There might not be anything more frustrating than the search for a head coach in the NFL. As much as experts and laymen alike want to think they know the right answers, they are all relying on second or even third hand information and trying to use it to justify or discredit a certain candidate for the job. The Cleveland Browns coaching search is causing fans and the media to have all kinds of irrational reactions to the situation, but it is difficult to blame them because it is so important. The bottom line is no one really knows anything about who would make a good hire and everyone is just guessing.
There are so many factors that account for success or failure for a head coach. Some of those issues include the organization, talent evaluation, the willingness to spend and bring in a good staff. That is all before it comes to the players on the field. To get an idea of just how difficult it is to project coaching success, look at the rest of the AFC North.
In 2007, the Pittsburgh Steelers stunned the NFL world when they hired Mike Tomlin, the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings over their offensive line coach Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt, their offensive coordinator. The search was expected to come down to one of those two choices and the Steelers organization thought it was going to be one of those two choices. The interview of Tomlin was part of the Rooney Rule and were ultimately blown away by him and made him their choice.
Tomlin was a defensive coordinator for one year in Minnesota. Before that, his previous three years in the NFL were as a defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nevertheless, the Steelers bet on him as their choice and the Steelers won one Super Bowl and went to a second. Tomlin was just 34 years old when he was hired to take over the job and had never been a head coach in college or the NFL.
In 2008, the Baltimore Ravens hired John Harbaugh was the defensive backs coach of the Philadelphia Eagles for just one season. The previous nine seasons, he was their special teams coach. Harbaugh had never been a head coach in his career at the collegiate or NFL level and was hired at 45 years old.
Many expected the Ravens would hire Rex Ryan, the team’s defensive coordinator to be the head coach. Ryan ultimately went on to be the head coach of the New York Jets where he is still coaching.
The Ravens won the 2012 Super Bowl and Harbaugh is regarded as one of the best coaches in the NFL. In both the cases of Tomlin and Harbaugh, neither one had an impressive resumé to bring to warrant a head coaching hire, but both got them and both won the Super Bowl.
The most ‘celebrity’ of the head coaches in the AFC North is Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals. Lewis was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens for six seasons and the question became when he was going to get his shot as a head coach. He had been passed over in a couple situations but in 2003, the Bengals gave him his shot to be their head coach. Lewis, like the others, had never been a head coach in college or the NFL before his hire and was 44 years old at the time.
Lewis came into the most difficult situation because the Bengals had been a terrible organization for over a decade. They did not have a real front office, a skeleton of a scouting department and an owner in Mike Brown, who was cheap. The Bengals have not won the Super Bowl, but considering where they came from, his 90-85-1 regular season record is impressive, even though that 0-5 record in the postseason is hanging out there like a black cloud. Nevertheless, Lewis is one of the longest tenured head coaches in the NFL.
People saw Lewis coming, but no one saw either Harbaugh or Tomlin coming as NFL hires. So, while people are quick to dismiss candidates like Adam Gase, the offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, Ben McAdoo, the quarterbacks coach of the Green Bay Packers, Dan Quinn, the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks or Todd Bowles, the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals as potential head coaching candidates, they have virtually the same amount of qualifications as Harbaugh and Tomlin did when they were hired.
When it comes to a former head coach, there is more information available, but that information is nevertheless fungible and malleable to fit a person’s argument. That comes down to who gets credit and blame in various situations from specific coaching situations to play acquisition.
Taking a look at Ken Whisenhunt, the positives are there. The Arizona Cardinals went to the Super Bowl under his watch. They had previously never gone and had not enjoyed much success in their history. The offense with quarterback Kurt Warner, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin were able to come within a drive of winning it over the Steelers.
They traded for Kevin Kolb of the Philadelphia Eagles at the time for a second round pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. This is where the argument can fit both sides and it comes down to how much blame Whisenhunt gets for choosing Kolb and the disaster that followed.
The offensive line was bad and never improved while he was there. Again, that can be debated to how much was on Whisenhunt for that and how much was on general manager Rod Graves. Depending on how much a person puts blame on Whisenhunt for the decisions seems to color how much they like or dislike the prospects of Whisenhunt. This argument can be applied to any former coach. The problem is that without more information, both sides of the debate can feel right.
When it comes to college coaches, they have the most obvious impact on the field. They are in charge of picking the talent, coaching the talent and putting them in position to succeed. The issue then becomes how their strategies will apply to the NFL game, how they will handle not being in total control of the team and player acquisition, the fact they have a limited number of draft picks as opposed to potentially having as many first round picks as scholarships.
In the end, most fans and media tend to fall into one of two camps. Those that look to experience and feel better with someone who has done it before, only needing that second chance to succeed. Then there are those looking for innovation and trying to find the next big thing. That group can be further splintered between those wanting college coaches or NFL assistants. None of these arguments is wrong as all sides have plenty of examples to pick from that have been able to win the Super Bowl. First time coaches and college coaches have done it while ‘retreads’ have matched their achievements with both ultimately ending up in the Hall of Fame.
All of this is before the discussion of agents and their impact on these searches come into play, which only further muddle the field. Jimmy Sexton and Bob Lamonte are two extremely powerful agents in the coaching world and they have a huge impact on where coaches ultimately go. So, take all of the arguments that people have and then put them into a centrifuge to be filter out the agents that impact this process.
The bottom line is that these coaching searches are incredibly complicated and bystanders, as well meaning as they might be, have such a small amount of information to work with and judge from that they are able to look smart. Ultimately, these coaching searches end up making fools of everyone. No one really knows anything and everyone is just hoping they are right. The Browns coaching search may look bad to some and normal to others, but no one knows a thing until they actually hire someone and that hire sinks of swims, whoever they are. That is what makes them so frustrating is because people have all of these bits of information, want to know if various candidates are good or bad and in the end, they are stuck waiting to see what happens. And I write this as one of you, doing all of these same things that I laid out here.