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The strategic advantage to hiring a bright offensive mind as an NFL head coach

From Eric Bieniemy to, yes, Joe Brady, here’s why these guys are the future of the hiring carousel.

Carolina Panthers v Minnesota Vikings
Yeah, we got jokes.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The NFL has been evolving over the past decade plus into a passing league. Saying that used to be a novel observation and has since become akin to confirming the world is round. Only a handful of the super rich or questionably literate doubt it.

Over recent years, it has been discovered that the team who scores the most points in a given game typically win that game. Rule changes over the last two decades have made passing easier because the League has realized that fans like to see big plays and scores. As it is now easier to score points and conducive to winning, successful teams are the ones that are prioritizing the people who make scoring happen.

Early evidence for this hinged on the ballooning value of quarterbacks, followed closely by that of edge rushers who could put pressure on them. Today, the concept is reflected by the value of offensive coaches. Guys like Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Nick Sirianni, Nathaniel Hackett, Arthur Smith, Brian Daboll, Zac Taylor, Matt LaFleur, Mike McDaniel, and Frank Reich are just a sample of former offensive assistants who have made the jump to head coach in recent years.

Some, like Hackett, do not currently enjoy great reputations. The jury is still decidedly out for others, like Reich and LaFleur. Then there are the guys like Shanahan, McVay, and Sirianni who are the toast of the league at the moment.

Only seven former defensive assistants have been hired as NFL head coaches since 2018. That number drops to five if you remove Lovie Smith and Ron Rivera from that last as coaches who had significant previous head coaching experience. Ten of the thirty currently filled head coaching positions in the NFL are held by former defensive or special teams assistants.

Plenty of guys, such as Hackett or current Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, don’t end up making a splash when they get their chance, but teams don’t care. They desperately want the next Shanahan or McVay and are willing to turn over as many stones as it takes to get one.

A coach who understands, can teach, and be creative within an effective offense is the Holy Grail of the modern NFL. Every team wants one and every self-interested, effectively run team will do anything they can to hold on to them.

As much as I love what Steve Wilks has done for this team in the last couple of weeks and as much as I think he could be an incredible head coach, he will always be at a disadvantage. If he hires effectively at the offensive coordinator position then he will be in search of a new offensive coordinator every couple of years. If the Panthers hire that Holy Grail candidate as a head coach then his offense won’t be going anywhere so long as they retain him. It is a lot easier to keep a coach you like than it is to block an assistant from being promoted by another team.

It is as simple as that.

Of course, background isn’t everything. Josh McDaniels is currently flaming out of a head coaching job for the second time despite his long tenure as a Bill Belichik offensive assistant. It turns out coaching a quarterback widely considered to be the greatest of all time is not the same thing as being the greatest coach of all time. The Panthers just hired the closest thing they have had to a former offensive assistant as their head coach, but that doesn’t mean they should give up on the concept. Matt Rhule was known as a motivator more than an innovator.

Proximity to success and the ability to communicate with players are necessary, but clearly not sufficient criteria for a hiring a successful coach. There is a knowledge base and a capacity to be flexible within it that should separate the next Panthers head coach from the field of candidates.

That guy could be Steve Wilks next offensive coordinator, but he won’t stay for long and the Panthers are interested in building a stable program. Any argument that Wilks has to make for his own candidacy—and he has made one hell of a convincing argument so far—has to address the turnover he would hopefully experience. That’s a tough road. The easiest path to a stable program lies in hiring ‘the guy’ as head coach instead of as a poachable assistant.