It is almost a certainty that Ron Rivera will begin his fourth season as head coach of the Washington Commanders in 2023. The only caveat is dependent on the potential sale of the team. If it happens quickly enough, there’s a chance new owners might want to wipe the slate clean. That is virtually inconceivable – not because new owners aren’t likely to want a fresh start, but because the sale will not be finalized and approved soon enough for any action to be taken.
There is a very good chance that, assuming there is a new majority owner in place sometime before the end of 2023, the Commanders will have a new coach for 2024. But you can never be sure. When he bought the team back in 1999, Daniel Snyder had every intention of firing coach Norv Turner and bringing in someone new. But Turner surprised everyone by leading Washington to the NFC East title and the playoffs, thus buying himself an extra year. When the team struggled in 2000, he was eventually fired.
We have already written quite a bit about potential new coaches. I had a list of fifteen candidates around mid-season, and plenty of other writers have weighed in on who should be the next coach. Today, I just want to point out a current trend which seems to indicate where he should come from.
Of the 32 NFL coaches who began the 2022 season, 19 came from an offensive background. 12 came from a defensive background. And one, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, had been a special teams coordinator. In almost every case, the coach had been promoted from the ranks of offensive or defensive coordinator.
Though offensive coaches were more plentiful, there has been no guarantee that hiring one will result in success. Of those 19 offensive-minded coaches, ten achieved a winning record in 2022, while nine had a losing record.
Defensive-minded coaches fared significantly worse. Only four out of twelve had winning records, while seven had losing records. One – as you probably already know – managed to finish at exactly .500. (That would be the Commanders own Ron Rivera, for those who have been skipping class this year.)
Now, this is a small sample size, and I can point to lots of qualifiers that don’t make the defensive coaches look so bad. For instance, the Carolina Panthers had a losing record largely due to the efforts of Matt Ruhle, an offensive coach who was fired mid-season. When defensive-minded interim coach Steve Wilks took over, the team improved, playing .500 football for Wilks. (Rhule, BTW, is an example of someone being given a head coaching job without ever having been a professional coordinator. His success was almost entirely achieved in college.)
Defensive-minded Robert Saleh couldn’t quite get the Jets over the hump to a winning record, but there’s little doubt he has improved them in his two years as coach. And are we really going to blame the dreadful performances of the Chicago Bears and the Houston Texans on Matt Eberflus and Lovie Smith, two defensive-minded coaches in their first years with talent-barren rosters? (Apparently, the McNair family does blame Smith, as they fired him hours after winning his final game.)
If you look at the league as a whole, there remains a slight numerical advantage to having an offensive-minded coach at the helm. But when you look at the playoffs, that advantage becomes inarguable.
Of the final eight teams in this year’s playoffs, seven of them have offensive-minded head coaches. Every single one of them served as an offensive coordinator before taking over the top job. Only one, Buffalo’s Sean McDermott, came from the defensive side of the ball. And we all just saw what happened to Buffalo, a team that has failed to develop a run game beyond quarterback Josh Allen.
Last year’s Super Bowl champ was coached by a former offensive coordinator. The Super Bowl champ two years ago was coached by a former offensive coordinator. They both defeated teams coached by former offensive coordinators.
Are you sensing a trend?
Look, you don’t win at a very high level in today’s NFL without at least a pretty good defense. But that old adage about defense winning championships simply isn’t true anymore. It probably hasn’t been true for more than a decade. It’s just the Bill Belichick factor that skewed perceptions.
In the early years of the new millennium, coaches like Belichick, Tony Dungy and Bill Cowher showed that defenses could still dominate. But then things began to change, as rules to favor offense – especially passing offense – continued unabated. Because Belichick kept winning in New England, it may have seemed that defensive-minded coaches were still on a par, or maybe even superior, to their offensive-minded counterparts.
But it wasn’t sustainable. The fact the Tom Brady went to Tampa and immediately won a Super Bowl, while Belichick has struggled to keep the Patriots at .500 is an obvious example of what really matters.
I’m not saying that Tampa didn’t need Devin White and Lavonte David, or that the Rams didn’t need Aaron Donald and Von Miller. Defense still matters. Just not nearly as much as offense.
Defensive coaches, like Wilks in Carolina, or Rivera in Washington, seem well-equipped to take a struggling franchise and instill enough discipline to get the team to a respectable level. But can they really take their teams far beyond that. Pete Carrol and Mike Vrabel, two of the best defensive-minded head coaches of the past decade, get a lot out of their teams. They always play hard. They rarely have won big.
I know what you’re going to say. At least I think I know what some of you are going to say. It’s not the coach. It’s the quarterback. All those teams that win big have elite quarterbacks. (We’ll classify the Nick Foles-led Eagles as an anomaly.)
But this is kind of my point. Offensive-minded coaches seem to attract quality quarterbacks. Are they simply lucky? Or do they manage and coach in such a way that breeds good quarterback play? Do they invest in the position? Do they design offenses to maximize QB success? Do they – and this is the oft-overlooked aspect – coach it better?
Or maybe you’re going to say this: The three men who coached the Commanders prior to Rivera — Bill Callahan, Jay Gruden, and Mike Shanahan — all came from the ranks of offensive coordinators. They combined to lose 60% of their games.
So maybe this is the real takeaway.
Remember that thing about seven of the final eight playoff teams being coached by a former offensive coordinator? Every single one of those coaches – all seven of them – had been a quarterbacks coach before becoming coordinator. Callahan, Gruden, Shanahan — none coached quarterbacks.
(Jim Zorn did, but well, he was Jim Zorn.)
So maybe Kyler Murray has been a disappointment because he was overrated coming out of college. Or maybe, he has been a disappointment because Arizona chose to entrust his development to a head coach that had never been a coordinator or a QB coach at the NFL level.
I had Demeco Ryans as my top head coaching candidate for the coming year, and I still believe that. I think he is that rare defensive-minded coach who can build a championship team in the modern NFL. I assume he will be off the market by the time the Commanders may be seeking a replacement for Ron Rivera.
If so, I’d suggest looking for an offensive guy. Perhaps Seattle’s Shane Waldron, or, if he is promoted to coordinator next season, the Eagles Brian Johnson.
Or I suppose, if you don’t mind tiny sample sizes, you could just go with a special teams coordinator. After all, Marv Levy, Rich Bisaccia, and John Harbaugh have combined winning percentage of just under 60% as head coaches.