Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Bill O'Brien, Coaching Trees, and the Transition from College to NFL

Like many Texans fans, I spent much of this offseason contemplating seppuku. But in between Google searches – and hey, did you know there’s a certain part of the internet that’s really into Japanese culture? – I started pondering a different question: Why do some NFL coaches just plain stink?

Stink, I mean, in the metaphorical sense. I have no way of knowing, say, Jim Schwartz’s personal hygiene (for the record, I assume it’s impeccable). I also mean it in the meta sense. We who suffered through him know all too well why Gary Kubiak, specifically, stinks – he thinks Tecmo Bowl is less a classic video game and more a how-to guide. But are there any general trends when it comes to lousy coaches? (Again, metaphorically – outside of perhaps Tampa Bay, NFL locker rooms are lice-free). And if there are, can we use them to answer the most important question in the universe: Is Bill O’Brien going to stink?

My first thought was that many notso-hotso head coaches suffer from the Peter Principle. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s a relic from “management theory,” a hot business school topic in the 1970s. It states that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. In other words, organizations assume that a good assistant manager will be a good manager, and since the only way to find out is to promote the guy, top slots tend to get filled with folks who are in over their heads.

This makes sense, but then again, axioms often do. If there were another way to assess future competence, we could skip the whole “training” and “experience” thing and just put kids in charge (I think this was actually the Raiders’ strategy during the Lane Kiffin era). Bill O’Brien had a pretty good record at Penn State, under very difficult circumstances. College is not the pros, of course — as guys like Nick Saban discovered to their dismay – but all else being equal, I’d like to have a coach with a track record of success as the top dog somewhere (sorry, Vikings fans).

Then I wondered about “lineage,” the not-unreasonable idea that assistant coaches become successful by working under, and learning from, winning head coaches. My theory here was that many general managers are beguiled by the power of big names and long resumes. History suggests that even the second bananas to very powerful, successful leaders don’t often pan out in the top slot. Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan was one of the most influential men of his era. His vice-president, not so much. Ditto Lincoln’s and FDR’s veeps, to say nothing of their Secretaries of State, Chiefs of Staff, or personal assistants. Just because a guy was some super-coach’s towel boy, in other words, doesn’t mean he’ll become a super-coach himself. Josh McDaniels comes to mind, as do most members of the Bill Belicheck “family tree” – not a good sign for our man O’Brien.

But then again, one only gets NFL coaching experience by coaching in the NFL. Not a lot of people talk up the Bobby Ross or Jim Fassel coaching trees, but that John Fox fellow (Chargers’ d-backs coach, 1992-3; Giants’ d-coordinator, 1997-2001) has done ok for himself over the years. Ray Rhodes, too, was nobody’s idea of a legendary head coach, but Jon Gruden and Mike McCarthy seem to have learned a thing or two regardless. Neither the successes nor the failures of the top dog seem to have much predictive power for the rest of the pack.

Finally, I thought about “system” guys. Like Steve Spurrier, who assumed the ol’ fun-n-gun would work just as well at the next level, and set about collecting every former Gator in the NFL to prove it. O’Brien last coached in the Big 10, which prides itself on “hard-nosed” football and fears radical experiments like the “fore-ward pass.” And sure enough, for a while there it looked like he was trying to turn our guys into the Nittany Texans, corralling every throwback player he could find (have you seen Jay Prosch and C.J. Fiedorowicz? I love ‘em both, but I don’t think they really understand these newfangled “helmet” things).

But then again, what is a “system” except a style of play designed to maximize the roster’s strengths? Don’t all coaches try to do this? Spurrier’s system didn’t work in the NFL because the average professional player is better at everything than the average college player is at anything. At Florida, all he had to do was find slot guys who were quicker than the other team’s third and fourth corners — not a tall order when you’re recruiting in the Southeast Conference — and stick four or five of them on the field at once. Some of them are bound to be open. But in the NFL, you have to work very hard to get anyone open. Bill Belicheck knows this, and designs his game plans around getting Tom Brady’s undersized catch partner du jour a free look in the middle. Nobody calls this a “system,” though by my rough calculations 99.997% of Wes Welker’s zillion career receptions with the Patriots were five yard hitches and slants over the middle.

In all, I’m inclined to think that the biggest factor in an NFL coach’s success is psychological. That is, can he be a successful amateur psychologist to a group of men who are used to being the elite of the elite? Everyone on an NFL roster has pretty much always been the best player on every team he’s ever been on, from Pop Warner through college. They’re all elite athletes, and while guys like Calvin Johnson and J.J. Watt might actually be mutants, the physical difference between a very good starter and a back-of-the-practice-squad scrub isn’t really all that great. Getting guys who have always been the apex predators to understand their limitations, and play their best within them, is the real trick. Time will tell for O’Brien. Here’s hoping.


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