Let’s imagine Todd Bowles is fired at the end of the season. More surprising and quicker firings have occurred in the NFL. Bowles claim to his job right now is “the team isn’t as bad as everyone expected” and that may not be enough to keep the chair from falling out as a few Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg weeks await us. Which names pass a basic checklist that we can get hyped for, if he were replaced?
We’re going to assume for this exercise that coordinators are coordinating on all of their teams and not just understudies for the head coach, even if the head coach does call plays for their side of the team.
Let’s get this straight, head coaching is not coordinating. Your job as a head coach is noticeably different than as a coordinator. The head coach is macro-managing, like the General Manager does. They’re looking over the team and figuring out what the execution should be each week based on that. How to attack opposing teams as a whole, how to utilize their team as a whole. It isn’t their job to figure out the best way to use the quarterback specifically unless they decide to take over play-calling duties.
You will not know who a bad head coach is until they’ve been one. It’s a peter principle thing. The job is unique and there isn’t a way to evaluate a coach for it because no other coaching position has the same expectations. They might require coordinating a group of people, but it’s in a different set of tasks with a different goal. The head coaching job generally consists of having a hands-on approach to talent acquisition, making depth chart decisions along with regular self-scouting, and the ability to predict what your opponents will do against you in order to counter that, and then counter their counter to that; but in reference to game-planning rather than just individual plays and schemes.
So what would a potential checklist for finding a good head coach consist of if it’s a different role than being a good coordinator?
The Patented Edward Gorelik Checklist (First Draft)
- Have Run A Team That Had Multiple Top 12 DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) Finishes
- Have Experience Turning A Bad Unit Into A Good Unit
- Have Been Good With Different Casts
- Optional: Are They Young? Were They Ever A Young Head Coach? (Median coaching age right now is 53)
That’s a simple list. You have been good at your job, shown the ability to improve a team, and shown versatility. If you’re young, then maybe you are also a prodigy and therefore significantly more valuable to give a shot to (think Belichick). It’s also reasonable that a person who was a prodigy, and then was fired, could still be a good head coach in the future. Prodigy’s aren’t just people who do it well the first time, they’re good learners too. There’s rational reasons for why a head coach could’ve failed that aren’t entirely on them and don’t rely on rumors. Or maybe they were too young and not totally ready for it. Bill Bellichick and Pete Carroll had those issues, then they grew and got better with age. I’m going to take it as a positive if a coach had previous head coaching experience before median age.
Todd Bowles would only pass the first mark on this list. His 2013 and 2014 Arizona defenses were both top 12, but Arizona already gelled into a top 5 defense in 2012 under Ray Horton. Bowles took the baton from Horton and kept sprinting. Just like James Bettcher, who succeeded him. Bettcher hasn’t had a problem keeping the Cardinals a top five DVOA defense, but is that because he’s good or because the Cardinals defense is talented enough to only require competency? We should’ve been asking these questions about Todd Bowles because there was little on his resume.
I’m throwing out names that you may not like and I don’t care, they pass the checklist and you’re dealing with it. I’m only going to mention relevant information to the checklist. Also, let’s all do ourselves a favor and not take recency bias too heavily.
Vic Fangio (59)
- DC Chicago Bears 2015 to Present
- DC San Francisco 49ers 2011-2014
- DC Houston Texans 2002-2005
- DC Indianapolis Colts 1999-2001
- DC Carolina Panthers 1995-1998
Vic Fangio is my pet pick. I wanted him after Rex was fired, and I’m still pushing for him today.
Vic took over the Bears defense coming off rankings of 25th and 28th as they were transitioning from a team led by Brian Urlacher, Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs to…nobody. Fangio could not get it out of the gutter in his first year, took it to just under league average in his second, and now has it sitting just outside the top 12 in 2017. He’s turning around this defense, and that’s a mark on the checklist.
However, his real accomplishment is the San Francisco defense. When Fangio took over it was an average defense sandwiching a single good year. The three prior years it finished 18th, then jumped to 5th, and then back down to 15th. Fangio joined the 49ers as part of Jim Harbaugh’s staff in 2011. The new defense led by Fangio would finish 3rd, 3rd again, 13th, and then 5th in his final 2014 season. The 2014 year is one of the most incredibly underrated defensive coaching achievements done in the last decade.
Fangio lost his two starting corners, Aldon Smith missed half the season and had lost all his skills upon returning, and Patrick Willis along with Navorro Bowman missed a combined 26 games on the season. His starting corners that year became Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver. They were given paydays by Tennessee and Washington, were both cut, and are now out of the league. Without Aldon, Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks were the primary pass rushers. Vic Fangio made that team the 5th best defense. The San Francisco defense hasn’t been in the top half of the league since.
