Good Luck, First-Time NFL Head Coaches … Enjoy the Ride

Let’s start off with the 10 new head coaches for this season, five in the AFC and five in the NFC. And five of those are first-time head coaches, ranging in age from Minnesota’s Kevin O’Connell, who’s 37, to Matt Eberflus, who’s 52 and taking over the Chicago Bears.

Here’s my advice for them — and a little bit of a guide for those first-time head coaches: Brian Daboll with the Giants, Mike McDaniel in Miami, Nathaniel Hackett in Denver, O’Connell and Eberflus.

I remember taking over the Pittsburgh Steelers at the age of 34 with my first game coming at the age of 35.  I’d advise as they navigate their way through this first year that the No. 1 thing is to be ready to manage the game-day responsibilities. It’s something they’ve never done before. I’m talking about:

  • Being able to manage the clock.
  • Being a part of fourth-down decisions offensively and defensively.
  • And, certainly, situational football.

When I say situational football, I’m talking about third downs. I’m talking about the red zone. I’m talking about the last two minutes of the first half, last two minutes of the game. These are all things, being a head coach, that you have to be involved with and make decisions on because the buck stops with you.

The second thing I would say to them is to set expectations and embrace the process.

I always thought about the season being segmented into three parts. The first third of the season is finding out who you are. What’s your identity? Your identity is really not anything you establish until you prove you can do it on a consistent basis. And I think it takes five, six games to be able to find out who exactly you are, what your identity is as a football team.

The second part of the season is navigating your way through the murky waters.  In the middle of a season, you’re going to sit there and deal with injuries. Whether it be managing a one-game or two-game window, make sure that you don’t get caught in a long losing streak.

In the last part of the season, as you find out who you are – by now you should know who you are — you have to find a way to exploit your strengths and mask your weaknesses. That’s the major thing that you want to be able to do, is find out who you are this season. Every year is different. Don’t worry about last year and who you were last year. Don’t think about the long-term process. You need to stay in the now.

And I would say educate yourself every week about who the players are. Be consistent week in, and week out with your coaches, particularly on game day. You’re, for the first time, going to get involved with making in-game adjustments. And again, the buck stops with you.

So get a feel, an understanding, and educate yourself with the staff that you have.

The next thing is expecting to win, which you’re trying to establish as part of the culture. It starts with learning how not to lose. And I think that’s the biggest thing I would just say to these new coaches: Be a mistake-free team, make teams beat you, don’t beat yourself. I’m talking about turnovers and taking care of the football. I’m talking about pre-snap penalties.

Oh yeah, that would be a pet peeve of mine, pre-snap penalties. That’s nothing more than a state of focus. Post-snap, get a feel for the officials. Some will call the hand-check and some will not. You need to have a feel going forward each week. Some officials will be looking at the little things a lot more. Other ones will let you play. So get a feel for that.

Another huge thing: big plays on defense. Take away the big plays. Don’t give them splash plays to the offense when you are on defense. Don’t turn over the ball on offense. So, it’s both sides of the ball — your team needs to be the one making those splash plays, not the opponent.

The last thing I would say is to stay true to who you are and be flexible in your approach. Being flexible in your approach? You know what, you may have to change midstream based on injuries, based on all of a sudden getting a feel for your football team, you want to elaborate and get them more involved in the game plan. Don’t get so stuck in your preseason thoughts. Be flexible, but also stay true to who you are, and the core values that you have.

Just keep your head down. Take this week to week. Embrace the process. Don’t get caught up in thinking about the future, thinking about the past. Stay in the now. When you do that, when it’s all said and done, you’ve created a very stable first year. And you also created an expectation by starting a culture that you can carry on. It’s got longevity.

Embrace it, enjoy it, learn through each experience, and good luck to each and every one of you.

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