Coaching Counts: Quality Deficit Affecting Level of Play

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The level of play across the National Football League is generally down. Many players coming into the league lack fundamentals and it shows. You see the discussion most frequently regarding quarterbacks and offensive lines, but I would extend this to other positions, particularly defensive backs.

Quality coaches do not grow on trees despite the fact that NFL coaching trees are a real thing. I’ve written on this before but the coaching system across the board depends in large part on who you know. This is neither intuitive nor shocking since sports itself, particularly male dominated ones, are the ultimate buddy system. This is not isolated to the NFL but is present in college going all the way down to pee wee.

This current column grows out of a discussion I had with well respected Tennessee Titans reporter Terry McCormick. It arises out of a tweet I sent with the following proclamation.

The discussion jumped off from there with McCormick noting that college systems are often different from the NFL. While this is certainly true, it is also true that the better coaches will often incorporate some elements from college in order to play to or against a player’s’ strength. The spread concept is now used with quarterbacks albeit seemingly grudgingly at times.

The discussion then turned to the list of good coaching at the college and professional level. The list includes the usual suspects. At the top is the man I have proclaimed the best coach ever, Bill Belichick.

After Belichick, the list is full of guys who are good but not quite great. Andy Reid might be on the verge of getting there depending on what he does this season in Kansas City. The Chiefs at 5-1 are one of, if not the best team in the league and Reid and company are a big reason for it. Sure Alex Smith has been great but the playcalling, now more than ever, seems designed to open up the offense and allows his players to shine.

Reid’s past though is littered with questionable coaching decisions and several brain farts when it comes to the achilles heel of most coaches, clock management. That old adversary is the bane of most professional coaches whose tenures are often cut short due to a failure to master it’s seemingly simple concept.

Bruce Arians likewise makes the list of good, but not great coaches, for many of the reasons Reid does. An offensive genius, Arians has yet to translate his brilliance into the kind of sustained success that Belichick enjoys. To be fair, he is a relatively new entry to the head coaching ranks and spent many years as an offensive coordinator.

I put John Harbaugh mostly where I place his brother in the college ranks. A good coach whose resume has been helped through the hiring of some very good assistants and with some fortuitous luck. This begs the question of why only some coaches hire assistants who might outshine them while others don’t, but that is a topic for another time.

Pete Carroll is on the list of coaches who does not seem to fear hiring good staff. Carroll’s success speaks for itself and he falls squarely in my list of very good coaches. Is he elite? I don’t think he rises to Belichick’s level but he is certainly atop the list of the very good that is right down below. His coaching tree includes Dan Quinn who led the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl last year, and Gus Bradley, whose tenure in Jacksonville as an abject failure.

Mike Tomlin has experienced much success and benefits from an underrated aspect of professional success and that is stability. Like most of the names on this list, he had the fortune of coaching Ben Roethlisberger, whose quality of play has diminished but who for years was an above-average starting quarterback.

Mike McCarthy, like Tomlin, benefits from stability as well as a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is the best pure quarterback to ever play the game and more often than not it is the defense or a complimentary piece on offense that leads to a loss. Rodgers’ brilliance hides a lot of Packers’ flaws, just like other elite QBs do for the coaches and teams on this list. With Rodgers now done for the season, perhaps we will see if McCarthy is actually good at his job.All of our coaches made the top 50 list based on win percentage per Pro Football Reference. One we did not discuss, but will here, is Sean Payton. Like Arians, Payton is an offensive guru whose defenses have often let him down. As with most of the names on this list, Payton has benefited from having a future Hall of Famer leading his offense for a large part of his tenure. Having a good quarterback matters.

Most people seem to agree the lack necessary development at lower levels has an impact of level of play. Rather than lay this at the players’ feet we should focus on the root cause, and that is lack of coaching. The list of great coaches is small and even very good ones smaller yet. Other thing takes precedence over player development and the game suffers for it.

One inescapable fact from this discussion is that the list of quality coaches is tied to the list of current quality quarterbacks whose careers are trending toward conclusion. With a fresh new crop of young quarterbacks entering the league each year, and pairings with younger coaches such as Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson, who will be the next generation to crack the list? Better yet, what factors will play into this potential?    

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