The Rise of the NFL Player’s Coach

01/15/2010 4:00 AM |

Most NFL fans are very familiar with the frequently cited, dueling archetypes: the ‘Player’s Coach’ versus ‘The Disciplinarian.’ The Player’s Coach is affable and easygoing, approachable and well liked by the media. In post-game interviews his players usually address him by his first name, as in “Well, Donny put in a good game plan and we executed it, and it worked just like Donny said it would.” The Player’s Coach often has a short run of success followed by a massive franchise-wide implosion when things start going squirrelly. Once a protracted losing streak occurs, the players realize that they are still going to be paid and aren’t going to get yelled at. Then the genie is out of the bottle, and the jig is up.

The ‘Disciplinarian’, on the other hand, is typically despised by his players. He has a fetish for sadistically long practices, and bizarre team rules like always having to style your hair in the manner of a National Socialist. The Disciplinarian has a habit of cutting problem players and wearing teams out with injury over the course of a full season. Their relationship to the media is usually astonishingly bland and monosyllabic, and on the rare occasion that they crack a smile or joke it is treated as a geo-hemispheric shock.

The Disciplinarian may make for a sub-optimal dinner guest, but in recent years, there has been little question that this coaching archetype has excelled. Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick, two men who put together do not quite add up to one personality, have combined to win multiple Super Bowls. And while Mike Tomlin surely possesses a certain charisma in his authority, he is hardly unintimidating—the sort of man who calmly invokes the most violent passages of gladiator movies in order to elucidate his team’s late-season strategy.

What makes this season peculiar is the number of soft touch, discipline-light Player’s Coaches who have taken their teams deep into the postseason. Whether this represents an anomaly or a genuine trend remains to be seen, but it certainly is curious. Consider a few of those now vying for the big ring:

Norv Turner

In seven long seasons as head coach of the Washington Redskins and two more with the Oakland Raiders, Norv Turner—a certified offensive wizard with the reputation as a very nice man—always appeared absolutely overwhelmed as a leader. His teams were radically undisciplined, with the trademark of pouting superstars and losing records. For some reason, perhaps simply because he is very agreeable, Turner kept getting more and more chances. Finally by virtue of some bizarre wrinkle in time, space and logic, Turner was handed the keys to a profoundly talented San Diego Chargers team in 2006. The Chargers were loaded, coming off a 14-2 season, and a very fluky loss in the playoffs. Having parted ways with the prickly but always effective Marty Schottenheimer—a sort of ultimate disciplinarian figure—they hired the feckless, twice failed Turner.

Cynics like myself assumed he would immediately run this team into the ground. He has not done so. So talented is the Chargers roster that Turner was handed that he has managed to achieve solid post-season runs the last two years, and heads into this weekend’s contest with an 11-game winning streak. I remain relatively certain that Turner is not a good coach, and that some enormous system failure of game management will demonstrate this fact in the playoffs. But I’m no longer sure. What if he wins the whole thing? Norv Turner, world champion…? The dizzy spells are returning…

Wade Phillips

Philips is Norv Turner’s contemporary and counterpart as a defensive mastermind—a respected coordinator who has been handed head coaching jobs in five different cities, with middling success at every stop. Even for a devoted Cowboy hater, the man is hard to dislike. Unfailingly easy going and laconic, during post-game press conferences Phillips can often seem to have forgotten what the occasion is. With his soft drawl and gentle sense of humor, he deflects withering criticism with an easy shrug. He’s fun to watch—a sample media session might find him reposting to an animated critique with something like:

“Well, I mean I don’t know… I don’t know. I guess that was a screw up. It was all happening a little fast. I guess I’m not really sure…”

One of these weeks you half expect him to go ahead and break out the old ‘Fuck it, Dude, let’s go bowling.”

But again, in Phillips case, form has not held. Never having won a playoff game previously as a head coach, his Cowboys rolled through the last three weeks of the regular season and right over the Philadelphia Eagles last week. You could scarcely imagine this man running a Boy Scout troop, but whatever he’s doing, or not doing, currently seems to be working.

Rex Ryan

Of course the strangest case of all is Jets coach Rex Ryan, who is always the weirdest part of any story he is involved in. No one will ever accuse Ryan of being laidback or quiet, but he certainly is a player’s coach, and in an utterly novel way at that.

In the typical dichotomy of disciplinarian versus player’s coach, the disciplinarian is a remote, demanding father figure to his team, while the player’s coach is ‘one of the guys’ and ‘treats his team like men.’

Ryan has discovered a previously unexplored third way to negotiate this dynamic: by being hands down the most infantile person in the locker room. By assuming the ranting, bragging, crying manner of a hyper-active 8 year old, Ryan seems to have truly startled his team. Surely he is the first coach that many of these players have ever observed to openly sob following a loss. This is a completely new level of identification—Ryan is not ‘one of the guys’—he’s one of the guy’s children. And I’ll be damned if the team isn’t genuinely protective of him. You probably never saw this in the George Halas handbook, but for one season it has been enough to make Rex’s Jets the NFL story in New York. Somewhere Tom Coughlin is polishing his medals and muttering darkly…

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