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The Trailblazing Coaches Who Went From Friday Night Lights to the NFL

Former high school coaches like Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy brought innovative schemes from lower levels to the pro game, as well as an emphasis on teaching and development

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the Cowboys hired Jon Kitna as quarterbacks coach earlier this year, CEO Stephen Jones gave a reason you don’t often hear in the pro ranks: The team liked Kitna’s high school coaching career since his retirement from the NFL in 2012. It’s unusual job experience for an NFL coach, but as Jones noted at the time, Chiefs coach Andy Reid had already mined the high school ranks for talent. Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy were successful high school coaches when they joined the professional ranks as Reid’s coordinators before becoming winning head coaches with the Eagles and Bears, respectively.

These hires are a good indicator of the way football is changing. Jess Simpson, one of the best coaches in the history of Georgia high school football, was hired as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive line coach in March. He won seven state championships as head coach at Buford High School and appeared in 10 consecutive championship games, with a 164-12 record in 12 years. “From a creativity standpoint,” Simpson says, “high school coaches start with: If you aren’t willing to do it all, you probably won’t be very good.” High school coaches, Simpson means, must have a command of every possible scheme: wide-open spread offense, pure option football, the jet motion, or the run-pass option. The talent disparity can be so great, and personnel turns over so quickly from year to year that high school coaches need to be able to change everything about their team based on their talent—or lack thereof.

But when Simpson says “do it all,” well, he doesn’t just mean schemes: “My first week at Buford High School in 1995, I was told to ‘go get your [license] so that you can go drive the bus,’” Simpson tells me. “I like to say that if I ever get fired, I can still drive a bus at least.”

Football’s fairly recent realization that good ideas can come from anywhere has had countless consequences: Stubborn coaches are getting dumped from the league; schemes are rising up from all levels of football; and quarterbacks, buoyed by innovative schemes and rule changes, are running more comfortable offenses and performing at higher levels than at any time in NFL history. The scheme world flattened out. So many of the changes in the past decade can be explained by the rise of the high school coach in the NFL.

Last year, Nagy, a former high school coach in Pennsylvania, was the NFL Coach of the Year. The year before, Pederson, who coached high school in Louisiana, led the Eagles to a Super Bowl win. Neither are having banner years so far in 2019, but their schemes have had a massive influence on the NFL at large. Kitna, a 14-year NFL quarterback, coached at three high schools in three different states after his playing career ended. (He suspended his retirement for a week in 2013 and left his job as a math teacher and coach at Lincoln High School in Washington to sign with the Cowboys as an injury replacement before returning to his high school job.) In 2015, while he was head coach at Waxahachie High School in Texas, his team lost out on a playoff spot via a coin toss held at a Whataburger. Kitna says high school made him a better coach: He learned how to adapt his coaching and his teaching style to each individual student or player. “You’ve got to hit the multiple learning styles, whether that be auditory, visual, experiential,” Kitna says.

I asked people around the NFL why coaches with high school experience might be equipped to be successful in the pros. This is obviously not to say high school experience is mandatory—Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Rams coach Sean McVay started their careers as low-rung NFL employees—but it provides a different type of experience. The answers I got varied but focused on a few themes: schemes can change quicker than at any point in the history of football, due to technology advances, smarter coaches, and rule changes, among other factors. The same muscle that forces high school coaches to adapt to their talent changing every single year comes in handy at the pro level now more than ever. Belichick is famous for changing his game plan every week based on his opponents. In high school, coaches are forced to adjust their entire game plans if their receiver gets a cold.

“You learn that you have to coach what you’ve got,” Simpson says. “This year you might be able to run this offense. The next year, it might have to be totally different. Defensively, the same thing. Your kicking game might change; you had a great kicker then all of a sudden, you’re holding tryouts because no one can kick a ball.”

