By: Mayer Fink  | 

The Art of Being Invisible

On December 3rd, in the midst of the football season, the Carolina Panthers fired head coach Ron Rivera. Ron Rivera is the second coach to be fired before the end of the season (Jay Gruden lost his job following an 0-5 start to Washington’s season) and is expected to be one of many coaches that will be fired by the end of the season. 

We hear a lot about coaches on the hotseat. After every Sunday, we hear on sports commentaries which coaches are expected to be fired and which coaches should be in fear of losing their jobs. One thing we don’t hear often is which coaches are on the “cold seat;” which coaches have the safest job security and don’t have to worry about getting fired.

There’s an art to being on the “cold seat”. An art to being invisible. The average tenure of an NFL head coach is only three seasons. There are a handful of coaches that have been in the league for a long time and while their names may surface every few years as a coach on the hotseat, they are consistently able to avoid the pressure of coaching for a job. The five coaches that have mastered the “cold seat” are Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, Sean Payton and Pete Carroll. Many would point to the Super Bowl victories as the thing that these five coaches have in common, claiming that is why these coaches are on the “cold seat”. A Super Bowl victory does bolster job security among head coaches, but a Super Bowl victory can only last so long. Mike Mccarthy was fired last season despite winning a championship in the 2010 season.

Why are some coaches able to remain invisible? How are they able to avoid the pressure from the media and fans and keep their jobs for as long as they have? There are three common tendencies within the five coaches mentioned above. There is no exact science to success in the NFL, but there are some common trends which can go unnoticed by the common fan.

  1. Never tank; always be competitive.

It’s a cliche in the NFL to always be competitive. Every coach will say that they are trying to win every game. Few coaches can remain competitive regardless of the circumstances. It has been common in the NFL for teams to “tank” or purposely lose for draft position. The best head coaches will never relay that message to their team, even one with a depleted roster. In an era of “selling out”, the teams that are “buying in” are winning.

Last off-season the Seahawks lost some key players from their Super Bowl team in the 2013 season. Most fans expected the Seahawks to bottom out and finish last in the division in hopes of being a better team in the future years. Not Pete Carroll. Carroll made sure the Seahawks were competitive that season. Despite a roster stripped of its championship talent, the Seahawks managed to make the playoffs last season. Pete Carroll has kept the Super Bowl mentality in Seattle and the Seahawks are back to being contenders as they boast one of the best records in the NFL this season. 

Similarly, this off-season can be classified as the worst in the Mike Tomlin era in Pittsburgh. The team lost All-Pro running back Le'veon Bell, All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, and other key pieces of what has been part of the Steelers success in recent years. To make matters worse, future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered an elbow injury in the second game of the season to sideline him for the year (the team fell to 0-3 the following week). Many thought the Steelers would finish last in the division. Mike Tomlin dismissed any thought of that following the week two loss as the team traded their first round draft pick in exchange for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. Mike Tomlin has proven in his tenure in Pittsburgh that it’s not in his mentality to lose, leading the Steelers to a .500 record or above every season. Mike Tomlin has not only guided the team to an 8-5 record (as of Tuesday night 12/10/2019), he has done so with a third string quarterback , Delvin Hodges, and a third string running back.

  1. Always Adapt.

The NFL is a league of trends. Whether it’s the no-huddle offense or the 46 defense, the league is full of innovators and copycatters. The coaches that last in the NFL are the ones who not only outlast the trends but are able to adapt with them. 

What makes Bill Belichick's 19 year tenure with the Patriots so impressive is that throughout his time in New England many trends have come and gone, yet he remains. Belichick has not only withstood some of the trends that other coaches have tried to implement, he has also started some of his own. Belichick will probably go down as one of the greatest preparation coaches the league has seen, and the idea that you win a game in practice has been embodied in New England. 

Last year, John Harbaugh had to make a gutsy decision that resulted in him securing his job for the foreseeable future. He was faced with the dilemma of keeping traditional pocket-passing quarterback Joe Flacco as the starter or going with the young, raw dual-threat quarterback in rookie Lamar Jackson. The decision to switch to Lamar Jackson changed the Ravens offense and since the change at quarterback the Ravens have been one of the best teams in the NFL.

The great coaches not only know what trends to follow, but also are the innovators of the league. The coaches that are two, three steps ahead of everyone else are the ones that keep their jobs. Great coaches also know when to make a risky decision and when not to. Many coaches are considered risky when they go for it on fourth down or surprise the other team with an onside kick in the middle of the game, but many risky decisions are also made off the field with the staff and personnel.

  1. Have good relationships not only with the ownership/management but also the players 

Don’t let the sideline look of Bill Belichick wearing a hoodie and sweatpants fool you. He is a football genius but he also runs the team like a CEO runs a company. Everyone who goes to New England knows that they are playing for Bill Belichick and his system, not for themselves. 

When Charlie Casserly was the general manager in Washington, he would only draft players that he knew Joe Gibbs wanted to coach, the result was three Super Bowl championships in nine seasons with a group of players that were capable of playing not only with coach Gibbs but with each other as well. 

Now, most coaches don’t have complete control of who they bring in. Part of the difficulty in being a head coach is having a strong chemistry with the player hierarchy on the team. A common phrase heard in the sports world is that a coach “lost the locker room,” meaning they lost the respect and control of their team.  New coaches have the extra difficulty of winning over the players who not only have been playing football their whole life but have likely been in the organization for longer than the coach who just got hired. This has resulted in searches for coaches who can understand and relate to the players on the roster. Pete Carroll is most notable for being a successful “players coach” in recent years. While he has let his players be more vocal and independent, he has had the final say in team actions and team activities. 

Coaches have the extra difficulty of dealing with the owners and management of the team who are above them in power. A good relationship with an owner can be the strongest component for a coach being able to keep his job. Marvin Lewis coached the Bengals for 16 seasons and never won a playoff game, while Jim Harbaugh went to three NFC Championships in his first three seasons with the 49ers only to be fired after his fourth season with the team. Both coaches had to deal with different owners; one was patient and had a good relationship with his coach and the other got into a power struggle with the general manager and the owner. Just like every locker room is different, every owner and general manager is different. The coaches that last are able to figure out how to win over both. 

It’s hard to know the exact science behind the ideal coach. One thing is common, though — winning makes everything better. The teams that will begin their coaching searches this offseason will hope to find the next great coach. They should look into the coaches that have been great in recent years to find commonalities that make coaches great.

Photo Caption: Texans player kneeling
Photo Credit: Pixabay