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Examining the remaining head coaches in the playoffs for insights into Washington’s next leader

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Miami Dolphins v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Kara Durrette/Getty Images

At new General Manager Adam Peters’ introductory presser yesterday, he talked about a variety of topics, including his excitement at the opportunity in DC, his thoughts on the roster, and his team building philosophy.

Towards the end of the press conference, he was asked about his thoughts on the next head coach, and what he was looking for in that individual.

AP: I think in any head coach, in any leader, is leadership. Leadership, great communication, being able to be honest, direct and upfront, have all those qualities, and they’re all intertwined. But those are the main qualities. You have to be very smart. You have to be very driven. There’s so many different qualities that make up a great head coach and a great leader, but really it’s just about being a great person, a great human being that people will follow.

There’s not a massive amount of information there, but in the spirit of overthinking things - as so often happens this time of year - I’m going to explore it a bit more thoroughly. While to many, Peters’ comments probably seemed like predictable generalities, to me, they pointed in a direction I wasn’t quite prepared for.

Prior to the press conference, I - like most observers, it seemed - was thinking that one of the wunderkind offensive coordinators, like Ben Johnson (Lions) or Bobby Slowik (Texans) was the odds on favorite for the role. After, I’m not so sure. Peters seemed to subordinate technical competence to leadership ability, a trait that I haven’t often heard associated with Johnson or Slowik.

Is Peters looking for a “Leader of Men,” or the next hot offensive strategist, and is one model or the other more likely to result in success? I thought it would be fun to look at the eight remaining head coaches in the playoffs at this point, shoehorn each one, and think about the results. Let’s start in the AFC.

Andy Reid

Technical Strength: Reid came to head coaching from an offensive coordinator background and is considered one of the foremost offensive minds in the NFL at this point. Despite being the head coach, Reid has called plays for the team for years.

Leader of Men (Y/N): Probably, though it’s not often touted as his top strength.

High End QB (Y/N): It doesn’t get any higher end than Patrick Mahomes.

Sean McDermott

Technical Strength: McDermott was a defensive coordinator prior to becoming a head coach. His offensive coordinator to start the season, Ken Dorsey, was fired mid-season.

“You can question a lot of things about coaching style, you can question a lot of things about my decision-making, you can question a lot of things about this team, but to question his character and who he is as a man … he’s one of the better humans on this planet,” Josh Allen said after the game.

Leader of Men (Y/N): Yes.

High End QB (Y/N): Yes, Josh Allen is one of the best QBs in the game.

DeMeco Ryans

Technical Strength: Ryans, like McDermott, was elevated from a defensive coordinator role in his head coaching position. Bobby Slowik is currently his offensive coordinator.

“DeMeco has definitely brought in great energy,” Cal McNair told Texans Wire during training camp. “It has energized the town, so I am excited for that. We are really excited that DeMeco wanted to come home and finish the job that he started back in 2006 when we drafted him. He has stepped into that leadership role, and I think it is going to be a really exciting time for the Texans.”

Leader of Men (Y/N): Yes.

High End QB (Y/N): It’s too early to say definitively, but CJ Stroud looks good.

John Harbaugh

Technical Strength: Harbaugh was a special teams coordinator prior to becoming head coach for the Ravens. Baltimore added a new offensive coordinator this year, Todd Monken.

Harbaugh is not known as an X’s and O’s guy, but rather as a leader of men. Accordingly, Harbaugh makes a point to bring in highly regarded coordinators and position coaches, even if they have big personalities.

Leader of Men (Y/N): Yes.

High End QB (Y/N): Former MVP Lamar Jackson is high end.

Onto the NFC.

Kyle Shanahan

Technical Strength: Shanahan is considered to run perhaps the most QB-friendly offense in the NFL. He had an extensive history as an offensive coordinator before coming to the 49ers. He’s still the play caller for San Francisco.

Leader of Men (Y/N): Shanahan has groomed many “leaders of men,” - particularly on the defensive side of the ball - Ryans, Steve Wilks, Robert Saleh, but he, himself is not usually characterized that way.

High End QB (Y/N): In most other offenses, Brock Purdy is probably not a high end QB.

Dan Campbell

Technical Strength: Campbell was a tight ends coach prior to taking the head coaching job with the Lions. His offensive coordinator has been Ben Johnson for the past two years.

