Coach vs Player: Chicken or Egg

NFL Head CoachesCHICKEN OR THE EGG

IS IT THE COACH OR THE PLAYER WHICH MAKES THE OTHER?

I’m always reading and hearing a particular undercurrent in sports talk that generally makes for great banter back and forth. It’s always a point of contention among fans around the world. Is it the coach who makes a team great, or do the players make the coach look great? Better stated, is it the talent on a team or the ability of the coach that makes a team excel? You hear that question all the time. You just don’t realize it’s being posed.

When Tom Brady went down in a heap only a few snaps into week one, I heard this very question posed informally by fans and writers alike. Will Belichick be able to coach his team to success without his ace quarterback? I read many responses from fans who reminded everyone what Belichick’s history was with the Browns. His overall record of 36-44 doesn’t exactly conjure images of great leadership. But consider this, he was the last coach to lead the Browns franchise to a playoff game…

Brady&HoodieNow, if you look at how the Patriots did before Brady, it’s none too stellar either — the team posted a 5-11 record. Once Brady took over in 2001, the Patriots started their meteoric ascent to what many label as a dynasty epoch in football. So we go back to our original question. Is it Brady’s apparent talent that is the key to the Patriots success, or is Belichick the mastermind that many make him out to be?

Any time you want to discuss the merits of a coach’s ability a fan invariably turns to everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Norv Turner. Turner had moderate success with the Redskins with a 49-59-1 record. Granted, he also led the Redskins to a single playoff game, but this was the beginning of the Dan Snyder era where the concept of “almost” wasn’t even good enough for horseshoes and hand grenades. Turner’s career took a turn for the worse when he signed on with the bone yard of all football careers — the Raiders.

I don’t even need to get into records here. The question at this point is whether or not you can judge Turner’s coaching ability properly considering that he had less than stellar talent and even less support from management. This question becomes even further muddled when you see how Turner has flourished with the San Diego Chargers. He did what Marty Schottenheimer never could with roughly the same team: win a playoff game and lead the Chargers all the way to the AFC championship game. Was it the cards Turner was dealt in Washington and Oakland, or is the talent on the Chargers just making him look good?

Take a Break
Take a Break

There seems to be some teams that are so bad that you have to wonder if anyone could coach them to victory. I mean, can anyone win with the Raiders? If you put Brown, Lombardi or Halas to the task of resurrecting a franchise like the Lions, Bengals or Raiders in this current era, could they do it? Marvin Lewis has had limited success with the Bengals, but after numerous character issues with the malcontents on the team it seems as if he’s fighting an uphill battle.

Let’s call my next example Exhibit C: Barry Switzer’s tenure in Dallas. Switzer won a Super Bowl two years after Jimmy Johnson left the Cowboys. The point could be, and has been, made that Switzer won that Super Bowl with the team Jimmy Johnson built. After that the once-proud franchise slid downhill for a very, very long time. Even Jimmy Johnson himself found it difficult to duplicate the success he had in Dallas when he went to coach the Dolphins. Johnson wound up handing over the reigns to Dave Wannstedt, who has had little to no success in nearly every head coaching position he has held to date, including his Pittsburgh team’s 3-0 loss in the most recent Sun Bowl.

In fact, the Cowboys have only had their recent surge in the win column at the hands of Bill Parcells, who seems to have the Midas touch with football teams. That is not an exaggeration, either. He is one of the very few coaches who has been able to lead multiple teams from infamy to the playoffs in a short span of time. He led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories; guided the Patriots to their second Super Bowl berth; took the Jets to the playoffs; and returned the Cowboys to winning ways, posting the first string of winning seasons in nearly a decade. Parcells seems to be one of those rare coaches who, despite his gruff demeanor, seems to be able to shape and mold a roster and streamline it into a winner. This is probably why Wayne Huizenga hired Parcells on as his general manager and president — so he could bring the Dolphins back to respectability after the mess that Cam Cameron made in 2007. The Dolphins’ dramatic turnaround from worst to first in the AFC East can be attributed to him in many ways.

GrudenOur good friend Jon “Chucky” Gruden is Exhibit D. He was considered an “offensive genius” after his stint as an offensive coordinator with the Eagles and as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. I suppose anyone who can bring a historically-proud franchise back to the playoffs and have the team perform at a high level should deserve such a label. However, he won his only Super Bowl after taking over for Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay. He’s had some success since this time, but he has never returned to the Super Bowl since.

Tony Dungy also took quite a bit of time to win his first Super Bowl. He won after taking over for Jim Mora Sr. and inheriting Peyton Manning for his quarterback. Even then, success was a long time in coming. So again, you have to wonder if in the case of both Gruden and Dungy is it the talent they had on their team, or the right coach for the right situation.

Another coach who gained the title of “offensive genius” could be labeled Exhibit E… Brian Billick. The combination of Randall Cunningham launching bombs to Randy Moss and Cris Carter racked up loads of points when Billick was the offensive coordinator in Minnesota. His work with the Vikings led to the opportunity to become the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Yet even Billick won the Super Bowl more on the strength of his team’s defense. Billick never truly developed a solid offense, grinding through Tony Banks, Trent Dilfer, Elvis Grbac, Steve McNair and several other hand-picked quarterbacks. The fact that rookie coach John Harbaugh is having success, with a highly touted rookie quarterback in Delaware’s Joe Flacco having arrived right after his dismissal, has to grind Billick’s gears.

So in the end, the question still stands: do coaches win primarily with the talent that is assembled before them, or can an exceptional coach make the best of even the most average team given the right set of circumstances?

by Jay Matthews 01/09

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