Even as NFL coaching trends younger, the old guys are still winning big

The NFL’s recent head coach hiring trend has been clear … quick firing triggers from team owners, and résumés that lean young, younger and youngest.

Nineteen of the league’s 32 franchises have hired a coach since 2017, not counting Carolina’s interim situation. Of those 19 new coaches, 12 were 44 years old or younger when they were signed. Seven of them were in their 30s.

For every Denver choosing 61-year-old Vic Fangio or Tampa Bay grabbing 67-year-old Bruce Arians, there were multiple Sean McVays (30 at hiring), Kyle Shanahans (36) and Kliff Kingsburys (39). It’s good to be young. And sometimes it’s good to hire young — McVay led the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl a season ago and Shanahan has San Francisco as a contender this season.

Yet if you scan the standings, the teams at the top aren't just led by experienced coaches, ones who have been with their franchises for the long haul, through thick and thin. They've held off challenges, revived rosters and reinvented themselves on the fly.

Along with Shanahan’s 49ers, there are four teams with 10-2 records this season: Baltimore, New England, New Orleans and Seattle. The head coaches there are, respectively: John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, Sean Payton and Pete Carroll.

Their average age: 61.75.

John Harbaugh's longevity and willingness to embrace change has been great for the Baltimore Ravens. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
John Harbaugh's longevity and willingness to embrace change has been great for the Baltimore Ravens. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

More impressive is their longevity. Belichick has been in New England for 20 seasons. Carroll has 10 at Seattle, Payton 13 in New Orleans and Harbaugh a dozen in Baltimore. During runs that long, rosters flip multiple times, philosophies have to be altered and the game dramatically changes.

Yet here are all the “old” guys, still winning big. That’s a testament not just to themselves, but to their team owners, who found a great coach (often at a young age) and ignored the plentiful outside noise that questioned them through tough losses, always believing they could navigate through the seasons.

Belichick was easy to keep, of course. He has won six Super Bowls, including three of the past five, and hasn’t had a losing season since 2000. He’s never wavered from atop the mountain.

The others took a bit more institutional fortitude. Toss in Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, who in his 13th season with the Steelers has an injury-depleted team at 7-5 and in AFC wild-card contention, and there is a bit of a surprise, against-conventional-wisdom trend going on.

Tomlin joins the others as the only active coaches with 90 or more victories with their current team. And plenty more, apparently, to come.

Tomlin (2008), Payton (2009), Harbuagh (2011) and Carroll (2012) all won Super Bowls with their franchises. In a league not known for its patience, none of those triumphs is particularly recent. And unlike Belichick, there has been some faltering since.

Payton survived three 7-9 seasons that would have caused many franchises to make a regime change. Instead the Saints have been reconstructed into a deep and talented team. After two playoff heartbreaks, including a horrendous non-call on a pass interference, they might finally get back to the Super Bowl.

Harbaugh has just one playoff victory since winning it all. He’s overseen two 8-8 seasons and a 5-11 campaign. Yet he's still here.

He won a Super Bowl on the strength of a Ray Lewis-led defense and Joe Flacco throwing 11 touchdown passes with no interceptions in the postseason. Now he may win another because he was willing and able to shift the offense away from a traditional system to an analytics-heavy, ultra-aggressive style that maximizes the breathtaking talents of young quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Seattle's Pete Carroll (left) and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin have done two of the best NFL coaching jobs this season. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Seattle's Pete Carroll (left) and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin have done two of the best NFL coaching jobs this season. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

At 68, Pete Carroll is the oldest coach in the league and lost a crushing Super Bowl to New England where the goal-line play-calling will forever be brought up. Few coaches would have survived that. Yet the Seahawks have never doubted him, even when they missed the playoffs in 2017.

Instead he’s rebuilt the defense, from the old Legion of Boom to its current star-studded unit, and continued to maximize the ability of Russell Wilson. Every adjustment that was needed has been made. It didn’t take fresh eyes or new concepts, just confidence and coaching ability.

Then there is Tomlin in Pittsburgh, who isn’t likely to win the Super Bowl this year but may be doing the best job of all. He had survived consecutive 8-8 seasons (2012-13) and a 9-6-1 campaign in 2018, but when the Steelers started 0-3, there was plenty of talk about Pittsburgh finally making a change.

Tomlin didn’t flinch. The losses were to New England, Seattle and San Francisco (a combined 30-6 now). And despite being without the injured Ben Roethlisberger and no longer having his best skill players (Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown), he thought they could win this year.

The Steelers agreed and traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick to solidify their defense. Now, despite being on a third-string QB, if the season ended today, they’d be in the playoffs.

The familiar doesn’t always get the headlines. The same-old doesn’t merit much discussion. And it’s certainly true that even successful coaches sometimes need to be fired. Eras end. Messages get stale. Concepts age.

Sometimes though, quality is quality and both realizing and respecting that is the key. Experience can only help, as well.

Maybe Shanahan whips through all the old heads and takes the title this postseason, but there sure are a lot of battle-tested coaches who have figured out this supposed modern, free-wheeling NFL pretty well.

Age is in the eye of the record, after all.

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