One of the best coaching hires of the NFL offseason happened right under everyone’s noses. It wasn’t Chip Kelly in San Francisco, or Hue Jackson defecting to Cleveland. The best one was actually a re-hire, and it had nothing to do with filling a suddenly vacant head coaching position.
One of the sneakiest moves was San Diego re-hiring Ken Whisenhunt to be their offensive coordinator.
I know what you’re probably saying or thinking. But there’s a difference between hiring Whisenhunt to be a head coach to run your entire show as opposed to enlisting him as a guy who has a specific duty. As the main man, Whisenhunt is a gong show. In his last two seasons with a bad Titans team, he went a dismal 3-20 and was fired by the team halfway through last year.
But as an offensive coordinator, the guy is a genius and he’s proved that everywhere he’s gone as the signal caller on just one side of the ball. Look at the evidence:
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Now, there are a few points of context you have to understand when studying Whineshunt’s history. The first is that the Steelers had Ben Roethlisberger as a rookie, and that guy has blossomed in to one of the league’s best out of humble beginnings. When Whisenhunt wasn’t selected to take over for an exiting Bill Cowher, he bolted to Arizona…and again stumbled in to Kurt Warner after failed attempts to make Matt Leinart a viable option for two straight seasons. The 2010-12 Cardinals are Whisenhunt when he doesn’t have a Hall of Famer.
Anytime Whisenhunt works with a capable, superstar quarterback, he gets the absolute most out of them. But when he’s left to run the team, make big decisions and try and keep the ship together, he just can’t do it. Whisenhunt can turn diamonds in to jewelry, but he can’t turn garbage in to gold like other head coaches.
The point of this isn’t to really rip Whisenhunt as a head coach, because I get why he went for it all those times. He just wants to be a head coach, and why isn’t he allowed to find out if he’s suitable for the job? If you’re competitive, then you try to be the best in your craft.
The sad part is that Whisenhunt just never realized that he was born to be an offensive coordinator. That’s probably why his ego let him take the Tennessee job even though there was no way that was going to work out. There was nothing wrong with San Diego when he left in 2013, and they’ve sorely needed him since.
I can’t crawl in to his brain and determine exactly what his intentions are, but part of me wants to believe that Whisenhunt has realized what his NFL destiny is. Maybe it just took him a decade to learn what Pittsburgh knew back in 2006 when they decided to hire Mike Tomlin. Sometimes it just takes a guy that long to realize what his purpose is in life. In other words, he’s found his lane.
We fall into this trap that we can turn offensive and defensive coordinators into head coaches because it’s the natural pathway to get there unless you’re Dan Campbell or Jim Tomsula. But success in one specific area doesn’t equate to prosperity at an elevated position. It’s a mistake we make constantly when trying to scour the landscape for the newest head coach.
To find even more proof of this, you just have to look at the withered coaching tree of the Bill Belichik. Many of his disciples have gone on to become head coaches their own clubs, and none of them have come close to replicating what he’s done. Al Groh worked one season in the NFL as a head coach before being banished back to college. Josh McDaniels went 11-17 SU with Denver. Romeo Crennell is 28-55 SU as a head coach in Kansas and Cleveland. The beleaguered Jim Schwartz had one winning season in Detroit and is 29-51 SU lifetime as a head coach. Eric Mangini is 33-47 SU. The book is still out on Jim O’Brien in Houston but it’s not going well.
Like Whisenhunt, a lot of these guys eventually stepped back in to the roles they were best at. Crennel is the defensive coordinator for Kansas (7th in 2015) and McDaniels is leading the Patriots offense with Tom Brady this season as well. You just have to know where you fit. Beyond that, you have to accept it.
Head coaching is more than just knowing how to draw up plays. It’s about personality management; wrangling all your million dollar superstars to buy in to the system, while making sure the role players feel important too. You have to work hard at keeping your staff happy, and you have to ensure everyone stays together. There are just so many moving parts. Only a select few are born to do it.
Some NFL teams are about to find this out the hard way. The NFL just promoted five coordinators to head coaching positions and every single one of them have the same problematic earmarks that guys like Whisenhunt brought to the head of the table.
Dirk Koetter replaces Lovie Smith in Tampa, and there’s no telling if he’s the right man for the job. Koetter has held an average offensive ranking of 16th as an offensive coordinator over nine seasons. He topped out with Jacksonville in 2007 at sixth, and bottomed out with that same team in 2011 at 28th. He was up and down with Atlanta. The Bucs ranked 10th in offensive gains last season.
