On Tuesday, when Matt LaFleur became the Green Bay Packers' new head coach, his former boss Sean McVay joked that he is "too young to have a coaching tree."
Maybe. But, incredibly, neither is too young to be part of one of the greatest coaching trees in football history. Both McVay and LaFleur are branches of the tree started by Bill Walsh. Walsh, who won three Super Bowls for the San Francisco 49ers, died 11 years ago and his last season as an NFL coach was 1988. McVay was 2 years old when Walsh retired.
But McVay, who was the youngest head coach in NFL history when he was hired at age 30, started his career working for Jon Gruden in Tampa. Gruden worked for Mike Holmgren in Green Bay. And Holmgren worked for Walsh in San Francisco. What's more, McVay's grandfather, John, was Walsh's close advisor as the general manager of the 49ers.
As McVay prepares his Los Angeles Rams to face the Dallas Cowboys in this weekend's Divisional Round of the playoffs, he is part of an astonishing bit of NFL lineage: every coach in the playoffs -- indeed, every coach from the 2018 season, including interims -- is from the coaching trees of either Walsh or Bill Parcells, his counterpart in NFL influence who won two Super Bowls for the New York Giants and lorded over defensive football while Walsh ruled offense.
The two, along with Washington's Joe Gibbs, reigned over the NFL in the 1980s, winning seven Super Bowls combined from the 1980 to 1990 seasons. But the impact Walsh and Parcells continue to have on the game -- 30 years after Walsh won his last Super Bowl with the 49ers and 28 years after Parcells won his final one with the New York Giants -- is at least as profound because of how they have populated the coaching ranks for years to come. In a copycat league, no copies have been as eagerly sought, and have been successful enough to keep spawning copies, as the ones produced by those two.
That is not an accident. According to Newsday NFL columnist Bob Glauber, who wrote a book about Walsh, Parcells and Gibbs called "Guts and Genius: The Story of Three Unlikely Coaches Who Came to Dominate the NFL in the '80s," both Walsh and Parcells were highly motivated to help bring along other coaches. Walsh, who was an offensive assistant for the legendary Paul Brown with the Bengals, was ultimately rejected by Brown, who gave Walsh less-than-top reviews when other teams were interested in hiring Walsh as a head coach. And Brown passed Walsh over for the Bengals' top job when he retired. After that experience, Walsh vowed he would help coaches who worked for him.
One of the greatest influences in Parcells' life was his New Jersey high school basketball coach, Mickey Corcoran, who instilled in Parcells the belief that he had to help those who worked for him. As a result, their fingerprints are everywhere, from the NFL's longest-tenured coach to some of its newest. There is little question that the greatest coach of the current generation is Bill Belichick, who has won five Super Bowls in New England. He won two more while he was Parcells' defensive coordinator for the Giants. The Patriots will face the Chargers this Sunday. Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn is descended from both trees -- Walsh brought up coaching to him when Lynn was a player with the 49ers and Walsh was a front-office executive and then Lynn coached for Parcells in Dallas.
And it seems like teams are in a frenzy to find the next McVay; an article posted to the Cardinals' website announcing the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury cites McVay's recent praise of the former Texas Tech coach. Even Kingsbury is tangentially descended from Parcells and Walsh. He was drafted by Belichick in 2003 and he played for the Jets' Herm Edwards, who is on the Walsh tree via Tony Dungy and Dennis Green. Freddie Kitchens, who will be the Cleveland Browns' next head coach, had his first NFL job as Parcells' tight ends coach in Dallas in 2006.
Glauber believes that, of the current coaches, Sean Payton and McVay are the most like their forebears.
Payton, who was Parcells' assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach in Dallas, remains very close to his mentor. Glauber calls him a mini-Parcells, because while Payton is an offensive coach in the orbit of Parcells' defensive tree, he has a similar motivational style to Parcells. Both use their big personalities and sarcastic wit to drive players and sometimes to bully them.
McVay's offensive creativity, and the spacing he creates in his offense, is reminiscent of Walsh's innovations with the West Coast offense.
"The fact that the West Coast is still by far the most prevalent offense in the league is a testament to how creative Walsh was as an offensive thinker," Glauber said.
With this season nearly complete, the web of excellence is guaranteed to continue. Since Walsh won his first Super Bowl after the 1981 season, 30 of the next 37 championships have been won by either Walsh, Gibbs or Parcells or descendants of Parcells and Walsh. That includes 17 out of the last 18, with Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher, who won the Super Bowl after the 2005 season, the only exception. He came from Marty Schottenheimer's tree.
That one, like all others, has been crowded out by the forest created by Parcells and Walsh.