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Reprint: On Evaluating Coaches and My Optimism Regarding Jim Lawrence Mora

Below is something I wrote almost a year ago. It's rather long, but here's the bullet points:

  • It's very difficult to evaluate a rookie or inexperienced head coach.
  • Too much emphasis is placed on image and play calling.
  • The defining ability of a great head coach is the ability to develop talent and the ability to recognize coaching talent in others.
  • Jim L. Mora has a short, but encouraging history of recognizing coaching talent.

 

Before I get into all this, let me throw out a few baseline beliefs:

  • It is very hard to know the actual quality of a head coach.
  • From that, it is exceedingly HARDER to predict the quality of an inexperienced head coach.

Therefore, this isn't hard and fast. I can watch Jordan Babineaux blow coverage, but most of what Mike Holmgren does is both esoteric and arcane. We tend to put too much stock into the witnessable: play calling, clock management, press conferences, and too little into more essential coaching duties: talent evaluation, player development and - this is the one that I think is most ignored and the one I will focus this feature on in a second here - coaching evaluation. I think the most important duty of any head coach is the ability to identify and develop coaching talent within his administration. It's an idea supported by a much more familiar concept: The coaching tree. Great coaches beget great coaches.

Let's take a step back and I'll explain exactly what I mean. When one watches a football game, one appreciates the coach through the decisions he makes on the field. The formations and plays he employs; his ability to know when to challenge, or monitor the clock. When a coach makes a bad challenge, or runs Shaun Alexander off tackle on 4th and 1, we think the coach is an idiot. We do that because the coach is doing something that we ourselves, simple fans, can see is a stupid decision. In fact, I would argue that most hardcore fans could, with a proper cramming session to learn the terminology, play call an NFL game. Mike Tanier recently stated:

Football strategy is so complicated that it defies metaphors. Calling football a "chess match" is an insult to coaches and coordinators, who have much more to worry about than does the average chess champion.

But let's be real, Bill Belichik isn't Gary Kasparov. Football strategy may be diverse, but it's not rocket science. In chess, each player may move a piece at a time. Each player starts with the same pieces, and the only advantage (albeit a big one) is that White moves first. If I could assemble a chess set in which my Kings' Bishop could fianchetto itself prematch, and then bust through my opponent's b7pawn and into my opponents Queens' Rook in one move, well I wouldn't have to be Vladimir Kramnik to beat Kasparov would I? I could probably be Norv Turner, in fact.

My point is that we tend to overvalue what we see, and undervalue that which a coach actually does. Most of us could make fairly good strategic decisions, but how many of us could teach a 6th round draft pick to become a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback? How many of us could identify that another person could do the same? That's what makes a great coach, and that's why great coaches produce coaching trees. Bill Walsh was a great coach, and coaches who served under Walsh became great coaches. That's because Walsh was exceptional not just at coaching, but at identifying the ability to coach in others. Therefore, the question, the primary question we wish to answer is not will Jim L. Mora call the right play, it is, will he find the hard working, big idea-ed tight ends coach on the UCLA staff, and give him a shot to make his name in the pros? Will he assemble a staff that finds and develops great and good players? And that, again, brings me to a another aside.

The other paramount ability a coaching staff must possess is the ability to identify and develop talent at "apex" positions. Different schemes have different apex positions, Mike Martz loves his wide receivers. Mike Nolan is big on linebackers. Mike Holmgren valued offensive guards and tackles more than almost any other coach. That's one of the reasons that a very good guard, like Rob Sims, wasn't good enough in Holmgren's system. The one apex position that is an apex position throughout the NFL is quarterback. When I said that if Zorn can develop a quarterback of the future for Seattle, and do nothing else spectacularly, then he would deserve the offensive coordinator position, that's what I meant. I'm not terribly worried about Zorn's ability to play call. I really know nothing about his ability to evaluate other offensive talent, but contenders have good or great quarterbacks, and losers don't.

What we end with is this: Mora will sink or swim depending on the talent, both players and coaches, that he is able to surround himself with. How can we tell if he can identify if other coaches are in fact good coaches? Well that's tricky. We can look at the mini-tree created by Mora in his time in Atlanta, but must understand it is more shrub than tree. Greg Knapp left when Mora was fired, but landed on his feet signing as an offensive coordinator with the Oakland Raiders. That Knapp was able to transfer teams without being demoted to Qb coach or whathaveyou is a testament to his ability - even if it's the Raiders. Oakland, despite juggling multiple, and far from talented, quarterbacks, saw a significant improvement in their offense. In 2006, the Raiders offensive DVOA was -35.5, in 2007 it was still bad, but much less so, -15.4. A lot of factors in play there, so we shouldn't read too much into this improvement, but Knapp has a good reputation and has received head coaching consideration. Knapp is a "+" on Mora's coaching resume. Ed Donatell may best be known for "4th and 26", but had been a successful defensive coordinator for years before recently fading from the league. Donatell is a good coordinator, and the Falcons defense did improve markedly after his hiring (9.1 in 2003 to 0.5 in 2004). But because Donatell is in, I believe, semi-selective retirement, and because his experience well predates Mora's, I'd call this a push. Convincing legendary line coach Alex Gibbs to join his Atlanta staff may be Mora's finest move. Gibbs is a legend for the consistent production above ability he was able to squeeze from Denver's Joe-Schmo offensive lines. That Mora, a first time head coach, was able to identify the value of a coach like Gibbs AND be able to convince him to exit retirement and sign on with a decidedly underwhelming team as the 2004 Atlanta Falcons is a "++" on his resume. The best credit I can give Mora for superlative special teams coach Joe DeCamillis is that Mora was smart enough to retain DeCamillis. That's still worth noting, though.

I shy away from evaluating Mora based on player development because to even attempt to do that, we would need a very solid idea of the base level of talent the player's he inherited and were drafted under him had. We don't have that, so crediting or discrediting Mora for a player playing well or poorly is shaky and misleading analysis. What we do know is that Mora seems to have an excellent eye for coaching ability. Already, Seattle has identified and signed a difference maker on offense, Mike Solari. Solari is a venerated line coach not unlike Alex Gibbs. So, we can't be sure that Mora will be a great head coach, or that his tree will burst forth like the fir and sequoia of his antecedents, but we do know that the Seattle soil is healthful and Mora's roots are sound. And from that, all great trees grow.