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11 Rules for Hiring an NFL Head Coach

Hiring a new coach is hard. But it doesn’t have to be—just follow these very simple rules.

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The 2024 NFL head coach hiring cycle is spinning. As of Friday morning, we’ve got seven teams—the Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, and Washington Commanders—looking for a head coach. The New England Patriots already filled their opening by promoting Jerod Mayo.

That means a quarter of the league will have new head coaches in 2024. So how can team owners be this bad at finding competent coaches? In a country with a population of over 330 million, we have to be able to find 32 people who are good at coaching football, right?

The truth—and cover your ears if you are offended easily—is that NFL organizations do not operate like well-oiled machines. Owners are often looking at the same media-reported lists as regular folks when trying to identify strong candidates. And those lists are influenced by agents who are trying to raise the profile of their clients. That’s how this whole thing works. Isn’t it ridiculous?

Luckily, I am here to help. I don’t have all the answers, but hopefully I can offer some guidance. What do you have to lose? These owners spent wads of cash on guys like Urban Meyer, Joe Judge, and Matt Patricia! We can do better. WE WILL DO BETTER!

So, this is my open letter to David Tepper (nice to see you again, David), Amy Adams Strunk, Mark Davis (I tried to warn you about Josh McDaniels, big guy), Dean Spanos, Jody Allen, Arthur Blank, and Josh Harris. Just follow the 11 guidelines below (updated from last year’s version), and you’ll at least have a shot at landing a qualified candidate.

1. Hire a person, not a scheme.

You don’t need to hire someone because they can solve Kyle Shanahan’s offense. You need a leader. Schemes come and go in cycles. Finding an X’s-and-O’s savant is great, but it’s not the most important thing. Leadership is. The head coach sets the tone for everyone in the building. Think of all the different people they need to communicate with—their players, their assistants, the front office, ownership, the training staff, the media, and so on. All the vague buzzwords apply here: leadership, accountability, communication. The coach ends up being the voice of the franchise. Can they keep everyone grounded when things are going well? Will they take responsibility when things go badly?

The second question is important because things always go badly (eventually). Bill Belichick just went 12-22 over the past two seasons. Andy Reid was 12-20 in his final two years with the Eagles. Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have gone seven straight seasons without a playoff win. And those are the great coaches. Just think of everyone else! The NFL is hard, and there are so many variables—injuries, schedule strength, officiating, luck—that determine wins and losses. You’ll have seasons when the ball doesn’t bounce your way. During those times, you need a coach with a steady hand. Someone who points the finger at themselves and is capable of coming up with solutions for righting the ship. The best coaches come in on a Monday morning with the same demeanor whether the team won or lost the day before. Consistency matters. It’s a long season. Having someone with a volatile personality at the top can wear on everyone. Leadership is hard to evaluate, but the truth is it’s the only quality that really matters if you are trying to achieve sustained success.

2. Find a coach who understands what their job is.

Also known as the Tomlin Rule. A couple of years ago, Tomlin appeared on The Pivot Podcast and gave one of the best interviews I’ve ever heard about coaching in the NFL. One of my favorite parts was when Tomlin explained that a lot of coaches don’t understand what they’re being paid to do.

“I love to hear coaches resist the responsibility of coaching,” Tomlin said. “They’ll talk negatively about a dude that can’t learn and blah, blah. Man, if everybody could learn, we’d need less coaches, right? If the group didn’t need management, then we wouldn’t make as much.

“I love reading draft evals and somebody’s talking about anything other than pedigree, talking about how poor somebody’s hand usage is. Well, that’s coaching. I don’t run away from coaching. I run to coaching. It all is in line with not seeking comfort because when you’re a coach that’s talking about ‘Somebody can’t learn,’ you’re seeking comfort because your teaching is struggling.”

That’s the good stuff. When a coach blames players for execution, it’s a red flag. Hey buddy, your job is quite literally to get the players to execute. As Don Draper would say, that’s what the money’s for!

