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Why aren’t assistant coaches considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

After what should have been Hall of Fame weekend, a question about the most underappreciated parts of the team.

2010 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony
Did you know Dick Lebeau has a Motown record? No kidding. As if he wasn’t already the coolest person in NFL history.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

This past week was Hall of Fame Week, or it should have been, when the 20 member centennial class was to have been inducted in Canton, Ohio. Instead, that ceremony is scheduled for next year (post-pandemic, one hopes), and it will feature both this year’s group and the next. It’s not clear how the ceremony will be conducted, but it won’t be the Hall’s only change in 2021. According to the Associated Press, over the next four HOF selection cycles, coaches will have their own category, not unlike contributors or seniors. A special panel will apparently review coaches and recommend them for to the selection committee without having to go through the typical preliminary process.

It’s an interesting development, though it’s not clear what it will ultimately change. Coaches have always been allowed into the Hall, and the 2020 class featured two controversial selections from the not-so-distant past: Jimmy Johnson and our own Bill Cowher. The reluctance of the Hall to admit Don Coryell, Marty Schottenheimer, and Buddy Parker seems less contingent on a coach’s bottleneck than on a decision to take A over B.

That said, I do want to bring up a coaching category that has no representation in the Hall, and that no one ever talks about: Assistant Coaches.

You might be thinking, good assistant coaches become head coaches; that’s how you get into the Hall. But I keep thinking of a phenomenon my dad used to talk about from the business world, of workers being “promoted to their level of incompetence.” It looks like this: a promising employee is promoted to manager. A great manager, it’s not long until they’re promoted to district manager, where they again excel. This leads to another promotion, to regional director. And there they flounder. And the promotions stop. They either remain as a mediocre regional director for the next 20 years (miserable at the position and performing badly), or they’re let go because they look like a lousy worker. “Too good” to stay at one level; not suited for the next.

I think a lot of NFL coaching careers look this way too, with the best coordinators and position coaches assumed to also be the most qualified head coaches. Luckily(?) for them, those who aren’t cut out for HC usually find out soon enough, and many go back to overachieving in their more natural assistant/coordinator gigs. But there are those who don’t just “overachieve,” they change the game. They just don’t change it from the top.

1994 AFC Divisional Playoff Game - Cleveland Browns vs Pittsburgh Steelers - January 7, 1995
You can tell Dick Lebeau is magic because he’s making Gregg Lloyd laugh.
Photo by Allen Kee/Getty Images

Consider Dick Lebeau. Coach Dad was one of the chief designers of the Zone Blitz – an answer to the West Coast offenses of the early 80s, who used timing routes to exploit the new Mel Blount rule. Lebeau confused offenses, blitzing defensive backs while unthinkably dropping D-linemen into short coverage zones. Sometimes seven blitzers overwhelmed you, while you somehow still had no open hot route. Other times only four rushers came (but you wouldn’t know which four). The scheme created havoc, and its principles are used in some capacity by every team in the NFL today.

More than simply an influential schemer, though, Lebeau was also a terrific coach. He coordinated some of the best defenses of the past 40 years, including the most successful squad of the late 2000s here in Pittsburgh. As DC, he won two Super Bowls (2005 and 2008, both with the Steelers), and lost three (1988 with the Bengals, as well as 1995 and 2010 with the Steelers again). He was also secondary coach for a sixth Super Bowl team in Cincinnati (1981).

In 27 years as a coordinator, Lebeau’s defenses were ranked top 5 in the league ten times, finishing five of those campaigns at #1 in yards, and four of them #1 in points. His defenses also finished in the NFL’s top 5 in rushing twelve times (both yards and touchdowns). And he fielded a top 10 squad in rushing YPC seventeen times, in passing yards eleven times, in opponent passer rating twelve times, in interceptions nine times, and in sacks eight times.

In 2000, Lebeau got the nod to head coach the Bengals (2000-02), where he compiled a record of 12-33, for a dismal .267 winning percentage.

