Who Are the NFL's Most Innovative Head Coaches?
Innovation gets you ahead and keeps you there in the NFL.
Outmoded ways of thinking are dying, at least if teams want to be successful. Innovation has always been a key to success, of course, but unconventional coaches have taken the league by storm with wild success in recent years.
Pete Carroll won a Super Bowl on the wings of meditation and diet. Jim Harbaugh took the pistol to the pro level. Marc Trestman brought his quarterback-whispering ways to the NFL.
Of course, there are innovative coaches who have been around for a while, too.
Here are seven of the most innovative head coaches in the NFL, whether it be because of scheme, philosophy, personnel or the whole shebang.
Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles
Once upon a time, college coaches were considered surefire misses at the NFL level. Few had made it to the league and stuck, the Steve Spurriers of the world being more prevalent than the Jimmy Johnsons.
Recent successes by former college coaches has shaken the league from the doldrums of old thinking, however, allowing guys like Chip Kelly to come up and make their mark. Kelly did just that in his first season with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The funny thing is some expected innovation, but not necessarily in the way it came. Kelly didn't just import his offense from Oregon; he adapted. That is not to say his offense turned into a plodding mess—players think his system is "insane," after all—but Kelly played to his team's strengths in his rookie NFL season, per Terrance Harris of NJ.com:
"I like it, I like his mind," said Eagles veteran receiver Jason Avant. "It's not even his offense, it's more of the way that he thinks about the game of football. That's what I like.
"A lot of the things he did at Oregon he doesn't do here because of the way he adjusts and the way he is able to people in certain situations."
As much as the NFL has adjusted to Kelly, he has adjusted his system to fit the personnel left behind from the Andy Reid regime. The Eagles are certainly fast-paced as is often reflected in the offensive play count, but with a young starting quarterback and arguably the game's best running back in the arsenal, Kelly has surprisingly played to the strength of his team, and that is running the football.
Scheme isn't the only way Kelly has innovated at the next level. He has completely revamped the way his team operates, from smoothies to massages. He even finds new ways to practice.
One time, he figured out how to circumvent practice rules about not having the head coach on the field by using a remote control car.
Rex Ryan, New York Jets
Not all innovative coaches are offensive-minded.
Rex Ryan may not be known as a top-tier head coach, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been an innovator. What he may lack in offensive prowess he makes up for in defensive wizardry.
Innovation runs in the family.
Ryan's father was one of the most innovative defensive coaches in the history of the game. Buddy Ryan created the 46 defense, which the 1985 Chicago Bears used to rampage through the league in arguably the most dominant defensive season in NFL history.
Rex hasn't had nearly the success his father had, but he has carved out his own small legacy thus far in the league. Namely, Ryan's blitz packages are hailed as some of the best and most innovative in the game in recent seasons.
Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
Long before taking the helm of the New Orleans Saints, Sean Payton was known as an innovator as an offensive coach for the New York Giants, per NJ.com's Conor Orr:
"He was kind of the arrow, transitioning out of the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust era," said Howard Cross, who played tight end under Payton during that time. "That was the first era of guys running spread, running motion, shifting. At least for the Giants, anyway. Sean had us constantly shifting, motioning. Every skill position player was moving."
During Giants practices, Payton would tell his players to move at a "golf cart’s pace." It was not a run-through or a walk-through, but everyone needed to perform slightly above jogging speed. Payton knew all of his players liked to golf, and figured it would be the right way to tell them they needed to go faster.
Payton's offense has been great for nigh on a decade now in the NFL. It's the kind of open-mindedness that had him looking at a Pop Warner offense, per Grantland's Chris Brown, for creative ideas that keeps his offense near the top of the standings on an annual basis.
Marc Trestman, Chicago Bears
Marc Trestman's offensive mind got him back to the NFL after a decade roaming the NCAA and CFL. The Montreal Alouettes were the best offensive team in the league for much of his tenure there, and the Chicago Bears finally gave him another NFL shot last season.
Trestman is known for being a quarterback guru, guiding the likes of Steve Young and Rich Gannon to greatness in the past. But offensive success with big names wasn't enough to keep him in the NFL after his last stint with the Miami Dolphins.
The second-year Bears coach can thank recent success by unconventional head coaches for his shot. Sports writer Kyle Kensing provided insight on Trestman's hiring in an article for Yahoo Sports:
Even with an extensive NFL pedigree that includes coordination of the Oakland Raiders' AFC-winning offense in 2002, Trestman might not have received his current opportunity were it not for recent philosophical shifts around the league.