Think about draft season, when anonymous NFL people rip a quarterback prospect because they didn’t take snaps under center in college. Or slam a wide receiver because they didn’t run a full route tree. Or criticize a cornerback because they didn’t play a lot of man coverage. Oh, you mean college prospects don’t come into the league as finished products? I’m sorry we’re not making this easy enough for you. You’re actually going to have to help them improve and hone their skills. Hopefully that’s not too much of an inconvenience. Like Tomlin said, find someone who runs to coaching, and stay away from the excuse makers.

3. Avoid coaches who plan on hiring their kids.

Lean on in here for a second. Let me tell you a secret: You can be a complete dummy when it comes to schematics, but if you are a good leader and can hire a good staff, you can still be a good NFL coach.

How can you tell whether a candidate is going to put together a good staff? A few clues: One, is the person’s Plan A to hire buddies from previous coaching stops? Two, are they planning on hiring their children? Three, are they defaulting to assistants who are represented by the same agent as them? If the answer to any of the above is yes, proceed with caution. You want schemers and teachers—not nepo babies!

One of the best stories of the 2023 regular season was the ascension of the Baltimore Ravens. A big reason for their success was that head coach John Harbaugh went out of his comfort zone and hired offensive coordinator Todd Monken—someone whom he had never before worked with. And guess what? The gamble paid off.

Trying to hire the best people to fill out a coaching staff is not a novel concept—it’s common sense. But look around the league. How many head coaches are trying to do this? Not many. Too often, they just lean on past relationships. Look at Belichick last offseason. Post–Matt Patricia, he could have searched far and wide for the brightest offensive mind in the country. Pretty much every coach in America is going to pick up the phone when Belichick calls. But what did he do instead? He just brought his guy Bill O’Brien back home. I didn’t pay too much attention to the Patriots offense this season. How’d that work out?

You want a candidate who has a plan for identifying talented, creative, capable people. Someone who believes in assembling a diverse staff that blends new ideas with valuable experience. Someone who has a plan for building a pipeline so that when coaches leave you can promote from within.

Not every team is the same, but oftentimes the offensive and defensive coordinators are the ones responsible for creating game plans, play-calling, and making adjustments. Delegating responsibility has to be part of the equation. Head coaches need competent people they can trust, or the micromanaging takes over and the whole operation falls apart.

The position coaches matter too—a lot. They are responsible for helping individuals get better, especially backups and players on the practice squad who might be depended on at some point in the season.

I can’t emphasize this enough: You can be terrible at so many aspects of being a head coach, but if you nail it when hiring the staff, you’ll still have a chance to build a winning team. And if you don’t, you’ll almost certainly fail.

4. Find someone who values player relationships.

There’s the old adage: They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Corny? Maybe. Relevant? Absolutely.

There’s a real benefit to building a culture in which players enjoy coming to work every day, feel like their voices are being heard, and earnestly believe that the coaches are going to help them get better. It’s not going to be rosy all the time. Players are going to have complaints about their roles or the scheme or playing time or practice schedules. But the days of the “my way or the highway” coaches are mostly over. The far better approach uses open communication and dialogue. Coaches don’t always have to take players’ suggestions, but the best ones are at least open to feedback.

“Coaches like to think we listen. Coaches don’t listen,” Tomlin said on that podcast I referenced earlier. “They wait for dudes’ mouths to stop moving. … When dudes are talking, I listen. I listen for real. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to produce action that’s in alignment with what they want, but I listen. I try to keep it real simple.”

5. Prioritize offensive efficiency.

Important note before you yell at me: This DOES NOT mean that you have to hire an offensive coach. Now that that’s out of the way, let me explain. Even if scoring and offensive stats were down slightly in 2023, offense is still king in the NFL. This is by design. Rule changes have made it really hard to play defense, and the NFL wants scoring. If you can’t build an efficient offense, you have almost no chance of sustained success.

Take a look at this year’s regular-season results. Every team that ranked in the top 10 of offensive DVOA made the playoffs. Among the eight teams that have advanced to the divisional round, six finished in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. The only exceptions are the Texans (14th), whose numbers dipped when quarterback C.J. Stroud missed two games due to injury, and the Bucs (20th)—a mediocre team in the NFL’s worst division that sneaked into the playoffs with a 9-8 record.

