Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hey Coach! Coach? Who?

by Sum Mehrnama

There’s no question that the NFL is always evolving. Most of the fans from my generation witnessed the advent of instant replay, followed by its demise and eventual morphing into the current challenge system. Plenty of defensive aficionados watched as the scheme of choice wandered about from the 3-4 to the 46 to the Tampa 2 and so on. For the NFL, change has been a welcome and good thing. However, the biggest change is yet to come.

Prior Evolution of the Head Coach

Back in the days of Vince Lombardi and Chuck Noll, teams had a true “head coach.” The head-honcho, the chief, the big cheese, the guy who made the final call on everything. Sure, head coaches employed a number of coordinators and position coaches as they do now. But the role of these lower-level ranks was, for the most part, to train players and to offer input to the head coach. In the 1980s, it started to become more popular for head coaches to focus on one side of the ball and to trust a coordinator or “Assistant Head Coach” to run the other. The prime examples I can think of are Joe Gibbs and Mike Ditka.

Gibbs is among the top protégés of the Air Coryell system, and when the Washington Redskins first hired him, it was no secret that defense was not his forte. Gibbs brought on Richie Petitbon to run the defense and that was that. For the most part, Gibbs would not touch the defensive schemes or make the calls for the defense and left that part to Petitbon. Similarly, in Chicago, Mike Ditka had a defensive genius in Buddy Ryan, who brought us the 46 defense via his Monsters of the Midway. The success of the Bears 1985 defensive unit is unparalleled, and Ryan was awarded with a head coaching gig of his own with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Today’s Coach…es

Today’s NFL is even less head coach-oriented. First, I again look at the Redskins. Their current coaching lineup has Joe Gibbs as Head Coach, Gregg Williams as Assistant Head Coach Defense, Joe Bugel as Assistant Head Coach Offense, and Al Saunders as Associate Head Coach Offense. How many “head coaches” can a team have?!? Furthermore, when looking at the play-calling and schemes, it’s no question that Williams has full say over the defense, but the offense is a bit of a mystery. We know that the team uses a simplified version of Saunders’ playbook and that Bugel focuses on the O-Line, but who calls the plays? The team swears that Gibbs calls all the plays, but many others, including myself, suspect that he only takes over during the final 2 minutes of each half.

In essence, the Redskins have two head coaches and a CEO. With the excess of free time I have these days, I took a look at each NFL team’s website and their listed coaches. Seven teams have at least one “Assistant Head Coach” who focuses on only one side of the ball. Of those seven, three have at least one Assistant Head Coach for each side. Beyond these seven teams, there are teams who have prominent names as coordinators. The Lions have Mike Martz as an offensive coordinator, and it is well known that he runs that offense; the Cowboys offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett, was nearly named head coach of the team during the offseason; and the Eagles have Jim Johnson who runs that entire defense. The other team worth mentioning is Miami, who has former head coach Dom Capers as “Special Assistant to the Head Coach.”

The other move, that at least two teams are making, is to allow the Quarterback to have control of the offense. This is most evident in Indianapolis, where Peyton Manning owns the right to call and change plays at will. Ben Roethlisberger also received the go-ahead on calling more plays from the huddle this season than he did under Bill Cowher. This strategy, however, will only come into play when you really have a football-savvy player, such as Manning, who knows the game in and out.

The Future?

All of this points to a major shift in the NFL. Teams are relying less and less on a sole central figure on the coaching staff. Especially on teams who have players that serve as motivational leaders during halftime pep talks, the role of the head coach is dwindling. As the NFL proceeds to evolve to include regular season games held overseas, to shorten the length of its April draft, and to get menaces to society off of its playing fields, I predict it will also start to phase out the position of a sole head coach. The days of at least a couple of teams with only “Head Coach – Offense” “Head Coach – Defense” and “General Manager” are right around the corner.

No comments: