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The Factors of Winning and Losing in the NFL

[Ed. Note]: This article was sent to me by BTB-community member CoachGary. I thought it would make for some good debate on a Saturday. [End Note]

Many years ago after reading Dr. Z's book on "A Thinking Man's Guide To Pro Football" that talked about "Player's coaches" versus the "Disciplinarian coaches", and their impact on teams wins and losses, it got me to think deeper and more clearly about where the real keys to winning and losing comes from.

The factors of the game:

General Manager
Head Coach
Offensive Coordinator
Defensive Coordinator
Special Teams Coach
Scouts - Draft Room Team
Others - Trainers, etc.

I hope to show that the schemes of the Offensive Coordinator, the Defensive Coordinator, and to a somewhat lesser degree, the Special Teams Coach are where the most impact can be made on wins and losses.

In college, schemes such as the "Spread" have taken the same existing talent and changed the average scoring from 20 points a game to 40, 50, and even 60 points a game on a consistent basis from one year to the next, which shows how much more schemes mean to winning than talent or any other factor.

Let's examine each of the above categories and later, at the end of this article, see if we can assign percentages, (guesstimate percentages), as to the impact of each factor on wins and losses.

The Owner - The owner can be:

The complete "Hands-Off" owner that hires the G.M. / Vice President of Player Personnel, etc and just lets him/them run the football operations and then the persona of the team will be a reflection of his/their personality.

The "Hands-On" owner who serves as the GM and makes all player personnel decisions.

The G.M. - The General Manager usually hires the Head Coach. The General Manager normally does not hire the Assistant Coaches but is usually the one in charge of assembling the talent on a team. He usually is the one that makes trades and signs Free Agents. He can also be heavily involved in the draft process by selecting the scouts, and heading up the draft room team. He often will set up meetings with the draft room team to put together the "Draft Board" and then utilize that board as the mechanism to infuse the team with new young talent.

The Head Coach - The Head Coach is responsible for a lot of the Organizational Logistics such as practice schedules, O.T.A.'s, and usually the hiring of the Tactical Assets: The Offensive Coordinator, The Defensive Coordinator, and the Special Teams Coach. He is also charged with the game clock management, substitutions during the game, and decisions such as whether to kick or not on fourth downs. Most of the 60 minutes of a football game, the Head Coach is thinking about these game time types of decisions, while the coordinators are actually making the strategic decisions that really make the most impact on the outcome of the game, especially if one of the coordinators is more innovative or better than his counterpart.  The majority of the "chess match" that goes on during the game is between the coordinators. It is between one team's offensive coordinator and the other team's defensive coordinator and vice-versa.

The Offensive Coordinator - Employs an Offensive Scheme or Concept. The importance of this position became hyper apparent when Sid Gillman with the AFL Chargers in the 1960's and then by Don Coryell's St. Louis Cardinals and Chargers in the 70's and 80's realized the importance of being more pass oriented with what was called the "timing based Air Coryell" system.

Bill Walsh continued the concepts of Coryell and added a few of his own such as..."Don't lead the receiver - throw at his hip" and "Throw outs to LEFT and ins to the RIGHT", and "When throwing to the right, step towards the receiver on the 3rd step." All of these concepts were based on the idea of using the pass to open up the run. Some additional innovations were:

1. The West Coast Offense, which basically says, "Use the short horizontal pass to stretch the defense and open up the lanes for long runs and even longer pass plays", or getting all 5 of the skill players other than the quarterback into the pass patterns while still retaining at least one running back. Up until these innovations, the concept was to run the ball to open up the pass. It was a small evolution from the "Air Coryell" system.

2. The K-Gun, where essentially the "two minute" or "Hurry Up" offense was used the entire game. This offense was used by the Buffalo Bills and was greatly responsible for getting the Bills to four straight Super Bowls. This feat will be very hard to repeat. Most people incorrectly think the "K" in the "K-Gun" was named after Jim Kelly, but it was actually named after Keith McKeller, one of their Tight Ends.

3. The "Run ‘n' Shoot" offense, invented by Glenn "Tiger" Ellison, and further refined by June Jones and Mouse Davis. This was a concept that eventually removed the skill-sets of running backs and instead just utilized all wide receivers and a quarterback. In 1989 three NFL teams, the Atlanta Falcons, the Detroit Lions and the Houston Oilers ran the "run ‘n' shoot" offense.

4. The "Spread" offense, which is just the current evolution of the run ‘n' shoot. It is currently a staple of most teams in the NFL. It is the concept that is basically more about utilizing at least 3 or 4 wide receivers to "spread" out the defense and either attack their "base" defense or get them into their "nickel" or "dime" defense. In the 4 WR set, it is basically saying...."We will pass without a Tight End."

