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Philosoraptor’s Corner: What should the Giants be looking for in their head coach?

Can we identify some traits shared successful head coaches?

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The New York Giants are undergoing their first real rebuild in decades.

The process the Giants are going through right now is truly historic and presents a real break from the 96-year history of the team.

After more than 40 years, the Giants are leaving the line of succession that stretched from George Young to Dave Gettleman behind. And in a break with the Giants’ tradition as a “family business”, Joe Schoen — not anyone with the last name “Mara” or “Tisch” will be leading the team’s search for a head coach.

(Ownership still plays an important role in the head coaching search, but every indication we have is that Schoen is taking point)

There has already been a lot of discussion about who that next head coach should be. In years past, the Giants have often looked for the opposite of the previous coach.

Where Tom Coughlin was one of the oldest and most experienced coaches in the NFL, Ben McAdoo is young and brought modern ideas — though his demeanor reminded many of a younger version of Coughlin. After the Giants’ locker room fractured under McAdoo, the Giants turned to “players coach” Pat Shurmur, and then to hard-nosed disciplinarian Joe Judge when Shurmur failed.

Fans have been discussing the various head coaching candidates, treating every play and down as a referendum on their whole career. Is Brian Daboll better than Dan Quinn? What about Brian Flores or Lou Anarumo? Does the presence of a great player count against the candidate or do they get credit for developing them?

But if we’re being honest fans don’t know what they want, except for the losing, humiliation, and pain to stop.

So I turned to a few sources who have written on head coaching searches recently to see what they agree on as the traits teams should look for in successful head coaches. Those sources were former ESPN reporter Sheil Kapadia writing for The Athletic, former NFL executives Bill Polian and Tom Lewand writing for the 33rd Team, and NFL players themselves.

And as it turns out, there were more than a few points of agreement between these disparate sources. Few of them had anything to do with specific schemes or backgrounds.

Leadership

When we get right down to it, the head coaching job is about leadership. Diving into the nuts and bolts of scheme and game planning and all that are great, but there are a bunch of schemes that are successful in the NFL. Before any of that can matter, a coach has to be a leader.

That’s the common refrain from players and executives alike. The head coach is The Guy, and if he isn’t a good leader, it doesn’t matter how smart and innovative he is. As Bill Polian says in a piece for the 33rd Team,

“..to the players — the most important people who are out there performing every week — the head coach is the be-all and end-all.

“He’s the person they strive to impress. He’s the guy that in many cases they’re wary of or afraid of because he controls their professional destiny. And most importantly, he’s the man that can take them higher than they think they can go.”

But what does “leadership” mean?

I know I have my own idea of what it means to be a leader. I think it means honesty (both with yourself and those you’re leading), consistency, and understanding that true leadership is about service. To me, a leader isn’t at the top of the pile but is the person who sets everyone else up for success — to sacrifice, grind and chase the devils in the details so the people they’re leading can just do their jobs well.

Sheil Kapadia, writing about head coaching searches for The Athletic, has this to say about leadership as a head coach,

“There’s no perfect way to define leadership in this context. Authenticity definitely matters. Players can spot a phony from miles away. Consistency matters too. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs. An even temperament can be valuable. It usually means the coach is process-oriented, and that should trickle down to everyone else. Volatility can wear on people.

“If a coach has the belief of his players and the trust of his staff, he can navigate through many of the other challenges associated with the job. But if he’s not a great leader, the other stuff probably won’t matter.”

A head coach’s leadership ability matters, and affects everyone in the organization, but most of all the players. NFL.com interviewed some of the best players in the NFL about the most important traits in a head coach. Unsurprisingly, “leadership” came up pretty often.

Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce has this to say about leadership from a head coach,

“That’s a general term, but it goes a little bit deeper than that. When you’re thinking of somebody who can lead an army, lead a group of men, lead a mass group of people, you have to have some sort of order, and that’s what Coach (Andy) Reid really does for us. He creates order and then his discipline upon that order is what really drives the system. That’s everything right there. He creates an environment of this is how it’s done. Everybody understands it, everybody abides by it and everybody knows this is how I get better within it. He leaves no gray area. he establishes a set of rules and expectations and demands those expectations be met.”

Calais Campbell defines it this way,

“A great coach sets yearly and weekly team goals while convincing the guys to buy into them over their personal goals. He also could build a player-led committee to handle all locker room issues. He would allow the coordinators to do their job but would hold them — as well as the other coaches and players — accountable. He would make sure the guys are prepared and are ready for every situation throughout the game. He would also have efficient practice schedules and meetings to create good practice habits, never wasting players’ time.”

The players also brought up traits like honesty and the coach’s ability to communicate with the players.

