The NFL has seen most of its coaching vacancies become filled, and some of the hires have been curious, while other are potentially dangerous?
Dan Campbell resembled many things during his let’s bite some kneecaps introductory press conference as the Detroit Lions head coach: the drill sergeant from a bad video-game cutscreen; a recently-unfrozen homo habilis with a fresh haircut trying to blend into modern society; seven cinder-blocks stacked on top of each other, draped in a charcoal-gray suit and given the power of speech (if not necessarily cogent thought) by a necromancer.
But mostly, he came across as the man former Lions coach Matt Patricia hoped he could someday become if he could just adjust his weight-room-to-buffet-table ratio.
The Eagles fired Doug Pederson in favor of Nick Sirianni the way your cousin left his wife of 20 years so he could date women who remind him of his wife 20 years ago. If Sirianni doesn’t work out, general manager Howie Roseman will just create a hologram of Andy Reid circa 2002 and let it coach the team until owner Jeffery Lurie catches on.
So long as the holograph doesn’t gain sentience and bench Carson Wentz, of course.
Falcons owner and hardware-store magnate Arthur Blank hired son-of-a-shipping magnate Arthur Smith to deliver (dad joke!) his team a Super Bowl. If you are trying to make a good impression during a coaching interview and cannot pull off Conan the Overcompensator quite the way Campbell can, adding a dash of manor-born Little Lord Fauntleroy cannot hurt.
It will all be fine so long as Smith leaves the talk of summer cottages in Blank’s office and switches to STEEL SHARPENZ STEEL mode in the locker room. Smith worked for Mike Vrabel for three years, so he’s sure to figure things out.
Robert Saleh has made a positive impression in his first few days as the Jets head coach, more for what he does not represent than for what he represents. Saleh isn’t overwhelmingly impressive, but he’s not a scheming narcissist like the guy he’s replacing, he appears committed to solving problems instead of exacerbating them, and his arrival marks a tangible step in the right direction when it comes to diversity.
In those respects, Saleh is the NFL’s Joe Biden.
Emperor Urban I has settled into his Jacksonville throne. Brandon Staley has crammed his belongings into his converted boiler-room Chargers offense. And the Texans — oh the Texans — are vacillating between grudgingly doing the right thing like middle schoolers spitefully half-assing their homework or just abandoning all pretense of professionalism and promoting a third-string quarterback to head coach.
The NFL hiring cycle is nearly over, and little has changed. The Lions are still addicted to cement heads, the Eagles to the lowest-hanging fruit from Reid’s coaching tree, the Falcons to premium-priced mediocrity, the Jaguars to anyone who can sell season tickets, the Chargers to the most affordable solution and the Texans to being the sort of football organization Jordan Peele would write and direct a dark satirical horror film about.
Only the Jets appear to be evolving, but don’t get your hopes too high: Woody Johnson is returning to the organization from his cushy ambassador appointment like Richard the Lionheart after the Crusades. Despite what you may have learned from Robin Hood movies: Richard the Lionheart absolutely sucked as a king.
This is a cynical viewpoint, of course, but it’s easy to be cynical in the wake of Campbell’s cringey Bill Parcells cosplay (which at least some of the Lions fanbase and press pool absolutely lapped up), the Eagles’ Keep Carson Comfy ultimatum, the rocket-like rise of yet another Mini McVay and the league’s typical hand-waving of the Rooney Rule (not to mention whatever the hell the Texans are doing).
To take the “glass half full” approach: lots of new faces are getting their first opportunities, the new coaching class is refreshingly free of Jason Garrett-like retreads, Saleh and Smith are as qualified as anyone for their gigs, and there is a tiny silver lining of diversity around the edges of this mostly white cloud: Lions general manager Brad Holmes and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, Indian-American Chicago Bears coordinator Sean Desai, a few others.
The NFL deserves cynicism about head coaching hires after decades of old boy networking disguised as exhaustive searching. But as a new season — and, in a post-COVID world under a new collective bargaining agreement — perhaps a new era in NFL history begins, the league faces four major problems on the coaching and team management front.
The Bill Belichick Problem
Twenty years of Patriots success stunted the development of rival coaching trees: it was hard for coordinators around the AFC to build head-coaching resumes (and position coaches to develop coordinator resumes) when so many organizations were changing regimes every three years.