In his past is also the coaching job of taking over defensive playcalling duties for the inaugural season of the Carolina Panthers franchise, who were molded into a top five defense off the bat. They would fizzle out into an average team by his tenures end, and both of his Colts and Texans tenures are forgettable.
Fangio hits three marks. A continuous top 12 defense, turning a bad unit into a good unit, and being good with entirely different units. He’s the closest thing to a Mike Zimmer-like head coaching prospect on the market. Someone who has done more than enough to prove their worth but hasn’t gotten the opportunity to move up yet.
Scott Linehan (54)
- OC Dallas Cowboys 2015 – Present
- OC Detroit Lions 2009 – 2013
- HC St. Louis Rams 2006-2008
- OC Miami Dolphins 2005
- OC Minnesota Vikings 2002-2004
Linehan is currently the offensive mind for the Cowboys, who sit at 9th in DVOA ranking for offense. In 2016, they were 3rd. His first season in 2015, they were 30th. That was the season Tony Romo was injured all year and a hellish combination of Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassell were forced to man the team. In his two years at Dallas, Linehan took a rookie quarterback led team and made it a great and potent offense. This year is struggling more than previous due to injuries and suspensions, but it’s still top 10 for efficiency. He oversaw the transition of the offense from one quarterback to another and successfully made it a good one.
On the Lions, Linehan inherited a team that finished 24th in 2007 and 30th in 2008. The Lions offense would then go 31st, 19th, 10th, and 8th. His successors failed to get the offense back into the top half of the league’s DVOA until 2015. It still has yet to return to the top 12. That’s evidence that Linehan had a hand in creating the success along with showing his ability to turn around an offense.
Linehan took over the Rams head coaching job at age 43, and failed in St. Louis as a young hyped coordinator almost a decade ago. Minnesota handed him a top 10 offense, and he kept it running. His one year in Miami was forgettable.
Linehan has a handful of top 12 finishes, turned one bad offense good, had success with three different casts, and has coaching experience before the NFL median age. A good head coaching prospect.
Josh McDaniels (41)
I’m not going to talk about McDaniels because everyone knows about McDaniels. He failed as a head coach when he was 33. We’ve established being a head coach at a young age was a good thing. it’s a sign of a prodigy. He’s had time to look back, evaluate it, and grow from the experience. He hits the first and fourth points on the checklist, but not the other two. If you’re hiring him, it’s because you believe he’s special- like Sean McVay who only had one team on his resume and only three years. Although McVay is in a more similar position to what McDaniels was when he joined the Broncos so long ago.
Rob CHUDZinSKI (49)
- OC Indianapolis Colts 2015-Present
- HC Cleveland Browns 2013
- OC Carolina Panthers 2011-2012
- OC Cleveland Browns 2007-2008
Chudzinski is the lottery pick of the current offensive coordinator crop. He was hired at 45 to head the Browns and would’ve been one of the 10 youngest at the time. If re-hired, he’d only reach the NFL median age by his 3rd season as the coach.
So what gives Chudzinski his upside?
The Browns were 23rd and then 30th the two years prior to him taking over playcalling. In 2007, he somehow managed to turn the Derek Anderson led offense into the 10th best offense in DVOA. They regressed heavily in 2008 to 29th, at which point the Browns did their regular thing of firing everyone immediately.
Chudzinski got his next opportunity at Carolina, who were coming off finishes of 20th and 32nd. With Rookie Cam Newton, he turned that offense into the 4th best offense in 2011 and 10th best in 2012. Since then, the Panthers have failed to have back to back seasons inside the top 12.
His most recent spot at the Colts hasn’t been too eventful. He inherited an offense coming off rankings of 13th and 17th. In his first season with them, Andrew Luck’s injury woes began and the Matt Hasselbeck/Luck offense finished 30th. When Luck was healthy again in 2016, he brought the offense back to 12th. Now dealing with the Jacoby Brissett team, they sit at 31st.
Chudzinski hits all four points. He’s been a young head coach, turned a bad unit good, had success with multiple differing units, and had a team finish multiple times in the top 12. His rapid movement from job to job keeps his resume unfinished but it’s still hitting the marks. To me, he’s the closest thing to a Kyle Shanahan-like coaching prospect right now, who also had a high variance resume and moved around often. But Shanahan became a hot name after his big season in Atlanta, while Chudzinski is still waiting for his starting quarterback to get a new shoulder in Europe.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com