On Monday the Miami Dolphins fired their Head Coach Joe Philbin and installed former NFL Tight End Dan Campbell as the Interim Head Coach. This will be Miami’s fourth Head Coach since 2008, a period of years with only one playoff appearance. Philbin represents another failure of the so called “Offensive Gurus” in the NFL as Head Coaches. While the term “failure” is a subjective and overused term in the sports world, history speaks for itself.
The NFL has overvalued men who are offensive coaches and coordinators for decades, turning these men into Head Coaches all over the league. Whether it’s Mike Martz, Jim Zorn, Marty Mornhiweg, Mike Sherman, Steve Spurrier, or Mark Trestman, there is a long list of “geniuses” or “gurus” who were supposed to turn teams around and revolutionize franchises. In fact only four teams over the last 15 years have won a Super Bowl with a Head Coach with an offensive coaching background. Even then, we should question whether those coaches won because of their offensive prowess:
Super Bowl XXXV (2001): Baltimore Ravens
Head Coach Brian Billick has a background as an Offensive Coordinator, Receivers Coach and Assistant Coach in College and NFL. But the 2000 Baltimore Ravens are known as one of the top five defensive units in NFL history as they won 34-7 with a Quarterback who never played in Baltimore after that season (Trent Dilfer). In fact, during his tenure as Ravens Head Coach, Billick would never be able to cultivate an offense half as high powered as the one he presided over while coaching with the Minnesota Vikings in the 1990’s.
Super Bowl XXXVII (2003): Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Head Coach Jon Gruden was considered one of the top offensive coaches in the NFL before he became the Oakland Raiders then later Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach. While Gruden revived the careers of veterans such as Rich Gannon and Jeff Garcia, it was the dominant Bucs defense that earn him that Super Bowl title. In fact, Tampa won 48-21 over Gruden’s former team, the Raiders, in a game in which the Bucs defense forced multiple turnovers and never allowed the Raiders offense to gain any real traction. Gruden coached the Bucs for seven seasons, with only one trip to the Super Bowl, the rest of the seasons ending in failure to meet expectations.
Super Bowl XLIV (2010): New Orleans Saints
Head Coach Sean Payton spent nine years as a Quarterbacks Coach and Offensive Coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, and Dallas Cowboys before being hired to his first job as Head Coach with the Saints. Despite having one of the top Quarterbacks in NFL history in Drew Brees, the Saints won their Super Bowl thanks to their defense. The Saints went into the playoffs with a defense top five in the league in Interceptions and least points scored against. In the Super Bowl they won 31-17 limiting another future Hall of Fame Quarterback, Peyton Manning, to only one passing touchdown all game.
Super Bowl XLV (2011): Green Bay Packers
Head Coach Mike McCarthy was a long time Quarterbacks Coach and Offensive Coordinator with the Chiefs, Packers, Saints, and 49ers before returning to Green Bay to be their new Head Coach. What is forgotten about that 2010 Green Bay Packers team was how good their defense was. The unit was top ten in the NFL that season in Least Points Per Game Against, Total Yards Against, and Turnovers Forced. The Packers 31-25 victory was the icing on the cake of a great season for a talented all-around team.
The last high powered offense to win Super Bowl without a good defense was the 1999 St. Louis Rams and even they needed a last second clutch defensive play to win the game. Yet the NFL is still obsessed with the “hot coordinator” who gets labelled an offensive “genius” or “guru”. The long list of “failed” Head Coaches in the NFL over the last 20 years is predominantly men with offensive coaching backgrounds. Part of the issue is some people are not cut out to be Head Coaches, such coaches are specialists not executive game managers. Others do not succeed because they are all about a “system” or “scheme” then find out that not being flexible with their game plans leads to limited results in the NFL. This is a major reason why so many college coaches do not succeed in the NFL, In professional team sports a coach must structure a game plan around his talent, not force pieces into their system.
Being an NFL Head Coach is more than having a high Football IQ and being great talent evaluator, they must almost manage personalities of players and the coaching staff. There is some psychology involved in coaching that gets overlooked. In order to bring out the best in a player the coach must understand what motivates that individual, see through the obvious skills and help unlock what that player is truly capable of on game day. It is not enough to know a player has great potential; the coach must also bring that talent out of the player in order to help them succeed.
This a major reason why so many of the successful NFL Head Coaches come from a defensive coaching background. As a defensive position coach or defensive coordinator, success is more dependent on bringing out the skills of players they coach than it is about scheme. Head Coaches such as Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll have success because they see the potential of their players then turn that potential into usable talent by putting players in a position to be successful. Both coaches understand that without the players, all the hours of structure, game plans, research, etc is useless if the players cannot execute on game day. Also what makes both of these coaches successful is the fact they have learn from past failures.
This is what really differentiates great coaches from subpar ones: the ability to see what they did wrong in the past, learn from it, and take those learning experiences into the next opportunity. Too many of these offensive “gurus” and “geniuses” are overconfident in their systems and buy into their own hype so deeply they become arrogant. The old saying “Pride comes before a fall” plays out in the NFL from week to week during games and press conferences, as these coaches show their insecurities while being questioned about what is going on with their teams.
Look back on all the “successful” NFL Head Coaches with offensive coaching backgrounds. Andy Reid was at his best in Philadelphia with Jim Johnson’s defenses wreaking havoc on opponents keep games within reach. Sean Payton’s Saints and Mike McCarthy’s Packers have high scoring offenses led by top talent Quarterbacks yet haven’t been back to the Super Bowl without a good defense to slow down opponents. Jason Garrett’s Cowboys couldn’t get over that habitual 8-8 record until they had a defense to compliment the offense. Even Head Coaches such as Gary Kubiak and Bruce Arians know that without a solid defense to make up the difference when their offenses falter then they cannot win games.
The firing of Joe Philbin only amplifies the importance of the old saying “Defense wins championships” in the NFL. Football is the ultimate team game and in order for a team to be successful, they need the players, all of them, to execute on game day. For all of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford, and Tom Brady record breaking seasons as Quarterbacks, none of them won a Super Bowl in those years. I certainly do not think that is a coincidence.