For players and head coaches in the NFL, winning the Super Bowl can define a career. For assistant coaches, however, getting to the Super Bowl doesn't have the same benefits.
For those assistant coaches and coordinators who have become candidates for NFL head coaching vacancies this season, getting to the Super Bowl may be the worst outcome.
Since the end of the regular season, eight of the 32 NFL teams have parted ways with their head coaches. Three of those eight teams have already hired their replacements, and none (so far) have come from playoff teams (let alone Super Bowl teams).
Andy Reid was fired in Philadelphia and almost immediately hired as the next head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Buffalo Bills moved quickly after firing Chan Gailey, grabbing former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone from the college ranks.
The Cleveland Browns, after failing to lure Oregon head coach Chip Kelly away from college, tagged former assistant Rob Chudzinski as head coach. Chudzinski most recently presided over the Carolina Panthers offense the last two seasons. With Cam Newton at the helm, the Panthers offense was ranked 19th in the NFL in 2012 (falling from fifth in 2011).
Is Chudzinski the right fit in Cleveland, or just the best available guy right now?
One has to wonder if the Browns got happy feet with this hire, not willing to wait around for an assistant from a playoff team to potentially turn them down, which would therefore leave them too far removed to find a remaining option better than the guy they fired. (One has to wonder if Chudzinski is actually better than Pat Shurmur, the guy they fired, but time will tell.)
During the Wild Card Game between the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts, CBS announcer Jim Nantz relayed a story from Colts head coach Chuck Pagano in which Pagano said he was disappointed in losing the AFC Championship with the Ravens last season—Baltimore had a last-minute chance to win or tie the game before the heartbreaking loss to the Patriots—but he doesn't believe he would have been offered the Colts job had they won.
Pagano interviewed with Indianapolis the day after the Ravens were knocked out of the playoffs. He knew the Colts wanted to move quickly with their head coaching search, and Pagano believes, per Nantz, that if the Ravens had made the Super Bowl, the Colts would have looked elsewhere instead of waiting two weeks to hire him.
It says something about the NFL that two weeks could make that big a difference when hiring the man you expect to lead your franchise for half a decade or more.
Owners and general managers don't always have the luxury of time. Finding the next guy has become more important than waiting to find the right guy.
The Philadelphia Eagles are one of a few teams that find themselves in an interesting situation this offseason. After firing Reid, the Eagles have gone on an exhaustive coaching search, lining up interviews with everyone from Chip Kelly to Lovie Smith to several NFL assistants currently coaching in the playoffs.
The Birds have already interviewed Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, Atlanta Falcons coordinators Mike Nolan (defense) and Keith Armstrong (special teams) and have received permission to interview Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. McCoy and Bradley have been discussed as two of the best options to lead Philadelphia after Reid. (The Eagles also reportedly talked with Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, but that looks unlikely on both sides.)
Will Jeffrey Lurie get tired of waiting to interview (or hire) a coach whose team makes it deeper and deeper into the playoffs? If Denver and Seattle make it to the Super Bowl, could it be a bad thing for McCoy and Bradley, or any of the playoff assistants with aspirations of becoming a head coach this year?
Admittedly, advancing in the playoffs does have its advantages, most notably the chance at a Super Bowl ring. That said, most coaches would rather earn a head coaching job than win a Super Bowl ring as someone's assistant. While the ultimate goal for a team is winning the Super Bowl, the ultimate goal for a coach is to be the guy who leads that team to a title.
This trend is not new, by the way. Every year, top assistants get passed over for vacant jobs because teams don't want to wait until after the Super Bowl to hire a head coach and assemble their staffs (more on that in a moment).
There are currently 27 head coaches in the NFL, and none were hired after coaching in the Super Bowl the year before. In the last 10 (or so) years, only two coaches—Todd Haley in 2009 with the Chiefs and Romeo Crennel in 2005 with the Browns—were hired as head coaches the same year they coordinated a unit in the Super Bowl.