The Defensive Coordinator - Employs a Defensive Scheme or Concept. The most notable are:

The 4-3 Defense - Some say it was invented by Tom Landry in the 1950's as a means of stopping the great Jim Brown. Others credit Bill George and yet others credit Garrad "Buster" Ramsey.Your browser may not support display of this image.

The 4-3 "Flex" Defense - Tom Landry changed the regular 4-3 defense to counter Vince Lombardi's "run to daylight" concept by allowing the defenders to get to that "daylight" faster. The 4-3 defense was designed for teams that used the "rush to setup the pass", or the "rush first" tactic. 

The "46" Defense - This defense was made popular by Buddy Ryan and a variation of it is currently used by only one team, the New York Jets, who are coached by Buddy's son, Rex. This defense is unique in that the front is designed to confuse the QB. It is purposefully "over-loaded" to one side making it considerably harder to block. The primary tactic is to always rush from between 5 and 8 players on every play, so that the ball has to come out of the QB's hand quickly. With the corners playing "bump-and-run", this makes the QB hold on to the ball longer than he would otherwise and thus there are more mistakes by the QB and more interceptions and/or incompletions.

The 3-4 "two-gap" Defense - This defense has 3 down linemen and 4 linebackers. It is noted for a huge nose tackle that usually lines up directly in front of the center. This "technique" of lining up directly in front of the center is called the "zero-technique."  The other two down linemen are usually called Defensive Ends and are usually lined up directly in front of the Offensive Tackles. In the "two-gap" version of the 3-4, the Nose Tackle is responsible for closing down both "A" gaps, (The gaps on either side of the Center). This is called the "jump-through" gap. The DE's are also responsible for their own "Two-gaps", the "B" and "C" gaps on each side of the line. The concept is to have very "wide" bodies that are to "hold-up" the Offensive Linemen and not only keep them off the Linebackers so the LB's can make plays, but to also wait for the running back to pick a gap and then fill it and make the tackle.

The 3-4 "One-gap" Defense - Invented by Bum Phillips and used by only the San Diego Chargers and the Dallas Cowboys. This defense is still about 3 down linemen and 4 linebackers, but in this variation of the 3-4, the nose tackle is usually a quick guy and he usually plays the "one-technique", which is to one side or the other of the center. The reason is that when each of the down linemen are only responsible for "one" gap, they have the option, the green light if you will, to "shoot" that gap and play in the backfield. This is why a guy like Jay Ratliff can excel under this defense because he can use his quickness to get in the backfield and disrupt the run or sack the quarterback.

The Special Teams Coach - Employs a Special Teams Scheme or Concept. For a long time this phase of the game was largely over looked. But eventually the importance of this phase was duly recognized and schemes such as the "Wedge" and "Directional Kicking" were employed, along with more of the starters being used on special teams. Jimmy Johnson used to say, "Win two of the three phases and we win the game." The three phases of coarse being...Offense, Defense and Special Teams.

The Talent or the Players - With the implementation of the "Salary Cap" it made the management of obtaining an imbalance of talent on a team very difficult. Before the "Cap" teams could just stockpile talent to where teams could almost "buy" a championship. The only reason why it wasn't a sure thing was because the schemes were not always given the focus like the talent was and the misconception of "the most talented team will always win" was common.

The Scouts and the Draft Room Team - The credit of gathering the talent on a team is often incorrectly given to the General Manager or the Head Coach. Slogans such as "This is Jimmy Johnson's team", or "This team was built by Parcells", are often heard, but the real credit goes to the scouts or Scouting Department.

For the Cowboys, here is the way the draft works:

The scouting department evaluates the college players all year and a few months prior to the draft, they put together a "draft board" and then meet with the rest of the "Draft Room Team" and review the board.

Next, the coaches give their input and a "consensus" is made based upon the scouts having the most weight, (They are the ones that have been watching these guys all year and even in some cases of underclassmen for several years).

Once the draft begins the board is followed unless something out of the ordinary happens, such as when Rashard Mendenhall, who was the highest rated RB on the board, fell to our spot and assuming that Mendenhall would be gone, we had Felix slotted for that pick.... Now the draft room has/had the opportunity to "lobby" the draft room to make a change.... Garrett stood up and made his pitch to stay with Felix.... He sold the room and now we have Felix instead of Mendenhall who was rated higher.

When Parcells was here he "lobbied" to pick Spears ahead of Ware, but was unable to "sell" the room, and the rest is history.

