- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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THERE MUST BE SOMETHING WRONG, A FATAL flaw in the research that led me here. Because, according to the best data available, gleaned from multiple studies, the unassuming man sitting opposite me in Philadelphia on a late-December afternoon-the one sporting an Eagles hat over his thinning brown hair-could morph into the next great NFL coach.
The regular season is nearly over, which means the season of fi ring and hiring will soon begin. In the coming weeks, six teams are likely to make head-coaching changes. This year's candidate crop-more than any in recent memory-seems loaded with talent: big-name free agents like Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan, and hot assistants like Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. It seems virtually impossible for needy front offices to whiff with any new hire. Yet many owners will probably do just that. Unless, of course, they rely on cold, hard data to make their decisions.
Over the past few years, a number of NFL teams and independent researchers have been working hard to devise a quantifiable method for finding a great coach. In analyzing more than 100 bench bosses, they have considered the presence of every imaginable factor, from Super Bowl victories to experience as a pro player to coaching trees to race. But in the end, the majority of the most successful NFL headmen-past and present-have possessed at least one of the following four characteristics: 1) They were between ages 41 and 49; 2) they had at least 11 years of NFL coaching experience; 3) they were assistants on teams that won at least 50 games over a five-year span; and 4) they had only one previous NFL head-coaching gig.
Accordingly, I applied those conclusions to this year's assistants and most-discussed candidates, looking for guys who met all four of the criteria. My research led to a man who's not on any owner's radar: Marty Mornhinweg.
That's right. The same coach whose record at the helm of the 2001 and 2002 Lions was a laughable 5-27. The same offensive genius who benched Charlie Batch in favor of Ty Detmer (who repaid that show of faith by throwing seven picks in his first start). The same strategic mastermind who once won an overtime coin toss and elected to kick off. (Sounds ridiculous, but reams of convincing data prove otherwise.) But before you snicker, take a long look at the 14-page study on coaching hires that the Eagles commissioned 10 years ago or at the 50-page report the 49ers compiled in 2005. Better yet, peruse a 72-page analysis on the 84 NFL head coaches since 1992 conducted by two New York University researchers.
All of these documents point to a guy very much like Mornhinweg. For starters, the 47-year-old has spent 15 years in the league, including the past four as Eagles offensive coordinator. According to Robert Boland, the sports management prof who spearheaded that 2007 NYU study, those two data points represent the ideal intersection of age (41-49) and NFL coaching experience (at least 11 years). Boland found that these coaches win more often than their younger-and older-counterparts; he included in his study Cowher, Shanahan, Bill Belichick and Mike Holmgren, who each won Super Bowls under those circumstances. The reasoning is simple: A coach in his 40s with more than a decade of NFL experience has the ideal mix of managerial competence and personal confi dence to lead a team. He's young enough to relate to players but old enough to command respect.
This notion runs counter to the recent trend of hiring thirtysomethings such as Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, Denver's Josh McDaniels and Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris. Young coaches, the theory goes, help owners promote energy and optimism. League insiders call them "win the press conference" hires. Sometimes it works. Taking over for a Super Bowl winner when he was 34, Tomlin led the Steelers to another title last year at age 36. But according to NYU's study, coaches hired before age 36 win only 33% of their playoff games, compared with the 53% enjoyed by their fortysomething brethren .
Mornhinweg was once considered a hot young candidate. When both the Lions and the Browns courted him in 2001, he was a 38-year-old offensive coordinator who had spent just six years in the league. Like many rookie coaches, he felt he could change any team's losing mentality as soon as he was hired. But during a subpar practice session at a Lions' training camp, he became so frustrated he rode off on his motorcycle in disgust. His players publicly said the stunt would motivate them, but they mocked him privately. "You become impatient because you're so desperate to win," Mornhinweg explains. "But as I've learned since then, the key is to get a little better every day, every week, every year. It pays off."
Clearly, his development hasn't gone unnoticed. Mornhinweg is the fi rst assistant to whom Eagles head coach Andy Reid has delegated play-calling duties. Under Mornhinweg's direction last year, Philadelphia scored a club-record 416 points. This season's offense will be even better.
And yet, his success in Philly isn't something Mornhinweg should brag about. Conventional NFL wisdom has always had it that an effective and experienced coordinator will naturally become a successful coach. But Mornhinweg's excellence at his current position is actually one of the few strikes against him. Good coordinators, it turns out, don't always make great coaches.
The Eagles learned this the hard way, which led to their study. Back in 1995, Philly exec Joe Banner thought he had hired the perfect coach in Ray Rhodes, a former defensive coordinator for the Packers and 49ers. But after going 30-36-1 in four years with the Eagles, Rhodes was fired. Before his next search began, Banner analyzed 16 "elite" coaches who had appeared in at least two Super Bowls. He was startled to learn that many of the NFL's greats-Bill Parcells, for instance-weren't coordinators for a long or particularly successful period of time. And seven elites-Chuck Noll, Jimmy Johnson and Marv Levy among them-hadn't been NFL coordinators at all.
Since there seemed to be no correlation between the expertise that produces or prevents touchdowns and the leadership that wins titles, Banner says his study "liberated" the Eagles to think outside the traditional pool of candidates. The result was the hiring of Reid, the Packers QB coach at the time, who impressed everyone with his attention to detail, willingness to argue with his then-boss, Holmgren, and reputation as a leader. NYU's analysis validates the Eagles' theories: The regular-season winning percentage of former coordinators (49.1%) is ever-so-slightly lower than that of noncoordinators (49.3%).