The coaches I talked to also say there is more of an emphasis on the actual installation of plays. Hammering home the details of every play becomes more essential because of the lack of talent and depth at the high school level. Pederson went 33-7 in four years as a high school coach before landing a job in the NFL as an assistant with the Eagles in 2009. He says his goal in high school was not to design the best plays—though he obviously did—but to perfect his players’ technique. “I wasn’t concerned about running plays,” Pederson told me. “I wanted to teach guys how to block, and teach receivers how to run routes, and teach quarterbacks how to read progressions. I think when we get to this level, that’s what we do anyway.” Pederson’s ability to teach and quickly install plays was famously revealed when he had to replace injured starting quarterback Carson Wentz with backup Nick Foles in each of the last two seasons. Both times, Pederson changed the offense on the fly by installing more Foles-friendly schemes, and won the Super Bowl in 2018.

“Here is what you get,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach tells me. “At high school, there is such an emphasis on technique, the fundamentals of the game.” Veach worked with both Pederson and Nagy in Kansas City. He is a former college teammate of Nagy’s and helped introduce him to the NFL world after a playing career in the Arena League and multiple stops as a high school assistant in Pennsylvania. Veach says there’s a high level of creativity in high school, which is clear if you watch Pederson or Nagy’s play designs.

But Veach says there’s an extra layer: “The [high school] game is about form tackling, how to run routes, how to work leverage. When you get guys who have spent so much time on that level, they are not sitting there breaking down the Cincinnati Bengals for six days and trying to come up with a few concepts that might expose them based on personnel and scheme matchups,” Veach says. “They are going to put much more emphasis on the technique and the fundamentals, and when these guys get a chance to be head coaches, they don’t lose sight of it, and those teams [the Bears and Eagles] are technically sound teams. Throw in the complexities of their schemes with the sound fundamentals and they have successful programs.”

An influx of high school coaches has made the NFL a more creative place. They remain a minority in the league’s coaching ranks, but it’s an untapped talent pool. There are about 20 times more high school athletic programs in the state of Florida than there are teams in the NFL, so it stands to reason, due to sheer probability, that there are many high school coaches who might be better equipped than those currently coaching in the NFL. Essentially, the NFL has been closed off from the lower levels of football. There’s no law that says NFL coaches must have the smartest schemes—far from it—and opening the sport up to minds from lower levels can help foster innovation in the professional ranks.

The NFL coaches who did get a job straight from high school are unusual cases: Pederson played for more than a decade in the NFL, including with Reid. Nagy was friends with Veach, a rising NFL front-office star. Kitna had a long NFL career. But their experience as high school coaches helped shaped them. Pederson says the innovation he experienced at the high school level helped open his mind to different things at the pro level. His high school quarterback told The Athletic his team was running things that would eventually be called an RPO long before Pederson worked with Alex Smith to take it up a notch.

“I think you learn, ‘don’t tell me what a guy can’t do; tell me what he can do,’” Simpson says. “I told my coaches, ‘You are always going to end up playing the guy you don’t want to play or don’t think can play, and you have to get every guy ready. You have to be all in for every single guy.” Simpson spent 2017 as an assistant with the Falcons, then took a job as defensive line coach at the University of Miami before taking the same job in Atlanta. (Fun fact: His Buford High team was the last to beat Deshaun Watson by two touchdowns until the Colts did so in the playoffs.)

The emphasis on adaptability is important for a few reasons. Trends now appear seemingly out of nowhere (more on that in a second). Players are much less experienced than they were in years past, both because the league has gotten younger, and there is dramatically less practice time since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. These factors create favorable conditions for flexible schemes that can be run very simply and require an emphasis on instruction and teaching. High school coaches can do that.

