The NFL Is Innovating More Than Ever Before

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NFL Is Innovating
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 28: Head coach Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams looks on during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The week 11 slate of games this past weekend in the NFL opened with one of the more head-scratching news items we have seen during the 2018 season, with Adam Schefter reporting that the Cleveland Browns were giving serious consideration to at the very least interviewing Condoleezza Rice for their vacant head coaching position.

Beyond the headline, it is worth noting that the reality was somewhat wider in its scope; that the Browns were looking at a number of front office and executive positions.

At its most damning, well for Hue Jackson anyway, was the fact that much of the reaction focused not on Rice’s credentials for such a gig but whether she would post a better record than Jackson (I’d imagine a quick straw poll would go in Rice’s favor).

The news was quickly dismissed by both Rice and Browns general manager John Dorsey, although he was quick to note that their search to replace Jackson would be far and wide, and the link to the Browns job may have been little more than the result of some mischief-making somewhere along the line.

The report does though speak to a wider point about how NFL teams search for head coaching candidates. The historical and traditional route to landing such a gig was always to earn your stripes coming up through the coaching ranks, slowly and surely until becoming a coordinator. From there you become touted as a hot prospect on the coaching carousel before finally getting your shot. The head coach was the preserve of greying temples and expanding waistlia nes, testament to the hard yards put in to finally reach the top.

This was a linear route, lacking imagination and, frankly, is now an anachronism given the development and pace of change through the NFL. While the talent pool NFL teams cast their net into is still predominantly drawn from the coordinator ranks, we are seeing younger candidates hired, with far less experience as a coordinator – or even a play caller – than we have historically seen.

As the NFL has pivoted and shifted in terms of what has brought rewards, the influence of the college game and high school has become more prevalent. Schemes, concepts and plays are increasingly drawn from outside the NFL. NFL teams are heading en masse to college campuses to pick the brains of those at the helm.

The success the likes of Sean McVay has had with the Los Angeles Rams or that of Matt Nagy with the Chicago Bears is a testament to this. Both were young, vibrant hires with plenty of pedigree (not to be confused with inexperience) but not with miles on the clock. Even Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts trod a path not well-traveled to land where he did.

Who are the touted prospects for 2019? Matt Lafleur, John DeFilippo, Lincoln Riley. What NFL experience do they have as a coordinator? Young quarterbacks are the currency of the moment in the league. Having one isn’t enough. Being able to develop one during their cheap, rookie contract years when you can focus the cap on skill players and defensive playmakers is fundamental to a franchise’s prospects.

Scheme and concepts are key. Longevity and experience are not. As a head coach, you are responsible for the culture, the strategy, the direction. The X’s and O’s are less fundamental at that position so why wouldn’t teams look beyond the coordinator ranks for the right hire? Why wouldn’t teams look beyond the pale; beyond the stale? And beyond the male.

Front offices are already expanding their reach in this area. The time of good football men is coming to an end. Franchises are increasingly seeking an advantage in every aspect of their operation. Caution has proved regressive. Adventure and risk tasking are becoming the watchwords.

Re-treads and re-hires are a dying breed. Look at those franchises that are most successful on the field. Is it not a reflection of those who are looking to be as progressive as possible off the field? This is why the Oakland Raiders hire of Jon Gruden was so problematic. It was a backwards looking decision by those in charge at the time. Less than a year into the decade of Gruden it looks to be disastrous. Equally, the New York Giants hire of Pat Shurmur, an archetypical re-tread, and a decision to pass on taking a quarterback in the draft are floundering without any semblance of a cohesive strategy or future plan.

After a problematic 2017, the 2018 NFL season has rebounded in style. The seismic reaction to the Monday Night showdown between the Rams and Kansas City Chiefs not only felt the climax to this but a foreshadowing of what is to come. It is not an over-reaction to surmise that things may never be the same for the NFL.

Condoleezza Rice may not have been a serious consideration but borne out of it was seriousness. A new era is upon us. The old guard has been challenged. Old methods are relics. Innovation and experimentation are here to stay.

Those will prove most successful will be those who get – and stay – ahead.

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