Commentary

Need a coach? Look for best leader

Playbook matters, but ability to inspire and motivate more paramount to success

Originally Published: January 13, 2014
By Dan Graziano | ESPN.com

Mike Zimmer continues to slug it out on the interview circuit while Jay Gruden, who apparently could have had his pick of head-coaching jobs, decorates his sweet new office in Ashburn, Va.

Three playoff appearances in three years as the Bengals' offensive coordinator landed Gruden a five-year deal to be head coach of the Washington Redskins. Six years as the Bengals' defensive coordinator and Zimmer is still hoping for the chance.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesChip Kelly's offensive schemes earned him praise, but his ability to connect to players and have them buy in to his methods played a larger role in Philly's NFC East conquest.

This isn't Gruden's fault, nor is it Zimmer's. This is about the state of the NFL in January 2014. Everybody is infatuated with offense. Everybody wants to know what cool new ideas you have for scoring points. Chip Kelly just won the NFC East in his first year with Nick Foles at quarterback, and disappointed owners around the league bellow, "Find me someone like that!"

The trend is there for all to see. The rules favor offense, scoring is going up, and innovation sells.

But if it's OK, I would like to raise my hand and point out that none of the four coaches whose teams are still playing has ever been an offensive coordinator. Seattle's Pete Carroll, New England's Bill Belichick and Denver's John Fox are former defensive coordinators. San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh is a former quarterback who went from NFL quarterbacks coach to college and professional head coach.

This doesn't mean the Redskins or anyone else who is combing the offensive coordinator ranks is doing it wrong. But it is a reminder about where coaching-search priorities should lie. You don't hire a head coach because you like his playbook. You hire him because you believe he's a leader of men. Nothing he draws up matters long-term if he doesn't also come with the ability to motivate professional football players to put it into practice.

"We spend a lot of time as a staff talking about that: What's the best way to teach our guys?" Kelly told me in July after an Eagles training camp practice. "Because the bottom line is it means absolutely nothing what we know because we're not the ones playing."

Kelly's success in 2013 had more to do with his ability to connect with his players and get them to buy in than it did with his offensive schemes. His is clearly a highly intelligent, nimble and thoughtful football mind. But he also showed in his first year as an NFL coach that he grasps the most important of coaching concepts. You build your system to fit your people, not vice versa. Only by working to connect with and understand your players can you figure out the best way to make them -- and yourself -- successful.

The four remaining playoff coaches demonstrate this. Long before he won games with Peyton Manning, Fox took the Jake Delhomme-quarterbacked Panthers to the Super Bowl. Two years ago, when Kyle Orton flopped, Fox rebuilt the Broncos' offense around Tim Tebow in midseason and got to the second round of the playoffs. Belichick has won with teams that set passing records, with dink-and-dunk teams, with defensive teams. He won 11 games with Matt Cassel the year Tom Brady blew out his knee in Week 1.

At USC and now in Seattle, Carroll has become famous for the environment he's created around his team -- a relaxed, upbeat and encouraging football environment in which the cream rises because highly skilled people are put in positions to help themselves and each other succeed. His program is football's version of Google. Harbaugh is quite clearly a maniac, but he's so wholly invested in the role that his players embrace him for his authenticity. He can win with a maxed-out Alex Smith or a developing Colin Kaepernick.

"One thing Tony Dungy told me is that, if you can make individual players better, then they're going to listen," Kelly told me. "So I think when you're dealing with anybody, no matter what business it is, if people understand that you care about them and you want to help them, then I think they're going to take to it."

That's why Kelly won this year, and it's why Fox, Belichick, Carroll, Harbaugh, Sean Payton, Tom Coughlin, Mike Tomlin, Andy Reid and others like them win so much more often than they lose. Marvin Lewis' leadership is behind the Bengals' recent success at least as much as his coordinators' performance is. John Harbaugh was a special-teams coordinator who became a perennial winner and Super Bowl champion head coach with the Ravens.

Whether these guys can draw up offensive or defensive plays at intuitive or innovative levels matters less than whether they can actually coach people. And anyone who's out there this month trying to find the next Kelly would do well to look beyond the chalkboard when assessing what that actually means.

The late Bum Phillips famously praised Don Shula by saying, "He can take his'n and beat your'n, and he can take your'n and beat his'n." It may well be that Gruden turns out to be a coach like that. It may well be that Zimmer does not. But the extent to which they can live up to Phillips' colloquialism will matter a lot more to the head-coaching success stories of these guys than will the side of the ball on which they got their training.

So consider this just a little bit of free advice for anyone who's hunting for a head coach: Make sure you're looking for the right thing. If you're not sure what that is, check out the conference championship games Sunday and take a look at the guys on the sidelines.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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