The NFL is a copycat league, there’s no denying that. Every off season, like clockwork, teams of little fortune try like mad to emulate the successful practices that they’ve seen implemented by other clubs. It’s a league of trends, and those left behind said trends are likely to find themselves out of contention and likewise out of favor with their fans.
One of the interesting new trends in the NFL of late has been the propensity of teams to look beyond the usual suspects in attempting to fill their head coaching positions. Perhaps in no small part due to the recent success of such upstart coaches as Mike Tomlin of the Steelers or the trio of rookie coaches in John Harbaugh, Mike Smith and Tony Sparano who all led their teams to playoff appearances in their rookie campaigns last season, teams have all seemingly begun to reach for the next young star in coaching.
After the early successes of Harbaugh, Smith and Sparano, the NFL reacted in kind. Eight head coaches were hired last off-season, and among them, only Mike Singletary who had coached a handful of games as the interim coach had previous NFL head coaching experience. What’s more, at the start of the 2009 season, only 3 of 32 NFL coaches even had rings as head coaches, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin and Mike Tomlin.
It’s probably a good thing that Superbowl credentialed coaches like Brian Billick, Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher have settled nicely into the TV ranks, because based on current trends, it could be quite some time before the league could consider them attractive coaching candidates again. Guys like those are left hoping these days that the likes of Coughlin or Mike Shanahan can do big things in regard to reversing the current trend.
Look no further than Shanahan’s own situation to illustrate how far the plight of the recycled head coach has come. Do you really think that Washington was on Shanahan’s short list of attractive destinations before gauging the lack of perceived interest that the market seemingly had in him?
If this season had proven anything however, it may have proven that finding the next young rock star coach may be easier said than done. Of the 8 aforementioned head coaching positions filled last off-season, only Rex Ryan and Jim Caldwell saw their fortunes advance beyond the regular season. The rest of those teams are left to ponder whether their leap of faith was actually the right move.
In the playoffs however, a surprising, if not disturbing trend has arisen this season. In the 8 playoff games staged so far this season, all but one have been won by the teams with the least experienced coaches. Among the 3 coaches who went into 2009 with Superbowl hardware, only one even qualified for the playoffs, and for his efforts, Belichick’s Patriots were rewarded with perhaps the playoffs’ most unceremonious ouster.
In the opening weekend, second year coach John Harbaugh watched his Ravens bounce the Patriots along with Bill Belichick, his 15 seasons of experience (10 in New England) and his three Superbowl rings right out of the playoffs. Additionally, Ken Whisenhunt, in his 3rd season saw his Cardinals eliminate the Packers led by Mike McCarthy in his 4th season at the helm. Rookie Jets’ coach Rex Ryan saw his team take out Marvin Lewis’ Bengals, in Lewis’ 7th season as head coach. And in the read between the lines match up, Andy Reid in his 11th season in charge of the Eagles lost to Wade Phillips, whose coaching career began 6 seasons before Reid’s, but Phillips only has 8 total seasons spread out over 3 cities of head coaching experience, and has only been in charge of the Cowboys since 2007.
The second round saw the only upset to the trend when 4th year coach Sean Payton saw his Saints eliminate Whisenhunt’s Cardinals. Otherwise, Brad Childress in his 4th season and the Vikings took out Phillips’ Cowboys, and a pair of rookies in Rex Ryan and Jim Caldwell beat out the oft-recycled Norv Turner and the grizzled second year vet in Harbaugh.
None of that likely gives us any indication of which way to go this weekend, as both championship games will feature head coaches of equal tenure. Childress and Payton, both in the head coaching ranks since 2006 will meet on the NFC side, while a couple of rookies in Caldwell and Ryan will duel it out for the AFC. And once the dust settles in 3 weeks, one thing will be for sure, there will be one more coach going into next season with that elusive Superbowl hardware, as a first timer is now guaranteed to win; it’s just matter of which first timer.
Experience is a funny thing. In a 16 game NFL season, every game is bound to pose a new quandary, we’ve seen evidence of that here in Baltimore over the last 2 seasons, as Harbaugh has found his way admirably, but has also endured a lot of lessons learned on the job. For years, we’ll be left to debate whether the Ravens’ success over the last two seasons happened as a result of the Harbaugh regime, or despite it. Hindsight will surely show that at least a few of the young coaches who saw success this season would fall into the latter category.
One thing that’s probably not debatable though, is that Harbaugh is surely a better coach today than he was two years ago. Heck, he’s probably a better coach today than he was on Saturday in Indy. Experience is what’s made him better, and what will continue to do so.
Why experience is no longer seemingly valued in the NFL is beyond me, but that seems to be the trend. It could make things very interesting going forward, as most of the veteran candidates for head coaching jobs will likely have to gravitate to college or coordinators’ jobs until their stocks rise again. If the NFL is a coordinators league anyway, the impact on the field could be interesting.
Once upon a time, experience made you rich; now, in the NFL at least, it just makes you undesirable. In this league though, everything is subject to change on a moment’s notice. Something tells me that there are a lot of former coaches secretly cheering for Coughlin and Shanahan.