The Relationship of Coaching, Players, and Winning in the NFL

In watching the playoff games this weekend, I’m reminded of an analogy that I’ve made in previous posts:

The building of a professional football team is much like a master craftsman building a piece of furniture, statue, or a work of art.

The quality of the finished product is not the result of the craftsman by himself, or the tools themselves, but a combination of the two. The tools themselves won’t chisel, saw, and sand a monument into shape. The craftsman himself can’t chisel, saw, or sand without the proper tools. It’s the coordination of the craftsman with his tools that allows him to shape and mold a piece of work into form. Neither can operate without the other, but the quality and creativity of the tools and craftsman together will ultimately determine the final product.

In the same fashion, an NFL team can’t succeed without the proper players (the tools) and the proper coaching staff (the craftsman). The variety and quality of the players dictate what a coach can do with his tools. The best coaches take the tools they’re given and are able to use them in unique and effective ways. Creativity with the tools at hand is a necessity.

It’s always important to use the tools in the most effective way possible. In the same way that using a saw as a hammer isn’t particularly effective, using Darrelle Revis (the best man coverage cornerback in the NFL) in zone coverage is a failure to maximize the use of the tools at hand.

Leonardo Da Vinci tested many different forms of brushes, paints, and surfaces for his artwork. He mixed styles and brush strokes so that he could become familiar with how they worked. He fashioned many of his own tools to erect his inventions. Da Vinci was the perfect mix of a creative and a perfectionist. He wasn’t afraid to use a chisel as a brush or a pencil to draw lines on his paintings, but he also understood what a chisel was truly meant for.

Coaches should have the same approach to the use of the personnel at their disposal. They should understand that a chisel is most effective in engraving or chipping, but have the awareness that it can be used in other ways. A coach should also know when to use a chisel as a chisel or a chisel as a pencil. Being able to understand his tools and use them in creative ways is a way for that craftsman to set himself apart from the rest of his colleagues. Coaches who understand their personnel and find ways to use them in creative and unique ways without resorting to it too much will be able to craft a much better product on the field than an unskilled coach who is afforded better tools.

There are two shining examples in recent years that illustrate this point quite clearly: the 2010 and 2011 49ers, and the 2012 and 2013 Chiefs. In the former years of each of these teams, they were talented teams with poor craftsmen as head coaches. The tools were there, yet the coaching staffs produced shoddy results. The effect to that cause was the termination of said coaching staffs.

In moving from Mike Singletary to Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers took a 6-10 team in 2010 and crafted them into a 13-3 team. The 49ers gave the same tools to a better craftsman and the result was a terrific product. In the transition from Romeo Crennel and his staff in 2012 to Andy Reid and staff in 2013, the Chiefs had a similar turnaround. The Chiefs finished the 2012 season with the worst record in the NFL under Crennel. In 2013, the Chiefs started the season 9-0 and finished 11-5 under Master Craftsman Reid. The Chiefs had the tools in 2012, evidenced by 6 players being invited to the Pro Bowl, but a craftsman who didn’t know how to manipulate them correctly.

One of the qualities of both of these teams that I’ve noticed is that both already had a variety of talent. This is something that has been a hallmark of Bill Belichick’s rosters in New England for the past decade. The team isn’t built do to play just one way. It’s built towards a philosophy of eliminating big plays and turnovers while increasing turnovers and big plays for itself. That’s a very broad tarp to throw over a team, but that’s the idea. The roster is built to be able to manage this philosophy in a multitude of ways.

The game of football, as played on Sundays, is very matchup specific. Good teams identify and exploit matchups that lean in their favor. The team that can continuously exploit the most matchups usually wins the game, barring anomalous circumstances. Belichick builds a roster that has a variety of weapons so that he may pick and choose which matchups he wants to exploit each week. This variety of talent also allows him not to get pigeonholed into a corner when other teams try to exploit matchups against his team.

The 2007 Patriots offense was a pristine example of this philosophy. The offense ran through Brady who was in the peak of his career in his ability to decipher a defense and throw it short or attack them over the top. With Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth on the outside and Wes Welker in the slot, the receivers were able to attack defenses anyway they wanted. Benjamin Watson was an athletic freak at the tight end position and Kyle Brady was a hard nosed blocker who could catch a pass if needed. The offensive line was built for power but possessed the athletic ability to zone block when asked, and the running backs (Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, and Kevin Faulk) fit perfectly whether the Pats were trying to run through a defense, around it, or pass over it.

Because of the personnel of the roster, defenses that face the Patriots could never hone in on one weakness or matchup. Take away Welker and the middle of the field and Brady and Moss will play pitch and catch on the outside for long gains all day. Take away the deep ball with cover 2 and Wes Welker will catch 15 balls underneath for 200 yards. If a defense predominantly dropped 7 or 8 guys into coverage, Maroney/Morris/Faulk (whoever Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels thought fit the gameplan better that day) would gash the defense for 6 yards per carry.

