Todd Haley isn’t cutting it. His Chiefs looked like the worst team in professional sports through the first three games, though a two-game winning streak has taken a little heat off. Rumors are swirling that Chiefs president Scott Pioli was ready to fire Haley during the bye, but Pioli stayed his hand. The reprieve may be brief — Haley made disastrous decisions during the preseason, including exposing starters to injury in order to win the final exhibition game, and he is one bad decision away from exciting new employment opportunities elsewhere.
Sparano and Haley are once-promising assistant coaches who are flunking their first trial as head coaches.
They are not alone.
Steve Spagnuolo and Ken Whisenhunt are in the same boat. Recent history is filled with assistants who did not just fail, but failed spectacularly: Josh McDaniels in Denver, Scott Linehan in St. Louis, Eric Mangini in Cleveland. These guys dragged their organizations down with them, dividing locker rooms and, in some cases, embarrassing their franchises with power plays and political intrigues.
A bad coach can waste a few years trying to build his program. A terrible one set a team back for a whole decade. With stakes so high, NFL owners and executives have to ask themselves an important question: How do you tell whether a rising star is the Next Great Coach or a nightmare waiting to tear your franchise apart?
There is no right answer to that question, but there is one absolutely wrong one. You can’t determine a coordinator’s potential from his stats.
Wrong tools for the job
Chances are, the company you work for has a technical department or a research and development staff. The people who work in those departments are brilliant; they design new products, make important repairs, or know how to network the computers, copiers, and coffee machines together so everything runs smoothly.
These people are the offensive and defensive coordinators of your company. They are creative, innovative, and indispensable. And there is no way in this world they will ever get promoted to Chief Executive Officer, because they lack expertise in sales, marketing, shipping, production, purchasing, and the rest of the enchilada. Plus, their people skills probably aren’t great.
The corporate world understands the difference between a prized technician and a leader with real managerial tools and talent. Unfortunately, NFL owners and execs often do not. “As head coach, you are the CEO of a multi-billion dollar operation,” said Ted Sundquist, former general manager of the Broncos and editor of TheFootballEducator.com. “Yet guys are thrust into the job with no training whatsoever because their defense was ranked second in yards allowed last year.”
Head coaches have to do much more than draw up gameplans and make locker room speeches. “He must communicate with the business people, communicate with marketing, communicate with the media,” Sundquist explained. A head coach’s job is filled with meetings, discussions, and compromises. The difference between coordinator and coach is almost as big as the difference between software engineer and Vice President of Production.
The lack of managerial training becomes a bigger problem when coaches like McDaniels get major influence over personnel matters. Scouting is a year-round job, yet some young coaches believe they can dabble in it. Handling the salary cap is also a full-time occupation, and it’s the head coach who first learns what is and isn’t possible under the constraints of the team budget. When wunderkind coaches fail to grasp the economics and resource allocations that go into finding, developing, and compensating talent, they do nutty things, like trading away star players over personality conflicts or leaving Matt Cassel in the fourth preseason game.
Of course, many successful coaches have made the leap from the assistant ranks. It takes a special kind of person to do so, and where that individual’s offense or defense ranked the previous year is not really relevant.
Personality, Maturity, Quality
Sundquist points to Tony Dungy as the ideal example of an assistant who achieved success as a head coach, and the Tampa-2 defense had nothing to do with it. “He’s a man of character. Teams need that mature individual.”
Maturity was a problem for the petulant McDaniels. It also may be an issue for Haley, whose decision process never seems to extend beyond the next quarter. Character was a major problem for Mangini, who treated bottom-of-the-roster players like indentured servants.
Character alone does not guarantee success. Sparano is a peach. “I hate that the Dolphins’ terrible 0-5 start is roosting directly in the doorstep of Sparano, a good man and a good coach.” wrote Armondo Salguero in the Miami Herald this week. Sparano is also no young whippersnapper with a cocky attitude. He has a long résumé as an NFL assistant and a college head coach.
Part of Sparano’s problem may be his personality. Some coaches are all bluster and brimstone speeches. Others, like Sparano, are lower-key. The tough guys, like Mike Singletary, produce short-term results but can grind players and co-workers down if they do not sometimes dial it down. Alex Smith looks like a better quarterback now that there is no perma-fire under his rear end. The low-key guys, like Wade Phillips, can exasperate both fans and superiors when they don’t display any rage after a tough loss. Salguero’s column makes it clear that Ross has tired of his head coach, perhaps because the stay-the-course approach isn’t reaching troublesome stars like Brandon Marshall.
The most successful coaches can modulate their personalities, which is another trait coordinators don’t need to master (the head coach has the emotions, the coordinator has a dry erase board). An Andy Reid can be soft-spoken, like Dungy, but wield authority behind the scenes. A Tom Coughlin or Mike Tomlin can come across as gruff and angry in press conferences but approachable and fair-minded in the locker room or staff meetings. “A coach has to know when to kick butt and when to take his foot off the pedal,” Sundquist said. Many assistants only know one or the other, or neither.
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