Drafts are a "consensus" under Jerry and have always been that way.... the scouts are the most responsible for the quality of the draft picks because they set the board and have the most weight in the room.

Now, even when there is a trade in the works, it must be a consensus or Jerry doesn't do it.... He feels if it is a good deal, then he should be able to "sell it!" A good example of how the Head Coach is only a cog in the draft room team concept can be seen in the link below where as mentioned above, Parcells was demanding to pick Spears ahead of Ware but could not convince the "draft room team."

Others - The rest of the people like the trainers and strength coaches' fall into this group. They help the players and coaches with more of the physical, health, and other sides of the players needs.

The Intangibles - The Intangibles are things like "Locker Room Leadership", "On Field Leadership", "Bounce of the Ball / Luck", "Motivation", etc, and if the schemes and players are equal, then the little things such as these can make the difference. However, if you have great intangibles, but average players and/or average schemes and the other team has great schemes and/or great players, then the intangibles will usually be of very little importance.

To Summarize:

1. It is the talent, the OC, DC, ST coaches and their schemes/playbooks, and game plans that put players in positions to make plays that win games. The reason to show many of the innovations in both the Offense and the Defense is to show just how much schemes can give a team an advantage over another team especially if both teams are close in talent.

2. If the HC is also the DC or the OC, then add some credit to his side of the ledger.

3. If the HC is responsible for hiring the assistants of the "Three Phases of the Game", ( OC, DC, and ST , then add more to his side of the ledger.

4. If the game is really close, then a good HC can make a difference. But, if he has the right assistants, it should not be close enough to where his contribution is the key.

But all in all a HC has the game day management, the motivation skills, discipline, and the final say on the game plans and schemes, but the wins and losses are mostly responsible because of:

1. Schemes - A great scheme with average players can beat great players in a plain vanilla scheme. Schemes put players in position to make plays. ( West Coast Offense and 3-4 Defense anyone? )  Anyone believe that Rex Ryan's schemes make very little difference? Especially if he has the playmakers to implement his schemes. It is Rex Ryan the DC that is important, not Rex Ryan the Motivator.

2. Talent - Players make tackles, create turnovers, and make spectacular catches, etc....not head coaches.

3. Walking around putting up signs that say "Don't eat the cheese" and giving rah, rah, speeches, don't put players in position to make plays.

Parcells never won without a great DC named Belichick.

Jimmy Johnson never won without a great OC named Turner.

Switzer won by "staying out of the way of the OC, DC, ST, and playmakers!"

Jerry Jones to Jimmy Johnson...."I can win with any of 500 head coaches with this team!"  The OC, DC, and playmakers in place! Jerry hires Switzer, a great college coach and a so-so, at best, NFL head coach. Switzer just "drove the bus."  But Switzer won! Did he win because of the HC position being very important.... obviously not.

Belichick won/wins because he is also a great DC.

I think Head Coaches are the least responsible for wins and losses, behind the assistants, (OC, DC, and ST coaches), then the talent...the playmakers.

So, who is truly most responsible for wins and losses?  I believe the logic points in the direction of the schemes, which are usually the responsibility of the coordinators and then the players/talent. Now, there are times when the Head Coach is also a coordinator, if so, then he gets even more credit than just being a coordinator. But in the end, "schemes" win and lose games!

And that is the purpose of this article, i.e., to get people thinking about the accuracy or lack thereof of the statements such as, "If we only had a great Head Coach, then we can win a championship!" As if the Head Coach is the single most important factor in wins and losses.

And now for some guesses as to what percentage each of the factors mean:

The Owner - 1 percent.

The General Manager - 6 percent.

The Head Coach - 3 percent.

The Offensive Coordinator and his schemes - 25 percent.

The Defensive Coordinator and his schemes - 25 percent.

The Special Teams Coach and his schemes - 10 percent.

The Talent / Players - 15 percent.

The Scouts - Draft Room Team - 13 percent.

The Others - Trainers, etc. - 1 percent.

The Intangibles - 1 percent.

If the Head Coach is also the OC, then add the two factors. HC and OC would be 28 percent as an example. And on the other hand, if Jerry fires Wade the HC, so he can replace him with Bill Cower the Head Coach, then watch what happens if Wade the DC leaves and we don't replace Wade the DC with one just as good. The DC is much more important in my opinion.

Remember these percentages are just guesses on my part and your guess is probably as good as mine, and I can be persuaded to change mine, so feel free to make your own changes in the percentages and then support the reasoning behind it. So, have at it..

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