The last time NFL coaches did not have on-field access to players during the offseason was 2011, during the owner-imposed lockout. When a new labor agreement was finally reached and players returned to their clubs, the discussion quickly turned to which teams would be the least impacted by the disrupted offseason.
In hindsight, the answer seems obvious: Clubs with established, proven coaches fared best. In fact, of the 12 franchises that reached the playoffs that season, six had head coaches boasting previous Super Bowl experience (with five owning rings), three others had coaches who would later reach the title game (with two winning) and another had a coach who would advance to a conference final.
Understanding that coaching will be at an even greater premium this season after franchises were prevented from having on-field workouts with players because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I began wondering which traits are most important for a successful head coach. Rather than ask owners -- whose hiring practices aren't exactly flawless, otherwise there would not be an average of nearly seven head coaches fired every year since 2000 -- I sought out a player at each position group for his thoughts.
So, what are the three most important qualities of a successful NFL head coach? Here are the players' responses:
1) Listening: The ability to be open-minded to others' ideas and others' thoughts, and the ability to actually take those in where your ego is not too big where [you think] you're the only one who's right.
2) Communication: How well you're able to communicate to everyone, not only your players and coaches, but everyone within the building and the front office. But especially players -- how you're able to communicate with players that are smart and are extremely intelligent and can handle a lot, and then at the same time the players that need to be helped out a little bit more, and not be frustrated but to communicate in a way that helps them. That's part of why I think [Rams coach Sean McVay] does so well.
3) Connectivity: Genuinely connecting with your players and genuinely connecting with your staff. And showing a true interest in not only who they are as football players, but who they are as people. That's another thing that Sean does really well, being able to connect with everybody no matter who it is, from top to bottom of the roster. Everyone. Being able to understand them as a person and truly have a relationship with them.
1) Honesty: A coach being straight up with a player is critical. We're all men at the end of the day, and I hate when a coach isn't 100 percent real with you. I might not like what you have to stay, but I respect that you're straight up with me.
2) Steadiness: When things aren't going good, he has to stay the same. They can't be up and down. When you do that, you're showing weakness and you lose respect. How are you going to be a leader to a bunch of men, and as soon as something doesn't go right -- say, we lose back-to-back games -- you're in the tank. I don't respect that.
3) Flexibility: Every player is different, so you shouldn't try to treat every player the same. Some guys might need you to talk to them more, some not as much. Some guys might need you to be hard on them, but other guys might not need that as much.
1) Gaining a player's trust: If a player knows you care for him and his well-being, he will run through a wall for you.
2) Honesty: That consists of being real with him no matter what, not telling a player what you think he wants to hear.
3) Being a student as well as a teacher: Find the things a player does well, as opposed to harping on the things he doesn't do as well. Everyone learns differently. Some guys are visual learners, some guys are walk-through learners; so being a great teacher means you need to be a good observer and listener.
1) Leadership: That's a general term, but it goes a little bit deeper than that. When you're thinking of somebody who can lead an army, lead a group of men, lead a mass group of people, you have to have some sort of order, and that's what Coach (Andy) Reid really does for us. He creates order and then his discipline upon that order is what really drives the system. That's everything right there. He creates an environment of this is how it's done. Everybody understands it, everybody abides by it and everybody knows this is how I get better within it. He leaves no gray area. he establishes a set of rules and expectations and demands those expectations be met. It's literally what you would think it would be. If you're not here, you're going to get fined. And if you keep doing it, you're going to be out of here. Those are demands that aren't necessarily in the rule book, but if you don't do this, you're going to be an example set and you're going to be out of here.
2) Honesty, trust, truth: When you get a coach who can just flat-out put it on the table and let you work for your paycheck, your food, where you know what's in front of you and what's expected of you, that's all you can ask for -- the opportunity to know exactly what you've got to do to succeed, and then that coach being able to provide the tools to be able to do it. I would rather a coach tell me "you're [soft]" than go out there and hit somebody [soft] and have the coach say "that was OK" when it wasn't. I'd prefer he say, "We need more effort, we need more collision, we need more oomph. We need you to start playing like a grown man." If you put it on the table, I know what I have to do to meet those expectations.
3) Scheme: A lot of head coaches aren't offensive or defensive coordinators (while being a head coach), but specifically thinking about my situation, what I appreciate is Coach Reid's scheme. He's one of the greatest to ever do it. When you have a coach who can mirror stuff up and create confusion for the defense, because of all the hard work and all the preparation he puts in before the week even starts, that is such a blessing to a player. I've understood that since I've been in Kansas City. The scheme behind the knowledge is what has thrown me into a category I probably had no business being in, which is one of the best tight ends in the league. If you master the order and then be disciplined to go out and be a football player within his scheme -- I'm just blessed.
