What a Difference a Coach Makes
We’re at the halfway mark of the 2013 season, so The MMQB is pressing pause to take a look back at the storylines, teams and players that made an impact or headlines in the first half of the season.
As it reaches its mid-point, the 2013 NFL season has vividly illustrated an obvious truth: Talent might win, but more than ever it’s the craft of coaching that really matters in this league, and the art of putting that talent in the position to thrive. This year especially we’ve seen anew how dramatically a coach can impact a team’s fate, for better or worse.
Of course, coaching matters greatly every year in the NFL, and has at least since the days of George Halas doing battle with Curly Lambeau. That’s why they get the W’s or the L’s listed after their name. No news flash there. But I can’t recall a recent season when we’ve had clearer examples of the striking difference a coach can make.
The upstart 9-0 Kansas City Chiefs have largely the same roster that unraveled to 2-14 last season and earned the first overall pick in the draft. But they also have the proven track record of Andy Reid at their disposal for the first time, and his coaching touch has been the miracle cure for the franchise’s ills. Credit should flow in many directions in Kansas City, but make no mistake, it starts with Reid and the professional tone he has set at the top.
The Saints in 2012. The Saints in 2013. What a difference a Sean Payton can make. Not to mention a Rob Ryan, whose addition as defensive coordinator has transformed a unit that was historically awful a year ago. New Orleans is going back to the playoffs this season—no, it’s not too early to say that—and it’s as if the disaster that was the Saints’ 2012 served to underline the value of coaching. The playing talent level in New Orleans largely remained unchanged this offseason. But the leadership got upgraded to elite class.
Then there’s Rex Ryan in New York. The guy was on everyone’s short list to be fired at some point before 2014 arrived, with his tenure on the Jets sideline reduced to the stuff of farce. Forced to accept the trade of his best player (Darrelle Revis) and the drafting of a rookie quarterback (Geno Smith) in a move clearly made for the future, not the win-now present he was confronted with, Ryan did a wise thing. He reverted to what he knows and does best, coaching defense. That’s what got him the Jets job, and that’s what may help him keep the Jets job, because New York is again a force on that side of the ball, not to mention firmly in the AFC playoff chase at a surprising 5-4.
The Jets might once again ground and pound their way into the postseason, and Ryan’s survival instincts—and football acumen—should be accorded our respect. The man can coach his slimmed-down butt off on defense, and as he has proven in the past, there are different ways to skin the cat and win in the NFL. It’s not all offense all the time in Roger Goodell’s fiefdom.
Reid, Payton and Ryan aside, there are other examples this season that serve to make the same point about the impact of coaching, in the reverse fashion. Success stories impart their lessons, but so too do failures. There are no shortage of those in the NFL’s first half of 2013, either.
In Miami, as the ugly Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito bullying saga gets dissected in all its shocking detail, a good bit of the blame and responsibility should and is being directed toward second-year Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin. Either he was unaware of the unacceptable lines of harassment being crossed by Incognito toward his younger, fellow offensive lineman, or he was tacitly accepting of them, believing them part of football’s rough, boys-will-be-boys locker room culture, which has always toed a fine line between where camaraderie begins and crudeness rules (according to a report Tuesday night, Dolphins coaches asked Incognito to "toughen up" Martin, though not to the lengths Incognito went to). Which mistake is more accurate or survivable for Philbin in Miami? Either way, Philbin comes out of the episode looking bad, and at fault on some level. At 4-4 after a 3-0 start, the Dolphins’ season is still at a crossroads, while this controversy engulfs Philbin’s team.
The reality that coaching matters so greatly that a team’s season can be totally undone by it—even if the supply of playing talent is thought to be sufficient—is on neon-flashing display up the road in Tampa, as well. The Bucs are 0-8 and have seen the promise of head coach Greg Schiano’s first season on the job (6-4 start, 7-9 finish) wiped away by the unmitigated disaster that 2013 has been.
Schiano’s issues in Tampa Bay have been well-chronicled. His no-nonsense, autocratic coaching style isn’t a great fit for today’s NFL players, unless you win and win early. Without those validating victories, you’re Bill Belichick, circa 2000 and before. At the moment, Schiano has lost 13 of his past 14 games, meaning he has absolutely no capital stashed away to help buy himself the benefit of the doubt.
Even if you happen to believe—as I do—there was plenty of culpability on Josh Freeman’s side in the fifth-year quarterback’s messy divorce with Schiano and the Bucs earlier this season, the bottom line is that the Bucs head coach couldn’t make the dysfunctional relationship work and his team suffered for that failure. Show me a club that has to bench, de-activate and eventually release its starting quarterback in midseason, and I’ll show you a team on the road to nowhere good.
Freeman hasn’t bathed himself in glory in Minnesota—where he wasn’t even active for the Vikings last week, though healthy—but neither has Schiano, who hasn’t been able to stop the bleeding in Tampa Bay no matter what he tries. It has reached the angry billboard and bags-over-the-head stage in Bucs-land, and those are signs of a coaching tenure on life support, waiting for the plug to be pulled. It would be a mercy killing at this point.
Over the span of last weekend, two other NFL teams were abruptly faced with the reality of discovering the value of their head coach’s impact, as first Denver’s John Fox and then Houston’s Gary Kubiak suffered health scares that will require them to take a leave of absence for recuperation. Both the Broncos and Texans are two-time defending division champions, but while Denver is 7-1 and again playoff bound, Houston has slumped to six consecutive losses and a dismal 2-6 record in Kubiak’s eighth season on the job.
Those first-half records may dictate very different results for the Broncos and Texans in the season’s second half, but it was telling just how dramatic a difference Kubiak’s absence immediately made in Houston in Sunday night’s 27-24 loss to the division rival Colts. The Texans, with Kubiak on the sideline and calling plays for new starting quarterback Case Keenum, looked re-energized in the first half against Indianapolis, racing to a 21-3 lead and clearly dominating the Colts. But moments later, Kubiak went to the ground at halftime, suffering from the effects of what has been diagnosed as a “mini-stroke,’’ and was wheeled off the field on a stretcher and taken to a nearby hospital. The shock of that development had an obvious impact on Houston in the second half, as did the change in offensive play-calling, with the Colts rallying to score 24 of the game’s 27 second-half points and win by three. The Texans’ playoff hopes may well be effectively over.
Indianapolis knows well what Houston will be going through, given that head coach Chuck Pagano’s inspiring fight against leukemia last year cost him most of his rookie season with Colts, and led to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians being elevated to interim coach. Arians did superb work in relief of Pagano, and the Colts with rookie quarterback Andrew Luck made the playoffs. With Pagano back to full health, and Arians now head coach in Arizona, the Colts are on the same course this year, with Indy standing 6-2 and in first place in the AFC South at midseason.
Talent may win in the NFL, but as the 2013 season’s first half reminded us again and again, the coaching component may be the most vital ingredient of all. This year more than ever, most of the league’s biggest difference-makers, in ways good and bad, are on the sideline.