Players' coaches suddenly in demand
The success of Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith has put a high premium on coaches who prefer a lighter touch, writes Jeffri Chadiha.
As much as I've questioned the San Diego Chargers for hiring Norv Turner as their head coach earlier this offseason, I have to give the man credit for his timing.
Not only did he return to the head coaching ranks with a team that is insanely loaded, but he's also arrived at a time when players' coaches like him are being celebrated more than ever. Think about it. Ever since Indianapolis' Tony Dungy and Chicago's Lovie Smith led their respective teams to last season's Super Bowl, it feels like leaders who prefer a lighter touch over routinely lashing out at their players are receiving more love than ever.
To be honest, I could see this change coming. As soon as Dungy and Smith became the talk of the NFL in late January, players from all across the league were applauding the fact that two mild-mannered men had enjoyed so much success with a more civil approach to their profession. Those players talked about their preference for coaches who don't rely on intimidation, rigid rules or silly mind games to motivate their teams. They liked the idea of being around head coaches who saw themselves more as teachers than drill sergeants, and it's become apparent that the league's decision makers have recognized the value in that as well.
We can already see the difference in this offseason. Of the seven available coaching jobs, five went to men who are known for their ability to relate to players. Pittsburgh snagged Mike Tomlin, a Dungy protégé. Arizona hired former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Miami picked up former Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
We also can't forget the Cowboys' Wade Phillips, the man who succeeded Bill Parcells. The Cowboys were so pleased to have a mild-mannered coach that some -- notably running back Julius Jones -- publicly expressed their gratitude for not having to deal with a daily dose of Tuna any longer.
Of course, Turner is the biggest winner of all these men. He took over a team with so much talent that it didn't need to make one significant free-agent acquisition this year. At first, it seemed like a ridiculous pairing, especially because Turner's career coaching record is 58-82-1 and his predecessor, the stern and animated Marty Schottenheimer, has won 61.3 percent of his games. But as one Chargers player recently told me, "I think Norv has been good to have around because the younger players are learning that there's another way to do the job as a head coach. As much as we liked Marty, it's important for some of these guys to know that not every coach has to give a bunch of passionate speeches or be a tough guy to win games."
The one thing that does have to be noted at this point is that there is a cyclical nature to this trend. When hard-edged coaches start losing, they tend to get dumped in favor of players' coaches. And when players' coaches start losing enough games, they usually watch their owners replace them with disciplinarian types who are supposed to whip the team into shape. But when you start paying closer attention to the league's overall makeup, you start realizing that there really aren't many hard-line coaches left in this game.
For every coach like New England's Bill Belichick -- whose intellect has more to do with his success than his desire to control every aspect of the team -- there are far more men who operate like Dungy and Smith. And just look at what's happened to New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, the league's most notorious disciplinarian.
Though Coughlin has led the Giants to two postseason appearances in three years, his job security remains iffy at best. What's more, Pro Bowl running back Tiki Barber cited Coughlin's strict nature and 17 weeks of full-pad practices as key reasons he decided to end his career after 10 seasons.
The point to be made here is that today's NFL requires even the most hardened of coaches to show some level of flexibility. It's nearly impossible to win without recognizing that. The players move around more than ever because of free agency and the salary cap. The owners are less patient than they've ever been before. That means coaches have to get players to buy into their systems, and that requires more than a rigid personality. It requires trust and communication.
Says Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia: "There is such a broad range of players coming into this league now that a good coach has to be able to deal with that. When you have a my-way-or-the-highway coach, not every player is going to respond to that. I haven't experienced playing for a coach like that, but I can honestly say I wouldn't want to play for one. It's pretty hard to play this game in a bad environment, and unfortunately, there are still some coaches in this league who can create a bad environment with that style."
The question, of course, is whether all these players' coaches -- and the warmer environments they subsequently create -- will produce more victories than their predecessors. Usually, the knock on such men is they can become too soft, and eventually lose their ability to motivate players. That's what killed Turner when he coached the Oakland Raiders, and it's also been a knock on Phillips and Buffalo's Dick Jauron in the past. They were such nice guys in their previous jobs, their teams never became that tough or consistent.
Still, it will be surprising if that criticism becomes prevalent this coming season. The NFL is suddenly embracing players' coaches like it never has before, and it's starting to look like that won't change for a few years. After all, this is a copycat league. And right now, these coaches represent the model that is best built for long-term success.
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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