This is not a new phenomenon. Last year in this space, I wrote: In the past 10 years, 35 of the 40 teams (87.5 percent) that played in the conference championship round had a top-10 offense. There’s no one way to build a winner. You always want to be great on offense and defense, but great offense and mediocre defense usually mean you can still contend. Great defense and mediocre offense might work for a year, but it’s not a lasting formula.

So what’s the easiest way to achieve offensive efficiency? Find an offensive coach with a proven track record. Have they schemed up good offenses in the past? Have they shown an ability to adjust and evolve? Do other teams steal from what they’re doing? If the answer to those questions is yes, maybe you have something.

Defensive coaches and CEO types who understand the need for an efficient offense can have success, too. The Ravens, Bills, and Texans don’t have coaches with offensive backgrounds, but they’ve still built efficient units on that side of the ball.

Bottom line: If a candidate believes they can consistently win games 17-13 in the modern NFL, you should probably end the interview and go in a different direction. That might work in a single outlier year, but for sustained success, you need an efficient offense.

6. Adapt or die.

OK, that’s a little dramatic. Just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention. Every great coach in the NFL has to have a plan B (and C and D and E). This is another reason why you should never hire coaches for their schemes. The schemes aren’t going to last. You need a coach who can adapt.

We see this every year in the NFL. Chip Kelly took the NFL by storm in 2013. Nick Foles threw 27 touchdowns and two interceptions that year! But defenses caught up, Kelly didn’t have a plan B, and he flamed out.

Look at coaches like Shanahan and Reid. They’re not running the same offenses they ran five years ago. They’re constantly looking for ways to evolve. They’re stealing plays and schemes from other teams. They’re always trying to stay ahead of the most advanced defenses in the NFL because they know that’s how you win big.

It’s commendable to have core philosophies, and there’s nothing wrong with “majoring” in a certain scheme or system. But you have to be able to adjust. Every coach says they will cater their scheme to their personnel, but few actually show an ability or willingness to do so. The days of the “we do what we do” coach are over. The best teams are able to change what they do to maximize the strength of their personnel and attack the weaknesses of their opponent.

7. Make sure they have a plan for game management.

During the week, coaches will work 20-hour days and brag about sleeping in their offices. Then game days roll around, and they turtle. The NFL is designed for parity—135 games during the regular season were decided by seven points or fewer. Making optimal in-game decisions can have a big impact on winning and losing.

This doesn’t mean that the coach needs to be a number cruncher who is constantly refreshing Ben Baldwin’s fourth-down bot. But ideally, they won’t be afraid of the data. They’ll embrace the idea of having someone in the booth during the game who can advise them when to go for it on fourth down, when to punt, when to use timeouts, when to challenge, and so on.

You want someone aggressive who’s not always thinking about the worst-case scenario. If, during the interview, they say they’re just going to trust their gut with those decisions, that’s a red flag. If they utter phrases like “end every possession with a kick” or “flip the field,” go ahead and call them an Uber. That type of conservative approach is a death sentence.

This is far from the most important aspect of coaching, but it does matter. Find someone who views in-game decision-making as just another aspect of gaining an edge on the opponent.

8. Try to find a “more with less” coach.

There are different ways to evaluate coaches. The most common is to just look at win-loss records, but that rarely tells the whole story. One coach might be gifted with a top-five quarterback. Another might have the worst roster in the NFL. Of course the first coach is going to have a better record. But that doesn’t mean they’re better at their job than the other coach.

Which is why I always like to identify the coaches who show an ability to do more with less. Did you notice the jobs that defensive coordinators Brian Flores and Patrick Graham did for the Vikings and Raiders, respectively? They had very little to work with in terms of talent, but they still found ways to field competitive, efficient defenses. That’s more with less. Look at what offensive coordinators Bobby Slowik and Drew Petzing did with the Texans and Cardinals, respectively. That’s what you’re looking for.

