Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
11 Jan 2004
by Michael David Smith
Lovie Smith had a good day on Saturday.
No, I'm not talking about the defense he called in the Rams' loss to the Panthers. But by losing, Smith might have helped himself land one of the three available head coaching jobs.
Every year, an assistant coach on a Super Bowl team is proclaimed the football world's newest genius. And every year that genius is passed up for a top spot on another team.
No assistant on a team that played in the Super Bowl has gotten a head coaching job on another team since 1995, when the Eagles hired the defending champion 49ers' respected young defensive coach, Ray Rhodes, and the Broncos hired the 49ers' offensive coordinator, Mike Shanahan.
Clearly, owners and general managers looking for new coaches don't want to be patient and wait for Super Bowl coaches to finish their seasons. It's no surprise that assistants such as John Fox and Marvin Lewis got head coaching jobs not when their teams met in the Super Bowl after the 2000 season, but after later seasons when their teams missed the playoffs.
(A quick digression for all the Lions fans out there: Matt Millen worked that Ravens-Giants Super Bowl in his last game as a radio commentator before taking over the Lions. All he had to do was walk out of the booth and offer the Lions job to Fox or Lewis, who would have turned the team into a winner. Instead, he hired Marty Mornhinweg. Marty Mornhinweg!)
Are this year's Super Bowl coordinators set for head coaching jobs down the line, even if they don't get them in 2004? Here's a look at the past five years of Super Bowl coaching staffs and what they are doing now:
Tampa Bay: Offensive coordinator Bill Muir stayed, and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin turned down the 49ers to stay in Tampa. The coaching staff didn't change, but the team's performance sure did.
Oakland: The Raiders had no offensive coordinator (Bill Callahan is such a brilliant coach that he can be head coach and offensive coordinator rolled into one), but all eight offensive assistants stayed, as did defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan. Amazing how different a team can be with the same coaches and so many of the same players.
New England: Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel still haven't been offered any head coaching jobs, and the staff is nearly identical now to what it was when they won the Super Bowl. Apparently owners and general managers think Bill Belichick does all the coaching in New England.
St. Louis: Offensive coordinator Bobby Jackson retired, and who can blame him? Being offensive coordinator for Mike Martz is probably like mowing the lawn for your cranky grandfather: No matter how well you do, you're going to be told that he would have done it better. Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith is still there, for now at least.
Baltimore: Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh is still running that high-velocity Ravens attack. Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis stayed for one more year in Baltimore, then had one year as Steve Spurrier's defensive man in Washington before finally getting the Bengals job.
N.Y. Giants: Offensive coordinator Sean Payton stuck around for another year and is now working wonders with Quincy Carter as the quarterbacks coach in Dallas. Defensive coordinator John Fox stayed for another year before becoming the head coach in Carolina. Assistant head coach and running backs coach Jim Skipper left to coach in the XFL. How did that turn out for you, Skipper?
St. Louis: Mike Martz became the head coach when Vermeil retired. I seem to remember him talking about how he had the nucleus for a group of players that could win several Super Bowls. He's won two playoff games in four years. When Martz became the head coach he immediately canned some of Vermeil's guys, including co-defensive coordinator John Bunting, tight ends coach Lynn Stiles and assistant head coach Mike White, who Martz once famously threw out of an offensive meeting during the Rams' Super Bowl run. Co-defensive coordinator Peter Giunta stayed.
Tennessee: Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams couldn't get a job when the Titans went to the Super Bowl, but he got the Bills job the next year when the Titans lost their first playoff game. He hired Les Steckel as his running backs coach; Steckel was the Titans' offensive coordinator in '99.
Denver: Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was the genius of the moment for a brief time, but he's still with the Broncos. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson stayed in Denver until 2000, when he left to be the Chiefs' defensive coordinator. He runs that stout unit you've seen this season.
Atlanta: Offensive coordinator George Sefcik and defensive coordinator Rich Brooks stayed. No one on the Falcons' 1998 staff ever got to be a head coach.
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So if they don't look for Super Bowl assistants, what do owners and general managers look for? Although three of the four coaches hired this offseason were head coaches in their last job, most teams hire an assistant coach from another team. Of the 59 coaches hired since the end of the 1994 season, 20 were NFL head coaches in their last coaching jobs, 19 were NFL defensive assistants, 13 were NFL offensive assistants and seven were college head coaches.