Lovie Smith certainly has his detractors, but the one thing you can say about him is that he never rocked the boat. Our perception of his dull personality isn’t reflected by his players either. Everyone on that team was mortified that he was suddenly fired so that the franchise didn’t have to let go of Koetter. Is there anything to say that Koetter can handle all his newfound responsibility? Not from where I’m sitting. Not from a guy who churns out average offenses.
The curious case of Adam Gase is also a head scratcher. Miami is desperate to find someone who can toe that delicate balance of coddling Ryan Tannehill and challenging him. Gase’s offensive schemes in Denver ranked 1st and 2nd with Peyton Manning arriving in town. He went to Chicago along with Jon Fox last year and the injury riddled Bears plummeted to 23rd. If Gase is a quarterback whisperer, then I’m the fucking Space Pope. Manning doesn’t need someone to tell him what to do and Jay Cutler sucks. People are merely anointing Gase as a prodigy because he’s so young. If he was 47 instead of 37, it’d be a much different story.
Ben McAdoo is case in point for this entire article. How in the hell is he supposed to replace a man like Tom Coughlin, who is the epitome of everything you want in a head coach alongside icons like Belichik? McAdoo has been groomed by the system for the past two seasons and lots of other teams were interested. If anything, this is an in-house hire to try and shake things up. But the glass ceiling is there, and the dreadful depths to how bad this can get are apparent.
New York could very well be kicking themselves in the ass by trying to replace Coughlin with one of Coughlin’s own. Not because he isn’t talented or capable, but because he’s not Coughlin. They should probably ask the Eagles, who basically regretted the Andy Reid firing so badly that they had to reach for his offensive coordinator when they haphazardly decided to move on from Chip Kelly.
Doug Pederson was hired by the Eagles and has basically spent his first week answering questions about why the Kansas City offense was so limp despite big play weapons like Kelce and Maclin in the wings. To be fair, Pederson’s offenses in Kansas City went 7th, 14th and 9th over the past three seasons. The question isn’t about what he can do with an offense, but what he can do with a completely dysfunctional team that has so many problems in so many areas. There’s no proof that he can untangle that cobbled web in Philly. He isn’t Andy Reid. He just worked for him.
One of the moves being praised league wide is the hire of Hue Jackson, who is finally being given the chance that was robbed of him in Oakland. Jackson ran that team’s offense back in 2010, and they were lights out, ranking 6th overall. When he took over the head coaching position, the team plummeted to 16th in offensive efficiency and went 8-8 SU before he was fired by the new general manager, Reggie McKenzie.
Jackson had to start all over again with Cincinnati, slowly climbing up the ranks before taking over the offensive play calling in 2014 (15th overall) and 2015 (7th overall). Now he’s tasked with rebuilding the Cleveland Browns who are without a quarterback, and coming off one of the most disaster-filled seasons of any team in the league.
Is he the right guy for the Browns? Because nobody is facing a steeper climb than Jackson. The tangible football qualities are there. He can coach. He knows how to run a practice. He’s designed solid offenses. He’s done the job decently before. But those intangibles have to be there. Cleveland is running out of patience.
The point is that head coaches are hard to find, and once you’ve found one you have to just stick with it as long as that candle is still burning. Guys like Bill Cowher eventually leave. But people like Andy Reid and Tom Coughlin shouldn’t be forced out the door. We think things need changing because we’re impatient as fans and frustrated as gamblers. It’s our right to be fickle. Teams can’t afford that.
The longest tenured coach in the NFL is Bill Belichik, who took over in 2000 and has an unreal record of 187-69. He also has arguably the best quarterback ever born, so that might be a fair example. Mike McCarthy was hired in 2006 and is 104-55. Same story there. Pittsburgh hired Tomlin in 2007, and have gone 92-52. Sean Payton has been in New Orleans since 2006 and is 87-57. Same goes for Jon Harbaugh who has been in Baltimore since 2008 and boasts a record of 77-51
The next two are Marvin Lewis (111-84), who has been on the job since 2003. Jon Harbaugh was signed in 2008 and is 77-51 with a Super Bowl ring on his finger. All six of the longest tenured head coaches have winning records and many of them have endured up and down seasons.
Carolina endured with Ron Rivera just like Dallas did with Jason Garrett. The teams that stick with their guys, are enjoying all the benefits and laughing all the way to the playoffs. Everyone else is routinely screwing themselves over with bad hires, error-prone profiling and the mistake of the incidental coaching promotion.
There’s no ideal way to find your next head coach. The culture and the process isn’t perfect, and it’s never going to be. Ken Whisenhunt is just the cautionary example. There’s a place in the NFL for everyone. For those that are meant to be head coaches, the last place they should find themselves is on the hot seat.
The benefit is that there’s a proven reward for those teams that are willing to commit to the ugliness of a long term relationship.