Coordinators hired to be head coaches under the five longest tenured leaders have won exactly won Super Bowl
What qualities distinguish a good NFL head coach?
Few things are more elusive than a precise formula to answer a question that has persisted since the league’s inception 103 years ago.
College coaches, even the most successful ones, are hit-or-miss. As a result, teams often turn to former NFL head coaches or, more likely, hot young coordinators in the hopes of leading a losing franchise to the promised land.
In the end, it’s still a gamble because of the numerous factors that influence success, such as the coach/general manager relationship, how much interference comes from ownership, and even blind luck when it comes to key player injuries.
Kyle Shanahan, along with general manager John Lynch, has been in charge of the 49ers for six years and has lost three assistant coaches to head coaching jobs: former defensive coordinators Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans went to the New York Jets and Houston Texans, respectively, and former offensive assistant Mike McDaniel was hired by the Miami Dolphins.
It’s too early to tell how well that trio will do as head coaches: McDaniel’s Dolphins went 9-8 in his debut a year ago and lost in the AFC wild-card round, but it was the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2016. Ryans inherits a Texans team that is coming off a 3-13-1 season and facing a major rebuild after going 11-38-1 in the previous three seasons.
But, let’s be honest. Hiring hot coordinators isn’t a surefire way to the Super Bowl and the Lombardi Trophy, according to history.
The Philadelphia Eagles won the NFC Championship last season, and both of their coordinators are now head coaches. The Indianapolis Colts hired offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, while the Arizona Cardinals hired former defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
But Steichen will be without Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. Gannon no longer has access to the NFL’s most dominant front seven, which was responsible for 70 sacks last season. No amount of pointers from Eagles head coach Nick Siriani — who was the Colts’ offensive coordinator before taking over in Philadelphia — can replace talent and a front office that recruits talent.
Still, there is a growing obsession with coordinators’ power. But it’s all for show. Success or failure is determined by head coaches’ leadership and ability to coach their coaches. After all, this is a position that is constantly under scrutiny. Each season, approximately 25% of NFL head coaches are replaced. This season, there are five new head coaches, and only ten of the league’s 32 head coaches were hired before 2020.
Working alongside the NFL’s most seasoned head coaches is no guarantee of future coaching success.
New England’s Bill Belichick (23 years), Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin (16 years), Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (15 years), Seattle’s Pete Carroll (13 years), and Kansas City’s Andy Reid (10 years) are the NFL’s longest-tenured head coaches.
That coaching Big Five has been linked to 22 offensive and 20 defensive coordinators. (If that total appears to be a little low, it is because Belichick did not name an offensive or defensive coordinator in some years.)
Belichick has led the Patriots to six Super Bowl victories, but none of his former assistants who went on to become head coaches ever had Tom Brady as their quarterback — or thrived in that role.
Only one of Belichick’s disciples became an NFL head coach and produced a winning record. Romeo Crennel (32-63 with Cleveland, Kansas City, and Houston), Bill O’Brien (52-48 with Houston), Josh McDaniels (17-28 with Denver and Las Vegas), Matt Patricia (13-29-1 with Detroit), Eric Mangini (33-47 with the Jets and Cleveland), Judge (10-23 with the Giants), and Flores (24-25 with Miami) are the coaches on the roster.
McDaniels is the only member of that group who is still in charge of a team. He took over a Raiders team coming off a 10-win season and a playoff appearance in 2022 and promptly led them to six wins. Former New England executive Dave Ziegler is the Raiders’ general manager, but McDaniels could be fired again if things don’t improve quickly in the desert.
In a combined 30 seasons, Belichick’s former assistants have only produced a winning record seven times, with O’Brien having five of those. Their combined record as NFL head coaches is 181-263-1, for a winning percentage of.407 percent.
After being fired by Houston midway through the 2020 season, O’Brien has rejoined Belichick’s coaching staff in New England. He’ll be the Patriots’ quarterback coach as well as their offensive coordinator.
Reid and Tomlin are the only coaches in the Big Five to have a former coordinator win the Lombardi Trophy.
After working on Reid’s staff with the Chiefs from 2013 to 2015, Doug Pederson took over in Philadelphia and defeated Belichick and the Patriots in the Super Bowl following the 2017 season. Even so, Pederson, who was not the Eagles’ play-caller or designer under Reid, was fired after the 2020 season. However, in an example of teams resurrecting former head coaches, he was hired by the Jaguars last season and led the team to the playoffs.
Tomlin’s offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2011, Bruce Arians, was nine years removed from the Steelers when Tampa Bay won the championship in 2020.
Shanahan’s coaching tree has three seemingly strong branches that extend throughout the rest of the NFL.
That may bode well for Saleh, McDaniel, and the Ryans, but history indicates that it is far down the list of factors that will ensure success.