The ageless Frank Gore has this to say about the importance of honesty in a coach,

“A coach being straight up with a player is critical. We’re all men at the end of the day, and I hate when a coach isn’t 100 percent real with you. I might not like what you have to say, but I respect that you’re straight up with me.”

Richard Sherman points out Kyle Shanahan’s honesty in much the same way, saying,

“Pete [Carrol] has a way of making sure everybody feels good, making sure he pushes buttons with certain players and not pushing buttons on other players. Kyle is different. He’s one size fits all. I’m going to cut it to you as straight as I can, as best as I can, and I’m going to explain every single detail of what I understand about the game that either makes this a good play or a bad play or makes us a good team or a bad team. That honesty is something that I think is valuable in a head coach because there’s no gray area. You know where you stand at all times, almost to a point where you’re like, “Damn! That’s how you really feel?” But you can respect that as a player because what he’s saying is objective: Did we win or lose the down? Why did we win or lose the down? If you can give him a fair point back to him, he can take that. He’s flexible in that way.”

Being honest is a great trait, but it’s often lost if a person can’t communicate with the people they’re trying to be honest with. Honest criticism can be taken as painful insults if delivered poorly.

Building off of Polian’s piece for the 33rd Team, Tom Lewand, the Detroit Lions Team President from 2006 to 2015, wrote about the importance of truly connecting with people as a basis for meaningful communication.

In particular, he points out the importance of empathy and humility in communication between coaches and players.

“Empathy, like humility, gets a bad rap. It is not mushy Kumbaya-singing pursuit of pleasing everyone. Empathetically intelligent coaches are often the best teachers, able to connect with their subjects to create authentic relationships that greatly enhance the ability to motivate, push and develop.

“Players like to play for a head coach who has the skill to make them better. They love to play for a skilled coach who deeply cares to make them the best version of themselves for the team.

“Empathy is also an underrated driver of great communication, one of the most important characteristics of a successful head coach in the NFL. When people feel heard and respected by a leader, they form a bond that gives the leader’s words greater impact. By the same token, a coach who cares about the feelings that motivate individuals in the organization is unlikely to keep people in the dark, which unwittingly creates isolation, fear of the unknown, rumors and distrust.”

This is something that Giants’ fans — and particularly the Giants’ ownership — should already know well.

Tom Coughlin was on his way out the door following the 2006 season. The incredibly regimented, disciplinarian style for which he was known had all but lost the locker room. Tiki Barber suddenly retired and Michael Strahan was holding out and considering retirement. As far as the players knew, Coach Coughlin was an impersonal hard-ass who cared more about the clock than the people expected to play for him.

But then, at the urging of his wife, he opened up and took an interest in his players’ lives as men. He empathized with them and let them know he genuinely cared about them as people first and players second. That proved to be all the difference and the Road Warriors were born.

The Giants can’t just go with whatever coach is the best at delivering boilerplate answers about teaching, being hard-nosed, blue-collar, and demanding discipline.

They need to find the candidate who is best equipped to bring the franchise together, inspire the players to reach their potential, set them up for success, and hold them together when the going gets tough — because it will.

As Frank Gore says, another part of leadership is to be a steady rock for players,

“When things aren’t going good, he has to stay the same. They can’t be up and down. When you do that, you’re showing weakness and you lose respect. How are you going to be a leader to a bunch of men, and as soon as something doesn’t go right — say, we lose back-to-back games — you’re in the tank. I don’t respect that.”

Great leadership is like great art: It’s tough to define, but you know it when you see it.

Organization matters

The other trait that consistently came up among the players is the importance of organization.

In the words of Jack Conklin, creating a defined structure plays well with players,

“It goes with consistency. With football and how we’ve been programmed to work since college, we’re all so structured. We want to know what time everything is, down to cadence. When a coach brings that Day 1, setting that standard, that really plays well to the players, especially offensive linemen. We’re obviously a pretty unique group that has to work cohesively together for an offense’s success, so when you’re organized, we know what to expect every day.”

Being organized goes well beyond just setting a schedule. A head coach needs a defined philosophy and vision for the team.

“A lot of it starts with a good philosophy,” Sherman says. “I’ve only had two NFL head coaches, and one thing I’ve seen as a common thread is, Pete (Carroll, in Seattle) has his compete, compete, compete philosophy. He has a whole psychological aspect that he goes through with it and he has a routine that he goes through and puts his players through. He has a way of coaching, a way of talking to his coaches, a way of having his coaches talk to his players. They don’t do the whole rah-rah, curse-you-out style. He would never hire a coach like that. It’s all about positive feedback and positive reinforcement and getting the best out of your players. Kyle (Shanahan, in San Francisco) is similar in that he has a philosophy of the best man plays. He doesn’t care about your draft position or any of that.