Sometimes, good things do come to those coordinators who wait, as a few coordinators have secured head coaching jobs the year after coaching in the Super Bowl. Joe Philbin got the Miami job a year removed from helping the Packers win the Super Bowl. Steve Spagnuolo was hired as head coach of the Rams in 2009, a year removed from leading the Giants defense to a Super Bowl win. Brad Childress and Eric Mangini, in what seems like a generation ago, also got head coaching gigs the year after coaching in the Super Bowl. Still, there haven't been many.
Bill O'Brien was the offensive coordinator of the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI and became one of the few coaches to get a head coaching job, albeit in college. O'Brien announced during the playoffs that he would be leaving New England to take over at Penn State, further illustrating just how ridiculous the NFL rules for hiring coaches can be.
O'Brien could announce he was leaving the league for a job in college, but he would not have been able to announce he was taking over an NFL job, had he been offered, until after the Patriots' season was over.
If a successful assistant wants to run his own shop, he may be better served leaving the NFL altogether.
This postseason, McCoy has interviewed with the Bears, Cardinals and Eagles, all during the Broncos' bye week. Due to NFL rules, McCoy can't conduct a second interview until the Broncos are either knocked out of the playoffs or make the Super Bowl.
McCoy will be allowed to interview during the bye week after the AFC Championship Game, but he could not be officially hired by a team until after the Super Bowl, creating two weeks of "are you leaving?" distractions the NFL put these rules in place specifically to avoid.
Advancement in the playoffs could undoubtedly hurt McCoy's career advancement. If a team with a vacancy waits around for McCoy (or Bradley or Nolan or any other coach still in the playoffs) and negotiations stall, that team could be left with very few options in February, scrambling to find viable head coach to hire with the new league year having already begun.
(Oh, here comes the "more on that" from earlier...)
Let's remember that new coaches don’t come with a coaching staff fully intact. Most new head coaches have to hire an entire staff, and the NFL's rules for hiring assistants are less fair than those for hiring a head coach.
While NFL rules stipulate that teams must request permission to interview assistant coaches and coordinators for head coaching vacancies, other teams must grant permission for those interviews. The only restriction placed on interviewing for a head coaching position is when, not if, a candidate can interview.
However, teams can block their assistants from interviewing for "lateral" moves. While that rule makes some sense, as teams don't want their former coaches poaching talent from their staffs, the definition of a "lateral" move is far too limiting. The NFL does not distinguish between a position coach and a coordinator, meaning that a quarterback coach can be blocked from becoming another team's offensive coordinator, as the league sees that as a lateral move.
Career advancement be damned.
The NFL doesn't want its coaches to advance unless the team they're currently under contract with says it's OK. It would be better for a coach's career to be fired than be considered an up-and-comer. This happens ALL THE TIME, and it's patently unfair.
Last year, when Greg Schiano was hired in Tampa Bay, it was clear he was targeting Cardinals wide receivers coach John McNulty as his offensive coordinator. McNulty worked for Schiano at Rutgers before making the leap to the NFL. Schiano was denied permission to interview McNulty.
Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt would not allow his receivers coach the opportunity to become a coordinator in the NFL—a huge advancement in status and the most important step before ultimately becoming a head coach.
Whisenhunt was more concerned about keeping his quality assistants in Arizona to help save his own job (note: that didn't work) than giving those assistants the chance to advance up the coaching ladder. Of course, that same situation happened to Whisenhunt when he tried to fill out his staff in Arizona, so it's only fair—per the NFL rules—for him to play the same stupid game with the careers of his assistants.
Schiano hired Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan instead of McNulty. It seems Tom Coughlin didn't believe in playing the same games. Sullivan is now getting head coaching interviews and is a candidate for the Chicago Bears job. McNulty was moved to quarterbacks coach in Arizona this past season, presiding over one of the worst quarterback situations in the entire NFL. He's now a less viable candidate for a job than he was last year.
In so many ways, the NFL system is stacked against the assistants who do well.
Combine the league's rules for hiring with anxious owners who need to fill vacancies, and it's extremely difficult for assistants of the most successful teams to advance in the NFL. The current head coaches don't want their talented assistants to leave, as losing a talented assistant not only hurts the team, it serves to help an opponent, too.
Why would a head coach, a GM or an owner ever want to see a top assistant go? The way the NFL rules are currently configured, the best teams almost never have to.