NFL: The Tiers of Coaching

Pat CowanCorrespondent IMay 27, 2009

SEATTLE - AUGUST 12:  Head coach Bill Parcels of the Dallas Cowboys talks with before Mike Holmgren of the  Seattle Seahawks before the preseason game on August 12, 2006 at Qwest Field in Seattle Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Every new NFL season brings excitement and anticipation. New coaches. New players. Players playing for different coaches. Coaches coaching for different teams.

One thing that seems more important than anything is what the new coach can bring to the table. The way I see it, they tend to fall into one of four tiers:

Tier OneThe Disciplinarian

Coaches like Bill Parcells, Mike Holmgren, Marty Schottenheimer, and Vince Lombardi have cemented their legacy with this method.

Job Description:

Rule No. 1—Work hard or get fired.

Rule No. 2—Refer to rule No. 1 and fear for your job.

This "Drill Sergeant" style of coaching has definitely had its benefits. It has reaped a lot of success in the past by getting the best out of their players through sheer intimidation.

However, it does have its downside.  At times players can be overworked and can  negatively affect their passion for the game.

It's not uncommon for teams to come out flat on Sunday and just go through the motions.

In the case of the Giants' Tom Coughlin, players detested his cold-hearted disciplinarian style. That led to a change of heart by Coughlin. He softened his approach and it payed off, resulting in the biggest Super Bowl upset of all-time.

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Tier Two—The Player's Coach

Coaches like Andy Reid, Don Shula, Joe Gibbs, Dick Vermeil, and John Madden. These head coaches are all about passion for the game.

Job Description:

Rule No. 1—Players are required to be self-motivated.

Rule No. 2—Act like a team of men keeping each other accountable.

Rule No. 3—Prima donnas need not apply.

These coaches surround themselves with players and coaches who have the same attitude and vision.

Players must fit this system. Locker room continuity is a must and they have little tolerance for players who upset the "team first" chemistry. They know all the players' names as well as their wives and kids. They view the team as an extended family. 

The downside for a player's coach is when a selfish player makes his way on the team, that player will disrupt the whole locker room and doom the team until he is gone.

The most obvious example is Terrell Owens and the Eagles. Until Reid ousted Owens from the facility, the locker room was divided.

Tier Three—The Cerebral Scheming Coach

Coaches like Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh, Jon Gruden, Mike Shannahan, and Bill Billick.

Job Description:

Rule No. 1—Whatever it takes to win. Period.

Rule No. 2—Add an exclamation mark on Rule No. 1.

These coaches are always looking for the edge. They are always pushing the rule book and trying to land the "big fish" in the free agency or the draft pond. 

Game plans are a detailed system and an exact science. They bring a lot of new philosophy and methods to the table. They are always dabbling with the roster and tweaking schemes here and there.

They view their team in two categories: elite players and interchangeable players. They have a good eye for talent and are superior to everyone in their own eyes. 

The downside of these coaches is that once their elite players leave the nest, they sometimes get caught in a vicious cycle of plugging in new players every year, trying to find a replacement.  This usually results in the team sliding into mediocrity until a suitor is found.

Coaches like Gruden, Billick, and Shannahan have been given their walking papers for this reason.

Tier FourCoordinator/Coaches

Norv Turner, Wade Phillips, Dick Lebau, and Dave Wannstedt fall under this tier.

Jobe description.

Rule No. 1—Get players with talent.

Rule No. 2—Let the inmates run the asylum.

Rule No. 3—Staying awake and being on time during team meetings are optional.

Rule No. 4—"I'll be in my office watching film if you need me."

These guys are great coordinators turned head coaches, destined to become coordinators again. They are forgettable in the history of the NFL.

They pay no attention to accountability and have a hard time making decisions that help a team get better from a morale standpoint.

They will hire high-maintenance talent and let them do whatever they like. Meanwhile, they will bench a locker room leader because they feel he isn't contributing enough. They don't get involved in the day-to-day operations and their focus is exclusively game planning.

Often their seasons end in disappointment and their teams earn the "underachiever" label. The upside is that they can assemble a team that can make the playoffs about every other year, although usually they end up one and done.

There certainly are other tiers that could be added to this list. Some coaches like Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher, Tony Dungy, and Jimmy Johnson probably defy any single tier above.

With new head coaches comes new hope, and one thing is for sure: These new leaders are all in the hunt for the Holy Grail of the NFL.  The question is, will their quest end up in tears of joy or sorrow?