One might glean from this result that he was a lousy coach, but of course we know the man was an absolute superstar as a defensive coordinator. And that’s exactly the point. Lebeau has no argument for a gold jacket as a coach, even though his coaching career was more important to the history of football than dozens of championship coaches. In his case, it didn’t matter; his playing career earned him a bust in Canton anyway. But I’d argue that his assistant coaching career has been at least as impressive, and probably more important.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this. The NFL has produced transcendent minds who simply weren’t cut out for the head job; I think the Hall should recognize them. Here are four examples:

Buddy Ryan

Los Angeles Rams v Chicago Bears
Buddy Ryan looking a little like how I picture a grown-up Ralphie, from A Christmas Story.
Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Despite his two loudmouth sons and his own, um, colorful personality, Buddy Ryan is mostly remembered today for his “46” defense, designed for the Chicago Bears and played to perfection in their 1985 championship run. So integral were his schemes to the Bears Super Bowl XX title that the team carried him off the field on their shoulders alongside iconic head coach Mike Ditka. Before his first gig as defensive coordinator, Ryan was also defensive line coach of the New York Jets from 1968 to 1975 (which includes the historic Super Bowl III championship), and the Minnesota Vikings’ Purple People Eaters of 1976-77, during their final Super Bowl run.

Head Coach: Philadelphia Eagles (1986-90) and Arizona Cardinals (1994-95)

Head Coaching Record: 55-55-1 (.500)

Defensive Coordinator: Chicago Bears (1978-85), Houston Oilers (1993).

In nine years as Defensive Coordinator:

Ryan’s defenses twice led NFL in yards (five times finishing in the league’s top 10), once in points allowed (seven in top 10), and three times in rushing yards (five in the top 10). They also managed four top 10 finishes in passing yards.

His defenses twice led the league in rushing TDs, passing touchdowns, opponent passer rating, and interceptions, with at least five top 10 finishes in each category over his nine seasons in Chicago and Houston.

Finally, three of his squads led the NFL in sacks, where an absurd eight out of nine Buddy Ryan defenses finished in the top 10.

Bud Carson

Super Bowl IX - Pittsburgh Steelers vs Minnesota Vikings - January 12, 1975
It must be a rule that defensive coordinators are all four and a half feet tall.
Photo by Sylvia Allen/Getty Images

Bud Carson was the architect of the Steel Curtain in its most dominant years (1972-77), including the historic defenses of 1974-76. He was the man behind the stunts that wrecked opponent blocking schemes, and the Cover-2 alignment that changed pass coverage forever. (Tony Dungy’s “Tampa-2” was just an update of schemes Dungy learned in Pittsburgh as a player.) Carson later coordinated the criminally underrated Philadelphia Eagles defenses of the early 90s (look up the 1991 Eagles sometime). He won two Super Bowls with the Steelers. in 1974 and 1975, and qualified for a third with the Rams, losing to the Steelers in 1979.

Head Coach: Cleveland Browns (1989-90)

Head Coaching Record: 11-13-1 (.460)

Defensive Coordinator: Pittsburgh Steelers (1972-77), Los Angeles Rams (1978-81), Baltimore Colts (1982), Kansas City Chiefs (1983), New York Jets (1985-88), Philadelphia Eagles (1991-94), St. Louis Rams (1997).

In 25 years as Defensive Coordinator:

Four times his defenses led NFL in yards and once in points, finishing top 10 in these categories 14 and 10 times respectively. Carson’s teams also led the league in rushing and passing twice each, with 12 and 14 top ten finishes, respectively.

This level of consistent excellence is hard to fathom: six of Carson’s defenses led the league in opponent passer rating; 17 of them finished top 10. Meanwhile, four times his teams finished first in rushing TDs (14 in the top 10), four in passing YPA (12), and two in rushing YPA (10).

Bud Carson defenses were also huge splash playmakers, leading the NFL in takeaways four times (with 17 top 10 finishes), interceptions three times (16 times in top 10), and twice in sacks (12).

