“Game Plan: A Radical Approach to Decision Making in the NFL” is now on sale for $0.99 at Amazon.com. The below excerpt is from Game Plan’s opening chapter.
Implicit in the coverage of the National Football League’s coaches is notion that football coaches are geniuses. The idea that lifelong football men are elite in some cognitive sense is prominent when the NFL is discussed.
There are the obvious geniuses like Bill Walsh. Walsh was the legendary architect of the West Coast offense who also helped the San Francisco 49ers build a dynasty. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is probably in Walsh’s company. Belichick’s defenses have appeared in no fewer than eight Super Bowls. Former Seahawks and Packers head coach Mike Holmgren has also been called a “mad genius,” based on his body of work coaching offenses to the Super Bowl and even winning a few as a head coach and a coordinator. Walsh, Belichick and Holmgren have unassailable records. The genius label might be appropriate in their cases.
But then there are the lesser geniuses. In an article in the New York Times, former Giants head coach Jim Fassel is described as an “offensive genius”. But Fassel has had only one top five scoring offense during any of his 13 years as an offensive coordinator or head coach.
Former Browns and Jets head coach Eric Mangini had, for a while, the nickname “Man-genius”, even though the label may have been prematurely applied to a coach who didn’t last very long at either of his coaching stops.
During an episode of Monday Night Football in 2000, comedian co-host of the show Dennis Miller called then Denver head coach Mike Shanahan a genius not once, but four times. Miller isn’t anyone’s favorite football analyst, but he was only voicing a commonly held belief among football’s chattering class. Shanahan was regarded as a genius at that time. But he hasn’t been much of a genius since. Shanahan’s offenses haven’t been in the top five in the league since that year, and he hasn’t cracked the top 10 since 2006.
Former Redskins coach Steve Spurrier was regarded as a genius on his way into the league and a short two seasons later he left the league as something of a joke.
Former Ravens coach Brian Billick was hired for his only head coaching job based on his reputation as an offensive genius. But while head coach of the Ravens, they had just one top ten offense in nine years.
The architect of the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf”, Mike Martz, was regarded as an offensive genius. The label even managed to stick after his offenses stopped cracking the top half of the league in points scored.
The NFL it seems is a league made up of genius coaches, coaching against other genius coaches…even though some of them aren’t even above average.
An interesting question is whether football’s geniuses resemble real geniuses in any meaningful way? On at least one important point, they do not. Geniuses often have displayed their gift by a young age. Football coaches are not young people. Over the past 30 years, the average age of an NFL coach is about 51 years old.
Contrast the middle agedness of football coaches with Albert Einstein who was 26 when he published the paper that contained his thoughts on relativity.
Isaac Newton was just 24 when he published his first discussion of what would later become calculus.
Thomas Edison developed the light bulb at the age of 32.
Gary Kasparov became the undisputed World Chess Champion at the age of 22. He wasn’t even especially young for a great chess player. The average age of a first time Grand Master is now about 23 years old.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were 22 when they wrote “Satisfaction”.
Steve Wozniak started designing the hardware and operating system for the Apple I at the age of 21. By 26 he and Steve Jobs had founded Apple.
Bob Dylan wrote arguably his greatest song, “Like a Rolling Stone”, when he was 24.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was 29 when “The Great Gatsby” was published.
J.D. Salinger was 32 when “The Catcher in the Rye” was published.
The Wright Brothers took the world’s first flight when Orville was 32 and Wilbur was 37.
Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook when he was 20 years old.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page were just 23 when they invented the PageRank algorithm that tells Google what pages on the web are more important than other pages.
Why is it that a genius can invent Facebook, or Google, or write one of the greatest American novels, or write two of the greatest rock songs, or discover the theory of relativity, all in their 20s, but our football coaches are more demographically similar to a high school vice principal? Why is it that great chess players become grandmasters at 23 and for some reason you have to be 50 years old to understand the 4-3 defense?
This is the point in the conversation where football people attempt to make it seem as if their sport is beyond understanding, or as if the scope of a football coach’s knowledge might be wider than chess master Gary Kasparov’s knowledge. But this is an easy claim to embarrass. It’s easy to embarrass because 25 year old football players are responsible for understanding the game. A 25 year old linebacker has to be able to understand the 4-3 defense, although for some reason it takes another 25 years to be able to coach it. That seems like a long time. In that amount of time you could go to medical school and become a brain surgeon… twice.
There is another gaping hole in the idea that coaches somehow need an additional 25 years of age on top of the ages of the athletes that play the game. In 2011, the Denver Broncos made a midseason quarterback change when they benched Kyle Orton in favor of former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Tim Tebow. When the Broncos did that, they drastically changed their offensive scheme in favor of a spread offense, similar to the one that Tebow had run at Florida. But according to accounts at that time, Tebow was responsible for helping the coaches understand the offense. The coaches were used to a pro-style offense and didn’t know the spread offense.
The way that the Broncos changed quarterbacks at midseason, changed the offense to one the coaches weren’t familiar with, and then succeeded to make the playoffs, is a black mark on the idea that somehow offensive coordinators need 20 years of experience in the West Coast offense in order to be successful.
Maybe the reason football coaches are older is that being a football coach is a management position and it takes most of a lifetime to learn the people skills related to coaching. But Facebook is more valuable than all of the NFL’s teams (combined) and Facebook has a 27 year old sitting in the CEO’s chair. Mark Zuckerberg is just one example.
Any number of technology company CEOs are under 30 years old. They include the CEOs of Foursquare, Box.net, LivingSocial, Spotify, and Dropbox. Several of these businesses are on par, or more valuable, than a number of NFL teams.
For instance, Dropbox is a company that is moving file storage online. It has a $4 billion valuation, which would be roughly like adding the value of the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys together. Dropbox’s 28 year old CEO both conceived of the idea of Dropbox and also runs the company. Dropbox is expanding to 400 employees. Why is it then that a 20-something can conceive of and run a company like Facebook or Dropbox, but again, NFL coaches are roughly the ages of elected politicians?
At this point someone might point to the macho culture of the NFL and say that while a 28 year old might be respected to lead a $4 billion tech business, that same person might not be respected in the NFL. But if it’s leadership and respect that we’re talking about, then the U.S. military might have something to say. The military trains 20-somethings to lead about the same number of people that might be on a football team. The book “Outlaw Platoon” is a true story written by Captain Sean Parnell. Parnell led the legendary 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan where they were tasked with hunting down insurgents near the Pakistani border. Parnell was named commander of the 10th Mountain Division when he was 24. He was responsible for the lives of 40 other men when he was half the age of the typical NFL coach. Unless those men trust and respect him, it’s unlikely any of them go home alive. He wasn’t ordering around 53 guys on a football field. His job was to return his entire division safe to their families. He performed a job that required mental ability and leadership. He also retired from the military by the time he was 30.