Kyle is one of the best offensive minds we’ve ever had in this game. That comes into it. With Pete, it’s the Cover 3 he brought to the league. It seems so simple, but nobody can run it like we ran it. The way both of them implement what they do — they talk to others on a personal level, then have the great coaches around them who believe in their philosophy.”

Bill Polian brings a vision for the franchise up as well, saying,

“The most important question and discussion throughout the [head coach] interview is vision — asking the coach what their vision is for this team and what the team can be.

“I was never looking for a specific answer when asking about a coach’s vision. I was looking for an answer that tells me he knows how he wants our team to play.

“Ironically, the coaching interview was no different than the interviews we did for Super Bowl Blueprints. I said to Jimmy Johnson, “Jimmy, take me through how you approached the Cowboys coming out of a college situation in Miami, what you saw, and what you thought the Cowboys could become,” and away he went.

“That’s what you’re looking for. Through all that, his philosophy will become apparent.”

The head coach also needs to have a plan for making sure there’s a clear power structure in place. Not only does he need to assemble a quality coaching staff who can deliver his vision and philosophy to the individual meeting rooms, but everyone needs to know who reports to whom and who is in charge of what. And that includes the power dynamic between the head coach and general manager.

As Kapadia says, the head coach and GM should know that their fates are tied together.

“These two members of your organization need to be aligned to achieve sustained success,” he says. “If possible, let them know that their fates are going to be connected. If one succeeds, they both succeed. If one fails, they both fail. There’s a lot of politics in the NFL, and when things go south, it can be a race to convince the owner who to blame.”

Looking back, the Giants had their most success when Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese had a delineated power dynamic and were working in collaboration. But over time that power dynamic became muddled and their visions for how the team should play football diverged. Friction developed and, frankly, that was the genesis for the mess of dysfunction and half-measures that came to a head in 2021.

Organization is important on the week-to-week and day-to-day micro level as well.

We’ve already talked a lot about how different the Giants’ process is this year than it has been in the past. The Giants were being much more methodical and granular in their process of hiring a general manager. A good head coach needs to have an organized and detail-oriented process for how he prepares for every stage of his job.

Countless situations can occur in any football game — let alone throughout a season from OTAs through the playoffs. It’s impossible to anticipate them all, and nobody could be expected to do so.

However, minding the details and having an organized plan for addressing as many situations as you can reasonably expect to encounter is often the difference between winning and losing.

Bill Polian notes that methodical attention to detail was one of the factors that let him know that Dom Capers was the right coach for the Miami Dolphins.

“When I was hired to become the General Manager of the Carolina Panthers in their first year as an expansion team,” Polian says, “I knew Dom Capers was the right man for the job because of his vision, personality, and preparation.

“Dom was meticulous in terms of his organization and how he approached the day-to-day job. That was particularly compelling and outstanding because I knew that in a new situation, we needed someone who could start with a blank sheet of paper and organize everything from start to finish.”

Offensive emphasis

As I said above, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t, at least) particularly matter whether the Giants’ next head coach comes from an offensive or defensive background. Each of their various candidates will have his strengths, weaknesses, and intangibles he brings to the table.

Regardless of which finalist the Giants ultimately hire, they need to emphasize the offense in their vision for the future. I don’t just say this based on the fact that the Giants have had (arguably) the worst offense in the NFL over the last two years. But rather, it’s a simple fact of life in the modern NFL: You need a great offense to compete.

Teams with strong defenses and mediocre (or just plain bad) offenses can surprise and win individual games (a la 2020 and 2021). If everything breaks right with health and a weak schedule, they can even string close wins together into winning records, like what the Giants did in 2016.

But as someone who genuinely loves great defensive football, it pains me to say that this just is not a sustainable way to build a team in the modern NFL.

The offense wins games and championships in the modern NFL and a strong offense breeds consistency.

It isn’t a coincidence that of the 14 teams to make the playoffs this year, 11 were in the top-14 of offensive EPA per play. The four teams still playing were No. 1 (Chiefs), No. 3 (Rams), No. 7 (Bengals), and No. 8 (49ers) in passing EPA.

That isn’t to say that defense isn’t important. Defenses need to be good enough to slow down opposing offenses to prevent shoot-outs and be able to take advantage when mistakes are made.

But given the choice between a great defense and a great offense, it should be clear where teams need to invest their resources. The philosophy of leading with the defense and scoring just enough points to give the defense a lead to protect doesn’t hold up anymore.

It’s natural to assume that hiring a former offensive coordinator naturally lends that emphasis to the team, and is therefore the preferred move.

However, as Kapadia notes, having a defensive-minded head coach could be a boon for the offense. That is if he’s self-aware enough to recognize the importance of that side of the ball.

“In some ways, there are advantages to hiring a coach who doesn’t have an offensive background. He won’t be tied to a specific scheme, and theoretically, that might mean more of a willingness to adapt scheme to personnel. Plus, the offensive coordinator job for this type of head coach should be attractive, given that it likely would include more autonomy.“

At the end of the day, the Giants need to completely renovate their offense, and they need a coach who understands that his success or failure will be tied to the success or failure of the offensive rebuild.

