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The Keys to NFL Head Coaching Success

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NFL: Super Bowl LIV-San Francisco 49ers vs Kansas City Chiefs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It took the Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid 21 years as a head coach to win a Super Bowl.

Reid earned a Super Bowl ring when he was an offensive line coach for the Green Bay Packers back in 1996—-but, despite winning 10 division championships (6 with the Eagles in the NFC East and 4 with the Chiefs in the AFC West)—-prior to the 2019 season, his only appearance as a head coach in the Super Bowl was in the Eagles’ loss to the Patriots in 2004.

During a similar span of years, the Patriots’ iconic head coach Bill Belichick, has won 17 AFC East championships and 6 Super Bowls (losing in 3 others).

Unquestionably, Belichick had the clear advantage over Reid and all of the NFL coaches the past 21 years, because of coaching for the same team, playing in one of the weakest divisions and having the luxury of winning with the same brilliant QB, Tom Brady.

So—-what do two of the all-time winningest coaches in the NFL and eventual first ballot shoe-ins for the NFL Hall of Fame have in common?

To begin with, neither Belichick nor Reid don particularly charismatic or flamboyant personas. Neither one of them draws much attention to himself. Instead, they come across as master thinkers, copious note takers and diligent instructors.

What genuinely motivates Belichick and Reid?

  1. Their love of the game and the past, present and future of the game.
  2. Their passion for teaching.
  3. Their tireless dedication to film study.
  4. Their eagerness to evolve with the ever-changing trends of the game.
  5. Their commitment and week-to-week reliance on routine in the spirit of giving their teams strategical and physical advantages.
  6. Their appreciation for being a part of the league-wide coaching fraternity, plus being the the fraternity builders of their own coaching staffs.
  7. The complete respect they have for preparing to play each and every opponent, regardless of W-L records or positions in the standings.
  8. Their dedication to creating a team culture that breeds humble and disciplined preparation—-and the notion that “talk is cheap.”.
  9. Their understanding of how critical it is to win their division—-the fact is that only 5 wild card teams have won the Super Bowl in the last 23 years—-that last one being the Green Bay Packers in 2010.
  10. Their eagerness to point out the success of the entire offense, defense and special teams when asked by the media about one or two player’s success.

Winning Their Division:

Beliichick’s Patriots have won the AFC East 17 times in his 20 years and 16 of the last 17 years (including the last 11 years in a row).

Reid’s Eagles won the NFC East 4 years in a row (2001-2004) and Reid’s Chiefs have won the AFC West the last 4 years in a row (2016-2019).

How are Belichick and Reid different?

In my opinion, part of the reason why Bill Belichick has had unprecedented success as an NFL head coach is his uncanny ability to make key roster and coaching staff moves that were not very popular with the fans or popular at times with Tom Brady—-but Belichick seems to understand better than any coach that in order to sustain success in the salary cap era, teams cannot re-sign all of their star players to huge, salary cap heavy salaries—-and he understands how to obtain valuable assets when trading players in their prime.

The difficult part of roster building under the salary cap is finding a way to take the emotion out of moving on from players and coaches that the head coach himself respects and appreciates.

Andy Reid has at times been perhaps a little too loyal to players and coaches—-which isn’t a bad thing, per se. But, it could be part of the reason why his career playoff record is 15-14 (with 5 one and done disappointments). With the Eagles: 10-9. Chiefs: 5-5.

Thus, it can be argued that Andy Reid finally found a way to win a Super Bowl because of two very gutsy, forward thinking moves he made: (1) with QB Alex Smith playing the best football of his career, Reid moved up in the 2017 NFL Draft to select Patrick Mahomes, and promptly one year later traded Smith to the Redskins; (2) after losing in the playoffs at home in 2016 to the Steelers (16-18), in 2017 to the Titans (21-22) and in 2018 to the Patriots (31-37), putting the Chiefs’ playoff record at 1-5 despite winning 3 AFC West titles in that span, Reid made the extremely difficult decision to let go of his 6 year defensive coordinator and good friend, Bob Sutton, in favor of hiring Steve Spagnuolo, who helped the Giants as their DC win Super Bowl XLII over the Patriots.

