Breakdowns

Study: Coaches With a Special Teams Background Have Been Highly Successful

The Data Behind The Notion That Special Teams Coordinators Make Good Head Coaches

Dealing with the coaching carousel comes with the territory of being in the coaching profession. Coaches will move from team to team and position to position, packing up their lives and moving on to the next opportunity. Unfortunately, the carousel reigns true for most NFL franchises searching for the next person to lead their team to the promise land from the sidelines.

Winningest Coaches WITH Special Teams Coaching Experience
Per Pro Football Reference 

25 September 2021 data cutoff

Coach Yr-Yr W-L% G > .500 Yr plyf G plyf W plyf L plyf W-L% SBwl
Bill Belichick 1991-2021 0.672 144 18 43 31 12 0.721 6
Bill Cowher 1992-2006 0.623 59 10 21 12 9 0.571 1
John Harbaugh 2008-2021 0.619 50 9 19 11 8 0.579 1
Dennis Green 1992-2006 0.546 19 8 12 4 8 0.333 0
Bobby Ross 1992-2000 0.540 11 5 8 3 5 0.375 0
Steve Mariucci 1997-2005 0.518 5 4 7 3 4 0.429 0
Marv Levy 1991-1997 0.399 26 5 13 8 5 0.615 0
Mike Smith 2008-2014 0.589 20 4 5 1 4 0.2 0
Dick Vermeil 1991-2005 0.516 4 2 4 3 1 0.75 1
Chuck Pagano 2012-2017 0.552 10 3 6 3 3 0.5 0
Ken Whisenhunt 2007-2015 0.403 -23 2 6 4 2 0.667 0
Jim Haslett  2000-2008 0.435 -14 1 2 1 1 0.5 0
Mike Ditka 1991-1999 0.388 -18 1 1 0 1 0 0
Jerry Glanville 1991-1993 0.458 -4 1 2 1 1 0.5 0

Every year we see lists published highlighting the next star offensive or defensive coordinator, or the same recycled names that have stepped away from football and are now ready to emerge with a new outlook on coaching and team philosophies. The question still stands: Why is it so challenging to find the next Bill Belichick?

I challenge you to conduct a poll with as large and as diverse of a data set as possible, and every response received will likely be unique. Some will tell you that you need a “football guy,” while others will key into their personality and how many metaphors they have at their disposal to unite a locker room. After speaking with a former NFL head coach, the answer could be as simple as competent and efficient play from the quarterback position, directly correlating to head coaching success. 

Winningest Coaches WITHOUT Special Teams Coaching Experience
Per Pro Football Reference 

25 September 2021 data cutoff

Coach Yr-Yr W-L% G > .500 Yr plyf G plyf W plyf L plyf W-L% SBwl
Andy Reid 1999-2021 0.629 91 16 32 17 15 0.531 1
Jeff Fisher 1994-2016 0.512 8 6 11 5 6 0.455 0
Tom Coughlin 1995-2015 0.531 20 9 19 12 7 0.632 2
Mike Shanahan 1995-2013 0.562 36 8 14 8 6 0.571 2
Mike Holmgren 1992-2008 0.592 50 12 24 13 11 0.542 1
Joe Gibbs 1991-2007 0.621 60 10 24 17 7 0.708 3
Mike Tomlin 2007-2021 0.648 67 9 16 8 8 0.5 1
Pete Carroll 1994-2021 0.605 51 11 21 11 10 0.524 1
Sean Payton 2006-2021 0.637 62 9 17 9 8 0.529 1
Tony Dungy 1996-2008 0.668 70 11 19 9 10 0.474 1
Marty Schottenheimer 1991-2006 0.612 50 8 11 3 8 0.273 0
John Fox 2002-2017 0.520 10 7 15 8 7 0.533 0
Mike McCarthy 2006-2021 0.599 44 9 18 10 8 0.556 1
Marvin Lewis 2003-2018 0.518 9 7 7 0 7 0 0

What if I told you that the answer might be easier than trying to decipher which coach looks the part or who comes from which coaching tree? The answer: Special Teams Coordinator experience. Think of some of the biggest and most respected names in the NFL; mentioned was Bill Belichick, but don’t forget household names such as John Harbaugh, Bill Cowher, and Dick Vermeil. What do all of those coaches have in common? They all have at least one season under their belt as a Special Teams Coordinator.

Although there are some incredible head coaches that have not been special teams coordinators such as Andy Reid, Mike Tomlin, and Sean Payton, the hiring pool generally leans itself towards candidates that excel on one side of the ball, and this trend has remained constant throughout the history of the NFL.

At The 33rd Team, we analyzed all 510 individuals who have donned the headset, led their team into battle, pulled together key data sets, finding numerous correlations that point to the simple truth that your team needs to explore Special Teams Coordinators to fill the next head coaching vacancy. For the sake of recency and better overall reflection of the state of the current NFL, we trimmed the list from 102 years down to the last 30 years, with our data starting point being the 1991 NFL season and the data cutting off at September 25, 2021.

A former NFL coordinator who works closely with The 33rd Team mentioned that once a coach puts on the primary headset and is responsible for all aspects of coaching operations, it is even more critical to understand the importance of surrounding oneself with excellent coordinators on all sides of the ball.

First year hire Branden Staley and the Chargers focused on surrounding the former St. Thomas Special Teams Coordinator with some of the most respected names in coaching. Looking at the offensive side of the ball, the Chargers brought in Joe Lombardi, who was praised by Sean Payton for his time two stints in New Orleans as an offensive assistant and QB coach. Former Safety and defensive backs coach Renaldo Hill was brought in on the defensive side, partially due to his success and experience with the Steelers and Broncos, both of which had solid defenses during his time with the team.

The emphasis on surrounding the young coach with reliable coordinators allows Staley to lock into aspects of the game usually handled by special teams coordinators, such as the art of game management. When a coach specializes on one side of the ball and is calling plays on offense or defense, it takes away from the critical game management decisions that seem to plague teams week-in and week-out. The former NFL coordinator also mentioned how it is critical to understand the ways to best lead a team, understanding your own strengths and weaknesses as a coach and putting your team in the best position to deal with and manage game decisions with the goal of coming away winners on any given Sunday.

In the 102-year history of the NFL, there have been 510 head coaches. Of those 510, 31 have been involved as special teams coordinators at some point within their respective careers. That equates to 6% percent of all head coaches. What may surprise many is 5 of those 31 coaches have won at least one Super Bowl, and 8 of 31 have at least made it to one Super Bowl. Whether in the NFL or in the collegiate ranks, 4 current NFL head coaches have served as special teams coordinators at least some point in their career. Additionally, 14 of the top 125 all-time winningest head coaches have been special teams coordinators at some point, equating to 11% of the sample. Among the top 40 winningest coaches in the sample, 7 have been special teams coordinators, which equates to 17.5%.

Main takeaways: 

For further insight and first-hand experience on why special teams coordinators make good head-coaching candidates, reference third-year Saints STC Darren Rizzi’s article. The data observed since 1991 strongly suggests that it would be wise to take a step back from the traditional approach in the interview and hiring process and give serious thought and consideration when anointing the next head coach of your franchise. Take the time to turn over one more stone and look at just one more candidate, an individual who has cut their teeth and earned their stripes as a special teams coordinator. 

This article was written by a former NFL Coordinator and Bryan Filker