NFL teams are always looking for next. Fortunes rise and fall so quickly in the NFL; greatness today could be disaster tomorrow.
Whether teams are rebuilding from the rubble of a disastrous season or reloading a top-heavy depth chart, every season's roster is a new project. On each NFL team, dozens of players flow in and out, year after year. No stone goes unturned or frog unkissed as teams hunt for players who can help them win; little grace is extended to players whose performances aren't matching their contracts.
Coaches have a little more staying power.
With even the least of them getting multiyear, multimillion-dollar guaranteed contracts, NFL head coaches get multiple seasons to prove their worth (there are rare exceptions). For all the frantic roster turnover, hiring a great coach is the quickest path to winning.
A good coach can put together a good team, a good season, even win a title. The difference is in what happens after that.
A great skipper can consistently navigate the treacherous waves of NFL seasons year-in, year-out. Great coaches are systemically innovative and adaptive, create winning cultures, get the most out of middling players and get the best out of great ones.
Head coaches don't just coach the players, they coach the coaches. They coach the staff and assistants. They set the tone for the whole organization—and they serve as the public face and voice. Great coaches make everyone around them better and everyone else's job easier.
Coaches like Bill Belichick, John Fox, Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton and Andy Reid have supervised long stretches of excellence, winning division, conference and NFL championships with different core players (or even teams); all have overcome major setbacks.
Bradley has the talent and dedication to be that kind of coach: One whose team is driven by a self-perpetuating culture of success.
Legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, now with the Dallas Cowboys, knew it back in 2008. While Bradley was still one of Kiffin's assistants in Tampa Bay, Kiffin implored then-incoming Seahawks head coach Jim L. Mora to hire him, according to Clare Farnsworth at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
Monte says, 'J.L., listen to me. I have got a guy here in Tampa that is one of, if not, the finest football coaches I have ever worked with. He's an A-plus. He's a once-in-a-lifetime coach. You need to talk to him.'
He said, 'J.L., this guy is special. You have to bring him in. You have to talk to him.'
Not only did Bradley impress Mora in that interview, but he also impressed Mora's successor, Pete Carroll. Despite a top-down house cleaning in the wake of Mora's failure, Carroll wisely kept Bradley around.
Bradley at the Chalkboard
"Players play," the old saying goes, "and coaches coach."
This phrase is used whenever a coach is getting too much blame for a loss—or too much credit for a win. The idea is that coaches have very little power over what players do on the field. In the NFL, though, the head coach has more power to dictate the action than in any other sport. Football is a game of execution; the ideal player does exactly what the coach wants every single time.
Strict disciples of a specific system rarely succeed as head coaches (see: Marinelli, Rod). Assistants given head coaching jobs just because of their pedigree rarely pan out (see: the rampant failure of the "Belichick Tree").
A great coach adjusts his system every year to fit his talent, adjusts his game plan every week for his opponents and makes in-game adjustments.
Bradley made a name for himself as a coordinator in Seattle with aggressive, physical defense. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradley's Seahawks blitzed on 30 percent of snaps from 2010 through 2012, 17th-most in the NFL.
In 2013, per PFF, Bradley's Jaguars blitzed just 16.69 percent—least in the NFL. Why? Bradley didn't have great pass-rushing linebackers.
Nevertheless, the Jaguars had surprising success bottling up Peyton Manning and the mighty Denver Broncos offense in Week 6. How'd they do it? They simply played a vanilla Cover 2 on nearly every snap, kept the ball in front of them and capitalized on every single Broncos mistake.
Here's a first-half 2nd-and-14, a perfect opportunity to try and get a big sack or turnover. Instead, Bradley stayed with the plain Cover 2:
Manning dumped it to Welker in the slot, and what happened? He was swarmed by a pile of white jerseys:
The then-winless Jaguars eventually lost 35-19 to the then-undefeated Broncos, but they made the Broncos sweat nearly wire-to-wire.
How did Bradley get his overmatched defense to play like this?