"The influx of unconventional coaches and ideas in the NFL definitely helped Trestman get a look," (Yahoo Sports CFL blog editor Andrew) Bucholtz said. "For a long while, the NFL believed their brand of football was unique, but there are more similarities between the NFL, NCAA and CFL games than many realize."
Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh came to Seattle and San Francisco from college sidelines. Each experimented with option elements, previously deemed unfit for the speed and violence of the pro game. Both made this season's playoffs, and Harbaugh reached the Super Bowl.
Trestman's innovation guided the Bears to the league's second-best scoring offense last season, behind only the Denver Broncos machine. They got there despite having Josh McCown, a 34-year-old journeyman, start five games at quarterback.
Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks just won a Super Bowl with a 5'11" quarterback at the helm and a no-name wide receiving corps. There were many reasons for that success, but much of it had to do with fantastic coaching from the main man, Pete Carroll.
It's not merely X's and O's that had the team winning it all last February, however.
Carroll has his team at the bleeding edge of how a team is run. As ESPN.com's Alyssa Roenigk detailed, the Seahawks are a different breed of NFL team. From meditation to forswearing swearing and advanced metrics to GPS tracking, Carroll has his team humming in the future.
Seattle is also unconventional in the way it deals with personnel, which is obvious to an observer of recent Seahawks draft hauls. The players and coaches have noticed, per Larry Stone of The Seattle Times:
“Coach Carroll, he’s unorthodox in his approach,’’ (Seattle defensive end) Red Bryant said. “He actually looks for guys that other people might not think are very good, or might not fit their idea of a particular defense. He uses it to his benefit.
“If you look throughout our roster, we have countless guys, including myself, he took a chance on and it paid off for him.”
Quinn, who is now the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator, said that the mindset for open-mindedness in personnel trickles down from the top.
“They train us as coaches in terms of a style and an attitude of how we want to do things,’’ he said. “Pete’s always challenging us to find ways to challenge the players to do something better or different. It’s no different when it comes from them towards us.”
This is the kind of holistic innovation that breeds success, something the Seahawks weren't used to before Carroll arrived.
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Like Darth Sidious while playing Senator Palpatine was two steps ahead of the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic, Bill Belichick has been ahead of the league at times during his tenure as head coach in New England.
Remember when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez took the league by storm with their on-field performances? How about the dink and dunk offense that was so successful in the early Tom Brady years?
Belichick is so innovative that he is right even when he gets it wrong. The most infamous example of this is when he decided to go for it on 4th-and-2 with a lead against the Indianapolis Colts in 2009.
Getting the first down was statistically likely, and it would have been one nail in Indianapolis' coffin. The Patriots fell short, however, and the sports world exploded with criticism as a result.
Belichick took a similar risk when he took the wind instead of the ball in overtime of a game against the Denver Broncos. That one worked as the Patriots wound up winning despite the seemingly ludicrous decision.
He takes these risks because he embraces analytics, eschewing convention in pursuit of better odds.
Teams have tried to emulate the Patriot Way and Belichick's innovation for over a decade now. It's hard to argue with the results.
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers
When Jim Harbaugh took over the 49ers, he did something a host of previous coaches and coordinators couldn't do: He made Alex Smith successful. Some of that had to do with Smith's late-blooming development, sure, but Harbaugh gets credit for fixing the former No. 1 overall pick.
The 49ers have been creative on offense since Harbaugh arrived. He brought Chris Ault's pistol formation to the NFL, letting quarterback Colin Kaepernick loose on opposing defenses. His offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, has utilized an innovative run game that brought traps, whams and counters back to the game.
San Francisco might be known for a great defense, but Harbaugh has been particularly innovative on the offensive side of the ball, per Bleacher Report's Dylan DeSimone:
San Francisco manipulates defenses by using these varying packages in juxtaposition, creating confusion and keeping the opposition off balance. In Week 1 of 2012 versus Green Bay, the 49ers used 10 different personnel groupings in the first 15 snaps, per Sports Illustrated.
The schematic ingenuity is most apparent in their ground attack.
And from a talent and depth perspective, this 49ers’ current running back corps similar to Auburn (2004), Arkansas (2007) or Miami (2001). Harbaugh felt bringing in a deep, well-balanced attack to the pro level would be advantageous.
It's that kind of innovation that turned a perennially mediocre team into a powerhouse nearly overnight.