The NFL’s coaching problem, and why teams are hiding it

By Vincent Frank
Sep 18, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley and San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy talk before the game at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches over the past 48 years. That’s a sense of continuity no other professional sports team in North America understands.

It’s also helped Pittsburgh win six Super Bowls and earn a winning record 33 times during this span.

It’s especially rare in an NFL in which it seems teams go through coaches at a rapid clip. Of the 32 teams in the league, a total of 21 currently boast head coaches that were hired in 2013 or later.

So how do teams attempt to duplicate what we’ve seen in Pittsburgh while not holding on to a lost cause for too long?


For many organizations, this is a fruitless attempt. They can never find the happy medium. It’s either holding on to a coach too long or moving on from one too soon.

They exist in the rust belt. They play in a battleground state. They are in the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers. And that right there is where the comparison ends.

Of course, we’re talking about the Cleveland Browns, a team that has not won a playoff game since 1994. Interestingly enough, that came with Bill Belichick as the team’s head coach. It also came against the New England Patriots.

Since that season, Bellichick’s second-to-last with the team, Cleveland has gone through nine head coaches, finishing with a winning record just two times during that span.

Was the departure of Belichick good for the Browns? No. Did it set the organization back two decades? That’s a question we will never really know the answer to. There are simply too many factors that are brought into the equation.

Courtesy of Troy Wayrynen, USA Today Sports

What we do know is that Cleveland has not found that happy medium since. It hasn’t hung on to a coach too long, primarily due to the team’s lack of success on the field.

Shifting from one paradigm to another sets our point up extremely well. It enables us to grasp what the difference is between these two organizations and their success levels.

It also seems to be impacting too many teams in today’s NFL. Teams that are going the opposite route of the Browns in order to attempt a duplication of what we’ve seen in Pittsburgh over the past half century.

Whether it’s striving for continuity or some sense of loyalty on the part of these organizations, they’re not finding the happy medium. Instead, they are going with a broken system. A broken plan. All this in an attempt to create a more stable atmosphere.

It’s in this that these teams are struggling on the field. Their product isn’t playing up to its talent level. Success is few and far between. And in reality, coaching is primarily to blame for this on the field while a lack of a plan plays a major role in the executive suites.

Mike McCoy

Following their most-recent narrow defeat at the hands of the New Orleans Saints, Mike McCoy and the San Diego Chargers find themselves at 1-3 on the season.

Sure McCoy has dealt with numerous injuries in recent years. Serious injuries. This was represented to a T with long-term injuries to Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen and three-fifths of the team’s offensive line last season.

Then again this year, when both Allen and Danny Woodhead went down to season-ending injuries in September.

Those are the excuses McCoy’ apologists will use here. They also hold no real weight. Now in his fourth season as the team’s head coach, it’s readily apparent that McCoy hasn’t changed the environment or culture in San Diego.

The Chargers have now lost 12 games by one score since the start of the 2015 campaign. Overall, they are 3-12 in such games during that span.

In an interesting turn, the hiring of McCoy came after San Diego suffered a multitude of narrow defeats under former head coach Norv Turner.

In Turner’s final two seasons, 2011 and 2012, San Diego lost 10 games by one score. In fact, there was a stretch during that span that saw the team lose 6-of-7 one-score games.

This was the difference between the Chargers earning a playoff spot (they didn’t) and finishing with a combined record of 15-17 in those two years.

The idea seemed to make sense on the surface. Find a better in-game head coach and go from bottom-rung playoff contender to serious conference title threat.

Less than four years later, and the Chargers are now stuck with a head coach that boasts a 23-29 record.

Staying in the AFC, the Jacksonville Jaguars are yet another example of an organization that simply can’t find a way to get it right.

Prior to hiring Gus Bradley away from the Seattle Seahawks back in 2013, Jacksonville switched from a philosophy of continuity and loyalty to one that represented a quick hook.

From the organization’s inception in 1995 to midway through the 2011 season, the Jaguars had a total of two coaches. Tom Coughlin led the team to four playoff appearances in eight seasons.

Following his departure to New York, Jack Del Rio would go on to earn two postseason appearances in eight-plus seasons.

Can we sit back here and say Jacksonville made the wrong decision to move on from Coughlin?

While different in terms of circumstances, Coughlin, much like Belichick after his departure in Cleveland, did go on to win multiple Super Bowls.

After seeing a total of two head coaches man their sideline for nearly 20 years, Jacksonville went in the complete opposite direction following the ousting of Del Rio.

In fact, the team hired and fired Mike Mularkey, both in less than a calendar year.

For the Jaguars, the premise was simple. Under Mularkey in 2012, this team failed to show any progression from the end of Del Rio’s tenure. A 2-14 record in just one season was enough for the powers to be.

Gus Bradley

Now, less than four years after hiring Bradley, Jacksonville finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.

He took over a two-win team. A talentless team. A team that no one expected to even be competitive for years.

And in reality, that’s exactly what the Jaguars got. The team won a total of 12 games in Bradley’s first three seasons as its head coach.

This was okay to the brass in Jacksonville. It was to be expected.

Off the field, and in the coach’s room, the building blocks for contention were being built. Along with general manager David Caldwell, Bradley was helping build a more talented team.

With that came expectations heading into the 2016. Expectations that this would be different than the past decade.

Despite a narrow win over the Indianapolis Colts in London this past weekend, that simply hasn’t happened. Jacksonville sits at 1-3 on the season and is two games back in the AFC South. It also now boasts an absurdly horrible 1-13 record under Bradley in the month of September.

What do the Jaguars do now? For all intents and purposes, they are not contenders for a playoff spot this season. Though, the talent on the roster is unmistakable. Is the lack of success a direct result of Bradley’s coaching or can he turn this ship around?

If the organization had not attempted to mirror Pittsburgh prior to going full Oakland Raiders on us, the answer might be less convoluted.

Instead, there’s no working strategy in the front office. This will likely be met with the team missing this happy medium again.

It’s been repeated throughout the NFL over the years, the Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams included.

It’s also in this that teams seem to be hiding more than a coaching problem. They are hiding an organizational problem. That’s impacted San Diego and Jacksonville through the first quarter of the season. And it’s going to impact other teams as the year progresses.

Meanwhile, Mike Tomlin will be there standing on the Steelers’ sideline with a full scowl, knowing full well that his job is safe.