ISO: A Leader

Legendary Vince Lombardi at the helm of Washington for one memorable season; 1969. Sonny Jurgensen in the background.

When Josh Harris and the new ownership group selected Adam Peters the pronouncement was that, ““We set out to find a leader, someone who could take this franchise to the next level and build an elite team that consistently competes for championships.” Peters in his first pronouncement stated, ““We’re looking for the best leader for this team, for the Washington Commanders.” During a radio interview within the past ten days Hall-of-Fame Coach Bill Cowher was asked what was the primary attribute to consider when hiring a new Head Coach. “He has to be a leader of men, first and foremost.” If you listen to football people long enough you’ll hear variations on this theme over and over, ad nauseum. What does it mean, though?

The typical noise around a new Head Coach hire is around the success of the various candidates as Coordinators, either on Offense or Defense. Currently the fashionable thing is to hire an Offensive Coordinator who has fashioned an effective unit. The thinking, especially for teams hiring a new Head Coach and drafting very early in the Draft, is to hire the OC to nurture a top-of-draft Quarterback. Washington finds itself in that very situation. The Number-2 Draft Pick is almost surely going to be a QB. Does hiring the hotshot OC translate into success in developing a QB? There are no shortage of cautionary tales.

We Have Been Here Before

Warning: The next two paragraphs may rip off some old scar tissue.

In 1993 the WFT was entering the Post-Joe Gibbs hangover period. Two seasons before Gibbs took one of the best teams in League history to a blowout win over the favored Bills in the Super Bowl. QB Mark Rypien was sacked 7 times all season. The “Sack Rate” is used heavily when evaluating QB and O-Line play. Rypien was sacked once every 60 pass attempts. Backup Jeff Rutledge was sacked twice for a total of NINE sacks all year. Sam Howell took more than that in tw0-game stints several times this season. His sack rate was once every 9.4 attempts. In 1992 the team fell to San Francisco in the Division Round. Gibbs retired thereafter. The following year longtime Defensive Coordinator Richie Petitbon took the reins. The team finished 4-12 attaining the third pick in the Draft. It also needed a new Head Coach.

Rough times; Heath Shuler and Norv Turner driving the ship onto the shoals.

The hottest of hot commodities at the time was Dallas’ Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner. Jerry Jones would go on camera to tout “Norvan” to all who would listen. Washington took the bait. With the yellow/orange-hot Coordinator in the building it was time to draft that Franchise QB. “With the third pick in the 1994 Washington selects Heath Shuler of Tennessee.” Those may not be words that will live in infamy. But, they are certainly cringe-worthy. Shuler started all of 13 games for the franchise amassing an abysmal 4-9 record. Norv Turner ended up his 7-year stint here with a record of 49-59. He ended up coaching for 15-years total for a record of 114-122. Good Coordinator, nice guy, and an NFL Lifer all fit for Norv Turner. Effective Head Coach does not apply.

Washington had been a dominant team for the 1980’s decade. Joe Gibbs injected winning into a long trend of mediocrity, at best. The trajectory turned sharply south after Gibbs left. Nothing has turned the tide in the 30-years since.

It’s early 1994 all over again. Another dismal season has yielded the second pick in the Draft. The WFT is interviewing all the hot Coordinators out there. Ben Johnson of Detroit is the main attraction. There are numerous others. Will this turn out differently this time? It will if the Washington Afterguard fulfills its stated ambitions to hire a real Leader. Charlie Weis, the four-time Super Bowl Offensive Coordinator says often that the job of being a Coordinator is totally different from being the Head Coach. A Coordinator is all football, all the time. A Head Coach has to deal with all the noise, all the owners, all the personnel issues, and all of the media. What elements in the Coordinator job prepare one for such a leap? The answer is, not many. For a lot of Coordinators it’s a leap into the deep end of the pool. There are three options; swim, tread water, or drown.

Much is made of the “Mike Shanahan Coaching Tree.” There are six former members of Mike’s staff that are in the Head Coaching ranks all having reasonable success: Sean McVay in Los Angeles has a Super Bowl in his quiver. Matt LaFleur’s Packers just exited the playoffs after punishing the #2 Seed in Dallas and pushing the #1 Seed 49ers,under the younger Shanahan, to the brink. Mike McDaniel, the eclectic one had his Miami team in the playoffs. Kevin O’Connell is in Minnesota. He nearly got that team into the playoffs despite losing his franchise QB early in the season. Why so much success in subordinates from one Coach in Shanahan when other Head Coaches have whiffed? The answer is straightforward: Shanahan selected and mentored his guys effectively.

“A leader is a person you will follow to a place you would not go by yourself.”

Joel Barker

Natural Leaders come along on rare occasion. The vast majority are developed. The structure of NFL coaching lends itself to repeated failure. Knowing X’s and O’s on one side of the ball has little bearing on overall success at the next level. Head Coaches want successful Coordinators. They just don’t want to lose them to the carousel. Philadelphia made it to the Super Bowl last year. Both Coordinators got new jobs elsewhere. This year’s squad folded like a cheap suit. The Defense especially cratered. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. But, that’s a mighty strong correlation. The verbiage is always that the Head Coaches want the young assistants to go out and succeed. Don’t believe for a second that it applies across the board. The reward portion of the system’s equation says just the opposite. People do what they get rewarded for doing.

For those longing for an Offensive Coordinator selection check this out. There are eight Head Coaches in the Divisional Round this week. Four are Offense and four are Defense. Yesterday two Offensive types went at it in San Francisco. Two Defensive types in Baltimore. Before John Harbaugh was a Special Teams coach he was a Defensive Backs coach. Today are two matchups of Offense vs Defense. Cutting to the chase; it doesn’t matter which side of the ball the Head Coach comes from. It never has.

What Washington needs is someone who will take this franchise someplace it knows nothing about and is incapable of going on its own. That place is called success.

Full-blown interviews can start on Monday. A week later the League offices send about 30 personnel apiece to Mobile for the Senior Bowl prep week. Look for the WFT to have announced a hire by then. Fingers crossed, he will turn out to be the elusive “Leader of men.”

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