On the job training
So instead of looking for strategic masterminds, teams should seek out master communicators with delegation skills and charismatic personalities. Easier said than done. Coordinators become head coaches through a whirlwind interview process that usually takes place over the course of a week or two in January. A hot assistant comes to town, meets the owner and/or general manager for a few hours, then flies to the next city.
And here’s the kicker — these coaches get coached on how to perform in interviews, so they know how to tell executives just what they want to hear.
Sundquist recommends promoting from within the organization whenever possible: team executives have a handle on how an in-house assistant works with his own staff and players, and how he handled interactions (if he had any) with scouts or the personnel department. Jim Caldwell, for example, quickly brought the Colts back to the Super Bowl after replacing Dungy, this season’s woes notwithstanding.
If there are no suitable replacements on staff, look for coaches with some college experience. Many coordinators, like McDaniels, worked their way through the NFL’s “quality control assistant” ranks, meaning they started out as film slicers and data entry techs. College coaching involves more teaching, more communication with prep coaches and the families of recruits, and a greater need to get inside the head of a younger athlete. Mike Tomlin, for example, spent five years coaching at various colleges. “In college, it’s less about the game of chess and more what you know about the pieces,” Sundquist said.
The next best thing to college coaching experience may be a varied NFL résumé. John Harbaugh made his reputation as a special teams coordinator, a job that involves combing the bottom of the roster for talent, teaching young players unfamiliar roles (superstar NCAA receiver, you are now a kick gunner), and making sudden changes on the fly, skills that serve him well as a head coach. Herm Edwards had both scouting and coaching experience, and his greatest flaw was that he was good at everything except strategy, making him the opposite of today’s stereotypical wunderkinds. Packers assistant Edgar Bennett has spent time in the personnel department and as a running backs and receivers coach, so he is learning the football business from a variety of angles. A team looking for the “Packers method” may be well served by Bennett.
The smartest move for a team hiring an up-and-coming assistant is to avoid the “keys to the kingdom” mentality. Personnel decisions have long-range consequences and must be made by a staff, not an individual. Bill Parcells may have earned the right to “buy the groceries,” but Parcells did not call plays or design gameplans. He always had a Bill Belichick or Sean Payton around for that. Parcells understood the “CEO” part of his job. The 40-year old fast-tracker who will be flying across the country come January probably does not.
Parcells, of course, was the man who selected Sparano in Miami. Even the smartest executives make mistakes. The trick is to avoid the obvious ones.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.
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