Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Oct 2011

Sparano Just Latest Example of Overmatched Head Coach

The article is not really about Sparano, but about the latest wave of assistants who could not cut it as NFL head coaches. I think, 20 years from now, Josh McDaniels will still be held up as an object lesson on what not to look for when choosing a new coach.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 19 Oct 2011

14 comments, Last at 20 Oct 2011, 7:48pm by BroncosGuyAgain


by zlionsfan :: Wed, 10/19/2011 - 10:24am

I think you can turn around the comparison of CEOs to head coaches this way: the way the business world works is like an NFL GM hiring Mike Keenan to coach his team. He was a successful coach somewhere, so he can be a successful coach here! It doesn't matter that the sports are completely different, or that he got fired from his last several jobs, or that he didn't really do a great job at the last couple. He's a head coach, and we hire head coaches! (To make the analogy more accurate, the decision would then be approved by a group of coaches from other sports and leagues, many of whom are also active and report to other groups of coaches.)

by snoopy369 :: Wed, 10/19/2011 - 11:21am

Not entirely sure I follow how Sparano matches up with the rest of your article. You spend 3/4 of the article talking about how career assistants don't make good head coaches, but Sparano was a head coach (in college). He then was the assistant head coach with the Cowboys, alongside the aforementioned Jason Garrett. Sparano honestly looks exactly like the guy that your article would suggest hiring - he has diverse experience, both in college and in the pros, and spent time with Parcells in Dallas learning the job.

It sounds more to me that he just wasn't successful, which happens here and there. Bill Belichick wasn't successful in his first head coaching experience, after all. Ten years from now we may well be reading about Tony Sparano, greatest head coach of all time for all we know...

by johonny (not verified) :: Wed, 10/19/2011 - 3:40pm

Seems like Sparano was the right head coach for a Bill Parcells lead Dolphins, he doesn't appear to be the right coach for a Ross/Ireland lead Dolphins. The Dolphins owner has the feel of a guy that doesn't understand the sports entertainment industry and is taking a long time to figure it out. Clearly Parcells wasn't interested in his learning curve.

by zerlesen (not verified) :: Wed, 10/19/2011 - 2:08pm

"Steve Spagnuolo and Ken Whisenhunt are in the same boat."

Whisenhunt did recently get the Cards to the playoffs two straight years (albeit from the NFC West) including one SB loss. If he's still in the "flunking their first trial as head coaches" boat, then that's a pretty tough mixed metaphor to clear.

by Anonymous(not that one) (not verified) :: Wed, 10/19/2011 - 2:43pm

A coach's personality is unimportant. Belichick's personality hasn't changed in the past 3 years of no playoff success, but the talent has. THE TALENT OF THE PLAYERS IS IMPORTANT. It's almost the only thing that matters. In the Phins, you have several bad drafts, no QB, and bad trades.

by Led :: Wed, 10/19/2011 - 4:47pm

I'm going to disagree that player talent is the only thing that matters because player talent is not a static variable. I think coaching, and specifically player development, is very important, and a lot of what looks like brilliant personnel management is really good coaching and player development. I doubt I can prove this. People, especially smart people, love the Moneyball story because it flatters the ego of the managererial class to think that organizations succeed because their management is smarter than everybody else. But in my experience the Moneyball story is the exception. The more common case is that organizations succeed because (aside from luck, which is a huge factor) they are better at getting the most out of their people. That's old fashion people skills, hard work, attention to detail, etc. It's not susceptible to an elegant model, but that's life.

by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 10/19/2011 - 5:00pm

As a resident of San Francisco, I'd have to say we have a team here that's a direct refutation of your argument. The talent is pretty much the same as what we had last year. The coaching is the biggest difference between 1-5 and 5-1 (and luck, everpresent in football).

by BroncosGuyAgain :: Thu, 10/20/2011 - 7:48pm

I will agree that no amount of coaching skill can overcome a lack of roster talent.

