The NFL coaching carousel is picking up. Adam Gase was the first official hire in Miami, and there have been reported wranglings around the league for the other positions. While head coaches are hired to be fired within a few years in the Not For Long league, the truth is most coaches, once they have the cache of reaching the top level, simply move franchises like a manager within a different type of large corporation.
Don’t believe me? From 2010 to 2012, 23 different head coaches were fired/”resigned” in the NFL, and of those, 22 were in the NFL coaching circles in some capacity last season. Seven are head coaches elsewhere, ten are coordinators, three have the title of “assistant head coach” on a staff, and two others are on staffs (Brad Childress as Spread Game Analyst in Kansas City; Tony Sparano as tight end coach in San Francisco).
Only one–Mike Singletary, was not a coach last year, or over the last two years (Singletary was last in the NFL as assistant head coach in Minnesota under Leslie Frazier until the end of the 2013 season).
Even among all coaches who have left teams since 2012, the only ones not coaching last year typically had large buyouts and/or long tenures and any time away is largely by their choice. Mike Smith took a year off after being fired in Atlanta; he just interviewed for the Giants’ job. Jim Schwartz took this year off after a year in Buffalo with Doug Marrone, still owed money by Detroit, and will likely be back in 2016. Mike Shanahan was still collecting money from Daniel Snyder. Greg Schiano is working with ESPN.
Mike Singletary is taking his time away from the NFL to self-evaluate and prepare for another opportunity. In November, Forbes wrote about his efforts to get back into the league, where Singletary is meeting with various offensive minds and former quarterbacks (including Chad Pennington) to better prepare, and re-evaluating his own behaviors from when he was a head coach with San Francisco. I spoke with Singletary–who was in San Antonio to honor his former college coach Grant Teaff retiring as executive director of the AFCA–yesterday about his efforts, and the challenges of being a great former player in the NFL coaching ranks.
Singletary told me that while he has had some conversations with teams, he has not had any formal interviews, and has not been offered any positions as a defensive coordinator over the last two years that he turned down. “I didn’t want to be a linebacker coach again. I’ve been studying my tail off since I left San Francisco to become a coordinator at the very least, and hopefully become a head coach,” said Singletary. “When that didn’t happen, I began to work that much more, visiting coaches and learning everything I could possibly learn, primarily on offense.”
I asked Singletary about whether former players face different challenges when working as coaches.
“If you are a former player, particularly a good former player, there is a distinct difference. When I came back to the game, it was ‘oh, he’s Hall of Fame’–all those little type of jokes, guys not really meaning anything, but at the same time, it means something.”
According to Singletary, he frequently heard things like “You don’t have to go the same route that we have to go,” and “We have to do this, but why are you doing this?” It’s true that Singletary doesn’t have to coach again to secure his legacy, and he could make as much money doing speaking appearances (or even going into sports media, as he has a good voice and presentation).
“For me, I’m coaching because I really want to change lives, I want to make a difference, I want to make the game better,” said Singletary. “That’s the thing that I have been busting my tail on in the past year and a half, doing everything I want to do.”
If you doubt that former players, particular star players, have declining opportunities in the coaching ranks, here are some numbers.
Last year, 9 of the 34 head coaches or interim head coaches had previously played in the NFL. Two of the playoff teams have a former player as coach (Rivera, Kubiak). Of those former players, 6 were retired by age 30. Only Jack Del Rio (one selection) made a pro bowl at some point. Todd Bowles is the only African-American among the group of current coaches who were former players, a percentage that is not reflective of the league composition (which hovers around 68% African-American).
In contrast, thirty years ago, Mike Singletary’s Bears crushed the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Those teams were coached by two Hall of Famers, Mike Ditka and Raymond Berry. More than half of the league’s head coaches and interim head coaches that year (17 of 32) were former players, double what it is now.
The reasons for that shift are numerous. The coaching profession becoming more professionalized (just as players were also making more money and able to train year round compared to a half-century ago) is a big factor. Most of the coaches who have reached the highest levels began at a very young age, in their early-to-mid-twenties. They developed relationships. Go look at the coaching staffs and you can find so many connections from among a handful of coaching trees and philosophies. It wouldn’t be very hard to play “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” with NFL coaching staffs and who has worked with whom.
