A strict, hard-nosed culture is no longer the hallmark of winning NFL franchises
- Demanding. Hard-ass. Tough. These words used to conjure images of NFL head coaches and the successful programs that they ran. But that's not quite the trend these days ... Just look at Jack Del Rio and the Oakland Raiders this season
The Raiders have accomplished so much this season: their first top-five scoring offense, their first winning record and their first playoff berth since 2003. Lots of teams, though, have strong offenses and make playoff appearances. Some teams even manage to field 25-year-old borderline MVP candidates on both sides of the ball. Rare is the team that manages to do all that and lead the league in penalties.
Oakland is on pace to finish with 142 penalties, which would be the fifth-highest total of any team in the last 10 years. Rarer still for such a standout squad, Oakland clinched the single-game accepted-penalties record: 23 of them at Tampa Bay on Oct. 30, for a total of 200 yards ... in a game they won 30–24. Rarest of all, the Raiders have done all this—reconjuring the rough-and-tumble glory days of a long-snakebitten organization—while seeing their punter flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct in consecutive games. (In one of those games that punter, Marquette King, picked up a referee's flag that had been thrown at an opponent, danced around and threw the flag back down.)
"I've allowed him to have his freedom," Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said recently of King. "I want him to express himself. I think that's when he's at his best. But we can't have routine 15-yard penalties out of our punter."
So, yes, somewhere there's a line. But by locating it far from the league's norm, Del Rio has coached the young, talented Raiders drafted by general manager Reggie McKenzie into a passionate, freewheeling, playoff-bound bunch. He has changed the culture to a swaggering, risk-taking style resembling the old Raiders way. Just a few years ago, this team had crumbled whenever it trailed; in 2016, it's managed seven fourth-quarter comebacks, including one in its Week 15 playoff clincher at San Diego.
Perhaps it began this past summer, when Del Rio retweeted linebacker Bruce Irvin's claim that none of the negative stories about the Raiders "mean s---." Del Rio appended that Irvin was "speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God!" Or maybe it began in Week 1, when he went for two in the fourth quarter against the Saints, forgoing overtime for a successful all-or-nothing Derek Carr pass to Michael Crabtree. (Followed, naturally, by an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.) When an ESPN Twitter account noted that going for it diminished the Raiders' chances of victory, Del Rio replied, "Good thing ESPN isn't coaching the Raiders."
Or maybe it began in the 1970s, when Del Rio, growing up a standout three-sport athlete in Hayward, Calif., worshipped John Madden's Raiders. Linebacker Phil Villapiano was his favorite player. Del Rio started at linebacker four years at USC, then carved out an 11-year NFL career, earning a reputation as a hard worker and coach's dream. He made the Pro Bowl while playing in Minnesota for coach Dennis Green and defensive coordinator Tony Dungy. After retiring, he took a strength-and-conditioning job under Mike Ditka in New Orleans, and two years later he was coaching linebackers under Brian Billick in Baltimore.
"I've had a lot of players say they want to get into coaching," says Billick, now an NFL Network analyst. "They would come into my office, and I'd tell them what it takes. Then they'd say, I'm gonna have to stay how late? And you're going to pay me how much? And I don't have Tuesdays off? And they'd run out of there as fast as they can. But Jack paid his dues."
Billick said he couldn't stick just any assistant in a meeting room with Ray Lewis. He wanted a former player and the attendant credibility. (Del Rio's defensive staff in Oakland, incidentally, includes three former All-Pros—Ken Norton, Rod Woodson and Marcus Robertson.) But playing talent and head-coaching talent don't often reside in the same individuals. Mike Ditka, Art Shell and Tom Landry are among the few who can say they've excelled at both. Maybe Del Rio, who spent eight largely lackluster years as the Jaguars' coach and whose career winning percentage is only a little above .500, will never join their ranks. But what he's doing is working this season, and it's worth asking why.
What makes a great football coach? Drums of ink have been spilled trying to answer that question, so let's ponder another: Has the image of a great football coach changed over the years?
Disregard, if you'd like, Del Rio and his Raiders' exuberance as an Oakland-sized outlier in keeping with the great Davis family tradition. Nonetheless, a number of other players' coaches—Pete Carroll in Seattle, Andy Reid in Kansas City, Gary Kubiak in Denver—have built winning cultures with a lighter touch. Meanwhile, the autocratic Tom Coughlin was shoved aside in New York after winning two Super Bowls and replaced with the more flexible Ben McAdoo. The coaching tree of Bill Belichick might as well be afflicted with Dutch elm disease: His New England coordinators who became NFL head coaches have a combined record of 97–139. Meanwhile, no recent hire has failed more spectacularly than Greg Schiano's reign of terror in Tampa Bay. Has the NFL developed a softer side?
Says Dick Vermeil, who took three franchises to the playoffs across three decades, "I'd say over the years the image of a football coach is more the tougher, disciplinarian, Vince Lombardi profile." Vermeil says he carried himself that way in his first NFL head-coaching gig, in Philadelphia, from 1976 to '82. Fifteen years elapsed before he took another coaching job, in St. Louis, by which point he had lost some of his mastery of X's and O's. Instead he focused on being the best leader he could. "I mellowed," he says. "I realized I needed to discipline the things that made a difference, and let the things that don't matter go."
