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Offensive or Defensive: What kind of head coach reigns supreme?

Current groupthink would have you believe simply hiring a great offensive mind as your head coach will turn your team around, but guys like Sean McVay and Matt Nagy are not doing it alone.

Big 12 Championship - Texas v Oklahoma Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers are both looking for new head coaches and as the NFL season comes to an end, more head coaching jobs are going to open up. The prevailing opinion is that in a league that is obsessed with offense, hiring an offensive minded head coach is the best course of action. While hiring a talented offensive coordinator as your head coach has its advantages, it is not necessarily the best decision and that coach will need some help.

The hottest names of prospective NFL head coaches are Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Both coaches are known for their dynamic offenses. Riley was the Sooners’ offensive coordinator previously and he has coached two Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks in two years since becoming the head coach. The team has been incredible on offense, but unimpressive on defense. A team may pursue the young phenom trying to duplicate the success that the Los Angeles Rams have had with Sean McVay.

Bieniemy is the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, and has a major hand in making sure that offense has continued to fire on all cylinders even after former offensive coordinator Matt Nagy left for Chicago to lead the Bears. Head coach Andy Reid obviously has a prominent role in designing the offense, but a franchise will target Bieniemy to try to duplicate the success that the Bears have had after bringing in Bieniemy’s predecessor in Nagy.

The Rams and the Bears have something else in common. Both young offensive coaches have experienced and well-respected defensive coordinators. McVay brought Wade Phillips to Los Angeles from the Denver Broncos and Nagy was fortunate enough to inherit Vic Fangio in Chicago. Some people will look at what Riley has done at Oklahoma and reason that is it okay, because defense doesn’t matter in the NFL anymore. They are wrong. Defense still matters in the NFL. For him to have success in the NFL, he will need to take a page from McVay’s book and find a talented defensive coordinator to partner up with.

So are offensive minded head coaches the best? Offensive coordinators tend to know a system very well. The best offensive coordinators are innovative and get the most out of their players. But there is more to it than that.

If an offensive coordinator makes a bad call, it generally leads to second down; maybe a punt; maybe a turnover. If a defensive coordinator makes a bad call, it is often a touchdown. As a result, defensive coordinators tend to be big-picture thinkers. This gives them an advantage when they become head coaches. They have a better understanding of how a team should function and where wins come from.

Offensive coordinators do have a major advantage though. As Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis put it earlier this season:

“Things happen. It could be whether or not we made a catch, and if we made a first down or not. If I’ve got my back turned, I have to make the decision if we’re going for it. Are we in four-down territory? I have to let Bill (offensive coordinator Bill Lazor) know and the quarterback know that they have three downs here. Those kind of things. If I have my backed turned by making corrections or whatever, I can’t do that.”

What Lewis is talking about here is how the head coach has to be around to make important decisions when the offense is on the field whether he is the play caller or not. It is different on defense, because the offense is the one making these decisions and defense is simply reacting. If they are going for it on fourth down, the defense stays on the field. There is no head coach needed for that decision. It has been dictated by the other team.

As a result offensive coordinators can easily remain offensive coordinators after they become head coaches, but it is much more difficult for defensive coordinators. This means even if he are not the most equipped to be a head coach, the team who hires a great offensive coordinator as their head coach will at least get a great offensive coordinator. Defensive coordinators turned head coach may be heavily involved in the game plan as Bill Belichick is, but at the end of the day they generally give up the defensive coordinator duties, so they can be involved in decisions that need to be made when the offense is on the field.

The other advantage that offensive minded head coaches is providing consistency to the offense. Take the Atlanta Falcons for example. The Falcons offense was incredible and nearly won them a Super Bowl with Kyle Shanahan as their offensive coordinator in 2016. Predicatively, Shanahan became a head coach the very next season, and the Falcons offense has not been the same since. The Bengals had impressive offensive seasons with both Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson. Both became head coaches shortly after.

If a team’s offense is run through their head coach, this does not happen. Defensive head coaches must make sure they are developing their assistants. They must make sure they have a good defensive coordinator who they can trust and can hand the reigns to. They also must make sure they have a talented offensive coordinator, but that is not enough. They must makes sure they are developing coaches behind him to take his place when the team has success.

That brings me to a crazy thought: what if a team had multiple play callers on offense? The offensive coordinator calls the plays, but the head coach or a key assistant makes a separate (but overlapping) game plan. This comes with two advantages. For starters, this ensures that there is another experienced play caller being developed if the offensive coordinator leaves.

Secondly, it provides flexibility during the game. Think about the success that offensive coordinators tend to have shortly after they take over. Bill Lazor with the Bengals, Freddie Kitchens with the Browns and Kevin Stefanski with the Vikings all became coordinators midseason and had instant success. This is because there was no film of their offense — it changed the teams tendencies overnight. Imagine being able to do that in the middle of the game.

The offensive coordinator would have to have no ego to realize that the opposing defensive coordinator had his number and subsequently hand off play-calling duties, but this is a pretty simple halftime adjustment. In fact, it’s so simple that they wouldn’t even have to wait until halftime.

Offense or Defense?

At the end of the day, the safest thing to do is to hire a great offensive coordinator as head coach. If he is as good as advertised he should at least give his new team a great offense. If they are going to help a team compete for a championship, they will need help from a great defensive coordinator.

Hiring a defensive minded head coach can also give a team a chance to compete for a championship, but because their ability as head coach depends more on their management ability, it is harder to determine who will be most successful. It is important that defensive minded head coaches be able to hire and develop coaches. This way they will be able to replace the coaches they lose when the team is successful. Losing a talented offensive coordinator could prove catastrophic if they do not have a pipeline of coaches being developed.