How the NFL's Network of Coaching Nepotism Is Holding the Game Back

Elyssa GutbrodContributor IJune 5, 2012

ALAMEDA, CA - JANUARY 30:  New Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis  Allen looks on during a press conference on January 30, 2012 in Alameda, California. Dennis Allen was introduced as the new coach of the Oakland Raiders, replacing Hue Jackson who was fired after one season.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

How many Hollywood movies have been produced about a struggling team that brings on a new head coach whose brilliant new scheme turns things around?

The idea itself is old and unrealistic, but there’s a point to be made there. It seems recently that securing a head coaching job in the NFL is based as much on having coached in the past or on promotion through the ranks of assistant coaching staff as it is on any other defining characteristic.

There’s a certain blase feeling that comes from watching the same handful of men who have been recently released from their previous head coaching positions compete for new vacancies with assistant coaches. The excitement and feeling of renewal that could accompany a coaching change at the top of the heap is often lost in the sense that responsibility for an entire team is all just part of climbing the career ladder.

Part of the problem is that at the end of the day, the vast majority of the candidates whose names will ever make the short list for head coaching jobs are men who have been molded by the same system. The community of NFL coaches is relatively small and incestuous, and no one is separated from anyone else by more than one or two degrees.

This system of nepotism gives owners the luxury of using the head coach as a scapegoat when the team fails, as teams are guaranteed to do every single season.

The movement that results from that annual turmoil does wonders to keep the perception of constant rebuilding and retooling within the coaching staff alive, but the truth is that by hiring from the same pool over and over again, the NFL has created a system in which the coach may change, but many of the philosophies that governed and structured the team will remain the same.

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The margin for success in the NFL is so slim that once a model has been proved effective it is best to stick with it. When teams are structured so similarly, sometimes the only thing standing in the way of a winning formula is a few tweaks in the system. Recycling the same coaches around the league is a fairly well-proved method of finding the man who will work best with that group of players.

Hiring coaches with experience from around the league makes good statistical and business sense. ESPN Magazine’s Seth Wickersham reports that many independent sources have proved that the most successful coaches in the NFL have at least one of the following characteristics:

“1. They were between ages 41 and 49.                 

2. They had at least 11 years of NFL coaching experience.

3. They were assistants on teams that won at least 50 games over a five-year span.

4. They had only one previous NFL head-coaching gig.”

The only one of those metrics for success in the NFL that does not require a certain amount of nepotism to achieve is age, a quality that men jockeying for head coaching gigs cannot control.

Hiring a new head coach has not always been quite this close-minded. In the mid-2000s, the thing for losing franchises to do was to bring in a new head coach who had few or no previous coaching ties with the NFL.

There was a sense of optimism about bringing in someone with a clean slate, where the insight and energy that he brought to the table was untainted by the politics and current schools of thought around the league.

After all, in order for the sport of football to grow, new ideas will have to make their way into the mix. While not all new ideas will be successful, the ones that are will help to shape the future of the game.

Unfortunately, the fresh blood with all of its excitement and innovative energy did not equate to winning records, and the idea of bringing in relative unknowns has been mostly left behind.

Perhaps it was the uphill battle that these new coaches faced when they were often placed in situations where they had limited control over the assistant coaching staff. Perhaps it was the inhospitable atmosphere in the NFL to new faces jumping right to the top.

At the same time, though, that refusal to move too far out of the old regime even while bringing in new blood to lead the team is symptomatic of a system that is stagnating.  

New ideas within the NFL have become much rarer than simply building a team modeled after last year’s success, a problem that is perpetuated by the lack of fresh faces at the highest levels.

Hiring outside of the pool of current coaching staff should not be discarded as a failed experiment, but rather one to be approached with due caution and some optimism. There’s no telling where the next major paradigm shift in football might come from, but chances seem good that it won’t be generated from someone so entrenched in the current regime that they can’t see the forest for the trees.


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