When it comes to head coaches, NFL teams have a type. Nearly every head coaching hire these days comes from one of two buckets: retread former head coaches and up-and-coming offensive minds, usually from pedigree programs and prestige systems (see: LaFleur, Matt). In other words, it’s the guys who work or worked on offense for Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, etc, and the guys who consistently lost to Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, etc.
There will be the aberration from time to time. Brian Flores in Miami. Vic Fangio in Denver. And thousands of words have been written with thousands more tweeted about finding the next Sean McVay. These are jokes, considered pejorative for teams foolish enough to believe they can catch lightning in a bottle with a respected coach’s protege. But the joke is on them.
Recent NFL history shows that while teams generally aren’t very good at finding coaching talent, when they hire first-time coaches with an offensive background in these prestige systems—the trendy hire—they’re successful. Other types of hires have had a much worse hit rate.
Seven new coaches found homes before the 2018 season. Easily the best two fall into the above category: Frank Reich and Matt Nagy, with Reich not even coming in first on the Colts’ preferred coaching list. The other five guys: Pat Shurmur (retread), Steve Wilks (defense), Matt Patricia (defense), Mike Vrabel (defense), and Jon Gruden (retread) combined for zero playoff appearances, with Wilks losing his job after just one season. Patricia may have been close as well.
Reich came from the Doug Pederson’s staff, and he in turn came from the Andy Reid staff. Nagy came from Andy Reid’s staff. You know, the same Andy Reid preparing to host the AFC Championship Game as the favorite. That’s not a coincidence.
The year before looks very similar, except with more offensive coaches. At this point, it’s pretty clear the two best hires were Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, each from the Mike Shanahan tree. McVay is playing Sunday, while Shanahan took Matt Ryan to the Super Bowl as OC before finding a way to make something called a Nick Mullens look like an NFL quarterback. The 49ers haven’t had success as a team yet but almost no one blames that on Shanahan. His ability to maximize talent already shines through.
Also hired in that cycle: Anthony Lynn (offense, non-pedigree), Vance Joseph (defense), Sean McDermott (defense), Doug Marrone (retread). Someone will have to explain to me as if I’m five years old why the 2016-17 Bills deserved to have two coaches become head coaches. Lynn, while technically an offensive coach, did not come with the kind of background and pedigree normally seen for unproven offensive coaches. Though Lynn appears to be a quality coach for the Chargers, imagine the Chargers with McVay and all the offensive weapons the other LA has at its disposal.
So far, in two seasons the hires that have really taken off all come from offensive backgrounds and four of the five come from pedigree programs. A case could be made guys like McDermott and Marrone are doing a solid job given the circumstances, but they’re hardly changing the league. Meanwhile, McVay, Nagy, Shanahan, and Reich have re-written the rules of modern NFL offense.
Things get weird in 2016 because two offensive coordinators were promoted to head coaching jobs, neither of whom were prepared or qualified for them. Ben McAdoo does come from that Mike McCarthy pedigree program with the Bill Walsh coaching tree roots. Technically he ought to count. Dirk Koetter on the other hand, does not fit the bill. In fact, the Falcons offense took off when Kyle Shanahan replaced him in Atlanta (with the help of LaFleur).
The coaches who worked from this cycle are obvious: Doug Pederson won a Super Bowl within two years, and ... that’s probably the full list.
Adam Gase took the Miami job and while he was a young, “sexy” hire, he doesn’t have true pedigree in a prestige system. He did coach Peyton Manning to some tremendous success in Denver, but that was for John Fox, not Gary Kubiak (who comes from the Shanahan tree). We know what a shit show Hue Jackson (retread) was, and Mike Mularkey (retread) had some limited success before being fired after the 2017 season. Chip Kelly (retread), who probably deserves more credit than he gets for his impact on current NFL offense, flamed out in San Francisco in even more inglorious fashion than he did in Philly.
Going back even further, not a single coached hired in the 2015 cycle remains employed with that team, but Gary Kubiak (Shanahan tree) won a Super Bowl with the Broncos while Rex Ryan (retread), Todd Bowles (defense), John Fox (retread), Jim Tomsula (LOL), Jack Del Rio (retread), never made significant progress with their teams and all got the axe. In fact, only Bowles even made it to the 2018 season.
One class is something to notice. Two classes is interesting. Three is a trend. Four is a new normal. If teams want upside, they have to have offense. It’s not a coincidence that four of the top five offenses adjusted for schedule are playing this weekend and the fifth lost to the Patriots. Even with what happened last year when some defenses rode historic seasons to the playoffs, it was still a coach from a prestige tree facing Belichick in the last game of the year.
This is the swing the Packers took. The jokes about the “next McVay” are tired, but they’re also not jokes. Green Bay should be looking for the next McVay because that’s how teams have found really good coaches lately. One could just as accurately saying they were looking for the next Shanahan, the next Pederson, the next Nagy, or the next Reich. The background Matt LaFleur brings is precisely the kind of background coaches who have succeeded lately sported on their resume. And they’re similar to the CV’s guys like Mike McCarthy, Mike Sherman and Mike Holmgren brought with them to 1265 Lombardi Ave. as well.
Call it a reach. Call it a risk. But recent NFL history says this is the best way to find the next “guy.” Call him the “next” whoever you want, just so long as the team is winning. This wasn’t a lark from Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst. It was good process. These are the types of coaches who have found success in a league where teams are traditionally terrible at judging coaching talent. LaFleur will have to sink or swim on his own merits, but this was exactly the type of swing that the league’s trends suggest the team should have taken.