“Listen, he’s the best leader I’ve been around, I think, regardless of whichever sport I’ve been a part of. It’s really impressive what he’s been able to do,” Ben Johnson said. “Being true to himself, demanding, he’s results driven. But yet, his way of delivering a message and getting it across, what to say and how to say it at the right time. It’s really unique and it’s special.

Leader of Men (Y/N): Mr. Kneecap Biter is the consummate “leader of men” style head coach. The guy oozes energy, and is content to leave the technical work to his coordinators.

High End QB (Y/N): Throughout his career, Jared Goff has not been a spectacular QB. Over the past two years, however, he has had great seasons under Johnson.

Matt LaFleur

Technical Strength: LaFleur, like his mentor, Shanahan, spent time as an offensive coordinator before becoming the Packers’ head coach. Like Reid and Shanahan on this list he calls his team’s offensive plays.

Leader of Men (Y/N): No, probably not at this point.

High End QB (Y/N): Jordan Love seems to be coming into his own this season, but he’s going to have to keep this level of performance up before he earns the title.

Todd Bowles

Technical Strength: Bowles spent nearly all of his career on the defensive side of the ball and was a defensive coordinator for the Buccaneers before becoming their head coach. His offensive coordinator is second year - former QB coach - Dave Canales, who came over from Seattle.

“He’s a leader of men,” Pat Kirwan (NFL Network) added about Bowles. “He passes the criteria. Don’t screw this up by firing Todd Bowles.”

Leader of Men (Y/N): Yes.

High End QB (Y/N): Baker Mayfield is not a high end QB.

Here’s that information distilled into tabular form.

2024 Playoffs Coaching Strengths

Coach Technical Call Offense? Leader? Top QB?
Coach Technical Call Offense? Leader? Top QB?
Andy Reid OC Y ? Y
Sean McDermott DC N Y Y
DeMeco Ryans DC N Y ?
John Harbaugh ST N Y Y
Kyle Shanahan OC Y N N
Dan Campbell TE N Y N
Matt LaFleur OC Y N N
Todd Bowles DC N Y N

Conclusions

There’s obviously room for disagreement on my characterizations, which are fairly subjective, but if you take them as roughly accurate, I think it’s safe to say several patterns emerge.

  1. If you’re not a clear “leader of men,” you had better be one of the best offensive play calling minds in the game. If you want to win Super Bowls, you should probably also have a top QB.
  2. If you are a defensive-minded, or otherwise non-play calling “leader of men,” you damn well better have a high end offensive coordinator calling your plays for you, with one caveat.
  3. If you don’t call your own offensive plays - as one of the top offensive minds in the league - and you lack a highly gifted OC, you need an MVP-caliber QB.

Who is the “worst” situated of this august crew? Probably Bowles, LaFleur, Shanahan, and Campbell, with Ryans in the mix. Who’s in the best shape? Probably Reid or Harbaugh. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next several weeks.

But back to the question that started us off: What does this mean for Washington’s coaching search? In terms of ceiling, my gut tells me Johnson and Slowik are potentially in the Shanahan/LaFleur zone, with Reid upside with a transformative QB. That’s great company to be in, but none of those coaches are foremost characterized as “leaders” in common parlance.

If Peters goes with a more conventional “leader” in the mold of someone like Mike Vrabel, however, a hyper-talented OC - at a minimum - is a must. Short of that, it’s probably safe to expect topping out at Wild Card weekend or division round exits, in the absence of a transformational talent at QB. That said, it’s important to remember that Vrabel’s most successful OC in Tennessee - the decidedly non “leader of men” Arthur Smith - just bombed out as a head coach in Atlanta.

What are your thoughts?

Poll

Who will be Washington’s next head coach?

This poll is closed

  • 55%
    Ben Johnson
    (270 votes)
  • 17%
    Bobby Slowik
    (84 votes)
  • 10%
    Mike Vrabel
    (53 votes)
  • 16%
    Mike Macdonald
    (78 votes)
485 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Who should be Washington’s next head coach?

This poll is closed

  • 45%
    Ben Johnson
    (193 votes)
  • 23%
    Bobby Slowik
    (101 votes)
  • 13%
    Mike Vrabel
    (58 votes)
  • 16%
    Mike Macdonald
    (70 votes)
422 votes total Vote Now