One of the easiest predictive analytics in professional football is behavioral.
It’s true that, among owners, there are those who are heavily involved and those who are distant. There are men and women who are emotionally invested in every play, and others who prefer to use their status as NFL monarch to propel all of the other business and social ventures that enrich their lives. An expensive bottle of Caymus in the luxury suite is more important than whoever is starting at cornerback.
Despite those differences, it’s very easy to imagine owners in a pack, shuffling from one area to another, following the latest trend like a mall-gazing teenager of the 1990s. Back in November, after a 100-plus point game between the Chiefs and Rams, I wrote: This offseason will be catastrophic. As team owners trip over each other to recreate this, coaches will be fired. Schematic soothsayers will emerge from every corner of the football universe trying to get in on the fracas. The draft will ebb and flow with the vacillations of panicked game-plan architects trying to figure out how the hell they’re going to build a team good enough to score 40 points a game, but stout enough to keep the opponent under 35.
It was the easiest prediction I’ve made in almost 10 years of covering football. Was their any doubt that the Sean McVay inner circle would be pilfered like the trees in The Lorax? Kliff Kingsbury was hired as head coach of the Cardinals after going 35-40 at Texas Tech, and in Arizona’s press release, his friendship(!!) with McVay was apparently worth noting. Zac Taylor, Matt LaFleur. Owners gravitated to this coaching analog—the young, offensive whiz kid—much in the way they previously gobbled up Patriots assistants.
And while this trend may have legs beyond this season, given that scoring points is a good way to sell tickets and make money (and the biggest fish, Lincoln Riley, is still out there waiting to be courted by the NFL), there will inevitably be another massive shift as owners try to grasp at the fleeting concept of being cutting edge, or, at the very least, one of the cool kids.
What might they want next?
• A “defensive” Kingsbury would make sense. Someone from the collegiate level who has experience slowing down prominent offenses. In that way, you’ll hear a lot about LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and the coaches who study him and exist in his orbit. Jim Leonhard, the longtime NFL safety and current defensive coordinator at Wisconsin will also come up. In October, we wrote about the defensive staff at Army, which finished fourth in third down conversion percentage in 2018 (and took Oklahoma to overtime). Its defensive coordinator is now at North Carolina. Manny Diaz, whose Miami Hurricanes allowed the fewest passing yards (135.6 yards/game) and second-fewest yards per attempt (5.56) might also become more of a household name when it comes to NFL types. Joe Moorhead’s entire staff at Mississippi State, both offensively and defensively, deserves recognition as well.
• A “personality” might be just as important as a schematic wunderkind. Imagine if the Raiders succeed this year and Jon Gruden flourishes not only in his leading role on Hard Knocks but in shepherding a winner to Las Vegas. We’ve seen this trend emerging a bit, with hires like Herm Edwards at Arizona State and Mack Brown at North Carolina. Underneath them, a young, innovative rock-star staff churns. At the ground level, they can handle the increasing importance of this position’s public-facing role. It may mean we haven’t heard the last of names like Mike Shanahan,Bill Cowher or even Rex Ryan. This is a move so befitting of the scrambling ownership crowd that it almost doesn’t need to be mentioned. We are, at this point in society, so susceptible to becoming enamored by what the-man-on-TV says that it’s an obvious reaction in their playbook. Need a president? How about the host of The Apprentice? Need a head football coach? How about the man caked in makeup spouting comfortable platitudes about establishing the run on a Sunday morning football show?
• The overlooked lifer is a category I’m stunned hasn’t exploded in recent years since, in terms of NFL coaches, it may be the league’s greatest untapped resource. The NFL is full of nomadic assistants who have seen decades worth of horrible football, bad politicking and laughable personnel management. Mike Zimmer took over a Vikings team and made it relevant again. Then came Bruce Arians. Vic Fangio is the latest coach in that lineage, though I wouldn’t hesitate to consider Freddie Kitchens, an NFL assistant since 2006, as a coach in that category despite being just 44. Some current assistants to keep an eye on: Don Martindale (Ravens D-coordinator), Teryl Austin (Steelers assistant head coach), Dave Toub (Chiefs special teams coordinator), Stump Mitchell (Browns running backs coach), Eric Bieniemy (Kansas City Chiefs offensive coodinator), Dean Pees (Titans defensive coordinator) and Eric Studesville (Dolphins running backs coach/run game coordinator)
Some of you may point out that coaches are individuals and don’t fit in to any categories, and while I completely agree with that, the behavioral history of ownership says that if you want to be the next head coach of an NFL football team, you damn well better fit into one of these branded boxes we’ll need to sell our fan base. Part of that copycat attitude, of course, is down to the narrow hiring window, the laughably brief period of time teams have to get to know and vet candidates.
In a lot of ways, it’s disappointing that the sporting world rarely works any differently than the sterile confines of an executive search firm. Then again, start thinking of it that way and a lot of your teams’ decision-making starts to make some sense for once.
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