Reid saw this coming. I think a lot about a conversation I had with him in 2013 in which he said college schemes are always five years ahead of NFL offenses. He was predicting, of course, that the spread offense, then wildly popular in college, would take over the NFL. His prediction came true: Five years later, the Eagles and Patriots played the second-highest-scoring Super Bowl of all time, a game that Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley told me looked like a Big 12 game. You cannot tell the story of Patrick Mahomes and the historically good Chiefs offense without mentioning all the forces at work to produce those schemes, which were influenced by Pederson and Nagy, Reid’s former offensive coordinators. Part of Reid’s reasoning in saying lower levels of football were always ahead of the NFL was that the college and high school games happen in actual learning environments, and ideas are exchanged more freely. Essentially, Reid was saying lower levels of football are more open to learning.

“The key ingredient is, we are all teachers. In high school you actually teach a class,” Pederson says. “And in that class you are focusing on the fundamental details. Some guys are history teachers or math teachers, and you are having to put a weekly plan together.” Teaching classes is pretty rare in football. Some college coaches do it—see Mike Leach’s insurgent warfare class or Jim Tressel’s class during his Ohio State tenure—but Belichick is not yet opening enrollment for a class on pass coverage. Teaching, Kitna says, requires coaches to understand how their students and players learn. “Make things stick, having cues and things like that,” Kitna says. “The better teacher you are, the better coach you’re going to be. You’ve got to be able to communicate. It’s one thing to have knowledge. It’s another thing to convey knowledge. That’s what I learned from high school.”

Conveying the information is important, but so is realizing there is more of that information than at any point in the history of the sport. Simpson tells me the information sharing among coaches is accelerating. Part of this is technology: It is easier than ever to log on to YouTube, view a great play, and steal it. Film has always existed, but it’s available more readily than ever before. (Incidentally, Mike Shanahan told me in 2012 that the future would be full of plays stolen very quickly because of the internet.)

Simpson also says college coaches have become more accommodating with their high school counterparts because of recruiting. “High school coaches share so much information, the ones that are good at it, and are hungry,” Simpson says. “But the way recruiting is now, the colleges are awesome and let high school coaches come in all the time. They are recruiting your kids, that’s part of it, but there are so many great college guys who are willing to provide opportunities for high school guys to come and learn, watch a spring practice, sit in a meeting.” This exchange of ideas leads to plays running up and down each level of football quickly; it helps explain the Philly Special, called by Pederson two seasons ago in the Super Bowl, which started as a college play, morphed into a high school play, then was borrowed by the Eagles once it made its way to the NFL.

I ask Mark Colyer, who runs SpreadOffense.com and is an assistant at Pope John XXIII Regional High School in New Jersey, about what he currently sees at the high school level that could trickle up to the pro level. He tells me he’s noticed more of a trickle-down effect. The NFL, Colyer says, is having more of an impact on high school than it has in years. The Patriots, for example, have deployed a physical offense to beat defenses set up to stop the spread, elements of which he’s noticing in high school. This means more tight ends, fullbacks, running backs, and position groups that went very much out of vogue for at least a decade. (This year, those bulky formations seem to be the trend of the season: Both the 49ers and Patriots are undefeated in part because they utilize a fullback more than other teams.) He also thinks Pederson’s plays are having an impact: “Doug Pederson is one of the best at how to defeat man coverage. He’s one of the best at setting up those natural rubs, the mesh routes. We run those all the time when we’re facing a man defense,” Colyer says. “I think a lot of it comes from his [high school] background. High school coaches are forced to get more creative because it’s not like you’re holding a draft.”

So Pederson starts coaching at the high school level, works his way up to the NFL level, uses schemes borrowed from lower levels to great success in the pros, and now high schools are running his NFL plays. The scheme world is still flat.

“I always thought coming up that the hardest guys to coach against were the old-school guys who really understood triple-option football. It looked so different every week but it was the same thing,” Simpson says. “But you look now at the NFL—the zone-read stuff, the RPO stuff or the spread offense—there are so many of those elements. You add in the speed, multiple formations, the shifts and movements—it’s a challenge.”

The good news for Simpson is that he doesn’t have to drive the bus anymore.