The One Mistake NFL Teams Keep Making Again and Again and Again

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 7, 2017

New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels talks with Tom Brady prior to an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The Giants will soon begin their head coaching search. Many other teams will follow in a few weeks. All of them will be looking for an innovator, a motivator, an up-and-coming Bill-Belichick-meets-Alexander-the-Great whose ideas will lead both his team and the NFL in a bold new tactical direction. Someone like… 

(Checks list of hot coordinators.)


(Checks again.)

Say, does Sean McVay have a brother? And is he old enough to drive himself to a job interview yet?

The NFL coaching ranks have a major brain-drain problem. The upper echelons are choked with retreads, sixth-generation Bill Walsh knockoffs and guys who were overpromoted because they brewed coffee for Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

This old guard stifles leaguewide creativity, makes decent quarterbacks look bad and makes offenses look stale. But organizations keep talking themselves into hiring from the same shallow candidate pools.

Ben McAdoo was a fine example of the bad coaching decisions NFL teams keep making. A longtime Mike McCarthy lieutenant, McAdoo became the Packers quarterback coach after Rodgers' first MVP season. In 2014, he brought a flavor of McCarthy's system to New York as offensive coordinator and then succeeded Tom Coughlin on the strength of Eli Manning-to-Odell Beckham Jr. touchdowns in shootout losses.

The McCarthy-McAdoo offense only really works when a Hall of Fame quarterback orchestrates it while surrounded by Pro Bowlers. And even when the Giants were winning, no one mistook McAdoo for a people person. So the Giants made Hiring Mistake No. 1 with McAdoo: expecting a coach who only succeeded because of a superstar quarterback to succeed without a superstar quarterback.

Some team will soon make the same mistake with Josh McDaniels, who was last seen getting yelled at by Tom Brady on Sunday. The last coach famous for shouting at Brady on the sideline, Houston's Bill O'Brien, spent his Monday press conference coach-splaining that Tom Savage secretly played well in Sunday's 24-13 loss to the Titans, the one that basically ended with a rally-killing interception.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

In fairness, Savage did play better than the score suggests. But that's not the point. O'Brien has spent nearly four seasons proving that his Brady-based system only works for Brady (and Deshaun Watson, who improvised most of the good stuff). McDaniels' career highlights away from the Patriots were feuding with Jay Cutler and Broncos upper management—two things any coach can do.

Other examples of coach Hiring Mistake No. 1: Miami's Adam Gase (a Peyton Manning pal), Detroit's Jim Caldwell and coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (more Manning pals, with Caldwell's Super Bowl win in Baltimore tacked on) and coordinators Todd Haley (Steelers) and Ken Whisenhunt (Chargers), whose reputations were both built on catching Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger at just the right times.

At least all of these coordinators experienced some success. Hiring Mistake No. 2 is turning to a "proven" coach who hasn't proved anything. This is a deeper problem at the offensive coordinator level, where defense-oriented head coaches—many of them Hiring Mistake No. 1 types still eating lunch on what the 2000 Ravens or 2002 Buccaneers accomplished—hire old buddies whose conservative, turnover-averse systems make them feel safe.

The Hiring Mistake  No. 2 brigade is led by Dirk Koetter in Tampa. Hired as Lovie Smith's coordinator and promoted in 2016 because Smith was still photocopying his 2005 defensive playbook the season prior, Koetter's crowning strategic success in 11 NFL seasons was building the league's eighth-ranked offense in 2012 out of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Michael Turner. That's not exactly doing a lot with a little.

Among offensive coordinators, the retread brigade also includes:

  • Pat Shurmur (Vikings): head coach/coordinator of four teams in nine years who only cracked the top 10 in offense twice as Chip Kelly's majordomo before helping guide the Vikings to a top-10 ranking this season.
  • Bill Musgrave (Broncos): five-time offensive coordinator over 19 NFL coaching seasons whose first top-10 finish in offense was last year. Musgrave took over the Broncos offense last month from Mike McCoy, another Manning pal.
  • Rob Chudzinski (Colts): has gotten a decade's worth of coordinator and head coach gigs out of that wacky season when the Browns went 10-6 with Derek Anderson at quarterback.
  • Terry Robiskie (Titans): Well-regarded receivers coach who has coordinated or been the head coach of four teams in nine seasons since 1989, never cracking the top 10 in yards. Robiskie assists Mike Mularkey, another knockaround coordinator who blew people's minds 16 years ago by letting quarterback Kordell Stewart run but whose only sustained success since then came with the Matt Ryan Falcons. (Yes, 49ers fans, you should worry a bit after reading this.)
  • Marty Mornhinweg (Ravens), a coordinator/head coach for most of the last 20 years whose offenses have never finished in the top half of the league unless he was assisting Steve Mariucci or Andy Reid.
  • Rick Dennison (Bills), an off-brand Mike Shanahan surrogate/understudy. (Worry, 49ers fans, worry).