Talent matters, but if the players are failing, that often means the coaches are failing. The best coaches can do more with less. They know they’re paid to help players improve and put them in positions to succeed. Coaching is about accentuating strengths and masking weaknesses. Make sure you find a candidate who understands these things.

9. Cast a wide net during the interview process.

In a perfect world, you’re not doing this every two to three years (or every year, if you’re the Panthers). Take advantage of the opportunity. When else can you bring coaches in from other teams, ask them questions, and gather information? Never.

The candidates are incentivized to bring their best ideas to the table. And guess what: You can steal them! Maybe someone impresses you but isn’t quite ready to be a head coach. There could be an opportunity to hire them for a different role down the line, and now you have a relationship with them.

Think about how silly the current process is. Owners simply seem to target the coordinators on the best teams. What are the odds that those coaches are actually the best candidates in the entire pool? Pretty low! Just because you were a coordinator on a great team doesn’t mean you are going to be a great head coach.

The point is you should cast a wide net—position coaches, college coaches, coaches of all racial backgrounds, women—and not just because the NFL’s Rooney Rule says you have to. Listen to their ideas. Use this as a way to reset your organization and implement necessary changes. Go into the process acknowledging that there’s no perfect way to identify a great candidate, and be open to finding one anywhere.

10. Don’t get duped—there are a lot of traps out there!

Where to even begin here? Let’s start with a classic: the heavyweight endorsement. Bill Belichick recommended Joe Judge to the Giants. Peyton Manning recommended Adam Gase to the Jets. Whoops. Those didn’t turn out too well. Just because an all-time great says to hire someone doesn’t mean you should do it. They might just be doing a favor for a friend. They don’t have to face the consequences if it doesn’t work out. You do. Go ahead and listen to the endorsements, but take them with a grain of salt. They are only a small piece of the puzzle.

OK, next one: coaching osmosis. This is not really a thing. Just because someone spent a couple of years with Sean McVay doesn’t mean they’ll be able to design an offense. Just because someone worked under Vic Fangio doesn’t mean they’ll be masters of pre-snap disguise. Is there value in those experiences? Sure. But coaching trees are hit-or-miss. Don’t get fooled into thinking a candidate will automatically be able to replicate the coaches they’ve worked for.

And finally: the flowery profile. You’ll notice in the second half of the season that various candidates will get a little press that often makes them out to be the next Bill Walsh. Nothing wrong with a little self-promotion (those agents and publicists work hard!), and nothing wrong with trying to identify the up-and-comers. But don’t fall in love. By nature, these pieces are going to show you more good than bad. Take them for what they are, but don’t let them convince you of a candidate’s qualifications.

These traps have gotten many an owner over the years. Look out! You don’t want to be the next victim.

11. Define the coach–general manager power structure.

This needs to be laid out from the beginning. Politics can take over NFL buildings, and power struggles happen all the time. Try to get ahead of the problem. Define roles from day one. The best setup, in my opinion, is to align the coach and GM on the same track. If one of them succeeds, they both succeed. If one of them fails, they both fail. Make sure they know that, so they don’t resort to finger-pointing the minute things go south.

Granted, that type of setup will not always be possible. Sometimes, one of the two, either the head coach or the GM, is clearly better at their job than the other. The key is transparency from the get-go, and having answers to the big organizational questions. How much input will the coach have on personnel matters? Who makes the final call on draft picks and game-day rosters? What is the process going to be like?

It’s important for these two people to be in sync and willing to work through conflict for the organization to achieve sustained success.

If you read the 11 guidelines and thought, “Bill Belichick doesn’t fit into these categories,” you’d be correct. If you’re an owner who has convinced yourself that you’ve found the next Belichick, you’re going to end up being disappointed. If you’re an owner who is actually hiring Bill Belichick this cycle, well, that might be OK.

The bottom line: All you can do is try to implement a sound process, avoid the common mistakes laid out above, acknowledge the role of luck and uncertainty, and hope for the best. So there you have it. And you didn’t even have to pay for one of those fancy search firms. Good luck!