The NFL has gone on an all-out offensive with its coaching changes this offseason. Eight jobs were open. Of the six that have been officially filled so far, five of them have gone to coaches with offensive backgrounds. Only Vic Fangio, getting his first head coaching job at age 60, comes from the defensive side of the ball. The Bengals are reportedly looking at Zac Taylor, the Rams QB coach, but cannot make the hire official until Los Angeles is done playing. The Dolphins are still interviewing candidates and several names have been linked at this point.
So it looks like, at minimum, six of the eight openings will go to offensive coaches. There are always some year-to-year fluctuations in hiring, but we have now seen a steady build toward this moment.
Here is a breakdown of the background for each head coach at the start of each NFL season going back to 2002, when the league expanded to 32 teams.
From 2002 to 2015, there were an average of 15.5 offensive head coaches and 16.5 with defensive backgrounds. The high point for offensive coaches was just 17, twice. In the span of four years, though, it looks like we will go to at least a net +5 increase in head coaches coming from the offensive side. If Miami also ends up hiring an offensive coach, then the league will be at almost a two-to-one ratio of head coaches coming from offensive backgrounds. Everyone wants the next hot thing.
Predicting the individual successes or failures of coaches can be a fool’s errand (the Sean McVay hire, because of his age, was widely panned for example). But if we take an overhead, 10,000 foot view, we can make some guesses. Nearly half of coaches are out in three years, and a few break through and have sustained success.
The current offensive trend has not only been toward that side of the ball, but also younger and cooler. Bruce Arians is the one exception to that among the offensive hires, coming out of a one-year retirement to move to Tampa Bay. The quintet of Adam Gase, Kliff Kingsbury, Freddie Kitchens, Matt LaFleur, and Zac Taylor have an average age of 39.
With massive shifts like this, I predict there will be a lot of unintended consequences. When there is not balance in the force, you could see a lot of interesting choices in coaching long term. You could also see an interesting quandary for defensive coaches. Sean McVay has been great, and one of the key things for him was to get an established former head coach excellent at coordinating defenses in Wade Phillips, who could be paid handsomely and has no aspirations of being the head coach. He gets to be the coach of the defense.
But how many teams can duplicate that formula with these young hires? If you don’t think that personality conflicts will grow between the offensive and defensive groups, if defensive coaches feel they don’t have the same opportunities, you don’t know human nature.
These teams also took high-variance choices, going with young guys who could be the next hot hire. They could also flame out spectacularly. We will no doubt see some of both.
Finally, this trend has clear consequences for the diversity of coaching hires in the league. Pending the Miami decision, there are two African-American head coaches (Mike Tomlin and Anthony Lynn) in the league. Traditionally, there have been more minority coaches emerging from the defensive side of the ball. This year, there was only one African-American offensive coordinator in the league from start of the season to the end: Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs.
You often hear people cite the paucity of African-American coaches compared to the player distribution in the NFL. But among former players, quarterback is the most represented position among current coaches (and has been historically a “white” position, certainly at the time the current coaches played). Four of the five former players who played other positions and coached last year were minorities (similar to the cited breakdown of the league’s players). But the NFL, more than other sports, is coached by people who never played at the top level, but rather began crafting their skills in the profession by age 23 or 24.
The NFL and NFLPA do have programs to provide internship and coaching opportunities for former players, but there is no doubt an experience and age disadvantage to actually participating in the sport while others are making a connection as coaches. If you play into your thirties, you have to catch up on guys who have coached for a decade, moved into coordinator or QB coach positions, and are still in their thirties. If this trend toward the young offensive coordinators continues, the NFL’s diversity hiring will continue to come under fire because of those factors.