Bradley on the Practice Field
It used to be that a huge part of coaching was teaching. Now players are drafted, put on the field and given precious little time to either sink or swim. Hall of Fame coach John Madden decried this in a recent interview with Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth:
In football today, I would bet they run three times as many plays as I ran in practice. If I ran 100 plays, they run 300. That whole scripting thing drives me crazy. The coaches are out there looking at a script. Everyone has their head down. I think, how can you look down and teach? I was 'Use the right step, the right shoulder, no one jump offsides.' Those things were all important to me. So I guess I would have to up my pace in practice.
Bradley, though, is a teacher—something that was evident at the 2014 Senior Bowl, where he coached the South squad.
Bleacher Report NFL columnist Dan Pompei wrote Bradley "created as much buzz in the stands and on the sidelines as any of the players." Pompei talked to many NFL insiders, all of whom glowed with praise for Bradley's approach to drills, coaching and teaching:
"They have an awesome practice with a great tempo," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said. "You can see the teaching aspect. They run the position-specific drills we like to see. Guys are competing. It's a credit to Gus and his staff."
Said another high-ranking front-office man, "He is so engaged and he gets the most out of his players. You also can tell he has coached his coaches well, which is something that not many of them do well."
It's no wonder so many of his former pupils in Seattle were just waiting to join him in Jacksonville.
A Cult of Personality
The Jaguars' last winning season was 2007. In the following five years, they went 27-53, losing nearly twice as many games as they won. 2012 was an unqualified disaster, as the team went a paltry 2-14.
Bradley took over with practically nothing to work with on either side of the ball, and the Jaguars predictably lost their first five games.
That Broncos game was a turning point, though: After their bye, the Jaguars won four of their next five, one of the hottest teams in football over that stretch. Two of their final four losses came to double-digit-win teams, and the other two were by a combined 11 points.
Though the Jaguars were long since out of the playoff hunt, they only played harder and better as the season wore on. That's huge testament to Bradley's motivational ability.
The real testimonial, though, came in the offseason. When the Jaguars signed several major free-agent contributors away from other teams (including two Seahawks who'd played for Bradley), it was clear the progress Bradley's Jaguars made had been noticed—and players around the league were ready to come be a part of it, 4-12 record or not.
Bradley's creating a locker room culture of winning based on absolute trust in, and support for, his message. That's the kind of self-perpetuating mindset that leads to year-in, year-out NFL success.
Plenty of Fish
None of this is to discredit great work being done by other young coaches around the league.
Jim Harbaugh quickly built a championship-caliber squad in San Francisco, but at some point he's going to need to turn that championship-caliber squad into a champion. Pete Carroll has done great work in Seattle, but he's the same age as Bill Belichick—and Bruce Arians is just a year younger.
That Mike McCoy stepped in and succeeded in San Diego was no surprise to anyone who paid attention to his work in Denver. The jury is still out on Doug Marrone, and incoming rookies like Mike Zimmer and Mike Pettine certainly need to coach a game before anyone crowns them.
Eagles fans, if they bothered to read this far, are likely wondering if I forgot about Chip Kelly.
No, I did not forget about Chip Kelly.
Kelly picked the perfect situation in Philadelphia, and he made the most of it in his first season. That said, he may have bit off more than he can chew by trying to control the personnel. His two biggest moves—cutting star receiver DeSean Jackson and trading for scatback Darren Sproles to play behind starter LeSean McCoy—both raised more questions than they answered, especially in combination.
Whether Kelly the Executive is hamstringing Kelly the Coach won't be evident until at least the 2014 season plays out. Further, quarterback Nick Foles is due to come back to Earth after his insane 2013 season. That factor, combined with the personnel moves and defenses being able to break down tape all offseason, leads me to hesitate.
Bradley, of course, hasn't won anything either. He'll have to turn the Jaguars' offseason spending spree into big-time on-field improvement, and he'll have to show progress with his No. 3 overall rookie pick, quarterback Blake Bortles.
Given what he's shown in his short time at the reins, though, it's hard to see Bradley doing anything but succeeding.