Nick Saban is the latest NFL coach to pay above prime rates to assemble an all-star coaching staff.
Some owners cringed when Saban paid $850,000 a year for offensive line coach Hudson Houck, whose ability to hold together the Chargers' offensive line was one of the main reasons they won 12 games last season. The Vikings had no way to keep offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who was making $300,000, when Saban made him an offer in the $800,000 area.
But this isn't new territory.
Joe Gibbs was last year's Nick Saban when he took the Redskins' assistant-coaching budget to an NFL-high $5.2 million, according to the NFL Coaches Association. Those with good memories can think back to 1981 when Gibbs put together his first staff. He paid top dollar then for assistant coaches, and the Redskins eventually ended up winning three Super Bowls during his first tour as head coach.
Coaching salaries are skyrocketing in the NFL, and while that shouldn't be looked upon as a bad thing, the concern is the differences in the pay from one team to another. The Redskins' 2004 payroll for assistants is $5.2 million, the Bucs' $4.8 million, the Chiefs' $4.6 million, the Eagles' $4.5. But at the low end of the scale are the Vikings at $2.85 million, the Colts at $3.114 million, the Bengals at $3.114 million, the Bears at $3.168 million and the Jaguars at $3.311 million.
In the last five seasons, coaches' average salaries have increased $100,000 a year, according to the NFL Coaches Association. The scale is growing ever higher this year with more $1 million coordinator jobs. Houck's contract should create a big jump in salaries for top position coaches. Last year offensive line coaches made an average of $329,538.
One of the reasons salaries are jumping is because coaches are sharing their salary information with the NFLCA.
"We are happy salaries are going up dramatically," NFLCA President Larry Kennan said. "With the salary cap, coaching is more important. They are a more valuable commodity because they have to teach new players every year."
The New England Patriots preach the team concept, but so much of their success is coaching. Bill Belichick has become the master of schemes that put players in the right position to make plays. To nobody's surprise, Belichick's coaches have become hot commodities. Notre Dame hired Charlie Weis. Cleveland hired Romeo Crennel as head coach and Jeff Davidson to coach its offensive line. Owner Bob Kraft had to step up to pay Eric Mangini around $675,000 to stay in New England and move from the secondary coach to defensive coordinator, preventing him from going to Miami or Cleveland for more money.
While the rapidly increasing coaching salaries could be looked at as a negative by some, one positive is that they could be a big aid in getting a new collective bargaining agreement. Talks between the NFL and the NFLPA have been heating up and here's where coaching salaries could play a role.
Under the current agreement, revenue sharing and player salaries come out of "designated gross revenues," but that figure does not account for all the money brought in from local broadcast rights, luxury suites, stadium naming rights and sponsorship.
That's where revenue differences have grown out of proportion. There are "Haves" and "Have Nots" among teams. The top-quartile teams have revenues between $170 million and $250 million. The "Have Not" teams such as the Arizona Cardinals have revenues in the $130 million to $150 million range.
It's only natural that teams at the lower end in terms of revenue won't be able to pay coaches as much. A majority of the owners know the problem and are willing to consider using total revenue instead of "designated gross revenue."
The NFL is a coach-intensive league. The better the coaching, the better the record. If teams can't keep good assistant coaches, they're going to suffer, regardless of the salary cap supposedly keeping teams on a level playing field. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is going to have to do some persuasive selling to convince the eight or so owners at the top of the revenue scale to accept some sort of a tax to balance out the revenue streams.
That's where the increase in coaching salaries could help. The NFL as a business is thriving. The new television contracts are coming in for much more money than anyone expected. The satellite television and radio deals far have exceeded expectations. Sponsorship deals are being signed without difficulty. By 2006, the salary cap for players could grow to $100 million.
But unless there is an adjustment at the top, the lower revenue teams will start to resemble those in baseball. Those low revenue teams won't be able to keep their best coaches and they will struggle to re-sign their top players.
Head coaching salaries have grown to the $4 million- to $5 million-a-year level, and it's only natural for the riches to filter to the assistant coaches. But the growing difference in the coaching budgets of teams is a sign that the league needs to readjust its revenue sharing plans.
With parity, one of the keys to the success of the NFL, logic says that the league will. A labor meeting was scheduled for Wednesday and the league has tentatively scheduled an owners meeting on March 2 to address collective bargaining.
NFL owners saw the reality of a sport without a salary cap Wednesday when the NHL canceled its season because the sides couldn't settle on the right numbers.
The NFL's CBA expires in 2008, and if no extension is agreed upon one year prior to that, there will be no salary cap in 2007. That won't happen. They will get a deal. The rapid increase in coaching salaries is a reminder to owners that they need to get it done and the new CBA needs to do a better job making up the gap between the "Haves" and "Have Nots."
Anything that helps extend the collective bargaining agreement is a good thing, and the increase in coaches' salaries could actually help do that.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.