The Failure of Head Coaches

That title is actually misleading. Most head coaches failures aren’t really their own. Honestly. The blame should be placed squarely on the front office and owners who hired them. By hiring the wrong guy for the job, they’re setting him up for failure. It’s not the coach’s fault for accepting a high paying promotion with great power even if he’s not ready for it. Who wouldn’t?

Have you ever heard of “The Peter Principle?” The Peter Principle is the idea that in a company or organization where promotions are based upon success or achievement, a person will eventually be promoted beyond his or her skill level. Put another way, a person will be promoted to his/her level of incompetence. Under the Peter Principle, people are promoted because of what they’ve done in their current position and not based on how they’ll perform in their new position after promotion. This idea is something that isn’t exactly earth-shattering yet it still seems to happen over and over again in companies all over the world — the NFL included.

Each individual job or position within a company requires a particular set of skills. A computer programmer requires the necessary knowledge to understand code and how to integrate it within highly advanced technological systems. A firefighter is required to understand how fire interacts with oxygen, the techniques required to properly ventilate a burning building, and the medical skills to treat an injured victim. These are two very separate jobs requiring two very different skill sets. You wouldn’t put a computer programmer in turnout gear and ask him to enter a burning building, would you?

It is actually very much the same among the different levels of coaching within the NFL. In the coaching hierarchy, there are “offensive/defensive assistants” or interns, quality control coaches, position coaches, coordinators, and head coach. Each tier has very different responsibilities. Each team is structured a little differently but in my experience, here’s how things typically run in the coaching quarters of the front office…

The assistants or interns are the “slappys” of the group. They get all the grunt work that all the other coaches don’t want to do. Remember the saying, “Shit rolls downhill.” Interns and offensive/defensive assistants are at the bottom catching it all. They’re doing cut ups, putting together playbooks, running errands, and staying after hours to help players when they need extra work.

Quality Control coaches are slightly a step above. They do a lot more film work and are involved a little more in the actual practices. They’re basically the assistants to the position coaches and coordinators. Anything that isn’t up to the level of actually being on the level of position coach, it’s the QC’s job to get it done. These guys will sometimes also have the title of “Assistant [Position] Coach” tagged on. This just means that they’re expected to be in meetings with that position and deal more directly with that position and its coach. QCs will sit in on meeting but are really just there to take notes and listen to everything going on.

Position coaches are the first tier of coaches that really get into the meat of coaching. They’ll help develop gameplans via in-depth filmwork and grading. All of the reports generated by the QCs and assistants are given to them and they can help discern the correct approach to a certain matchup. They’ll then report all of their findings to the coordinator (who has also done his own filmwork) and make suggestions or point out any matchup advantages or issues he sees. During practice these are the guys who are making sure their players are in the correct order, alignment, and are “coaching them up” on scheme and technique. To me, the primary duty of the position coach is to communicate the gameplan to his unit and to teach.

Above the position coaches are the coordinators. I think everyone is familiar with coordinators’ duties at this point. They’re essentially the architect and engineers of the gameplans. These are typically developed directly with the head coach with input from the position coaches. This position requires a very high football IQ and some creativity in reviewing film and putting together gameplans. Some coordinators will be the playcaller during games so that can add another layer to the skills required. Playcallers must be able to see the game as it evolves and respond to the gameplan of the other team. This also includes some creativity and foresight to predict adjustments before they actually happen.

The head coach is actually on a whole different level than all of the other coaches, coordinators included. There is little gap between the other tiers but the gap between head coach and everything else is quite vast. Tony Dungy said in his book, “The higher up the coaching ladder you go, the further you get from actual coaching.” He said that as a head coach he missed the individual attention and coaching he could give to his players because he was involved in so many other duties. A head coach, to me, is like the General of an army. His job is to plan and direct. He’s not in the muck and filth of war. Instead, he’s sort of a figurehead who has seen it and done it all and leads from the front because of that. He’s skilled in combat tactics and military philosophies. He sees the game from a different perspective than everyone else and has to be the leader, the directive force within the group. Some head coaches will call plays, and again, that adds another level of duties to his already stacked pile. It also requires that he has the additional skills to be a competent playcaller.

As you can see, the jobs and duties of each level are quite different. Oddly enough, I believe that in today’s NFL, front office executives miss this point. They don’t understand the Peter Principle. Coaches are promoted based on their performance in one position without regard to the coach’s abilities to succeed at the next tier. There’s a natural progression from intern, to quality control, to position coach. The jump from position coach to coordinator is a little steeper. Then the jump from coordinator to head coach is vastly different. These jumps are where teams lose sight of the difference in qualities between the different coaching positions.

For a coordinator, I want a coach who is incredibly intelligent about football; and more specifically, on his side of the football. I want a guy who is creative in how he develops gameplans and executes them. He has to be aware of his team’s abilities as well as the opponents and be able to evaluate matchups and then exploit them. During the game he has to be intuitive and responsive to the ebb and flow of the game. He has to be in sync with what’s happening, and responsive to what the other team is trying to do. He’s more involved with the integration of gameplans to the players so he still has to be a good technical coach. He needs to be a good communicator as to be able to relay all of the information in his head concisely to both players and coaches.

