Coaching To Win

By Alan Carroll

In the NFL, as in every sport in the world except for Sarcastaball, a coach’s mission is to win. Sure having a great relationship with your players and running an ethical organization are important, but even the “great guy” can find himself in the hot seat at the end of a disappointing season. Likewise, an ethically questionable coach can redeem himself by winning. In January of 2007, Nick Saban found himself in the middle of a storm of controversy when he repeatedly denied that he was going to take the Alabama head coaching job, and then turned around and accepted the offer.  His decision to leave the Miami Dolphins after frustrating season earned him the ire of many across the country, mostly because of the manner in which he left.  Five years and three national championships later, it’s nearly impossible to find anything negative being written about Coach Saban. He was able to win, and was forgiven. As eight NFL coaches found in December, not everyone is able to win.

Philadelphia, Arizona, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Jacksonville, and San Diego all fired their head coaches after underachieving seasons (five of the eight also fired their GM). Those coaches went a combined 41-87 in the regular season and none made the playoffs. The only coach in the group with a record above .500 was Lovie Smith. He lost his job as a result of a late season collapse by a Bears team that initially seemed to be headed to the Super Bowl, as well as repeatedly failing to reach and win the Super Bowl. Coaching changes at the end of the season like this have become commonplace in the NFL, as teams try to find that dynamic between a coach and his team that will lead to a Lombardi Trophy. One might argue that one main part of the formula is consistency; that you need to be patient and give your coach time to establish his system and build a roster to suit it. If this is indeed the case, why the constant coaching changes?

Looking at the four coaches who have guided their teams to the conference championships this year, continuity does not appear to be the most important factor. This is only Jim Harbaugh’s second season coaching in San Francisco. He was able to take a team that went 6-10 in 2010, and turn into one of the best teams in the NFL. The 49er’s went 13-3 the very next season, barely missing a chance to go to the Super Bowl. This year they’re 11-4-1 and headed to the Super Bowl in two weeks. That’s all in the space of two years. Looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, Bill Belichick has been coaching the Patriots for 12 years now. In that time span he has guided New England to 10 post-season appearances; three of which culminated in a Super Bowl ring. The other two coaches, Mike Smith (Atlanta) and John Harbaugh (Baltimore), have each been head coach for five years and have made the playoffs in nine out of ten of those combined years (John Harbaugh will be facing his brother in this year’s Super Bowl). All four of these coaches made the playoffs in their first or second season, lending credence to the theory that coaching stability isn’t actually very high up on the list of keys to winning.

When you step back and examine the big picture, it seems to me that there is no single key to winning in the NFL. You need elite players that fit into your scheme and stay healthy, intelligent assistants, an effective offensive/defensive system, the support of your owner, a little luck, and much more. The list is essentially endless. As Vince Lombardi said, “…winning means that you’re willing to go longer, work harder, and give more than anyone else.” Sure consistency plays its part. But there are so many factors that have precedence; you can’t really base your hiring policy solely on maintaining the status quo. The aforementioned teams did the right thing in initiating a change. What remains to be seen is which teams made the right choice. The only true constant in the NFL is the unpredictability of dominance. One or two of these teams with a new coach at the helm could be a Super Bowl Champion in a few short years, just like the 49ers are poised to do now.