So what does that mean for Mornhinweg? Well, a better predictor of his success is not that he has coached a sizzling offense, but, rather, that he has worked for sizzling teams. The 49ers' 2005 study showed that a vast majority of "superstar" coaches, many the same elite coaches tabbed by Banner, had been assistants on teams that won 50 games in a five-year span. (Think Belichick with the Giants from 1985 to 1989 or Holmgren with the 49ers from 1986 to 1990.) Mornhinweg is a 50/5 guy twice over. He reached that milestone as an assistant in Green Bay and San Francisco and later in Philadelphia. "I've had a lot of different experiences," he says. "I've been on the league's best teams and teams where, honestly, it was virtually impossible to win."
Take the Lions. Insiders carped that Mornhinweg was in way over his head in Detroit and never more so than in a 2002 game against the Bears. After winning the overtime coin toss, Mornhinweg elected to kick off, thinking he wanted the stiff, 17 mph wind at his kicker's back. Gridiron math geeks have since backed Mornhinweg's decision, but the Lions lost the game. Marty "Moronweg," as he was soon known, was fired at the end of his second season. The good news-if there could be any from that experience-is that the circumstances of his dismissal could actually help him in his next head-coaching gig.
According to the NYU researchers, coaches who were fired or resigned from their first head-headcoaching job often thrived in their second. Since 1992, 35 of these so-called "once-over retreads" have won 57% of their games. That group numbers some illustrious members, including Shanahan (axed by the Raiders), Belichick (booted by the Browns), Tony Dungy (sacked by the Bucs) and Tom Coughlin (canned by the Jags). Their second-chance success makes sense considering coaches often can't be picky about their first jobs and usually walk into awful situations. Boland says successful retreads often lose games the first time around, and ultimately their positions, for reasons beyond their control. To prove it, he analyzed the win-loss records of each coach's team three years before his arrival and three years after his departure. If his tenure was bookended by other failed coaches, it was fair to conclude that a larger organizational problem was at play.
Successful retreads also clear two major hurdles: Many once-over retreads will identify the external pitfalls that contributed to their firing while addressing the personal traits that caused them to fail. Belichick, for instance, found a more stable owner than he had in Cleveland and learned to delegate. Shanahan became more aggressive on offense and mastered salary cap management in San Francisco. Coughlin's disciplinarian approach was his demise in Jacksonville, so he softened it in New York, where he also found more experienced ownership. In short, these retreads demonstrated the ability to analyze self and situation. "They have high levels of adaptability and intelligence," Boland says. "Both of those are critical qualities of great coaches."
For his part, Mornhinweg has spent the past seven years learning from the mess in Detroit. By watching Reid, he's figured out how to become a more consistent leader. He has a better sense of owners and prefers those who talk directly with their coach, which didn't happen with the Lions. He now takes a smarter approach to running a team, from cap management (sign three lesser-known guys at a position instead of overpaying for one big name) to the draft (build offensive and defensive lines first) to the types of trainers and equipment guys he would hire. He maintains a binder with the names of 10 top assistants for every job, should he one day have openings. Despite his secondary role, he preps for press conferences so that he's a more disciplined spokesman. During each session, he mentions specific characteristics of upcoming opponents so that his players will remember them if they hear his quotes. And, finally, a few times a day Mornhinweg meets with his boss to discuss the rationale behind each of Reid's
decisions, from benching players to planning practices. "I'm prepared for almost any situation," he says.
The data don't lie. Mornhinweg is the perfect age, with an ideal level of experience. He's worked for winners, and is a once-over retread. But let's be honest: If an owner hires Mornhinweg instead of a two-time Super Bowl winner like Shanahan, he'll likely get death threats. (Note to fans: Third-tenure coaches like Shanahan win only 52.1% of their regular-season games with their third team.) For the most part, public pressure is too great to trust contrarian statistics even if the research seems sound. Banner says that while at least six teams have studied his analysis, only one-he won't reveal who-actually factored it into the decision-making process. "If it were just up to statistics you'd never miss on a coach," says Falcons owner Arthur Blank. "Those things are easy to look at, but I don't think they determine the best coaches."
Blank says the best coaching candidates-like top draft picks-possess intangibles. And requisite characteristics like honesty, attention to detail, a thick skin and a well-defined football philosophy can't be quantified. Nobody disagrees with this, not even advocates of the research.
But ultimately, the evaluation of character is subjective. An owner can interview a coach at length, check his background ad nauseam and convince himself that he's got the right guy. But in the end, intuition can mislead. That's why the proponents of research say that a team should combine both methods: Use statistics to identify the best candidates and interviews to differentiate them. "You're making a projection," Banner says. "You can never be sure, but at least you can trust the process."
Mornhinweg is dying to be trusted. As he sits behind a desk in the Eagles' complex, sifting through all of the graphs, charts and numbers that predict his success, he's confident about his future. "I believe in this stuff," he says, patting the stacks of paper. "But even before I saw all of this, I was certain that I'd have success, given a square chance at another head-coaching job."
The Eagles suits believe their coordinator will do well too. So does Hall of Famer Steve Young, who was coached by Mornhinweg in San Francisco. As I leave the Eagles' facility, I still wonder: Will Mornhinweg eventually stand with the smartest men in the game? I drive away contemplating whether the researchers could have missed anything, whether there are other commonalities shared by elite coaches. Then it hits me. The studies are flawed! The data are corrupt! I know what really made the best coaches-Bill Walsh, Vince Lombardi, Noll, Dungy-brilliant.
Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Anybody have any QB studies handy?
MARTY MORNHINWEG. AND NOT JUST BECAUSE WE SAY SO. SCIENTIFIC STUDIES DEDICATED TO FINDING THE PERFECT HEADMAN POINT TO HIM. (HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?)