The most prominent offseason hiring of the year has, of course, been Joe Gibbs of Washington. I have some thoughts about him.
Two head coaches in the 1980s, Gibbs and Bill Walsh, earned the "offensive genius" label. But while every football fan can recite the litany of Walsh proteges (Mike Holmgren begat Andy Reid, etc.), relatively few Gibbs disciples had success on their own.
Carolina's offense is run by a former Gibbs assistant, Dan Henning, so a look at the Panthers could give a clue as to how the Redskins' offense will look next year. (Do you think Gibbs wishes the 'Skins still had Stephen Davis to put in the John Riggins role') Henning coached for Gibbs in Washington in 1981 and 1982, but I wouldn't call him a Gibbs disciple. Henning learned the offense he now runs from Sid Gillman, who coached Henning when Henning was a Chargers quarterback in the 1960s. Gibbs and Henning are contemporaries, and although Gibbs has obviously accomplished significantly more as a coach, Henning isn't a student of Gibbs the way Holmgren, et al are students of Walsh.
Perhaps the most Gibbs-inspired team in the NFL right now is the Vikings. Mike Tice played for Gibbs in 1989, and Tice uses Jim Kleinsasser as a tight end-fullback hybrid, a scheme designed by Gibbs. Vikings strength and conditioning coach Steve Wetzel coached for Gibbs in Washington, and Vikings offensive line coach Steve Loney was an assistant for Joe Bugel in Arizona. Bugel was Gibbs' offensive line guru in Washington and will be on his staff again for the coming season.
Of course, it's not too late for a Gibbs coaching tree to grow. Although his assistants, including Bugel and Richie Petitbon, have fizzled as head coaches in the past, there are rumors that the Bears could turn next to Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm. Grimm was one of the original members of the Redskins offensive line known as "The Hogs," and he also coached for Gibbs in 1992. If Grimm doesn't get the Bears job, it would make sense for Gibbs to bring him to Washington. After all, Gibbs has never coached a team without Grimm.
Sixteen teams -- half the league -- finished the 2003 season with losing records, but the fans of the Redskins and six other teams will head into the 2004 season optimistic that they will see major improvement.
A head coach always brings optimism with him to a new job, but how often does he actually bring an improved record' In his first season, not much.
The 25 teams that changed coaches between seasons during the past four years made an average improvement of only 0.6 wins a season. And if you're thinking, "well, 0.6 wins isn't much, but it's something," think about this: New coaches usually take over bad teams, and bad teams in the NFL usually get better. So the best analysis of new coaches isn't examining how a new coach did compared to his predecessor; it's examining how a new coach did compared to teams with similar records that didn't change coaches.
And using that comparison, we find that teams are actually better off, on average, if they stick with the same coach. The 25 teams that hired a new coach in the last four years averaged 6.6 wins a season (or somewhere between 6-10 and 7-9) before bringing in the new guy. So I looked at the 23 teams in the last four years that went 6-10 or 7-9 but decided to stick with their coaches. Those 23 teams improved by 1.7 wins per season.
So teams that don't change coaches seem to have slightly more success than teams that do change coaches, at least in the short term.
But after I researched the above three paragraphs and showed them to Aaron, my wise editor, he suggested that I go back a bit further. And I found that from 1995 to 1999, the 31 teams that changed coaches improved by, on average, 1.6 wins a season. Those 31 teams averaged 6.0 wins a season before changing coaches, and the 10 six-win teams in the NFL that didn't change coaches during that period improved by only 0.8 wins a season. So it would seem that the act of simply changing coaches is neither positive or negative; it's all in whom you hire.
None of this means the Falcons, Giants, Redskins, Raiders, Bears, Bills and Cardinals made the right or wrong decision. But it does show that for every Marvin Lewis, there's a Marty Mornhinweg; for every John Fox there's a Gregg Williams. And it might dampen the enthusiasm of some of those seven teams' fans.
Here's the list of the teams that hired new coaches since 1995. (Note: I'm only including teams that changed coaches between seasons, so there's no Dick LeBeau or Mike Tice.)