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The Evolving Importance of Offensive Coordinators in the NFL

In a league increasingly dominated by quarterback play, a surprising trend emerges: offensive coordinators are choosing to stay put, valuing continuity and success over the traditional head coach path

The path to becoming a NFL head coach is relatively well understood by most fans. Coaches on a staff typically start as assistant position coaches, and then start to climb the career path ladder. From there they would move on to be a position coach to coordinator to eventually being named as a head coach. At the end of every season, multiple franchises in the NFL move on from their head coaches in search of a new vision for the future. During this time, team owners interview the next innovative offensive and defensive coordinators in hope of saving their franchise from mediocrity. 

Usually these coordinators take a job when it is presented to them, to make their mark on the world of football coaching. In this year's coaching cycle, however, we have seen multiple offensive coordinators that were considered in line for jobs opting to stay with their teams as coordinators instead. The Buffalo Bills Joe Brady, Houston Texans Bobby Slowik, and Detroit Lions Ben Johnson have all returned to their jobs after garnering various levels of interest around the league. This development sheds light on the importance of strong coordinators in today’s NFL to ensure continued success of a team and its players. 

All About the Quarterback

You hear it all the time about the modern NFL: this league is one that is dominated by quarterback play. You simply cannot hope to win at a high level without at the very least above average play at that position. The best teams in the league today have players at quarterback that are in the MVP conversation in some form or fashion. For years, fans of teams that had mediocre signal callers have often used the 2000 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens as a model of success. This was always a flawed argument because it discounted that those Ravens had one of the best defenses ever assembled. Winning with a “game manager” quarterback like Trent Dilfer simply isn’t the formula these days in the NFL. 

Coaching success and failure is often determined by how well or poorly a team’s quarterback plays. Look no further than the dynasty of the last 20 years as evidence of this. When the New England Patriots had Tom Brady as their starting quarterback, they never had a losing season and won six Super Bowls. It was during this tenure that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick cemented his legacy as one of the best coaches of all-time. But in the four years since Brady left New England the team has been 29-38 with only one playoff appearance. Belichick is now out as coach in New England and searching for his next job. Quarterback play simply matters in today’s NFL more than it has in the past, even for a legendary coach like Belichick. 

So when a coordinator excels at their job, it is important to think about what sort of quarterback situation they are walking into and weigh if it is worth taking the leap or not. During this coaching hiring carousel, there was only one job open with an alluring quarterback situation, and that was the Los Angeles Chargers. The Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, and Seattle Seahawks (to a lesser extent than the other three) did not have desirable quarterback outlooks whether through returning players or high draft picks. In a draft that has three top level quarterback prospects the Falcons, Titans, and Seahawks were on the outside looking in which meant that the future of the position was in unsure hands for any coordinator taking the job. The Washington Commanders were also hiring a coach and own the second pick in this years draft, but with new ownership and the uncertainty that comes with it, it was far from a glamorous opportunity. 

In the case of Joe Brady, Bobby Slowik, and Ben Johnson they looked at the quarterbacks that they have in their current positions and concluded that it would be better to stay put. And frankly, who can blame them? Brady is currently working with Josh Allen, a top three quarterback in the league. Slowik has been given CJ Stroud, the rookie of the year and immediately a player that appears to be a superstar in the making. And Johnson is with Jared Goff, who is still in his prime and coming off of an NFC Championship appearance with the Detroit Lions. Their willingness to stay speaks volumes about the importance of a good coordinator in addition to a statement about how hard it is to find a franchise quarterback in the NFL. 

The Importance of Structure

For many years, being an excellent offensive or defensive coordinator was a position without glory. Many people remember when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014. They remember Pete Carroll being the head coach and Russell Wilson being the quarterback. But not many will remember the offensive and defensive coordinators for the Seahawks that season, Darrell Bevell and Dan Quinn (recently named head coach of the Washington Commanders) who have had flirtations with head coaching jobs in recent years. Many fans and teams often view losing a coordinator as a “next man up” mentality, that their skills are impressive but not worthy of fighting to keep. 

From 2011 to 2018, the Carolina Panthers were led by Cam Newton at quarterback. The number one pick in the draft, Newton had perhaps one of the most successful seasons of college football in the history of the sport when he led Auburn to a national championship. As a pro he had mixed results and made the playoffs four times. The years where he had the most success also coincided when he was coached by Mike Shula, who is the most successful offensive coordinator in the franchises history. The Panthers moved on from him after a playoff loss because they thought that they could upgrade from him. They were unable to and have not made a return to the playoffs since letting him go in 2018. This story has happened many times throughout NFL history, but it seems that the tide could be changing with the realization that coordinators should be retained to ensure success. 

The relationship between coordinators and quarterbacks in today’s NFL is one of collaboration. They align on a vision and implement a style of offense that is conducive to the success of the player, and in turn the success of the team. Constantly shuffling the pieces of this relationship is problematic and breaks consistency for the development of a quarterback, which limits the potential success of a team. So when a match between the two occurs, teams now know that it is important to ensure continuity as much as possible. From the perspective of a coordinator it simply comes down to winning versus the ego stroke of being the head of a team. Staying in a good situation builds their legacy and brand as a winner, but it comes at the cost of being thought of as a secondary piece to a head coach. 

Keeping offensive coordinators is now a top priority for teams thanks to the importance of having a successful quarterback. The Texans and Lions are franchises that have had more lean years than successful ones, so keeping continuity for their quarterbacks was of the utmost importance. As more young quarterbacks enter the league every year, we should see more teams approach the retention of a star coordinator in the same light as keeping an offensive lineman or wide receiver. The NFL is a quarterbacks league, and quarterbacks need coordinators to be successful. It seems that teams are finally taking notice of this direct correlation. 

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