The NFL lifers on that list are all baseline competent and capable of producing occasional successful seasons, like the one Shurmur is enjoying in Minnesota. But that's precisely the problem. The NFL is teeming with journeyman coaches who max out at "pretty good." It's the coaching equivalent of a league full of quarterbacks like Josh McCown, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer and Matt Cassel. Except that instead of drafting rookies to replace them, teams will seek even more McCowns and Cassels.

With coordinator jobs glutted by retreads and guys who polished Peyton Manning's helmet, it's hard for clever young minds to rise through the ranks. McVay did it, but NFL teams cannot afford to wait for once-a-decade wunderkinds. Owners and execs need to seek coaches who can reinvigorate their franchises and the league, instead of just grabbing names off the candidate lists that even casual fans can now assemble off the tops of their heads.

Sean McVay is a rarity: a coach who rose through the ranks quickly without the help of a superstar head coach or QB.
Sean McVay is a rarity: a coach who rose through the ranks quickly without the help of a superstar head coach or QB.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Teams could turn to the NCAA for a jolt of innovation, but they won't. Chip Kelly poisoned that well by following two successful seasons with a disastrous one (the retreads of Hiring Mistake No. 2 are masters of avoiding disaster and success). And the recent Josh Heupel hiring by Central Florida was a reminder that college football is now overrun by Mike Leach Air Raid clones.

Big 12 teams averaged 32.9 points per game this season running Leach-like offenses, led by quarterbacks NFL coaches will deem unworthy to run the systems they tailored for Brady-Manning-Rodgers-Warner.

Establishment coaches prefer to dabble in collegiate tactics they feel comfortable with and then assure anyone who will listen that uptempo spread tactics can only be wrinkles in the NFL. And then claim that when the home-team quarterback threw a three-yard pass on 3rd-and-15, it was actually a great play.

It's a neat closed loop of an argument. College offenses are hinky and scary. Young assistants need to pay their dues. What's a team needing a head coach to do? Play it safe, interview a McDaniels, Whisenhunt or Shurmur and hope the mediocre decision doesn't yield mediocre results?

Here's a zany idea for NFL executives seeking fresh ideas who think collegiate innovators have cooties: Instead of grabbing some coordinator coming off a hot season, look for a young coach who has done more with less. Find coaches who have made bad talent look OK, good talent look great or young talent suddenly develop and ones who are still young enough to take risks and challenge hand-me-down NFL wisdom.

Eagles quarterback coach John DeFilippo, working in the background of traditionalists Doug Pederson and Frank Reich, is an obvious candidate for quick promotion. The 39-year-old Coach Flip has played a major role in developing Derek Carr and Carson Wentz, with an attempt to reach Johnny Manziel sandwiched in between, which no-doubt imparted some coaching life lessons. Who do you want nurturing your young quarterback: DeFilippo or someone who will scream at him for not being Tom Brady?

Eagles assistant John DeFilippo has helped Derek Carr and Carson Wentz mature into some of the NFL's most promising passers.
Eagles assistant John DeFilippo has helped Derek Carr and Carson Wentz mature into some of the NFL's most promising passers.Matt Rourke/Associated Press/Associated Press

While we are promoting young assistants over their coordinators, some employer should look past Shurmur to Vikings quarterback coach Kevin Stefanski, a 35-year-old with ties to the Andy Reid coaching forest (his career began as an Eagles worker bee). He helped make Case Keenum a thing this year, and he made chicken salad when Adrian Peterson was hurt and he was the running backs coach last year.

Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor won't make anyone's coaching short list. But the 45-year-old has already soaked up some pre-collapse Kelly wisdom from Philly, coped with all sorts of drama (and had modest success) in Miami and is now restoring order to the Bengals offense. It would be great to see what he could do for an organization that isn't already flying off a cliff.

The Jets are 17th in the NFL in total yards, which is unimpressive until you look at their personnel. Maybe coordinator John Morton is another Robiskie, a receivers guru applying lessons he learned from Sean Payton to turn Jermaine Kearse and Robby Anderson into Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas. 

There are other options out there, some of them better than the ones listed—coaches who have not yet succeeded but have not failed either. Ones who have adapted and persevered in bad situations instead of handing a playbook to a Hall of Famer and getting praised for it. Maybe a coach who is doing a lot with almost zero talent deserves a slot on the interview circuit to prove what he's capable of.

Let's hope for some fresh faces on the coaching carousel and bold announcements in January. The same old names picked because of the same old associations are producing the same old results. And it's not making the game any better.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.