Players are also paid a lot more, particularly star players and high draft picks. The incentive to continue coaching to make more money doing one thing you may be particularly trained for is not as strong. Still, for those like Singletary who were stars but have that passion, the opportunities appear more limited than three decades ago.
Joey Porter, a former all-pro linebacker, was involved in a notable incident at the end of the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game, after coming on the field following the Antonio Brown injury after a hit by Vontaze Burfict. He wasn’t the only coach on the field, nor was he the only one involved in an incident (Mike Munchak was penalized earlier in the game). But Porter is in his second year as a coach, and his first as a position coach, after retiring following the 2012 season. I asked if that incident, unfairly or not, could be held against Porter going forward as he tries to advance among the ranks of coaches, primarily among those who did not play in the league.
Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, for example, called it “an embarrassment to the coaching profession.”
“I’ll put it this way,” Singletary said. “My father was a pastor, and he said, ‘When you guys leave the house, just make sure that before you make a bad decision, always know that they may not know any other kids there, but they are always going to say, you know what, that’s the pastor’s son right there.’
“And so, we always knew that, and that was the stigma we had as kids. On one side, it’s a positive thing, but on the other side, it’s a negative thing. It’s a two-edged sword for any former player, particularly an all-pro player.”
Last year, our site talked to Wade Phillips about finding the right opportunity to return to the league, and he pointed out that the new coaches in 2014 didn’t have a relationship with him. When Gary Kubiak was hired in Denver, though, he found the right fit with someone who had worked with him.
I asked Singletary if it was about finding that relationship, since the profession is very inter-connected.
“Absolutely, It does come down to, for a guy like myself, someone taking a chance,” said Singletary. “The first time I was a head coach, all you know about me is I’m passionate about what I’m doing, and maybe a little overzealous in some areas. So, it’s an owner taking a chance on someone you don’t know. I’ve had interviews for head coaching jobs, and it always comes down to ‘you know, I really like what you have to say, but I know this guy. I’ve really had some experience with this guy, so I have to go in that direction.’ I really understand that, and that’s fine.”
Singletary is not resting on his laurels or just hoping that someone wants to get nostalgic and hire him. One of the criticisms, fair or not, of athletes getting into the coaching or media profession, is that they haven’t put in the time. Singletary is working overtime while technically not employed in the league, trying to learn from past mistakes and broaden his knowledge base. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” Singletary said of his first experience, “until you are in that chair. For me, it was taking a step back and looking at things where I needed to get better. I needed to get better at clock management. I needed to get better at knowing the rules, to take advantage of the rules and teach the game.”
Singletary also said that learning about offensive coaching has been a big emphasis recently. “It’s amazing to me the amount of guys who’ve been head coaches, but only know one side of the ball. I don’t ever want to have to rely on somebody on the other side of the ball to help. Some of these head coaches are at the mercy of the coordinator … I want a defense and offense to complement each other … we are going to be a team. That’s the thing I want to achieve.”
Finally, Singletary thinks he has learned about the other things that came at him suddenly, handling the media and the talk that often came from sources within an organization, and how perception can be shaped by what one does publicly. “One thing for sure is, whatever organization it is, you have to make sure that everybody is on the same page,” said Singletary. “My last job in San Francisco was not. When the GM [Scott McCloughan, now in Washington] left, when the GM got fired after we went 8-8 and had the first non-losing season in 8 years, we were ready to take the next step. Then we lost the GM a week before the draft.”
“I was good when I had that GM that I knew and I could trust and that I felt confident around, but when he was removed, it just made things awkward, made them a lot more difficult. So obviously there were things that I could have done better, and that we both could have done better, and it just didn’t happen.”
I’ll say this for Singletary. It takes a lot to look in the mirror and re-evaluate what you have done. Most coaches are involved in the grind from week-to-week, and there is no guarantee that a guy that has mastered offense or defense can make the leap to managing a team. Singletary has had a single-minded mission to attack things that he needs to work on. It will be interesting to see if he gets an opportunity to change other minds going forward.