Wade Philips

Green Bay Packers vs. Denver Broncos
“Are you looking for an interim head coach? Here! Me! Right here! Wade’s your man!”
Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Wade Philips must be the most popular interim head coach in NFL history, but he could never hold a head coaching job. However, everywhere he’s gone, the defenses immediately get better. He coordinated the NFL’s top scoring defense in 1989 with the AFC Champion Broncos, then (26 years later, during round two in Denver) coached the 2015 Super Bowl champions best remembered as the “No Fly Zone.” Two years later, he moved to Los Angeles to run the defense on the 2018 NFC champion Rams. It’s hard to imagine a man who worked for nine different teams (ten if you count Denver twice) as a model of consistent excellence, but try this on: in 29 years as a DC, Philips’ defenses have finished in the top 10 in sacks a ridiculous 21 times.

Head Coach: New Orleans Saints (1985), Denver Broncos (1993-94), Buffalo Bills (1998-2000), Atlanta Falcons (2003), Dallas Cowboys (2007-10), Houston Texans (2013)

Head Coaching Record: 82-64 (.562)

Defensive Coordinator: New Orleans Saints (1981-85), Philadelphia Eagles (1986-88), Denver Broncos (1989-92), Buffalo Bills (1995-97), Atlanta Falcons (2002-03), San Diego Chargers (2004-06), Dallas Cowboys (2009, HC/DC); Houston Texans (2011-13), Denver Broncos (2015-16), Los Angeles Rams (2017-19).

In 29 years as Defensive Coordinator:

Phillips’ defenses led the NFL in passing four times, placing ten squads in the league’s top 10. Meanwhile, his teams led the league in yards, points, and rushing yards one time each, but finished in the top ten 14 times, 11 times, and 11 times, respectively. That kind of consistency is remarkable given how many times Phillips had to start from scratch.

His defenses also led the NFL in passing touchdowns four times and rushing TDs once, with 11 top 10 finishes in each category. Meanwhile, they amassed a dozen top 10 finishes in rushing YPA (twice finishing first), 13 in passing YPA (three times leading the league), and 17 in opponent passer rating.

And then, of course, there’s the three times Phillips’ defenses led the league in sacks, and 21 times they finished top 10.

Tom Moore

AFC Championship: New York Jets v Indianapolis Colts
“You’re alright, Peyton, but you’re no Mark Malone. That was a guy I could win with...”
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

I didn’t want to let this list go by without at least one offensive coach, and Tom Moore is one of those wildly successful figures that no one ever talks about. Endlessly flexible, Moore coached the Steelers wide receivers in late 70s, as Pittsburgh transitioned into a passing team, then coordinated their power rushing offense of the mid-80s after Terry Bradshaw retired. He later coached Barry Sanders to a rushing title and Herman Moore to a then-record for single season receptions with Detroit — a record broken by Marvin Harrison while Moore was his OC in Indianapolis. And speaking of which, Moore’s most famous role was as Peyton Manning’s offensive coodinator for Manning’s first dozen seasons with the Colts, developing those innovative offenses and collecting two conference championships (2006, 2009) and a Super Bowl title (2006) — to go along with the two rings he picked up with the Steelers.

Head Coach: n/a

Offensive Coordinator: Pittsburgh Steelers (1983-89), Minnesota Vikings (1991), Detroit Lions (1995-96), Indianapolis Colts (1998-2009).

In a 21 year career as Offensive Coordinator:

Moore’s offenses finished in the top ten in total yards and passing yards 13 times each, in points 12 times, in rushing yards seven times – twice leading the league in passing, and once in both yards and points.

They also led the NFL in passing TDs and passing YPA three times each (with 15 top 10 finishes in the former, and 13 in the latter). And 13 times they finished in the top 10 for both rushing TDs and fewest turnovers.

This is just a starter for the discussion; I’m sure I’ve missed some worthy names. And, truth be told, I’m not sold on Moore or Phillips. There were also other guys I thought might impress (Norv Turner, Romeo Crennell, Jim Schwartz, Gregg Williams, Mike Martz) but I mostly came away from them underwhelmed. Meanwhile, there were also coaches whose talent is undeniable but who I couldn’t figure out how to quantify (such as Mike Munchak, Joe Bugel, or Alex Gibbs — three of the best offensive line coaches I know of).

In any case, as the league continues to redefine what it means to be a “contributor,” and now adjusts the election process for head coaches, it would be nice to see a little attention paid to people whose excellence was truly worthy, but whose positions never get the historic respect they deserve.