Here’s a dull story about a simple conversation: When Dave Toub first became a special teams coordinator in 2004 with the Chicago Bears, he walked up to longsnapper Patrick Mannelly and asked him how he did what he did.
Fourteen years later, the coach’s approach still resonates with Mannelly. Toub was inquisitive without exposing his naiveté (after all, most special teams coordinators were never kickers, punters or snappers). He resisted the urge to tell Mannelly what he should be doing differently. He was genuine and he was interested.
First impressions are everything for a new coach and Mannelly, who has appeared in more Bears games than any player in franchise history, noted that Toub didn’t come across as trying to be someone he wasn’t. There was no gimmick or shtick. He wanted to coach football—eventually lead his own NFL team—and his philosophy was simple: Learn how to motivate your players collectively and individually. Always let people know where they stand.
“Honestly, he’s just kind of a boring football guy,” Mannelly said. “He truly is. There’s not anything where it’s like—Oh, he paints!—or something like that. He’s just ... it’s football 24/7 with him. He’s a great family man, I know that, but he’s a football guy. There’s no story there about his love for antiques.
“Guys just gravitate to him. They listen to him. They respect him.”
This offseason, the pool of potential head coaches includes Super Bowl champions, rocket scientists and brand name second-chancers angling for one last shot. But it also includes Toub, a soft-spoken, 55-year-old from the Hudson Valley who may just be the best chance any special teams coordinator has of jumping directly into a head coaching seat this decade. He’ll draw interest from the Indianapolis Colts, potentially reuniting with former Chiefs personnel man Chris Ballard, which will continue a two-year streak that has included interviews with the Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos in 2017. Toub also interviewed with the Dolphins in 2012 and the Bears in ’13.
Around the league, analysts will line up to suggest that a special teams coordinator cannot elevate to the head coaching gig anymore. It’s hard for them to accumulate an offensive and defensive staff. It’s hard for ownership to sell the hire. It won’t drive season ticket sales. The push to find the next 31-year-old wunderkind is on.
So why does Toub’s name keep coming up?
Here’s a handful of coaches who have started out on special teams: Marv Levy, Bill Cowher, Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, Dick Vermeil and Mike Ditka. All of them have reached or won the Super Bowl.
When Cowher was head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he often bounced into offensive and defensive meetings on a whim. But special teams was important to him; he can count the number of special teams meetings he missed on one hand. He never saved special teams until the end of practice like most coaches, instead placing it directly in the middle of each workout. He always felt a direct line between coordinating a scattershot collection of bottom-roster players and leading the entire team.
“When you think about the special teams coach, outside of the head coach, you’re the only person on staff who is speaking to the whole team,” Cowher, an analyst on CBS’s The NFL Today, said. “A lot of what you’re doing is more about motivation than it is schematic. And as a head coach, that’s what you’re trying to do as well.”
Cowher understood the perception, and eventually moved to defensive backs coach to get on the defensive coordinator track. Belichick made a similar move, but was simultaneously the Giants’ linebackers coach and special teams coordinator from 1980-84 before becoming a defensive coordinator in 1985. Harbaugh, after serving as the Eagles’ special teams coordinator for almost a decade, took a one-year stint as defensive backs coach before becoming the Ravens’ head coach.
It seems odd that a one-year stint as a position coach made the difference for Harbaugh, who has gone 94-66 in 10 years as Ravens head coach, including a 10-5 record in the playoffs and a Super Bowl win. He was in charge of fewer players. Theoretically, he had less of an effect on the game.
Cowher said he’s long understood that a special teams unit can speak for an entire team just like a vaunted offense. Motivated players are motivated players. Toub’s unit in Kansas City has finished in the top eight of Dallas Morning News’s special teams ranking in every season of the Andy Reid era. Teams are still repurposing his plays from the Devin Hester years in Chicago, where the return man led the league in return touchdowns in four of their seven seasons together, and kick return touchdowns in two even when every opponent was doing their best to simply kick away from him.
“Everybody wants to get the offensive minded guy to come in and coach up their quarterback, but at the same time good head coaches aren’t must good offensive minds and good defensive minds. Good head coaches, they manipulate the whole building,” Cowher said. “They provide direction, they provide structure. They provide accountability. And that’s what you want out of a special teams coordinator anyway.”
Here’s a memory from one of Toub’s old co-workers in personnel: When they had a meeting about drafting players and Toub placed a star next to a name, he often floated up the board.
“Sh--, I don’t think—like the kickers? He never missed on a player. If he tells you a guy can kick in the league, take it to the bank. He’ll find guys, if you’re set at the position, we were still going to bring in a guy he liked and get him some exposure in the preseason,” Greg Gabriel, the Bears’ longtime director of college scouting, said.
Gabriel, like many of Toub’s close friends around the league, has done his best to paint the picture of a complete coach. The bias against special teams coordinators is one of the NFL’s few remaining head scratchers. Some teams almost cyclically fall in love with destined-to-fail college head coaches. How many times has the “hard-nosed defensive coordinator” flamed out in recent years?
As the league gets younger and rosters churn at a higher rate than ever before, they wonder what will serve a team best—someone with a reputation for coaching good quarterbacks, who won’t be able to spend all their time with quarterbacks anyway, or someone who can have a simple, boring conversation with just about anyone and leave them remembering it more than a decade later? Here’s the thing: So many NFL regimes, the Giants being the latest, came to an end because those talks weren't happening; because the quarterback guru stayed with the quarterback instead of learning something about the other 52 players on his team.
“I personally feel that this is the year that, not only is he a good candidate but he actually gets it this year,” Gabriel said. “He’s been through the interview process in the past. When you look at his resume, he’s been the top special teams coordinator in the league for like forever. He’s held coordinator positions longer than any of these other candidates have been coordinators. He’s from the Andy Reid tree, and the history of those guys having success as coaches is tremendous.
“Talk to anyone he’s ever worked with or coached and they’ll say the same thing. This guy deserves to be a head coach.”