A successful nearby model represents the perfect alternative if the Washington Commanders fail to make Ben Johnson their next head coach.
The Washington Commanders got their man to run football operations in former San Francisco 49ers executive Adam Peters. The speed with which they moved on this hire suggests that Josh Harris and his brain trust have been planning for this since well before the end of the regular season. That has us all thinking that other front office moves and the head coaching decisions are also progressing rapidly.
It’s not much of a secret that Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is at the top of many team’s wish lists this offseason. If the Commanders have already decided on him as their choice, I’d look for an agreement very soon. The playoff situation could affect the actual date, but it will not change the eventual outcome.
That is, if the decision has already been made. If it hasn’t, I’d like to suggest one alternative approach that I don’t hear very often.
Commanders need a manager to take the franchise forward
Just as every team is looking for that game-breaking franchise quarterback, every team is also looking for that young genius to become their coach. But the top team in the NFC this season - San Francisco - does not have a game-breaking signal-caller. They have a player who has been branded with the dreaded “game manager” epithet.
Even though playoff teams like the Niners, Los Angeles Rams, and Miami Dolphins all have young “genius” coaches, the best team in the league this season, the Baltimore Ravens, have the equivalent of a game manager serving as coach. John Harbaugh - who never gets any of the press or coach-of-the-year votes that his more flamboyant brethren receive - is a coaching game manager.
Harbaugh didn’t arrive with the coordinator pedigree of Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay. He didn’t have the defensive genius label of a Demeco Ryans or - dare I mention it - Gregg Williams. He was a special teams coordinator, and no one - not even Pro Football Hall of Famer Marv Levy - can be elevated to "genius" level when coaching special teams.
The thing is, geniuses don’t always work out as head coaches. Washington has had a couple of creative offensive guys - Norv Turner, Steve Spurrier, maybe even Jay Gruden - who didn’t work out especially well. More recently. Nathaniel Hackett didn’t work out so well with the Denver Broncos. Nor did Josh McDaniels, despite having two cracks at getting it right.
There’s a mystical bridge one must cross to get from coordinator to head coach. It can be almost impossible to tell whether a given candidate has the right ingredients to make the journey.
I realize this is radical thinking in 2024, but maybe teams shouldn’t be looking for that genius. Maybe they should just be looking for the most competent manager they can find. That’s why, in the great rush to snap up Johnson before anyone else can, I hope the Commanders will give serious thought to both announced candidates who have served under Harbaugh in Baltimore.
Commanders must consider Mike Macdonald and Anthony Weaver
Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and associate head coach Anthony Weaver.
What a game-managing coach does is push the proper buttons. He makes the percentage decision most of the time and perhaps goes off-script every once in a while when he has a particular hunch. What he doesn’t do is call attention to himself.
When was the last time Harbaugh - a Super Bowl winner with a career win rate of 62 percent - made headlines? Whereas geniuses seem primarily intent on showing everyone how much smarter they are than everyone else - can you say Brandon Staley?
Game managers just do the smart thing. They prepare. They motivate. They execute. Then they do it all over again next week. They don’t have play sheets that require a team of sherpas to haul around on the sidelines. They don’t run swinging gate plays - ever.
The reason Harbaugh has been successful coaching this way is that he works for a very stable, efficient organization. He can withstand the loss of stars and be confident that his scouting department will supply him with quality replacements. He has indeed had an elite quarterback since Lamar Jackson entered the league, but he has been able to win games even when the NFL MVP favorite was out with injury.
With a guy like Harbaugh, if you give him a decent roster, he’ll take you to the playoffs. Give him a great quarterback and he’ll challenge for championships.
I like the fact that both Macdonald and Weaver have apprenticed under Harbaugh. They've seen how professional teams like the Ravens go about their business. I especially like the fact Baltimore thought highly enough of both men to promote them to high levels on the coaching staff.
Since both are defensive-minded coaches, their choice of offensive coordinator will be crucial. That’s where you can look for your young genius. Maybe try out a guy like Dave Canales, who has managed to find points despite underwhelming talent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks. Or even take a chance on a guy like Drew Terrell, who helped develop Terry McLaurin when he coached in Washington, before coordinating the Arizona Cardinals passing attack.
If you want to play it closer to the vest, veteran Darrell Bevell might be lured out of the Miami Dolphins.
The point is, if you are looking for a creative offensive mind, there are a lot of options out there. I’m just not sold on one of them taking over as the head coach.
The Commanders are in the process of rebuilding an entire organization. Perhaps it is a better bet to go with competence across the board than to take a really big swing and potentially miss.