We don’t just expect our NFL coaches to win every season they walk the sideline. We now expect them to keep winning long after they’ve retired.
Of all the expectations, roles and honors we hang on NFL coaches — strategic genius, master motivator, surrogate father — one of the most peculiar, and most pervasive, is the idea of the “coaching tree.” It branches off — sorry — from the concept of coach-as-patriarch, holding that a truly brilliant coach’s ideas take root — sorry, again — in the minds of his many assistants, blooming — look, there’s a reason this is a metaphor — on NFL sidelines for many seasons to come.
This year’s playoffs feature two living legends of the headset in Bill Belichick and Andy Reid. Both can trace their lineage back to two of the most famous coaching trees in NFL history; Reid to Bill Walsh (via Mike Holmgren) and Belichick to Bill Parcells. And both have inspired an entire forest of current and future head coaches.
Let’s take a look at those coaching trees, shall we? You never know what surprises you might find when peering in amongst the branches.
You know Belichick’s mantra: “Do your job,” a maxim covered in a thick, glowering crust. He’s got a coaching tree that, with the exception of the Detroit Lions, extends throughout the AFC. They range from long-timers like Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini to younger proteges like Matt Patricia and (at some point again soon) Josh McDaniels.
Most of Belichick’s disciples try to emulate Belichick’s gruff, sour exterior, none with more success — both on the field and the sideline — than his onetime, short-term assistant Nick Saban. (The entirety of Saban’s vast success has come in the college ranks, so it doesn’t apply to the NFL merits of Belichick’s coaching tree.) Belichick has created a widely imitated, but rarely duplicated, template for how a coach should view the world around him. (As an enemy.)
Andy Reid’s coaching tree is like water to a fish: you don’t realize it exists because it’s so pervasive. Though Reid himself has struggled in the postseason, the men he has inspired, and the ones they have in turn mentored, have gone on to substantial January success. John Harbaugh leads that charge, but literally half a dozen current NFL head coaches owe a debt of gratitude to Reid.
While Reid gets plenty of grief for his clock management during games, it’s clear that he has forged a legacy that’ll last long after his own career hits all zeroes, no matter how many timeouts he still has left.
Take a look at this. Disciples of Reid and Belichick have coached 18 of the league’s 32 teams. That’s an impressive reach, and it speaks to both the validity of these coaches’ philosophy and, well … the inherent conservatism of the NFL hiring establishment.
But just getting a job is only one challenge. What do the members of the Belichick and Reid coaching trees do once they’re in the gig? Do they win big and win often? Let’s dig in.
Reid’s disciples have nearly twice as many seasons as NFL head coaches than Belichick’s, but they’re still winning at a far more impressive clip: 40 percent of their seasons end in the playoffs, as opposed to just 15 percent of Belichick’s. For the record, Belichick has achieved a 71 percent playoff appearance record (89 percent as head coach of the Patriots), while Reid’s just percentage points behind him at 70 overall, 83 percent as coach of the Chiefs. Clearly, the kings remain the kings.
When we factor in how coaches have fared in the playoffs, the difference grows even more stark. Belichick’s coaches have won exactly one playoff game: Bill O’Brien while coaching the Texans in the 2016 season playoffs. Reid’s coaches, meanwhile, have run up an impressive winning record in the playoffs. That record’s bolstered by the extensive postseason success of John Harbaugh, who has 10 of those wins. But don’t count out Doug Pederson, who has added four wins, and counting, to Reid’s total while not losing a single postseason game to date.
And here’s the final verdict for those who believe a ring is the ultimate benchmark for NFL accomplishment. While Belichick has five rings and Reid has none, Reid’s proteges have outrun Belichick’s by a wide margin. Reid has only one Super Bowl appearance, with the 2004 Eagles, to Belichick’s eight. But Reid boasts three Super Bowl-appearing proteges: John Harbaugh (2012 Ravens, win), Ron Rivera (2015 Panthers, loss) and Doug Pederson (2017 Eagles, win; 2018 Eagles, TBD).
Bottom line: while we can’t automatically attribute the victories on Reid’s coaching tree to Reid himself, it’s clear that Reid’s got the ability to spot coaching talent and develop those talents until they’re ready for jobs of their own. And it’s equally obvious, based on the Patriots’ record of the last two decades, that Belichick can spot skilled coaches whose abilities work well within the Patriots system. Do those talents translate to teams outside of New England? That’s not an easy or simple answer, but just being on a sideline next to Belichick doesn’t guarantee future success, no matter how many teams gamble and hope for a mainlined dose of The Patriot Way. Coaching trees may not guarantee victories. But they’ll certainly open doors for interviews.
Belichick, Reid and Reid’s protege Doug Pederson remain alive in this year’s playoffs; Baltimore’s Harbaugh, Houston’s O’Brien and Chicago’s Matt Nagy bowed out last week. Down the line, if fate and drafts break their way, we might see Buffalo’s Sean McDermott, Detroit’s Matt Patricia and the Giants’ Pat Shurmur join them in the postseason. And then there’s always Saban, running up win totals at Alabama.
If nothing else, coaching trees are a fascinating exercise in what-if: somewhere there’s a lowly coordinator on a Belichick- or Reid-inspired staff right now that might just go on to win the 2030 Super Bowl. And these two patriarchs will deserve a touch of the credit when it happens.
Thanks to Jay Hart for the research.
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