You started hearing the rumblings of it last December.
Sean McVay, the wunderkind head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, was on pace to lead the previously bumbling franchise to an 11-5 record and an NFC West crown. Everyone across the league took notice, especially the franchises that would be hiring new coaches as soon as January 2018.
Almost overnight, it was as if the value of defensive-minded head coaching candidates plummeted as teams sought sharp, offensive-minded candidates who could develop a quarterback in today’s pass-happy era of football.
“Everybody wants the next Sean McVay, offensive coaches who can develop the quarterback,” one coach who had previously interviewed for head coaching openings told me at the time, with no shortage of disappointment. “That’s the hot thing right now.”
And indeed, it came to pass. Both the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears found a McVay-like candidate in Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, a 40-year-old former quarterback with a sharp offensive mind and charm about him, and after interviews with both teams, Nagy chose the Bears.
That left the Colts to hire the 42-year-old Josh McDaniels, another young coordinator with play-calling and quarterback-development chops, before he backed out of the job to stay and learn in New England. Chris Ballard, the Colts’ general manager, was furious, but calmed down enough to make a smart hire in Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who — despite being on the older end of the scale at 57 — fit the McVay prototype due to his quarterback chops and play-calling background.
The fact that Reich’s offense got red hot in the playoffs last season and won the Super Bowl did not hurt this trend toward hiring offensive-minded head coaches. Hell, the Eagles’ head coach was Doug Pederson, a former quarterback himself who was hired the previous year (under much scrutiny) after spending three seasons as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator.
The Eagles’ championship only reinforced the desire within the league to hire McVay prototypes, much like the success of Nagy and Reich has this fall. While Nagy has led the Bears to a 10-4 record and an NFC North crown, Reich has guided the Colts to an 8-6 record and a possible playoff berth. The teams were a combined 9-23 last season.
As such, you’ll hear calls for both men — who also built successful offenses around struggling (or in Andrew Luck’s case, injured) quarterbacks (like McVay did with Jared Goff) — to win Coach of the Year honors, and that’s fair. For the job they’ve done, they deserve that. But what’s unfair is for the half-dozen or so teams that could be looking for a new coach this offseason to assume that hiring a McVay-like candidate is the only way to win today, as I fear teams are starting to do.
The amount of commentary and punditry about the need to find a “young, offensive-minded head coach” has reached absurd levels. That’s typically a sign that a “trend” has started to jump the shark.
Remember back in the late aughts, when hiring former New England assistants or front-office executives was the thing after the Patriots won Super Bowls in three of four years? Turns out Scott Pioli didn’t have the leadership skills or mentality to be a general manager, just like Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis — while fine coordinators — weren’t cut out to be head coaches. McDaniels, who was 33 when he was hired to be Denver’s head coach in 2009, wasn’t ready either.
The teams that hired these men failed to realize at the time — and as a Detroit native, I fear the Lions are now in the same boat with general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia — that New England’s success was largely a result of the greatness of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
Let’s also remember that in the aughts, not too long after the Baltimore Ravens built arguably the greatest defense of all time in 2000, hiring the Ravens’ defensive coordinator was thing to do. Over the next 12 years, Marvin Lewis got hired in Cincinnati, Mike Nolan got hired in San Francisco, Rex Ryan got hired in New York and Chuck Pagano got hired in Indianapolis.
The combined record of those three (including playoff games) is 270-278-3, for a .490 winning percentage. So basically, this group is a four-headed mashup of former Lions head coach Wayne Fontes (who retired with a .486 winning percentage).
This isn’t meant to besmirch or bemoan teams looking for the next McVay. By all means, teams should absolutely look. But finding the next McVay — or even Nagy or Reich — is easier said than done. If you look around the league now, you have to squint to find someone with the combination of confidence, charm, offensive aptitude and quarterbacking acumen those three have.
“I’m not aware of any,” one front-office executive told Yahoo Sports, before adding that those guys are “rare” individuals.
That’s why, as a proponent and lover of good football, I’m urging the franchises we know will be looking for head coaches — like the Browns and Packers — and franchises who might be looking for head coaches (Jets, Cardinals, Panthers) to simply seek out and hire a coach with a plan who can lead and inspire. In today’s football, that matters more than anything (including having a quarterback background) and for proof of that, all one needs to do is look at the success of the Chargers second-year coach Anthony Lynn.
Lynn, a former NFL running back, spent over 10 years in the NFL as a running backs coach before putting in four seasons as an assistant head coach and one season as an offensive coordinator when he was hired by the Chargers. And now, after a 9-7 campaign in 2017, Lynn — a strong communicator with a capable offensive mind and leadership chops — has the Chargers at 11-3 and has earned some Coach of the Year buzz.
Do you think the Chargers would fire Lynn and hire someone else with a background coaching quarterbacks now? No way. And while the presence of a veteran like Philip Rivers helps to break away from the McVay mold, this is probably a good reminder that Belichick, one of the greatest coaches of all time, comes primarily from a defensive background (though he could clearly coach anything).
That’s why I hope teams take a hard look at Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whose defense was really good even before they swindled Khalil Mack from the Raiders. And if someone can put together a ridiculous enough package to make Alabama boss Nick Saban think twice, they should do that, too. Someday, I hope more capable offensive coordinators with a knack for inspiring players who don’t come from a quarterback background — like the Chiefs’ Eric Bieniemy, for instance — get more than a glance.
If they don’t, I’ll know why. I hope, for the sake of any fans whose favorite team ends up reaching for a candidate this offseason who “fits the McVay-Nagy-Reich mold” but doesn’t have all of their traits, the decision doesn’t end up setting their franchise back years.
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