These are all great qualities for a coordinator. But they don’t necessarily translate to being a great head coach. Yet teams continuously hire coordinators based on their merit as being a coordinator, not being a head coach. Look at all the examples of brilliant coordinators who have failed as head coaches: Norv Turner, Scott Linehan, Steve Spagnuolo, Mike Martz, et al. Yet hires like these keep being made. Why? Because that’s how it’s always been done. A coach gets promoted from position coach to coordinator. He performs well there and is promoted to be a head coach where he then fails because he doesn’t possess the skills to be a successful head coach. He was promoted to his level of incompetence. The Peter Principle.

When looking for a head coach, I want a leader first. He has to be someone that is respected by coaches and players and leads from the front. A high football IQ is important, but not just in game planning, but in game managing. All the tough decisions rest on the shoulders of the head coach so he has to be able to process information intuitively and correctly and then communicate directions concisely. I want a head coach who is described as a “mover of men.” He will understand how personalities and egos come into play in the locker room, on the field, in meetings, and amongst his coaching staff. He will be able to motivate everyone around him to make sure to get the best out of every person. He will understand that his scheme and system needs to be adaptive to the personnel and roster and will direct his staff accordingly. A good general wouldn’t ask 10 snipers to go into a close-quarters battle against an opposition who is loaded with automatic weapons.

Evaluating a coach is much like evaluating the quarterback position. Stats are great and look good to the public, but the best way to determine to success is to extract the necessary skills that are needed for success at the position and then evaluate based upon those values. I would look at the most successful coaches throughout the NFL in recent history. What were they good/great at? Why were the successful? What made them great? Why did they win Super Bowls? Then let’s take those qualities and find someone who matches embodies those qualities instead of simply promoting a guy because he was good at the level below.

Promoting a coordinator simply because he performed well as a coordinator is like drafting a quarterback (Colt Brennan comes to mind) because he had great stats in college. Sure he loaded up the stat sheet but he never really possessed the qualities necessary to be successful at the next level. You’re drafting on Peter Principle in that case.

By promoting coaches based simply on merit and success at one level is setting them up for failure at the next. For that, we shouldn’t blame the coach. We should blame the people doing the hiring. Front offices need to stop sending the computer programmer into the burning building.

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12 Responses to The Failure of Head Coaches

  1. Chris Hollis says:

    I’m learning a lot by reading your blog. Thanks for sharing your insight.

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  3. Chris Webb says:

    The lessons in this post—greater than a simple analysis of coaches in the NFL—strangely struck a chord in me today, when I was struggling through a professional issue. This was exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks for this.

  4. Hermes Belt says:

    I would like to voice my gratitude for your generosity for men and women that really need help on your study. Your personal commitment to getting the solution all-around had become pretty invaluable and has all the time helped employees much like me to achieve their targets. Your own insightful recommendations can mean so much to me and far more to my mates. Regards; from each one of us.

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  7. Dan S says:

    Good piece. Adam Smith taught us the value of specialization and Peter Drucker took it a step further to recommend putting people in a position to capitalize on their strengths if you want organizational success. Too many organizations forget that.

    But also don’t forget that the coaches have a say in whether they take the position. Let’s not let them completely off the hook. Chasing the money is understandable, but not excusable if the situation isn’t a good fit. The Greeks, Shakespeare and Sun Tzu all taught us to “know oneself”. Money is nice, but not if it comes at the cost of success and happiness.

  8. Thiergow says:

    Greqt piece! This qrticle just confirmed my opinion about the Giants staff: they have one of the greatest coaches in Tom Coughlin (although he can be sometimes too stuborn to admit that the schemes need some changes) but coordinators that are not that good: Kevin Gilbride is quite inconsistent. Sometimes his gameplan is just unstoppable but the next game he’d call a boatload of shotgun draws and look completely predictable. Fewell on the other side is just terrible: he has tried to force his cover 2 system on guys that are more fitted for a man coverage scheme and also he cannot adapt his gameplan during the game (sometimes you can see some changes but it’s too late).

    As for the position coaches, the Giants have some great guys like TE coach Mike Pope or OL coach Pat Flaherty. Ex-QB/WR coach and current Bucs OC Mike Sullivan was also good position coach for the Giants.

  9. Steve Gallo says:

    At least someone gets it. As we discussed on twitter, this isn’t just in the NFL but business in general. People need to realize that each job requires a particular skill set and just because you master the one doesn’t mean you have skills for the next level. Also works the other way in that you could be a poor sales person but have the skill set to be a great sales manager.

    Well done!

  10. dave crockett says:

    Good insights here, as this is something I’ve talked about a ton with friends. The NFL is Peter Principle central. The league does comparatively less to develop its coaching talent than any other sport.

    Part of that is the fact that there are comparatively fewer coaching opportunities than other sports. Example, Josh Pastner is head coach at Memphis. That was his first head job of any kind. It’s easy to look at that and say, “Peter Principle” and it may prove to be accurate. However, Pastner cut his coaching teeth on the AAU circuit. It’s hardly the most sophisticated brand of basketball. But rather than proving his chops in strategy, Pastner showed potential employers something about his ability to recruit. So, they knew he could do that when he walked in the door. Memphis had very good reason to believe Pastner would get players. They were gambling on everything else.

    In the NFL there are few comparable opportunities, even at the assistant level.

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