Seeking a second chance, former NFL head coaches share valuable lessons learned
Preparation has always been paramount for Vance Joseph. His attention to detail is among the reasons he’s regarded as one of the NFL’s top defensive coordinators.
And yet, Joseph remembers violating that professional tenet before being hired as head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2017. He wanted the job so badly he did not thoroughly research the situation. He failed to ask the right questions and challenge certain assumptions. The Broncos had won the Super Bowl one year prior, so even if he was uneasy about some things, he remained passively silent because the results said team czar John Elway had a proven formula for success.
The only problem was that the formula was predicated on having a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback who could mask deficiencies in some areas, thus allowing the team to build piecemeal through free agency rather than laying a foundation through the draft.
“I think I was hired as a plug-and-play guy,” Joseph said this week, two years to the day after being fired by the Broncos. “Everyone was so comfortable with how things were done there, from travel to how we dressed, that I was almost forced to adapt to their culture. But the reality is, the players were different, the team was different. Peyton Manning was gone; DeMarcus Ware was gone. We were doing a lot of things as if everything was the same, but it wasn’t. Ultimately it didn’t work because of that.”
Joseph, who is finishing out his second season as defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, isn’t blaming others for his 11-21 record in two seasons with the Broncos: “It’s no one’s fault but mine. It’s my fault for not vetting the job properly.” Rather, he is pointing out one of the valuable lessons he learned that will help him succeed should he get another opportunity to lead a team.
An average of nearly seven head-coaching jobs have come open each year since 2000. As the 2020 season winds down, the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions and Houston Texans are already seeking to fill vacancies, and a handful of other clubs could go down that road, as well.
The question for owners: Do they want a fresh face or someone who has experience running the show?
The answer is as unique as the person answering it, with pros and cons either way. That said, there is logic to the argument for strongly considering someone who has previously held one of the 32 top jobs, because, as the saying goes, You don’t know what you don’t know.
“The first time you’re a head coach, you think you know what the job entails, and you really don’t,” says Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris, who was 17-31 as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009-2011. “You kind of have to grow into it when it comes to roster management, how you spend your money, where you spend your money, deciding what are the key positions you need veteran leadership at, and what is most important to you as far as a culture standpoint — and how you want to manage that.
“The first time I did it, we kind of had a blow-up fest. What I mean by that is, we got rid of a lot of veterans like Cato June, Derrick Brooks, Kevin Carter, Chris Hovan, Warrick Dunn. They weren’t contributing as they had at the highest points in their careers. But looking back on it, you really could have kept some of those guys in place to train younger guys on how you work and all the things that really help you win. … I’m more focused now on ways to have a player-driven team as opposed to a player-led team, but even then, I think you definitely need veterans to help you get through some of those tough moments and to help your team grow and get people to the next level.”
If there is a common thread among conversations with former head coaches who aspire to get another shot, it is the need to speak up when something goes against your training or beliefs. Too often, first-time coaches are passive when dealing with the front office or ownership because they feel they haven’t established themselves or earned the right to challenge an established general manager. Sometimes they remain quiet because of insecurity.
“The biggest thing I learned about myself, not necessarily while I was there, but after going through it, was that I know what I’m doing,” Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who was 8-28 in two-plus seasons with the Raiders from 2012-14, told NFL.com during the 2019 season. “Don’t let somebody else influence you into doing something that you may not agree with. Use your voice. You can say to the personnel people, ‘Whatever you give me, I’ll make it work.’ But that’s not always the best thing. Looking back on it, I wish I would have fought harder for some things. (But) the whole time I was there, there was still that little bit of self-doubt.”
Owners often are smitten with first-time head coaches because they’re the shiny new toys. Typically, they’re coming from a successful team and have overseen units which ranked highly. But if history has proven anything time and again, it’s that there are no guarantees when it comes to first-time head coaches. There is no math that shows a great coordinator is going to be a great — or even moderately successful — first-time head coach because so much of the job transcends Xs and Os and play-calling.
First and foremost, a head coach must be able to lead — not just a locker room, but an entire building. Most look to the HC to set the tone. Questions that seem minor on the surface can have a major impact on Sunday’s outcome. Things like, what to serve in the cafeteria; how long to practice and at what time of day; dress attire for travel; who plays and who doesn’t; whether to challenge a call or go for it on fourth down; should a player be disciplined, and if so, how severely? Some questions might not be weighty by themselves, but the load can get heavy when paired with others.
