Were the Washington Commanders right to go with a defensive-minded head coach in Dan Quinn to take the franchise forward?
I get it. Some Washington Commanders fans were underwhelmed with the hiring of Dan Quinn as the next head coach. We had been promised the next offensive genius in Ben Johnson. Some wanted Jim Harbaugh or Bill Belichick. And some wanted a new defensive guru like Mike MacDonald or Aaron Glenn.
Hardly anyone seemed to want Quinn. It wasn't even because he was considered a bad coach. It was because he was - for lack of a better phrase - a boring hire.
He's a retread. Never mind that he took his previous team to the Super Bowl, something only Belichick accomplished among the names mentioned above. He's a defensive coach who will have to develop a young quarterback. And we all know that never works.
It didn't work with Belichick and Tom Brady. It didn't work with Peyton Manning and Jim Mora or Tony Dungy. It didn't work with Ben Roethlisberger under Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin.
Too far back for you? How did it work out with DeMeco Ryans and C.J. Stroud last year?
Commanders could benefit from a defensive mind as head coach
It is ludicrous to assume a defensive-minded coach can't create conditions for a quarterback to thrive. A lot of the personal development depends on the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. The head coach just has to create a culture of winning.
Often, a defensive-minded head coach is better for the development of a young quarterback. This is because he will build a solid defense and not ask the signal-caller to play beyond himself during his important transition.
Even if you don't buy any of that, there's this. The decision is made. Get upset about it if you want, but then move on. Start pulling for the possibilities that a new coaching staff can create.
Here's another small thing to give some hope. In the recent past, defensive-minded coaches like Quinn have been at a statistical disadvantage when competing for open head coaching jobs. But that may be changing.
Between 2020 and 2023, NFL teams hired 27 new head coaches - excluding interim hires. Two-thirds of those had backgrounds on offense. Many took the step up from offensive coordinator to head coach. Several that did not come from the ranks of coordinator had been head coaches previously - like Mike McCarthy, Dan Campbell, and Sean Payton. They also had backgrounds on offense.
Nine of the 27 coaches had a defensive background. One - Joe Judge - was a special teams coordinator. Most of the new defensive head coaches ascended from the coordinator role. The Commanders' own Ron Rivera was an exception, having been hired after serving as defensive-minded head coach with the Carolina Panthers.
This wave of offensive-minded hires was largely inspired by the success of several young offensive geniuses. Everyone, it seems, was looking for the next Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay. Some of these have worked out - Kevin Stefanski and Mike McDaniel are two prime examples. Others have not - such as Matt Rhule and Nathaniel Hackett.
Recent history suggests the Commanders might be right with a defensive mind
The trend toward hiring offensive coaches may have peaked in 2021 when five of the seven had backgrounds in offense. Two of those have taken their teams to the NFC Championship game in the past two years. One made the Super Bowl. The other three have all been fired, one of them before his first season was complete.
Speaking very broadly, there seems to be a sense in the NFL that as rules have been continually tweaked to favor greater offensive output, getting a coach who can take advantage of those rules is beneficial. But we may be reaching a tipping point.
Of the five new coaches hired for the 2023 season, three were offense-minded. One - Frank Reich - was fired mid-season. Another - Payton - struggled mightily out of the gate before seeming to right the ship with the Denver Broncos. The third - Shane Steichen, the youngest member of the group and the only one without prior head coaching experience - did a pretty good job as the Indianapolis Colts head coach.
Meanwhile, the two defensive-minded coaches fared better.
Jonathan Gannon, despite coaching one of the worst rosters in the league, finished with a 4-13 record. But he kept the Arizona Cardinals competitive all season long, scoring victories over two playoff teams in the final weeks of the season. The other, Ryans, is the frontrunner for NFL Coach of the Year.
Which brings us to 2024. Of the eight coaches, five come from the defensive side of the ball. When was the last time the majority of new hires came from the defense? Another sign of the potential swing.
This may just be a blip - an anomaly. Had Johnson and Bobby Slowik not chosen to remain in their offensive coordinator roles, the numbers might have looked different. We don’t know. We do know that the two offensive coordinators who have been hired so far - Dave Canales and Brian Callahan - were not considered strong candidates when the season began.
Callahan certainly had some interest, but no more than other young offensive coaches like Kellen Moore and Mike LaFleur, who received minimal attention during this hiring cycle. I thought Canales might be a good offensive coordinator choice for the Commanders, but I never thought he would get a top spot this year.
A couple of things may be going on here. NFL teams may be beginning to realize that the liberalization of rules makes it even more important that teams figure out ways to shut down opposing offenses. It was very telling to see an offensive-minded coach like Andy Reid lean so heavily on his defense to defeat the Baltimore Ravens en route to another Super Bowl appearance.
Of course, we may be reaching some sort of limit on offensive innovators. I mean, really, how many of them are floating around out there? This is classic supply and demand.
As demand has gone up, the supply has remained the same. That means you are paying more for your genius - Johnson’s asking price was reputed to be $15 million - and you are more likely to engage in wishful thinking. Seeing genius where none exists, so to speak.
Back in the 1960s, the New York Giants had an offensive coordinator by the name of Vince Lombardi and a defensive coordinator named Tom Landry. Both became head coaches and ended up winning four of the first 12 Super Bowls - two apiece. I guess it has never really mattered which side of the ball you come from. If you’re the right guy, you’re the right guy.
Let’s hope the Commanders are getting the right guy.