However, the idea that a coach's personality is unimportant is absurd. Hypothetically, if the Broncos hired a a brash, abrasive, arrogant, hubris-filled possible sociopath as head coach, it might have negative implications on the franchise's long-term prospects. Hypothetically.

by Mark Pitcavage (not verified) :: Wed, 10/19/2011 - 4:26pm

To the things mentioned in the article, there are a couple I might add:

1) The "find the next young genius" trend. A number of teams in the NFL have sought to get that young, budding offensive coordinator who seems to have genius before anybody else can. You don't have to pay them as much as a well known coach, plus they seem like the superstar coach of the upcoming decade. Well, sometimes it works. Pittsburgh got lucky with Mike Tomlin. But more often than not, it doesn't work (see Denver). The article addressed some of the reasons, such as a lack of managerial (or even human) experience, but it is the youthseeking trend which causes those things to be ignored or undervalued.

2) the "find the disciple" trend. What's the next best thing to a great coach? Apparently to many, it is one of that coach's coaches. So, since you can't get the Patriots' head coach, you grab his offensive coordinator. But how much of that coordinator's shine is simply a reflection of the glow of Big Bill, as opposed to what the coordinator himself can bring to the table? Pittsburgh is a team that has had two solid decades of success, and as a result, many of its former coordinators have gone on to head coaching jobs. However, few of them have been all that successful as head coaches. One of them is currently back to a coordinator role at Pittsburgh and doing very well again. :)

Instead of trying to find the next young stud or the greatest disciple, it might be better to look at a candidate both in context and isolation. Doing both may give you a chance to see what a candidate can contribute to a team on his own. I think, too, a head coach has to understand that he must rely on other coaches to together, as a team of their own, guide a winning football team. Franchises ought to look to see how potential head coaches not only might lead (the team, as well as present a public face), but might work as a team member.

by Trust Doesn't Rust (not verified) :: Thu, 10/20/2011 - 3:07am

I don't think Pittsburgh got lucky with Tomlin. They clearly understand the right traits in a successful head coach, and found one even though he was under the radar and they already had two seemingly good candidates on their own staff.

Also, I think the software engineer analogy is a pretty poor one. A coordinator on an NFL team is much more akin to the vice president of a company. He's in charge of basically half the team, has his own staff of assistant position coaches and typically has a big say in personnel (not to mention the task of coaching up the personnel that's brought in).

by tylerdolphin :: Wed, 10/19/2011 - 4:31pm

Tony Sparano is hot garbage as a HC.

1. Poor gameday decisions on the regular. Take Monday night for example. He chose to make no attempt to score before the half despite having 1:15 and a TO. He then proceeds to use TOs in a useless attempt to come back from an insurmountable deficit at the end of the game. You have the Saints game where he calls a TO as the Saints are about to kick in a chip shot FG before the half, which then allows NO to reconsider and punch it in for a TD.

2. Way too conservative, which ties into point #1. Monday night, again, provides a great example. 3rd and an inch from the Pats 40...we fail to convert and then punt. We are 0-4 and punting on obvious go for it situations against teams we need to take chances to beat. Earlier this year we punted 4th and short with less than 3 minutes left and no TOs...we didnt have a TO because the dumbass used it after trying to draw the Texans offside and running the playclock (and gameclock, which was running) down. You have to either punt immediately or go for it. He had two options and picked option C, which was just mind bogglingly stupid. he does stuff like this all the time.

3. No player development. Players never get better here. They are never used properly (see running Bush up the gut 100 times a game). Matter of fact, players get better when they leave.

4. O-line tinkering. For a supposed O-Line guru, he sure does suck here. We tinker with what isnt broken every year until it comes to the point where we are starting Marc Columbo and ignoring Andre Gurode (sp?) and McKinnie. Awesome.

5. halftime adjustments. We dont do them.

Basically, Morono sucks and will probably never get another HC job.

by Trust Doesn't Rust (not verified) :: Thu, 10/20/2011 - 2:48am

Hey Mike, do you look like Burt Reynolds in real life or is it just in your picture?

by nath :: Thu, 10/20/2011 - 3:46am

Sick McDonald's product placement in the opening paragraph! How much did they pay for that?

by BroncosGuyAgain :: Thu, 10/20/2011 - 7:44pm

On this we agree: Josh McDaniels will forever be held up like a B-school case study.

I've always been frustrated by the desire to hire the Hot Coordinator as head coach. The jobs require different skill sets. If Joe Smith is a defensive genius, then by all means have him coordinate your defense. Distracting him with roster, administrative, scouting, and public relations duties is just silly.

Glad to see Ted Sundquist heavily credited/quoted. Smart guy who seems to be well liked.