The 8-Skill NFL Head Coach |
January 16th 2015 - Old Man Winner
Like the 5-tool baseball player and the albino tiger, the 8-skill NFL Head Coach
may be even harder to find.
Yes, it is that time of year again, where we, crazy fans, watch the annual
pilgrimage of NFL owners who purportedly are turning over every stone along the
way on their trek to finding the rarest of breeds, the man (maybe someday I'll
have to say person) who possesses just the right combination of coaching skills
to lead their team to the promised land.
As is most often the case in this situation, I see team owners find that there
is truly no candidate that exists that has a better than average rating on all
eight coaching skills to be reviewed herein. I have learned, over the years,
that most owners/GM's who are part of the hiring process are myopically looking
in the rear view mirror to try and see the road ahead, and that typically does
not work very well. What I mean by that is that most administrations are still
smack in the middle of their recency bias, frustrated with the shortfalls of the
coach that they have recently fired, and will be looking for their next coach to
have strengths on those specific skills where their last coach had weaknesses.
This is not a very strategic path to success.
Instead, what they should be looking for is someone that has as many of the
eight coaching skills as possible, and, this is the most important part,
understands which skills they lack and how to supplement those with their
respective coordinators and position coaches. The act of recognizing these blind
spots is critical. This takes a special skill in and of itself, one of self
evaluation and humility, often tough to find in a game full of egos and
machismo. However, if this recognition is missing, then filling in the weak
areas becomes a game of chance and hope - not very strategic.
Let's look at these eight skills in more detail. I will first define the skill,
provide an example of a head coach that possesses/possessed a high degree of
that skill, describe how that skill manifests on the field, and then describe
the relative importance of that skill to the others (scale of 1-5, 5 being the
highest), in my opinion.
Definition: A leader, in this context, is someone who players want to
follow. That is not to imply that they necessarily have to like him, but they
trust him to lead them to victory. They believe what he says. They do not
question that he is the one to whom they should be listening. They see that he
has a plan and he knows how to execute that plan. He makes difficult decisions
and stands up for what he believes. He clearly lets everyone know their role and
holds them accountable for performing that role. He is unequivocally The One.
Like the old Lee Iacocca saying, "he may not always be right, but he's never
Example(s): Bill Parcells, Mike Ditka, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs
Manifestation on the field: Crispness of execution of the game plan,
decisiveness during the game, and ownership of the results at the post-game
Importance: 5 - This has to be the most important tool that all head
coaches MUST possess. This one is the price of admission of any NFL head coach.
If you don't "command" the locker room, you don't get through the door. Players
have to believe in their coach in order to stay focused and "sell-out"(in a good
way) to execute the coach's plan. The moment doubt creeps in the distraction is
exponential. Again, this leadership doesn't have to be 'in your face' (Parcells/Ditka),
it just has to be unequivocal. Tony Dungy or Tom Landry would be examples of
Definition: A motivator is someone that knows how to provide the proper
type of mental stimulus with the intent of tapping into players' respective
psyches and underlying willpower. Football is an extremely emotional game. Often
the sheer will of players can overcome physical limitations on the field,
whether it be injuries or physical inferiority against bigger or faster players.
Good motivators can make players believe, and thereby be better than they
believe themselves to be. The post proof of great motivators always come from
players after games when they say things like, "even though no one else believed
. . . we knew we were better than . . . we knew that all we needed to do was . .
. . and we would win the game." As with leadership, great motivators can have a
wide variety of looks from vocal screamers (ala Cowher) to behind-the-scenes
motivators (ala Vermeil). The point is that these guys know how to press the
right buttons to motivate both the individual needs of each respective player
and the team collective.
Example(s): Bill Cowher, Dick Vermeil, John Madden
Manifestation on the field: Teams that look consistently more "fired up"
than their opponents. The opposite of looking "flat" or "uninspired." Actions
that you may see include gang tackling, players racing a long distance to be
part of a play, second and third efforts, players "finishing" plays, no players
"taking plays off", and coaches/players talking (motivating) their teammates on
the sidelines or in the locker room.
Importance: 2 - This tool is overrated. Albeit important to have your
players emotionally peaking at the right time, this is skill that can easily
come from another source, whether it be a coordinator, a position coach, or even
a player. For example, Ray Lewis played this role almost his entire career.
There was no need for coaches to motivate the players, Ray-Ray was always there
making sure his teammates were fired up and ready to go at all times. There are
countless examples of tremendous motivators that failed miserably as head
coaches, Mike Singletary comes quickly to mind.
Definition: This is the "X's and O's" guy. This is the guy who knows
football schemes inside and out. These coaches usually have come from coaching
families, have an affinity toward the science of play design, or have extensive
experience through the ranks having seen the nuance of plays from many sides.
The strategist typically knows how to identify weaknesses of the other team and
knows how to devise a game plan to exploit those weaknesses.
Example(s): Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh, Don Coryell
Manifestation on the field: When you see what appears to be a completely
different team on the field week to week you will typically see a coach with
this skill standing on the sideline. That is why Bill Belichick is the epitome
of this skill. His defense always finds a way to "take away" the opponent's best
player. His offense may pass the ball 50 times in one game and run the ball 50
times in the next. You may also see a manifestation of this with adjustments
throughout the game. Good strategists see things quicker than most and know
exactly what to do once seen.
Importance: 3 - Although it is important for head coaches to possess this
skill, it is possible for them to get away with not being a genius in this area
if, and only if, they have hired Coordinators who have it, and also have the
confidence in them to stay out of the way.
