From X’s and O’s to Press and Egos: The Evolution of the NFL Head Coach

I don’t think Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry or Bum Phillips ever cared what the press said.

Something tells me that if a player’s ego got too big, George Allen or George Halas would sit him. He wouldn’t have a single person to whom he would have to answer.

But those were the old days. The days when a coach was actually in charge of the players on the team, and not the other way around. This was before the 24 hour news cycle, sports blogs (hey, that’s us!), fans with demands and all the other nonsense that surrounds an NFL team in the modern era. Truth is, I probably wouldn’t trade it for the old days — the modern game is more exciting, more accessible than ever — but it occurred to me last night while watching that awful Rams/Seahawks game that being a coach now is less like being a coach and more like being… something else.

I’ll explain. NFL head coaches now give daily press conferences. They’re asked to do radio shows locally and, if there’s a big enough story on their team, nationally. They’re asked to comment on player performance immediately after wins and losses. They’re asked to comment on injury status immediately after games. They have to turn a blind ear to the scathing criticisms coming from teevee, radio and newspaper columnists on a 24 hour beat.

You’re an NFL head coach. You go into the office before the sun rises. You’re there for hours after it sets. You’re dealing with egos, your own front office, managing your assistant coaches, their assistant coaches, a scouting network, viewing film, holding meetings, sitting in on unit meetings. Oh and let’s not forget creating and installing a game plan, opposition-specific wrinkles in said game plan and talking to the press.

Obviously, I have a bit of a bias about the press’ importance in all this. I think that’s because I’ve noticed it more this year than ever before.

NFL Coaches are not coaches. They’re movie stars. They’re corporate spokesmen. Sunshine salesmen. AND coaches of overgrown children playing a game for millions upon millions of dollars. OH! I almost forgot the best part! There’s a near 100% chance that they won’t leave the job on their own terms. Easy job, right?

There are a few specific kinds of coaches:

The Grizzled Veteran

Oh? Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh.

The Grizzled Veteran is that guy who has been around the league for eons. He was a longtime assistant, probably coordinated a good offense or defense, he’s probably run a pro team before, and now he’s a reasonably well-paid head coach in a new city. The fanbase is generally underwhelmed by this hiring, as you can almost always predict your team’s fortunes by looking back at their previous head coaching stops to establish what the pattern will look like in the next city.

Usually these guys are brought in to be a “steady hand of leadership” or some other fan-spunk-inducing platitude explanation after a disastrous run with a previous regime or, if you’re a Dolphins fan, 5 previous regimes. It’s unlikely that this guy will ever win a Super Bowl but he’s there as a caretaker to come in, set the table with some good pieces and basically not screw anything up FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JOHN FOX DON’T SCREW ANYTHING ELSE UP OR I WILL PUT A HEX ON YOU WHEREIN NO ONE WILL TALK TO YOU AT PARTIES. Aw, who am I kidding? After that last guy’s run in Denver, I’m shocked the league didn’t offer contraction as a way out for the Broncos. Not a whole lot Foxy could do to screw this up. (Others in this group: Parcells, Bill – and you KNOW he’s comin’ back; Coughlin, Tom; Soon joining this group: Reid, Andy)

The Up-and-Coming, Can’t-Miss Genius

Invisible foot.

This guy is neither “can’t miss,” nor a “genius,” though local media types will likely call him either or both at one point or another. See McDaniels, Josh. He’s probably in his thirties, and either coordinated a very talented offense that scored a lot of points, or coordinated a very talented defense that didn’t give up a lot of points. In either case, this is his first head coaching job at any level of the game, and it’ll turn out that he’s not particularly good at doing anything but the coaching. Dealing with egos? No good. Dealing with distractions? No good. Dealing with media? No good.

He specializes in saying the wrong thing at all times, offers platitudes in place of actual coaching, and somehow manages to piss off the fanbase so much during his tenure that he actually gets death threats.

Others in this group (besides poster-boy Josh McFuckstain) include Steve Spagnuolo, Todd Haley (FIRED!), and Mike Shanahan 20 years ago.

The Middling Manager

Norv Turner in his natural state

This guy was once a successful coordinator for a Super Bowl Champion team but that was eons ago. Since then: several head coaching positions, teams that are good but never great, and ultimate failure. The Chargers this year announced that they were likely going to fire Norv Turner but they were keeping him around a little while longer to see if ol’ foreskin face could turn his fortunes around. So far? Uh, not so good.

If your team is hiring one of these coaches — my favorite term is “retread,” like a tire that’s been re-shaped — you’re proper fucked and should probably just write off the next 3-5 years of your team’s existence. There may be moments where you say to yourself: “I can’t believe I ever doubted that he could do it” because the NFL is evil and could probably convince you that Tim Tebow is Jesus if you’re not careful. But that will even out and before you know it you’ll be angrily calling in to a local sports talk show and demanding that the crater-faced swamp monster currently running your team be fired in favor of one of the “genius” types listed above.

And holy hell, are there a lot of these guys getting snapped up every time there’s a vacancy! Norv Turner is the most obvious choice, but Lovie Smith will likely join him on the unemployment line this off-season (chance of the Bears hiring McScandals: 100,000,000,000% against), as will stonefaced Jim Caldwell of the Colts.

The Been-There, Done-That HC

What do you mean you’re out of spray tan???

There’s absolutely nothing this guy hasn’t seen. He’s been a head coach before, possibly at more than one spot, and had several successful years, and a winning coaching record on his resume, The only thing you have to wonder about is how he’ll fit in the new city.

Unless that city is Our Nation’s Capital, and that coach is Mike Shanahan.

He’s mastered the art of saying nothing to the media. He’s mastered the art of lying out his ass on an injury report. As for dealing with big personalities, he’s dealt with Hall of Fame quarterbacks, asshole defensive tackles who get in fights in IHOP parking lots at odd hours, and everything in between.

But he doesn’t know how to build a team and will likely require at least the loudest voice in the room when it comes to building talent (if not the only voice in the room). And the thing about that one is… uh… how do I put this? Oh yeah: HE’S FUCKING SHITTY AT THAT. Remember: There’s a reason he was fired from his last job.

Also, he may attempt to hire his shitprick son to run the offense. Don’t let this happen. His son has a tattoo that matches the tattoo of his best friend, legendary DERP-tard Chris Simms.

In each of these cases, the guy is expected to be Superman. Draft talent. Get the most out of talent. Keep talent out of trouble. Talk about talent to the media. Oh, and he must at all times say the right thing about the team. Too complimentary? The fans will see through it. Not complimentary enough? The media will tear him apart in favor of sacred cows on the roster. It’s a never ending cycle in which your job is never secure and your actions are all second-guessed and torn apart by morons with a modem, tits with a TiVo.

So while Tom Landry, dapper in a coat and tie, went home at the end of his day to see his wife and kids and basically live like a normal person, these men, looking homeless in hoodies and windbreakers, rehash the same answers for different questions before returning to their holes deep inside athletic complexes where many of them will sleep on office couches.

And dream of doing it all again.


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