This same principle is the reason that I believe the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense was so incredibly successful. While there were weaknesses in the defense, there was never really any one way to attack it because if a team tried to test the safeties, the scheme would adjust to protect them. There was no running against them with Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, and Jamie Sharper manning the front 7.

The Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos, and Patriots are all built in this same fashion and all have terrific craftsmen for head coaches that are handling the tools. It’s the combination of these aspects that lead these teams to be great, year after year.

I’ve long promoted that the effect of good or bad coaching is vastly underrated in the NFL but I could never articulate it in a way that accurately conveyed my point. Thinking of teams in terms of craftsman (coaching) and tools (players) may help me to illustrate it more concisely.

Neither the craftsman nor his tools are more important than the other, as both are needed to create a masterpiece. But in thinking this way, it’s important to point out that better tools doesn’t necessarily make a better craftsman, but a good craftsman can have only a few key tools at his disposal and still create a magnificent work of art.

Put another way, getting a better set of clubs doesn’t make you a better golfer. Instead, now you’re just misusing more expensive clubs. Better irons may have a bigger sweet spot that will be more forgiving when you do mishit, and therefore they might make you look like a better golfer. But the truth is, a good golfer can take shoddy clubs and out play you with your brand new expensive set any day of the week.

A team that has better players doesn’t always win the game. More often, it’s the better-coached team that wins the game. This doesn’t devalue the impact that players have on the game. They are the ones who have to go out and execute, but it’s the coach that puts them in the best position to execute successfully.

These analogies help to illustrate the idea that the impact of coaching is a bit understated. I believe that this is a hard concept for many to grasp because of our current inability to quantify the impact of coaching. With players we quantify productivity into box scores and statistics. We use measures of yards, touchdowns, tackles, and completion percentages to quantify a player’s success on the field. (While I believe the mainstream stats we currently use are exceptionally flawed, I’ll leave that discussion for another day.) If a quarterback has 300+ yards passing, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and completes 65% of his passes, we consider that a successful day. The only current statistic that we have for coaching staffs are win and loss records, and even that is often heavily attributed to the talent (or lack of talent) on the roster.

How do we measure a coaching staff’s success on any given day? We don’t currently have a good ruler with which to accurately measure a coach’s impact for a given game or a given play. A win or loss is a very broad statistic that encompasses too many variables to attribute specifically to a coach (or a QB for that matter – yet another discussion for another day). Yards or touchdowns seems to be more concise but again relies heavily on the execution of players. That’d be like judging a CEO by the work that an intern does.

There is currently only one website that I know of that is attempting to quantify the productivity of coaches. QuantCoach is a site dedicated to the use of loosely-based economic theories and developed equations to try to quantify the “production” or impact of coaches on games. The thinking is unique and based on some very solid principles, on which I mostly agree.

Coaching statistics are barely in their infancy. Mostly we have analytics that tell us whether a team should go for it on 4th down or kick the ball (almost always in favor of going for it, by the way) or whether a coach should be passing or running in certain situations – an idea which is inherently flawed because excessive screen passes and draws on 3rd downs heavily tilt the success rates one way or another. Those analytics don’t quantify how much a coach contributes or subtracts from a team’s probability of winning.

Analytics have entrenched their way into front offices across the league. Any team that isn’t heavily invested in the dissection of numbers within the game is years behind the competition. This doesn’t mean points and yards. It’s the in depth study, qualification, and extrapolation of data that goes deeper than just compilation statistics.

With relevant and accurate data, teams could analyze the use of pass concepts (levels, mesh, smash, verts, scissors, etc.) based on down and distances and opponents. They could even drill down to how effective each team is at each concept based on the situation and the coverage against it. This involves a lot of manual work of charting every snap of every team and the outcome of each play, but it may very well be worth it. The output of data from this information could provide a snapshot of what each team likes to do in different situations.

3rd and 3 inside the 15? Team A likes to run the crossing screen underneath 65% of the time. This could be vital information in a situation that could keep 4 or more points off the board. Even more importantly, it could give a glimpse into the thinking of a coordinator or staff and allow for better real-time predictions. Teams can glean tendencies for other teams as well as themselves, because self-scouting is as important as scouting opponents.

All of these ideas play into one idea: the impact of coaching. We don’t currently have the necessary information to be able to accurately evaluate the impact of coaching. Right now, it’s more of an instinctive feel that some get. 4th down calls and clock management at the end of a game play a big factor, but it’s often the best coaches that hardly ever see themselves in those situations.

It’s also impossible to quantify exactly how a coach manages the personalities of his team, something that is critically important and often goes overlooked because we don’t readily see it every day.

The best coaches know how to manage and manipulate the tools at their disposal. The more tools available to them, the better. If you need an example, just look at the 4 teams playing this weekend.

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