Definition: This tool is all about organization and logistics. As much as
you don't think about these things much, they are important when trying to get
everyone on one page with hundreds of logistical details that it takes to get
the most out of an NFL football team. Managers with this skill have their team
all moving together as one. They have a routine. Everyone knows when things are
going to happen, how they are going to happen, and who is responsible for making
them happen. A head coach with this skill usually does his best work off the
field, in meeting rooms, etc. These managers believe that if you get the small
things right, the big things will fall into place.
Example(s): Tom Coughlin, Nick Sabin, John Harbaugh, Chip Kelly
Manifestation on the field: Players doing the small things right. Minimal
blown assignments. Fewer penalties.
Importance: 2 - As much as this provides for a better feeling of
cohesiveness, its not absolutely critical to winning. The front office
(ownership) usually appreciates this type of coach, but likely appreciates wins
Definition: The learning curve is incredibly steep in the NFL,
unbelievably so. Some players just never grasp it and simply cannot retain that
much information and apply it on the field, and thus fizzle out and are never
heard from again. A head coach with this strength usually does his best work on
the practice field. He is the teacher. He is blowing his whistle, stopping the
play, and 'coaching up' his players on all things from 'why' doing something is
important, to 'how' to do it, or 'when' to apply it. Coaches that possess this
skill are often viewed as 'player's coaches.' Likely they are guys who are
perceived to understand what its like to operate in the trenches. They typically
are liked by players because they know how to approach players and 'teach' vs.
yelling at or chastising.
Example(s): Pete Carroll, Jon Gruden
Manifestation on the field: Players using superior techniques. Nuance
that materializes, such as quarterbacks that will look off a safety or
linebackers that may give a certain coverage look but be executing another.
Importance: 3 - This skill is often relegated to the position coaches or
Coordinators. Having a head coach providing this type of regular feedback to
players is certainly a nice-to-have, but not a core requirement. However, the
teaching of the larger concepts of 'how to be a winner' or 'how to take
responsibility' are often recognized by players as paramount to high quality
6: Skill Assessor
Definition: This one is pretty self-explanatory, but making sure the best
players are on the field every week seems pretty important. This skill becomes
even more important if the Head Coach is also the General Manager or has been
given the responsibility of player personnel.
Example(s): Mike Holmgren, Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells
Manifestation on the field: It is easier to see the inverse of this on
the field. Whenever you see a player come in and replace another player and
outperform his predecessor, it usually means the coaches just missed it. They
probably never gave the back up enough credit or sufficient opportunity to prove
he was better than someone higher on the depth chart.
Importance: 3/4 - If there is a GM or Director of player personnel
responsible for the draft, trades and make up of the 53-man roster, then the
importance of a head coach possessing this ability is a little less important.
However, putting the right players on the field, from the 53-man roster, will
always be of utmost importance.
7: Front Man
Definition: A good front man can get in front of the camera and use that
as an opportunity to improve his team. Whether it be taking the pressure off the
team by accepting full responsibility for a loss, standing up for a player screw
up, or knowing when to challenge his team publicly, a head coach that can
control the press and get the fans behind his team using the media has a leg up
on others that can get swallowed up by the press.
Example(s): Jimmy Johnson, Andy Reid, Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Pete
Manifestation on the field: Nothing that is easy to identify.
Importance: 3 - This skill is underrated. What head coaches say in the
public matters. If managed poorly, the press can create havoc, causing ongoing
distractions and second-guessing of coaching decisions. When managed well, it
can create fan support, team cohesion, and confidence in the coach and all his
8: Game Manager
Definition: With the addition of instant replay, head coaches now have to
decide when to challenge plays, manage the clock properly, when to kick a field
goal vs. go for it on 4th down. They need to know when to call time-outs, when
to calm players and when to fire them up. They have to know how to make
half-time adjustments. In my humble opinion, of all the skills identified, NFL
coaches underperform at this one the most. Do these decisions, or lack thereof,
make the difference in games? You better believe it.
Example(s): Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, Mike McCarthy
Manifestation on the field: This one is probably the most visible on game
day due to the obvious coverage it receives. Watch for the decisiveness of the
coach. Was he ready for this situation? Has he prepared for it? Does he know
when to call timeouts in a close game? Does he win the plays he challenges? Is
he strategic about going for it on fourth down, or is he rigidly conservative?
Importance: 4 - Since the great majority of NFL games are decided by one
score or less, then its fair to conclude that critical game day coaching
decisions can make the difference between winning and losing 2-3 games a year -
which, in effect, can make a huge difference in a team making the playoffs or
securing home field advantage. With the coaching staffs ballooning to almost as
many coaches as players these days, I've been surprised that we have yet to see
an assigned coach to handle some key game day decisions, like time management or
replay challenges. This is coming. Watch for it.
Now that you understand the 8 critical skills of coaching, I am sure it is not
hard to see why it is so difficult to secure a head coach, in short order most
of the time, that possesses all these skills. The likelihood of that is almost
nil. Therefore, my advice would be for team owners to use this model as a
guideline for the assessment of potential candidates. All candidates are going
to be strong in some areas and likely weak in others. However, finding the
person, that has the skills that best match up with those that have been
identified as most important by the organization, should be the goal. Taking on
this process in this way will prevent both the recency bias and being enamored
with a candidate that has one or two key answers in an interview.
Here's how I would recommend doing it. First, agree to an importance rank on
each of the eight skills within the organization. I wouldn't be surprised if all
32 teams ranked these skills differently. Then, create a tool and/or interview
that tests for these skills. Give the candidate a grade on each skill . Then
multiply the grade against the given importance rank. Then total. That will help
to provide the short list for those making the final cut.
It is recommended that this assessment tool be created in the off-season during
a time where there is no pressure to place a head coach. Then just pull out the
assessment tool when needed. Walla - good coaching hire! It's that easy! LOL