Meanwhile, the Belichick Tree churned out so many awful candidates (Patricia and Bill O’Brien, most recently) that it created a convection effect: teams hired Patriots assistants instead of other candidates, ruining their franchises and thereby creating less competition for the next field of Belichick assistants to get their own head coaching (and general management) gigs.
The Sean McVay Problem
The extended McVay-Shanahan coaching tree has been incredibly successful: McVay and Kyle Shanahan took their teams to the Super Bowl, while Matt LaFleur and Kevin Stefanski (a cousin via the Gary Kubiak side of the family) have enjoyed quick success under difficult circumstances with the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to differentiate another McVay or LaFleur from just some other 30-something who was coaching tight ends at St. Francis De Sales Seminary five years ago. And nothing is more dangerous for the trust fund kids running NFL teams than a non-falsifiable argument that confirms their biases.
It’s a slippery slope from “the fact that he was coaching on his uncle’s juco staff in 2018 and hasn’t called plays since he stopped playing Madden proves he’s the next McVay!,” to “hey, maybe Josh McCown is ready to be a head coach.”
The Andy Reid Problem
Reid’s lieutenants and the lieutenants of his lieutenants continue to have success around the NFL, of course: this year’s playoffs alone featured Reid’s Chiefs, Jim Harbaugh’s Ravens, Ron Rivera’s Washington Football Team, Sean McDermott’s Bills and (sigh) Matt Nagy’s Chicago Bears. But Sirianni is a lieutenant of a lieutenant of a lieutenant.
Inevitably, teams will end up with fourth-degree copies of the individual who possessed the actual spark of inspiration, the way that Bill Walsh’s coaching tree produced the likes of Jim Zorn and Mike Tice, or Parcells’ coaching tree still sometimes spits out a Dan Campbell.
The Rooney Rule Problem
This issue both dwarves and exacerbates all the others.
So long as NFL franchises keep finding excuses to reward cookie-cutter McVay types, lionize nonsense-spouting middle school gym teachers like Campbell as great leaders and communicators or line-item veto the Reid coaching school whenever Eric Bieniemy or Duce Staley reaches the docket, it will underscore the fact that the league isn’t hiring from among the best available candidates, but from the candidates that the owners’ and team presidents’ preconceptions.
That’s unfair to everyone. It’s unfair to Campbell to seriously (as opposed to satirically) suggest that he got his job because rich people love coaches who make Braveheart speeches or that Arthur Smith got his job because he was born and raised to sound like an up-and-coming executive.
It’s much, much, much more unfair to Bieniemy and others who keep slamming their head into the titanium ceiling of implicit bias. And it’s unfair to you, dear reader, when your team is entrusted to the head-coaching candidate with the firmest handshake instead of the one best qualified to make 20-something athletes better at playing football.
Most coaches fail. Each game features a winner and a loser (Yes, yes: ties. Shaddup). There will always be a few Belichick-Reid types hoarding a majority of wins and a revolving door of ordinary coaches and Jabronies bearing the brunt of most of the losses. The “average” NFL coach always looks pretty bad as a result, and hiring better candidates won’t change the fact that several coaches each season must gut through a rebuild, scratch their way to 7-9, or get blown out in a Wild Card loss, then face hot-seat questions the moment their quarterbacks suffer a slump.
Hiring better candidates, however, would prevent an Adam Gase from almost purposely sabotaging his roster due to his craving for constant conflict. It would prevent mediocre career hangers-on like Matt Patricia from bloviating for three years about a “winning culture” while alienating their best players. It would prevent someone like Bill O’Brien from turning an entire organization into a Game of Thrones-worthy fiefdom, only to get stabbed in the back himself in the third act.
And better hiring practices would result in fewer 4th-and-inches punts, 2nd-and-20 handoffs, 280-pound edge rushers covering wide receivers and other weekly blunders. Better hiring practices would prevent bad teams from cratering, which would also help the players on those teams develop, which would improve the overall quality of the NFL product.
Of course, if the NFL stopped promoting men like Dan Campbell, C’mon, Coach would be out of a job. No one wants that, especially C’mon, Coach. So bring on the cannibalism speeches, Coach Campbell!
Just be warned: the tough-guy routine gets stale really fast, and that’s when disgruntled players, angry fans and court jesters like me start to really bite back.