In Game Plan I spend a significant amount of time arguing that the NFL’s teams should look to get younger at the coaching position. Broadly speaking I think teams should get younger at the coaching position. But that is not a “one size fits all” view of coaching. There will always be exceptions to any rule.
I think Bill Belichick is probably an extreme exception. You might have a difficult time convincing me that Belichick is as good of a coach now as he was in the early part of the century, but if you were going to have a coach draft today, Belichick would easily be the number one overall selection.
One of the worries that you would have with a coach who is getting older is that they might not be able to adjust to in-game situations like they once did. If that were the case, then you would expect that the coach’s team would lose games that they had led in, and they wouldn’t be very good at winning games by coming from behind. But Belichick’s Patriots were excellent on both of those counts last year. The Patriots won 10 games that they had trailed in, and they only lost 2 games that they had led.
To me that’s a very important statistic. When the game starts and you’re dealing with the fog of war (Kellen Winslow is digging this analogy) it matters what you do to help your team win. Adjustments become important.
If cognitive nimbleness is what we’re looking for in a coach, and we’re worried an older coach might not have a lot left in the tank, Belichick certainly offers us no ammunition for our argument. Consider what the Patriots did when they lined up Aaron Hernandez at the running back position in the playoffs. That might seem like a simple adjustment, but it’s one that almost no other coach in the league would make. That’s not the kind of idea that usually comes from a 60 year old brain. It’s the kind of idea that comes from a 20 year old brain, and from someone who goes “Eff it, let’s try it and see what happens.” I’m not being age-ist here. Innovative ideas are just a lot more likely to come from younger minds.
Basically, while Belichick is of the age that I am saying coaches tend to be declining, he shows the attributes of what I argue NFL teams should look for in a coach. The Patriots are making in-game adjustments that help them win games, and they are doing innovative things.
None of this is to say that I don’t believe my thesis from Game Plan. But actually executing a youth movement among NFL coaches should be done carefully. Nobody should look to force successful coaches into early retirement. Instead teams should just realize that if coaches haven’t put together winning teams by the time they hit 50, it’s unlikely to happen after that. Teams can just fire their +50 coaches who have lifetime losing records and opt to hire younger coaches instead.