“Going through the experience, you learn a great deal, so I believe it does help having that experience,” said Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who was 14-48 as head coach of the Jaguars from 2013-16. “There are things you go through for the first time that I don’t know how you prepare for it, from game management to cap situations, to building a team within the cap, to situations that arise within the team. I went in looking at it as, I’m in charge of leading 30 guys on defense and now it’s 60 guys. It’s the same leadership. But, obviously, there are other things that go with it on a day-to-day basis.”
“It’s a big job,” Joseph said. “You don’t know how big it is until you do the job. You’ve been in the league a long time and you assume you’ve watched other coaches do the job, but the behind-the-scenes things that are so important to building the culture and winning games — you have no clue about unless someone actually walks you through the process of it.”
Those words might be self-serving, but that doesn’t make them any less true. The reality is none of it really matters if the coach and front office aren’t on the same page. In fact, that was the common thread through discussions with former coaches, that the vision for how to proceed has to be shared — and genuine — at every level.
Joseph did not find that in Denver. He had an established general manager with a particular vision of how to build the team, so he chose not to speak up early on when he noticed the flaws in the blueprint. He trusted Elway more than he trusted himself at that point, aware that the Broncos were only a season removed from winning the championship.
“That’s the biggest regret in Denver I have, that I didn’t use my voice enough to help us pick better players to make our team better,” Joseph said. “That part is a learned behavior that comes with time and trust with a GM. But when you have a guy in place for a long time, you kind of trust his process. It was never my process, so I think I would definitely kind of speak up more about the personnel (in the future) because it’s a personnel-driven league; and to build a football team in your vision and image, you’ve got to have the right players intact. That part in Denver I did not get done in time to keep my job. I was naïve to thinking that the job wasn’t broken. I was naïve to thinking that someone else can actually pick your players from top to bottom and you have no voice in it. It’s impossible to win that way because your main role as a coach is the football side. You’re the football expert, not the GM, so to speak. So you have to have a voice in the personnel that’s going to make your systems run.
“You have to walk in and know what’s important, and the No. 1 thing that’s important in this league is player-picking season. How do you acquire your players? Obviously drafting and free agency, but you have to have a voice in that as a football coach because it’s your expertise being placed on the team being successful. And if you can’t, as Bill Parcells used to say, have a say in picking the groceries, you’ll have a hard time making the dinner. I do regret that part. But the football part, as far as coaching the team and the offense and defense and special teams, I have no regret about that part. Leading the men, I have no regrets about leading the men. But I do have regrets about not having as big a voice in picking the players. Not forcing it; just being more persistent about having a role in that. That part, I do regret that.”
Joseph, Morris, Bradley and Allen all hope to get a second chance, but they also acknowledge that it has to be the right fit because a third opportunity would not be likely. Jim Caldwell also is open to another opportunity after successful stints in Indianapolis, where the Colts went to a Super Bowl, and in Detroit, where the Lions went to the playoffs twice in four seasons after advancing only once in the previous 14 years.
“I have not had time to sit down and talk with Jim Caldwell,” Bradley said , “but if you talk to people that I talk to around the NFL, people think so highly of him and there’s so much respect for him. Sometimes you scratch your head and say, ‘Why wouldn’t he get another opportunity?’ He’s well respected, a strong leader, has presence in the room and develops people. Why wouldn’t Jim Caldwell get another opportunity? I don’t know why, but maybe he will. You kind of pull for him.”
Morris has done a noteworthy job after inheriting an 0-5 Falcons squad this year. Atlanta rallied to win four of its first six under his direction, but has dropped four in a row since, all by five points or fewer. He had a formal interview for the Falcons’ full-time job on Friday, per colleague Ian Rapoport. Bradley, for one, believes Morris has clearly demonstrated that he deserves another opportunity. But he also points out that first-timers can be successful, as well, specifically pointing to the Rams’ Sean McVay. Bottom line, he argues, is that the door should be open for everyone.
“I don’t know if one way is better than the other, but you don’t discredit a guy who has gone through it and maybe wasn’t as successful the first time,” Bradley said. “There are valuable lessons that they’ve learned, and I think that part of it should be appreciated.”
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