge his own legacy, and therefore fresh blood was mandatory, but it seems than most teams have opted to go that route in recent years.
Statistically, it’s kind of surprising. There are 30 head coaches currently employed by NFL teams, 31 if you count Dallas with 2, but the Redskins and Falcons both still have vacancies. Of those 30 coaches, 20 are first timers, and 10 are guys who had head coaching experience with another team, by my unofficial count. The two teams who have replaced coaches already this off-season both replaced first time head coaches with other first time head coaches.
Since the Redskins departed ways with Joe Gibbs, I will put him in the retread category even though it’s his second stint with the same team, and the Falcons were abandoned by first timer Bobby Petrino; that means that there were 11 previously deposed head coaches and 21 first timers employed by the NFL at the start of the 2007 season. Of the 11 retreads, only 3, Gibbs, Jon Gruden and Mike Holmgren were not fired by their previous employers. That’s 34% of the NFL employing retread head coaches, and the other 66% going with first timers.
Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs, 8 were coached by so called retreads. That’s 66% of the total field. 8 of the 11 total retread coaches in the NFL were in the playoffs. The three retreads who missed the playoffs were Dick Jauron, who certainly had a successful season in Buffalo, Herm Edwards, who had the Chiefs in the playoffs last season, and Mike Shanahan, who is 2 years and 1 quarterback change removed from the AFC title game. Of the 11 retread head coaches, 8 made the playoffs, that’s 73%. Of the 21 first time head coaches, 4 made the playoffs, just 19%. And one of those 4 was Jeff Fischer, although a first timer, he’s the longest tenured coach in the league.
In the playoffs, it’s more of the same, the retreads are 8-6, and the first timers 2-4. Not just that, the only first time coach to beat a retread was Mike McCarthy over Mike Holmgren. The other 5 losses suffered by retread head coaches were to other retreads. Look no further than the 2 teams remaining, both coached by so called retreads.
History looks pretty much the same as well. Tony Dungy who coached the Colts to the title last year falls into the retread category, and although Bill Cowher, the year before was a first timer; he didn’t win it until his 14th season. Prior to that Bill Bellichick has 3 of 4, with the other going to Gruden, both retreads. Billick was a first timer in 2000, in only his second year, but the 3 years prior to that were all won by retreads too, 2 by Shanahan and 1 by Dick Vermeil.
I wasn’t a fan of Marty Shcottenheimer when the search was on, and no other veteran coaches seemed to get, or to want serious consideration or attention. It seems that these days, the league wants fresh blood, and everyone is looking to catch lightning in a bottle and find the next hall of fame coach. It’s worth saying though, that in most sports; you learn a great deal more from failure than success, actually that’s true in most of life. I would have liked to see Billick get a chance to learn from his failures. I fear that we will, someday, in another city.
As for Harbaugh though, I think it was a great hire, even if the Ravens did seem to trip all over themselves in getting to it. The first thing that I like about Harbaugh is that he isn’t coming here attached to a #1 ranked offense or defense, presumably loaded with talent. Lots of the candidates bore a striking resemblance to Billick in that regard. If Harbaugh merited an interview it was because he came highly recommended, it wasn’t because someone at Owings Mills picked up the paper and simply interviewed the coaches whose teams put up the best numbers.
As a special teams coordinator, Harbaugh has a lot of intangibles that you’d look for in a head coach. Special teams involves coaching nearly every position in some capacity, and requires that you maximize the time that you get to practice, as your players all have other responsibilities. Special teams happen more or less under a microscope too, mistakes are usually both glaring and costly. Attention to detail is certainly a requirement.
Furthermore, special teams probably has a lot more players being swapped in and out of packages from game to game, and have to be ready to execute trick and specialty plays even though they are rarely used. Most importantly, in my mind at least, is that most young players are developed and brought along on special teams. Player development is imperative to the success of any team, and it’s something that the Eagles have done very well, routinely allowing veterans to walk in free agency and developing replacements. And since lots of young players are brought along on special teams, and special teams plays a large part in making final roster decisions, I’ll bet that Harbaugh is already pretty intimately familiar with that process too.
Maybe, if you look at it, special teams coordinator could be the best possible job to prepare someone to be a head coach. Time may tell on that one, but in a copycat league, it wouldn’t be surprising for that to become the next trend in NFL hiring. Then Bisciotti would really have the makings of a legacy, which is what I think he’s been looking for all along.
There will be a number of things working against Harbaugh too. A locker room still seemingly out of control. With a giant ego in the middle of the locker room that prompted an unsolicited mention from the owner, actually in reference to team discipline, during the Harbaugh press conference. There’s an aging core of veterans, a QB situation, high expectations from the fans and media, and offensive line problems, and that’s just for starters.
What Harbaugh lacks in traditional grooming, he seems to make up for across the board. He did continually refer to Andy Reid as successful during the press conference though; hopefully someone told him that Reid’s level of success would likely get him fired around here.
Maybe the biggest problem with Harbaugh is that he hasn’t failed enough to learn the valuable lessons caused by it. Early success can be both a blessing and a curse. Ask the previous coach; maybe Billick never failed enough to be truly successful. Regardless, that ship has sailed already, but maybe the same could be said of Bisciotti too. Maybe Bisciotti has to fail before he can truly succeed. Only time and experience will tell for sure.


*title is a quote from Ben Franklin