For instance, Vermeil stopped punishing players who wore the wrong attire on the team plane, because he couldn't prove that it made a difference in winning or losing. He would call out shoddy play before the whole team regardless of whether the player was a starter or a backup—so his charges learned he was critiquing the problem rather than the person. And he strove to demonstrate to his players that he cared about them as individuals. He says, "You can call a guy an a------ if he knows why you're doing it and that you care about him."
Says Marv Levy, 91, the Hall of Fame coach who took the Bills to four Super Bowls, "You can't be a pushover. You can't be a wimp. But we had only two rules: Be a good citizen, and be on time. Everything else we tried to sell our players on."
Talk to any accomplished football coach, and he will cite a desire among players to learn and improve that is consistent across ages and personality types. So long as the coach's approach seems as if it can improve the player, so long as the coach has an understanding of what makes the player tick, the player will buy in.
Still, says Dick Vermeil, "there were many times in my career where I wished I was more like Bill Parcells." Join the club. "Sometimes I felt like I wasn't as tough as I should have been. I always thought Bill had a great balance."
"I don't like the term hard-ass," says Parcells, now 75. "Demanding, that would be an accurate statement." In his locker rooms, Parcells strove to—as he puts it—"eliminate sensitivity." Players and coaches were not to expect their personalities to mesh, nor were they to expect everyone else in the organization to like them. That's who he was.
Here's how long a shadow Parcells still casts. During the telecast of the Army-Navy game on CBS a couple of weeks back, President-elect Donald Trump was in the booth. More or less unprompted, color commentator Gary Danielson blurted out, "Mr. President-elect, it strikes me that you carry yourself a little bit like a coach, you know? You kinda remind me of Parcells."
"He's a good coach," Trump responded.
It has been 10 years since Parcells last coached in the NFL. He races horses now. Aside from the success of his former assistants—Belichick, Coughlin and Sean Payton—who have themselves become head coaches, he can't think of why his name remains outsized. "I'm not in the media anymore. I'm off the radar," says Parcells.
While the NFL has always hosted a variety of successful coaching styles—there are many ways to skin that cat—Parcells's titles recalled an older way of doing things. He owes the durability of his reputation not just to his success, but also to his distinctiveness. Parcells's career path (which included an assistant stint at Army and a year as the coach at Air Force) gave him credentials as a hard-nosed disciplinarian, while his most successful competitors during the 1980s were Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh, California-reared upstarts who leaned on novel offensive systems and a softer touch. And in his sternness and his intellect, Parcells evoked another onetime Giants coordinator, Vince Lombardi.
Lombardi's name is one of the few invoked more frequently than Parcells's, and his style of discipline is popularly understood to have been even more austere than the Big Tuna's. But David Maraniss, a Lombardi biographer, said recently that the myth misses what made the coach special: "He was a psychologist, and a lot of his public behavior was a bluff.... He was brilliant at mixing hate with love." Yet many NFL leaders plod ahead hopelessly confused about what Lombardi did and why he did it. They try to control. They try to homogenize. They fail.
What is it about football, anyway, that causes its observers to venerate martinets? Where does the notion that football should be a solemn, joyless pursuit—like war, only more profitable—come from? Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian, 74, says every coach he had growing up carried himself like a drill sergeant. "They came from the World War II generation. They coached based on how they were trained in the military. Most of us didn't know any better."
Polian says it was Levy (who coached the Bills when Polian was the general manager) who demonstrated to him that things could be done a different way. He scaled back padded in-season practices and emphasized that there were virtues more important than toughness. Levy says, "I fought in the Second World War. We really respected guys like Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower, who cared about their troops. George Patton, we didn't.”
On the NFL calendar, three days bring great hope to beleaguered fan bases—draft day, opening day and the Monday following the regular season, when the head-coaching herd gets culled. Sometimes it is the inept coaches who are sent to slaughter; sometimes it's the talented ones, whose underperformance nonetheless needs repudiation; sometimes you can't tell which is which. And this season, five teams axed their main man, while one willingly stepped aside.
As teams look for their next coach, they will likely chase the coordinators who have run the league's best offenses and defenses or apprenticed under its winningest head coaches. Just as important in a candidate, though, is the ability to articulate broader philosophies that resonate with players as well as with the owner. Some of those candidates might even be the dreaded retreads. But as Bum Phillips famously put it, "There's two kinds of coaches, them that's fired and them that's gonna be fired."
A coach cannot cultivate an identity dreamed up by a potential new boss, hashed out over a few hours' worth of meetings. His coaching approach emerges from all his lived experience inside and outside of football. If hard-asses are on their way out of the NFL, it's a reflection of larger cultural forces recasting the long-standing archetype of the NFL leader. Behold the Gen X head coach.
Which brings us back to Del Rio, the onetime Raiders fan. Is his style better than anyone else's? Who knows? What's clear is that it fits. It's him.
Even Parcells had to learn this lesson, though this part of his story is rarely told. He went 3-12-1 in his first season with the Giants and nearly got fired. He says he had cooked up some version of the way he thought a head coach should act. "I was stupid," he says now. He says he told himself, If I'm gonna get kicked out of this business, I'm going to do it on my own terms.
"I could not pretend to be someone else. I had to be what I was."