Don’t become obsessed with a “type”

While there were a few definite throughlines in the Giants’ general manager candidates, ownership did a good job of casting a wide net. The Giants’ nine initial GM candidates were from a diverse set of backgrounds, a variety of teams, and all had different life experiences and paths to where they are now.

The Giants need to take the same tact with their head coaching search. While there will be a certain set of overarching traits the Giants value (as well there should be), they shouldn’t be on honing in on a single “archetype” of a coach. The NFL has seen great head coaches with both offensive and defensive backgrounds. We’ve seen winning coaches who exploded on the scene after meteoric rises and coaches who needed experience and seasoning before blossoming.

If there was a single “best” career trajectory or coaching tree from which to pluck championship-caliber coaches, it would have been identified long ago and every team would be going to that well.

The Giants have an opportunity to reshape the future of their franchise and have gotten a pretty good start by going outside the established lineage for their general manager. They should take the opportunity to interview as many candidates as they can. While Schoen likely already has a favorite or two in mind, you never know who will impress given a chance.

The anti-Joe Judge rule

The original sub-head for this section was going to be something like “Don’t do what didn’t work... But understand what that was.” But that was, frankly wordy and cumbersome. This, I think, captures the spirit of what I wanted to say but is pithier and gets to the heart of the Giants’ search.

Just about every coaching and GM search in NFL history starts at “What did we do last time? Do the opposite this time.” That almost always leads to teams flipping between offensive and defensive-minded coaches, or sprinting toward disciplinarians if they had a “player’s coach”. But very often the reason why a coach (or GM) fails isn’t because of what we see on the surface. We just got done talking about how each of the above can be successful or failures as head coaches. Usually, it’s the things those of us on the outside don’t see that get a coach fired.

So what got Joe Judge fired?

Looking back on the Giants’ play over the last two (okay, seven) years, I have had three consistent issues:

  • The Giants have relied too much on friendly testimonials.
  • The Giants have looked unprepared way too often.
  • The Giants have rarely played with aggression or urgency.

So let’s take those in order.

The Giants hired Ben McAdoo based on the testimony of Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. They hired Dave Gettleman at the suggestion of Ernie Accorsi, and Judge came with a ringing endorsement from Bill Belichick.

Whoever the Giants hire, they need to shut out the noise as they conduct their interviews and make their decision. The tape will tell a tale about what a coaching candidate can do, but we should recognize it’s still only part of the tale. The Giants should pay attention to what the candidates say, how they say it, and how it lines up with their resume on the field. Bill Polian quoted Edgar Allen Poe, saying,

“Edgar Allen Poe said, ‘Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.’ That was good advice back then and it is good advice now. What you should believe is what you learn in the interview [and] research process.”

Moving on, the Giants have looked flat far, far too often over the last decade. But looking at this past season, in particular, the Giants decided to rest their starters throughout pre-season. They looked like they had never seen a football field before in Week 1, and the team didn’t look ready to play until Week 4. The Giants were flat against the Falcons coming off their “mini-bye” after Thursday Night Football, they were run off the field by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after their bye week. All season long we saw the Giants look clueless in big situations, making mind-numbing mistakes or burning time-outs when they did not need to.

The Giants’ next head coach needs to have shown an ability to get his players ready to play. Ready to play Week 1, ready to take advantage when they get extra rest and time to prepare, and ready for all the little (and big) moments on which a game and season can pivot.

Finally, the Giants need a head coach who is always trying to win.

Joe Judge’s decision to run a pair of quarterback sneaks will almost certainly go down in history, but we were calling out his insistence on playing to “not lose” for a long time before Week 18.

How many times did we see the Giants punt from mid-field rather than going for it on 4th down? Graham Gano was the Giants’ whole offense, but not just because the actual offense was non-existent. How many times did we see the Giants play (and settle) for a field goal to just “take the points” when they had the opportunity to take a shot to the endzone?

Yes, the Giants have a strong defense, but they never attempted to put pressure on the opposing offense with the scoreboard. All too often Judge was content to take the points or play the field position game and count on the defense to be perfect.

Whoever the Giants hire, whether he is offensive-minded or defensive-minded, he needs to understand that a great punt is still a failed drive and a field goal is half a touchdown. They need to always be trying to control the game and attacking the other team.

As Calais Campbell says, a competitive spirit is a must,

“A great coach would keep the guys focused on the big picture in all circumstances, and would never get too emotional after a win, loss, or tie. But would still express the hate for losing and the love for winning as much as the players would. We have to know it means something to them all while understanding we can’t win them all. Energy is contagious and the coach sets the tone.”