How to Run an NFL Franchise, Part 1: Pick a Good Head Coach

This is the first of a five-part series in which we’ve asked our draft analysts, Nick Baumgardner and Diante Lee, to weigh in on how they would run an NFL franchise as a general manager. We put them through the interview process.

Athletics‘s NFL Draft team takes pride in evaluating college players on their way to the professional ranks. What if our experts were put in charge of an NFL front office? What have they learned about the modern NFL, their own preferences and approaches, and the recent history of successful franchises that could drive their decisions?

In Part 1 of our series, Nick Baumgardner and Diante Lee begin building their ideal team from the top down. What are their priorities when choosing a head coach? Let’s begin the process…

What do you look for in a head coach, philosophically and schematically?

Diante Lee: When we talk about the global philosophy of a good leader – in sports or otherwise – I care about problem solving and buy-in more than anything. There is equal value in having identifiable traits and qualities, creating a total belief in those principles from the top down, and knowing when/how to deviate from them without alienating people. You look at NFL head coaches today, and those with five or more career playoff wins are the kind of leaders most receptive to change.


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I want someone with a proven track record of success in opening scripts and third downs, in the red zone, two-minute situations and the “between eight” (last four minutes of the second quarter and first four of the third) and on special team. These are all situations that reflect a team’s identity and how well a coach and team can handle rapidly changing conditions in a game.

Schematically, there is no way to do things. I want someone with a clear grasp of balance as a concept for building an offense or a defense – not something binary between run and pass or cover and pressure. I’d be looking for an offense that distributes touches on all three levels of the field and a defense that can change the picture at a moment’s notice.

Nick Baumgardner: A consistent leader who is able to find and solve problems long before they become real problems – this trumps the plan for me. I want a coach who can be the best communicator in the building. If they can’t communicate clearly with everyone in the organization, we’ll have problems before we get started.

There’s more than one way to win a football game, and I’m open to pretty much any scheme – as long as the head coach can communicate it properly. Being an expert in game management from the start is not something I would require. That would be preferable, but I would be willing to let a first-time head coach learn if I love his grip on the game and his leadership.

What style of head coach would you prefer: “CEO”, offensive-minded, defensive-minded or something else?

Lee: Ideally, I would like to have a managing director – someone who can step into the relationship to hire good coordinators and assistants. I don’t make too much of an offense or defense oriented guys as long as they can identify their own blind spots. Those kinds of guys already have some experience as successful head coaches, though, and that’s a rare commodity to come across.

If it’s not a coach with previous experience, I look for “leader of men” types. I’m not saying I want Ted Lasso with the headset on on Sundays, but I’d rather a coach’s strengths lean toward his people skills than his wizardry on a whiteboard. Special teams coordinators, offensive line coaches, defensive coordinators, quarterbacks coaches — I’d say the best of them usually profile themselves as having an innate sense for building trust, thinking about the weakest link as much as the All-Pro, and prioritizing buy- in.

Baumgardner: I need a capable CEO who has also shown an expertise on one side of the ball – I would prefer an offensive background, but I am not opposed to a defensive one. For me, though, the CEO part is the biggest deal. I don’t need a head coach who makes every call, but I want a coach who can communicate a vision of what needs to happen on both sides of the ball and hold people to our defined performance standard, both within the team and front office.

My offensive preference has always been rooted in a versatile running game that features athletic linemen that give a team a chance to be as many as possible on the ground to create useful situations through the air. Defensively, I’d be afraid of anyone who isn’t willing to base from split safeties. We’re going to go one and a half as best we can, be smart and limit serious bleeding.

Brian Daboll led the Giants to a playoff victory last season, his first at the helm. (Matt Krohn / USA Today)

Which head coaching hire in the last four to five years best reflects what you want?

Lee: Most recently it was to be Brian Daboll in New York. Both of his coordinator hires aligned with the priorities I would like my organization to have. Bringing in defensive coordinator Wink Martindale established a clear identity, and handing over his playbook (and play-calling duties) to Mike Kafka was a rare occurrence for a new head coach — especially one hired because of his offense. By bringing in and retaining the personnel he did, he sent a message that he knew his cohorts were capable and had his trust, and that the investment paid off with the product we saw on Sunday.

Baumgardner: Last season was hardly his finest, but I’ve been a fan of the Mike Vrabel lease since Tennessee took a chance on him prior to the 2018 season. He’s unique, having worked with college players while on Urban Meyer’s staff at Ohio State, he’s run his own NFL defense and he’s been a position coach.

He was also a good player, someone who said what he meant and did what he said. As a coach, that has translated to 48-34 through five seasons. I think Vrabel could be a college coach at a major program right now and be successful. The list of current NFL head coaches who could run a winning college program is smaller than people think. I think Vrabel is on it.


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Based on these criteria, give us three potential candidates you would like to interview for your head coaching job.

Lee: Defensively, I’ll go with Dan Quinn, the best retread option on the market. The calling card of a Quinn-led team is hiring great assistants (Kyle Shanahan, Steve Sarkisian, Matt LaFleur, Mike McDaniel, Raheem Morris, Jeff Ulbrich, etc.) and a style of play built on speed and aggression. He’s added to his tool kit, as evidenced both by how well he’s developed the defensive backs and linebackers in Dallas and by how he’s thrown more changes into his scheme to keep offenses guessing.

As far as offense minds go, I’ll take another guy from the Andy Reid coaching tree: Mike Kafka. His name has been heated in the coaching carousel since his time with Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, and how he called the offense in New York was proof that he is comfortable crafting his offense around the strengths and weaknesses of his quarterback and supporting cast . He’s been a player and coach through much of this league’s offensive development, and I trust he would know how to put a franchise on an upward trajectory.

One more from the college ranks: Dave Aranda at Baylor. We know much of his playbook schematically is inspired by the kind of 3-4 defense we’re seeing a rise in popularity. He also assisted in the development of several NFL players, many of whom were linebackers he worked directly with. His offense at Baylor mixes the college-style spread with some professional passing concepts. He has maximized his roster and improved every program he has been on. It’s still a little early in Aranda’s career to make this big leap, but expect his name to generate more and more interest in the coming years.

Eric Bieniemy will call the plays in Washington this year after five seasons as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator. (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

Baumgardner: Eric Bieniemy is getting a fresh start in Washington and I’m intrigued to see that. The “but he has Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid” argument is gone. I’ve read a lot of people’s opinions on Bienemy (and the anonymous reporting on how well he does or doesn’t interview). We know he (like many) had problems off the field as a youngster/in his 20s. But his success with the best offense in football over the past five years is undeniable. It just is. I want to talk to him about my job.

My defense candidate: Raheem Morris. A unique 46-year-old graduate, Morris has already been an NFL head coach, a defensive coordinator in college and a defensive coordinator at multiple stops in the NFL. He has also been an offensive position coach in the NFL (WRs in Atlanta). Morris ran Pro Football Focus’ best defense in football in 2021, and while things were hardly perfect last year, the Rams were still very good against the run and a great tackle club. Morris checks a lot of boxes for me.

One of, if not the best, non-head coaching player in the NFL right now is Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. He took over the job midway through Dan Campbell’s first season (with the team winless) and rebuilt the offense on the fly. Detroit’s running game is as diverse and technically sound as any in the NFL, and Johnson — a QB and a math and computer science major at North Carolina — was able to instill confidence in Jared Goff at a time when Goff was at his lowest point, mentally, as a player.

(Top photo by Brett Veach: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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