NFL 2012: Have We Undervalued the Importance of the Head Coach?

Dan PizzutaContributor IIIOctober 4, 2012

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 07:  Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints shouts from the sidelines against the Detroit Lions at Mercedes-Benz Superdome during their 2012 NFC Wild Card Playoff game on January 7, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It's never in anyone's best interest to have an interim-interim anything.

Imagine working for a guy who is filling in for the guy filling in for the head guy. Your head may have just exploded from that sentence, which is understandable.

It's confusing because it should never happen.

Imagine any business being run by the fill-in guy's fill-in guy. The business will go downhill quickly.

So why did so many people, myself included, think the New Orleans Saints weren't going to take a step back without Sean Payton as the head coach? After praising the work Payton has done the past few seasons in New Orleans, how did we suddenly think they would carry on the same without him?

We have found that thought process to be flawed only four weeks into the season. Even while praising a head coach for his work, we still undervalue the true importance of his work.

If you were to take the current six best head coaches in each conference and put those teams in the playoffs, regardless of team talent, 11 of the 12 teams to make the playoffs last season get in again. That number isn't a coincidence. The only exception? The Payton-less Saints.

As much as we talk about plays on the field, so often games come down to one coaching decision that determine the outcome. In Week 4 alone we saw three of those decisions:

  • Ron Rivera decided to not have the Carolina Panthers go for it on 4th and 1 to seal the game against the Falcons, despite the fact that he had a gigantic quarterback and two running backs getting paid roughly half a small country's GDP as options to run the ball.
  • Tom Coughlin deciding to not run a pass play to either the sidelines or the end zone with 15 seconds remaining in the game with the Giants down two to the Eagles.
  • Andy Reid still thinks it's a good idea to ice a kicker immediately following Coughlin's decision. (I shouldn't say still, it was never a good idea to ice a kicker)

Those two games were played for 59 minutes, but the outcome was heavily influenced by a head coach in the final minute.

A head coach can turn around a team just by setting up the best situation for his team to win. Sure, that sounds like the most obvious statement, but think about how many coaches fail to do so.

Anyone not named Jim Harbaugh sets Alex Smith up for another double-digit interception season in San Francisco last season. Anyone besides John Fox puts Tim Tebow in a conventional offense or thinks he should just be a Wildcat change of pace (sorry, Jets fans).

There have been a few head coaches this season who have stepped up and put their teams in the best place to win.

Ken Whisenhunt is this year's Harbaugh (so far).

Whisenhunt has the Arizona Cardinals at 4-0 from putting his team in the best position to win games. He's letting Kevin Kolb do enough at quarterback to lead the team, but not so much that the success of the Cardinals rests on Kolb's shoulders. By following the Harbaugh template of dominating defense and limiting offensive turnovers, Whisenhunt has put the Cardinals in a place to sustain success throughout the season.

If Whisenhunt is Harbaugh, Leslie Frazier is Fox.

Frazier has the Minnesota Vikings playing their best football since the Brett Favre era. Frazier has Minnesota's defense playing at a higher level. They are ranked 11th in Football Outsiders' DVOA, up from 23rd last season. In addition to the defense, the progression of Christian Ponder is another key to the Vikings success through four games.

Other coaches seem to have their teams winning despite their best efforts. Andy Reid and Norv Turner have been the best at doing just that year after year.

The Philadelphia Eagles are 3-1 despite being outscored by 17 points—not something that suggests sustainable success through a full season. Reid's time management and timeout usage have always been issues, and the timeout at the end of the game against the Giants was more of the same.

The Eagles can expect to lose a game this season simply based on a burned timeout with 10 minutes left in the third quarter or a terrible challenge in the first half.

Turner's latest decision to start Jackie Battle over Ryan Matthews is not the first time Chargers fans have been left wondering why Turner wasn't fired years ago. The Chargers have avoided the usual early season slump, but that leaves the possibility of a losing streak, so common under Turner, to occur later in the season.

Then there are the coaches directly responsible for their teams' struggles.

At the beginning of the season, Rex Ryan stated this Jets team could be the best he's had since being named the head coach.

If that's true, than the Jets struggles shouldn't be focused on Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow or the loss of Darrelle Revis. If Ryan has taken what could have been the best team he's ever had to a 2-2 team with a -28 point differential, it has to be on him.

Is there a correlation between the Kansas City Chiefs' 1-3 record and Romeo Crennel's coaching ability?

The entire city of Cleveland believes so—and Kansas City isn't far behind. The Chiefs believed a 2-1 record at the end of last season could carry over, but it seems Crennel has fallen back into his Cleveland ways, possibly limiting his and Matt Cassel's days at Arrowhead.

As the season rolls along, more and more coaching decisions will impact the results of games, and the better coaches in the league will outshine the others. Some coaches will rise to the occasion and motivate their teams to play better. Others will crumble as the players slowly quit on them (see: Morris, Raheem).

As you watch this season and wonder how much one coach can really mean to a team, just look to the Saints and see how their interim-interim is no Sean Payton.


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