Finally in 2019, Andy Reid was able to shed the stigma of not being able to win the big games in the playoffs—-and in the two biggest games versus the Texans and 49ers, his Chiefs overcame second half deficits by virtue of clutch offense playmaking and critical defensive adjustments.

I have been thinking a lot about Belichick and Reid very recently because while the Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury has a long way to go as a 2nd year NFL head coach, there are aspects of Kingsbury’s coaching style that resemble Belichick’s and Reid’s.

For example, Kingsbury’s terse handling of media questions is very Belichick-like. Kingsbury may seem a little more affable, but it’s clear that he just wants to answer the questions as simply and quickly as possible and does not want to volunteer much more than basic answers. He also is quick to take the blame for the team’s shortcomings after losses and quick to praise the entire team after wins much the same way Belichick does.

As for Kingsbury’s likeness to Andy Reid, it can be found in the sheer love of play calling, play designing/innovation/creativity, teaching and their thoughtful, unpretentious, respectful composure on the sideline during games.

What’s fascinating is that Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals’ impressive offensive line coach, Sean Kugler, played respectively for Bill Belichick and Andy Reid.

The Patriots drafted Kliff Kingsbury in the 6th round of the 2003 NFL Draft.

Sean Kugler’s offensive line coach when he played his college ball at UTEP was Andy Reid.

It would not be difficult to imaginary how their coaching careers were affected by the influence of two of the greatest coaching role models imaginable.

Now—-let there be no mistake—-Kliff Kingsbury is his own man.

With Kingsbury, he exemplifies the kind of work ethic that he wants from his players, but he also recognizes the need for players to enjoy their hard work and to be given some perks and freedoms along the way, like cellphone breaks at the halftime of team meetings and giving the players the opportunity to chat during water breaks in practice while digging into the goodies on the fruit cart.

As evidenced by the excitement of the Cardinals’ players and the fact that so many of the Cardinals’ own free agents were eager to re-sign with the team, there is a strong buzz surrounding the Cardinals and the team leadership.

Kingsbury made the bold move last season to ride RB Kenyan Drake when #41 burst onto the scene—-which was followed up this off-season by keeping Drake in the fold with the transition tag and by trading RB David Johnson and 2nd and 4th round picks to the Texans for WR DeAndre Hopkins and a 4th rounder (DT Rashard Lawrence, LSU).

Kingsbury and Keim made the bold in-season moves of releasing underperforming veterans such as D.J. Swearinger, Michael Crabtree and Terrell Suggs.

In retrospect, Kingsbury wishes he didn't wait to rehearse the K-Raid in live action until game one of the regular season—-and he regrets having given the players an extra day off during the bye week.

Kingsbury is learning one thing that both Belichick and Reid rely so heavily on: the critical importance of maintaining the good habits that come from daily and weekly routines.

Now that GM Steve Keim has done an excellent job of providing the coaches with talent, Kliff Kingsbury's chief challenges this year are:

(1) as a play caller and mentor to QB Kyler Murray, to continue to build off the growth they showed last year in understanding how to identify NFL defensive schemes on each pre-snap and how to attack them where they are most vulnerable;

(2) as the head coach, to continue to make sure that the coaches get more and more on the same page in terms of approach and instruction (new Panthers’ head coach Matt Ruhl, who is making the jump from a college staff to a pro staff, is doing a brilliant thing by asking his assistant coaches to observe other coaches’ meetings so as the accelerate the “same page” process);

3) as a head coach, to make sure that he can do all he can to help Vance Joseph and the defensive coaches turn a team weakness in 2019 into a new strength in 2020, while continuing to help Jeff Rodgers build on the Cardinals’ growing success on special teams.

The exciting thing for Cardinals’ fans is that Kliff Kingsbury intuitively and humbly braids his love of coaching/teaching/innovating/team building with an indefatigable work ethic—-which is the kind of synthesis that has propelled Bill Belichick and Andy Reid to the top of their profession.

What players appreciate and respect more than anything is a coach’s hard work and ability to give them a competitive edge in the game.

What’s so encouraging and reassuring about Kliff Kingsbury—-is how readily he acknowledges what he’s learning—-and how tersely he relates it—-so he can get right back to work—-as quickly as he can.