As I watched the 49ers get shredded by Colt McCoy and James Conner on Sunday, it felt as if I had been watching a poorly coached team. Then I remembered that in the football community, especially on Twitter, it is a cardinal sin to criticize Kyle Shanahan: the revered offensive guru and mastermind. While Shanahan is not on the hot seat in this case, a game like this begs the question of whether NFL teams should blindly pursue the best-looking, most innovative offensive mind that is available in the offseason. While NFL teams are no longer hell-bent on hiring anybody who has shaken hands with Sean McVay, I believe it would be useful to examine the different types of head coaching that exist in the NFL and evaluate the hiring process as a whole.
No, NFL teams should not blindly hire ‘the next Sean McVay.’ There are head coaches of offensive guru form that have had lots of success, including McVay, Matt LaFleur, Andy Reid and Sean Payton to name a few. There is also the group of head coaches that are more like CEOs, in that instead of running one particular unit, they oversee the entire production and provide input when they see fit. This group also boasts a list of wildly successful coaches, including John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin, Bruce Arians, Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott. Then you also have the defensive strategists, including Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll and Mike Zimmer. It is clear that there are successful coaches across these three distinct categories and that there is no single approach to head coaching that inherently leads to more success than others.
Furthermore, running a successful unit or even program does not automatically translate to success as an NFL head coach. Zac Taylor was McVay’s quarterback coach in Los Angeles, Urban Meyer was an offensive innovator and ran National Championship programs at the NCAA level and Vic Fangio led one of the most dominant defenses in recent memory when he was Matt Nagy’s defensive coordinator in Chicago. You can be part of an innovative offense, build a perennial NCAA powerhouse or scheme up a dominant defense but still struggle as an NFL head coach.
It is abundantly clear that managing a successful offensive or defensive unit is certainly not an automatic predictor of head coaching success. It appears that something more subtle emerges during the interview process that is central to identifying the potential of a head coaching candidate. At this point, it is almost an unwritten rule or tradition that offensive and defensive coordinators are the assumed top candidates for head coach vacancies. I want to challenge this notion, arguing that the skill set for an overly successful coordinator does not necessarily predict success at the head coaching level. There are certainly countless coordinators that have gone on to be fantastic head coaches, but NFL teams must be able to distinguish between a knack for the Xs and Os compared to the intangible skills that are imperative for a head coach to possess. I encourage you all to keep all of this in mind before you take to Twitter and urge your team to immediately hire Joe Brady, Brian Daboll or the guy who shines Sean McVay’s shoes as its next head coach.