It’s Time for the Anti-John Fox


We all know it.  John Fox knows it.  The players know it.

This Sunday is John Fox‘s final game as head coach of the Carolina Panthers.

Come Monday, Fox will join an already crowded field of unemployed head coaches.  And the Panthers will become at least the fifth team to begin a coaching search.

So who’s next?  Who takes his place?  Instead of throwing out a bunch of names and why they are the best choice for this team right now I’d prefer to focus on the kind of head coach the Panthers need.

Debate among the fans seems to dictate the mention of names like Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden or even Jim Harbaugh.

Further, fans of any team looking for their next head coach will always throw out the obligatory “we need an offensive-minded coach” or “we need a defensive-minded coach.”  Their focus is myopic as they tend to look only at the weakest area of their favorite team.  The thinking is, for instance, that our team has a bad offense so let’s bring in a coach who has a background on that side of the ball.

Is it that simple?

We’ve looked back over NFL statistics and Super Bowl results since 1980 to try to determine a trend.  What we found just might surprise you.

Using this 30-year history as a sample proved interesting.  We broke this down into four annual categories:  #1 offense, #1 defense, Super Bowl winners and Super Bowl losers.  There had to be some kind of trend there, right?

Not necessarily.

#1 Offense

Since 1980 the teams with the #1 offense in the NFL have produced us with some memorable names.  There’s a virtual whos-who among the men coaching these teams.  Don Coryell, Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh and even Sean Payton come to mind first.

What’s interesting is that coaches whose resumes began on the defensive side of the ball also appear.  Tom Landry, Don Shula, Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick stand out.

It may be even more interesting to note that George Seifert (we all remember him), a defensive guru of his time, was head coach of five separate teams to end the season ranked #1 on offense.

Overall, only half (15) of the teams between 1980 and 2009 to end the season first on offense were headed up by coaches with offensive backgrounds.  Eleven teams were coached by men with defensive backgrounds.

The wild cards here are Marvy Levy and Dick Vermeil who both spent the bulk of their time before becoming head coaches working on special teams.

#1 Defense

Again, no clear cut path to having the best defense in the league.  This list of 30 teams is dotted with head coaches like Bill Parcells, Jim Mora, Bill Belichick and Bill Cowher – all men who put in their time working on the defensive side of the ball prior to head coaching stints.

But throw in offensive gurus like Bill Walsh, Dan Reeves, Joe Gibbs and Jon Gruden and the waters muddy a bit.

Since 1980, the #1 overall defense was possessed by a team headed up by a coach with a defensive background 15 times while 13 of those squads were led by men with offensive backgrounds.

Again, Dick Vermeil and his heavy emphasis on special teams appears here twice.

Super Bowl Winners

The axiom that defense wins championships should hold water, right?  Let’s look.  In 30 years, only seven teams received the distinction of owning the #1 defense and winning the Super Bowl.

Conversely, seven teams with the #1 offense won the Super Bowl in that same 30-year stretch.

The list of head coaches to lead their teams to the title in that span include luminaries like Mike Ditka, Jimmy Johnson, Tom Flores and Bill Parcells.  But, again, there’s no clear correlation between the coach’s background and success in taking home the Lombardi Trophy.

Overall 14 coaches from defensive backgrounds have won the title while 15 coaches with offensive backgrounds have won titles.  Dick Vermeil, again, was the odd man out with his special teams background.

Super Bowl Losers

If we can’t prove that defense wins championships we can certainly prove it doesn’t lose them.  Only twice since 1980 has the team with the number 1 overall defense lost the Super Bowl.

We may have to wonder, however, if offense can lose championships since five teams have topped the league in offense only to go on to lose the ultimate game.

Check the coaches to lead their teams to within one game of the title – 8 came from defensive backgrounds while 17 had offensive backgrounds.  Marv Levy, who had a strong background in special teams and experience north of the border, lost the other four.

What’s the conclusion?  Where does this leave us?

Using guys like Mike Ditka as an example it leaves us with this – head coaches are just that.  They lead the team.   They also hire good assistant coaches who they allow to coach.

Ditka’s background was offense.  He was a tight end in his playing days.  Yet his teams were the best at defense because he hired defensive coaches who he allowed to do their jobs.

Don Shula began his coaching career on the defensive side of the ball.  Yet, there he was paired with Dan Marino and the #1 offense.  He stayed out of the way enough to allow that unit to flourish.

In the final analysis, it’s not about the coach’s background.  It’s about two things – 1) do they know X’s and O’s and 2) will they allow their assistants to do their jobs?

Fox has been known to tamper a bit too much.  Dan Henning?  Run out of town only to find success elsewhere later.  How many times did Fox over-rule his offensive coaches?  All accounts indicate that he maintains control even though the coordinator is the one who should be calling the plays.

The next head coach will have to be a bit of a cheerleader to get the fans excited again.  He’ll have to get the players motivated again.  But that honeymoon will be over quickly.

Whether he has a background with offense or defense, he needs to learn the lesson that others learned years ago…hire excellent assistant coaches and let them do their jobs!  Delegate authority and then get out of the way.

If you interfere or feel the need to, then you shouldn’t have given them the job to begin with.

Still, fans will clamor for a coach with a great offensive mind because our offense is so anemic.  Maybe John Fox is right when he says stats are for losers.  But these stats don’t lie.

Let’s stop worrying about our next coach’s background and worry more about whether he knows the game, can hire the best people, delegate and lead.

It’s time for the anti-John Fox.

Tags: Bill Cowher Bill Walsh Carolina Panthers Dan Henning George Seifert Jim Harbaugh Joe Gibbs John Fox Jon Gruden

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  • pir8bill

    “Dan Henning? Run out of town only to find success elsewhere later” What grand success has he had….Oh yeah getting run out of another town, after showing some hope and then having his vanilla offense shut down time after time.
    Carolina is going to be too cheap to hire experience, so they need to find a young energetic coach. But more than anything they need a new GM, this team has drafted terribly bad for several years, hard to blame Fox for this team having NO talent.

    • http://catcraveradio.com John White

      When Henning landed in Miami and helped to put together their Wildcat package which helped propel them to an 11-5 record that no one expected, I’d call that a success. Sure, there’s a good chance he gets fired this off season due to their offense’s struggles but he has had some success in Miami.

  • mcap

    I have said all along that we need a young,energetic coach to pump some excitement into the fans and to also bond with the players. As a guy who has served in the military, I can tell you that behind every good leader there are good assistants. No different in sports,if the coach can’t trust his helpers then he should fire them. Whoever we get needs to know what he wants to do and find helpers who also know what he wants to do.

    Cowher will not be coaching in Charlotte,neither will Gruden. Jerry won’t pony up the dough needed to nail these guys. Jerry will have to dig deep into the pool of talented coordinators or snag a great college coach like Bud Foster,who coaches the defense Andrew Luck will be going against.