1) Consistency. It refers to how they're going to handle every situation. When you know your coach and how he's going to handle everything, when he sets a basis for everything, you can expect and you know the way to go about everything. That goes from just the day-to-day stuff with what you're expected to do to how he's going to handle a tough situation during a game. The most successful coaches I've been around, you knew how they were going to handle things and you could count on them to do it the same way in and out every day.
2) Organization. It goes with consistency. With football and how we've been programmed to work since college, we're all so structured. We want to know what time everything is, down to cadence. When a coach brings that Day 1, setting that standard, that really plays well to the players, especially offensive linemen. We're obviously a pretty unique group that has to work cohesively together for an offense's success, so when you're organized, we know what to expect every day.
3) Loyalty. That just goes to more of a player's type (of) coach. You know he's going to have your back. When you work hard for him and you do what they ask of you, they're going to have your back on the field and off the field.
1) Open and frank communication: A great coach has the ability to develop a bond with the team, express their love for the game and motivate the guys before every game. They usually hold "keep it real" meetings to ensure players know where they stand at all times. Great coaches know how to push the guys' buttons and have the hard conversations. And they always keep their word.
2) Leadership: A great coach sets yearly and weekly team goals while convincing the guys to buy into them over their personal goals. He also could build a player-led committee to handle all locker room issues. He would allow the coordinators to do their job, but would hold them -- as well as the other coaches and players -- accountable. He would make sure the guys are prepared and are ready for every situation throughout the game. He would also have efficient practice schedules and meetings to create good practice habits, never wasting players' time.
3) A sound, composed, competitive spirit: A great coach would keep the guys focused on the big picture in all circumstances, and would never get too emotional after a win, loss or tie. But would still express the hate for losing and the love for winning as much as the players would. We have to know it means something to them all while understanding we can't win them all. Energy is contagious and the coach sets the tone.
1) Leader of men: He has to be able to command the respect of the staff and players.
2) Detailed in the playbook: He needs to present schemes that help his players be better prepared than their opponents on Sunday.
3) Competitive will to win: He doesn't accept losing or a losing culture. Winning is the most important thing.
1) Philosophy/honesty: A lot of it starts with a good philosophy. I've only had two NFL head coaches, and one thing I've seen as a common thread is, Pete (Carroll, in Seattle) has his compete, compete, compete philosophy. He has a whole psychological aspect that he goes through with it and he has a routine that he goes through and puts his players through. He has a way of coaching, a way of talking to his coaches, a way of having his coaches talk to his players. They don't do the whole rah-rah, curse-you-out style. He would never hire a coach like that. It's all about positive feedback and positive reinforcement and getting the best out of your players. Kyle (Shanahan, in San Francisco) is similar in that he has a philosophy of the best man plays. He doesn't care about your draft position or any of that. He's more of a straight shooter than Pete. Pete has a way of making sure everybody feels good, making sure he pushes buttons with certain players and not pushing buttons on other players. Kyle is different. He's one size fits all. I'm going to cut it to you as straight as I can, as best as I can, and I'm going to explain every single detail of what I understand about the game that either makes this a good play or a bad play or makes us a good team or a bad team. That honesty is something that I think is valuable in a head coach because there's no gray area. You know where you stand at all times, almost to a point where you're like, "Damn! That's how you really feel?" But you can respect that as a player because what he's saying is objective: Did we win or lose the down? Why did we win or lose the down? If you can give him a fair point back to him, he can take that. He's flexible in that way.
2) Knowledge of the game: Kyle is one of the best offensive minds we've ever had in this game. That comes into it. With Pete, it's the Cover 3 he brought to the league. It seems so simple, but nobody can run it like we ran it. The way both of them implement what they do -- they talk to others on a personal level, then have the great coaches around them who believe in their philosophy.
3) Staff assembly: Kyle's guys have been with him since he's been an assistant or a graduate assistant. How you pick the staff is a big part of their success. That's what makes the team great. It's not just the head coach; the head coach gets all the credit, but it's the pieces he puts around him because they still have to deliver his message, and they deliver it on a day-to-day basis. We might sit in a meeting with the head coach for 30 minutes a day, but I sit in meetings with the assistants for five to six hours a day. So the staff is critical.