Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated's MMQB wrote about 32 candidates for a head coaching job in 2016. The list includes the usual archetypes of the NFL coaching carousel: retread coaches such as Josh McDaniels, Jim Mora and Doug Marrone; and assistant coaches who produced a good offense, good defense or happened to coach a top tier QB such as Adam Gase, Teryl Austin and Pep Hamilton.
Included in his rankings are two names Eagles fans are familiar with: current offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Both rank near the top of coaches who are "On the Cusp."
Résumé: Another Browns refugee, Shurmur had interest from the Bills and Raiders this offseason and should garner more after a successful Year 3 in Chip Kelly’s system. He returned to most teams’ radar after Nick Foles’ unbelievable 2013 season, in which he threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Our most plugged-in sources rated him higher than others did, though several respondents indicated poor relationships with players. Doesn’t mean he can’t be a head coach.
M.O.: His two-year tenure in Cleveland really wasn’t long enough to offer a full illustration of his head-coaching abilities. And little-known secret: it’s Shurmur, not Chip Kelly, who oversees most of the passing game concepts in Philadelphia. (Kelly is a running game guy.)
This description of Shurmur, who ranks 11th overall and 3rd among "On the Cusp" coaches, is curious to say the least. Klemko's more "plugged in sources" rated him higher than not as plugged in ones did, yet Shurmur only garnered interest from two teams. And Klemko's claim, which is just a repeating of an Andy Benoit tweet that has nothing to back it up, that Shurmur "oversees most of the passing game concepts" is highly skeptical. Shurmur certainly has some level of input, but the Eagles passing game is clearly based on Chip Kelly's concepts, not Shumur's West Coast Offense background.
This speaks to a larger problem when evaluating assistants. Every year "hot candidates" are hired and nearly all of them fail because they are promoted to the level of their incompetence. Unfortunately, the only way to find out for sure if an assistant is good enough is the hard way: give them a head coaching job. But the methods of evaluation that the media use are spotty at best.
Teams usually hire either an offensive coordinator who coached a good quarterback, such as Ken Whisenhunt (twice) and Joe Philbin. Or an assistant who ran a successful offense or defense, generally based almost exclusively on the season before, such as Jay Gruden and Gus Bradley. Or they hire a retread head coach who was part of a good team before the coach arrived, such as Jim Caldwell (twice) and Jack Del Rio. Klemko's top choices directly reflect this. Adam Gase coached a great QB in Denver, after failures in Denver and St. Louis Josh McDaniels went back to the well in New England, Teryl Austin did a fantastic job in Detroit last year but only for one season so far, and he just lost his best player in free agency. Rarely do teams venture outside the box the way the Eagles did with Chip Kelly.
In fairness to the decision makers who hire head coaches, separating the contributions of an assistant coach from a head coach's is difficult. Even if he doesn't call plays, the head coach is always going to be heavily involved in game planning, making it impossible to determine from the outside how much an individual coach contributes.
Even when the coordinator and head coach come from different sides of the ball, responsibilities can be murky. Billy Davis is the Eagles defensive coordinator, but in addition to being the defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro is the assistant head coach. He is heavily involved in game planning and on game days is the primary communicator with defensive players, he can always be seen barking orders to players from the sideline just like his offensive counterpart Duce Staley. Praise and criticism for the coaching of the defense should go to both Davis and Azzinaro.
For head coaches who do delegate play calling responsibilities, they always have one eye on the play calling, as coordinators are fired every season and occasionally have their play calling duties removed in-season. When the head coach does call plays, as is the case with the Eagles, the degree of difficulty is magnified. The last time Shurmur call plays, reviews were extremely unflattering:
Writing about Cleveland's offense leads me to a game I play every week at NFL Films. I sit in my office in Mt Laurel, N.J., put the Browns' attack on my screen and call a friend who was a coach in the league, but is now in between successes. I tell my friend the personnel group, the formation, where the ball is located on the field and what hash mark and describe the motion -- if there is any -- and ask him to tell me the exact play that will be run. He is correct about 95 percent of the time. No lie. The Browns are so integrated into the West Coast system that their predictability is becoming legendary around the league.
Since Shurmur doesn't call plays for the Eagles, nobody has any idea if he has improved or even has the ability to improve in this area. Making matters worse, we don't even know what he does exactly, in a profile piece of himself, Shurmur couldn't even say what his specific role is with the Eagles. It's also curious to bring up the 2013 offense's highs, let alone that of a player the coaching staff/front office deemed replaceable, but not mention the lows of the 2014 offense, who led the league in turnovers. To consider him a serious candidate for a head coaching job is a stretch. As is the other name Eagles fans will be familiar with.
Résumé: Was named interim DC in 2009 following the death of legendary coordinator Jim Johnson to cancer, and then saw his unit give up 377 points in 2010, a franchise-worst going back to 1974. But Ron Rivers brought the former All-Conference safety to Carolina, and in three seasons, the defense went from last in the league in DVOA (Football Outsiders’ measure of efficiency over the course of a season) to third in 2013. Carolina’s been churning out playmakers since he arrived, from Greg Hardy to Luke Kuechly to Thomas Davis.
M.O.: A Jim Johnson disciple, McDermott espouses a zone-based scheme with personnel wrinkles and knows how and when to bring heat. He’s done so selectively but effectively in Carolina, where he’s been one of the league’s better in-game defensive play-callers over the last two years.
While McDermott, who ranks right above Shurmur, does call plays, Klemko ignores two key factors that go against him. One is that Ron Rivera is himself a pretty good defensive coach. McDermott is calling the plays, but he's running Rivera's playbook. When he was with the Eagles, play calling was the biggest criticism of McDermott, but suddenly it is a strength? In McDermott's defense, he was thrust into the defensive coordinator position in Philadelphia under unfair circumstances when Jim Johnson passed away shortly before the season began. It's entirely possible that he wasn't ready for the job at the time but after years of mentoring by Rivera he is. And granted nearly every coach runs a playbook that is largely the work of someone else. But the point is this is another example of how it is difficult to separate a coordinator from the shadow of his head coach. Are the in-game adjustments the Panthers are making mainly McDermott's doing, or are they primarily because of Rivera? Only the Panthers know for sure.
The other factor Klemko hand waves away is the talent the Panthers have. With the Panthers front seven over the past two years, a defense should be at least respectable. Davis was already a good player before Rivera and McDermott arrived, Kuechly was a dynamic player from the moment he took the field. To credit McDermott with them is generous. And like with Shurmur it is curious that Klemko doesn't cite how McDermott's unit did in 2014, when it was 15th in DVOA, a respectable but not great ranking. Cherry picking one year can illustrate just about anyone to look good. Juan Castillo had the 11th best defense by DVOA in 2011, nobody is under any illusions he was a good coordinator.
In fairness to Shurmur and McDermott, there have been unappealing head coaching hires who went on to be successful. Bill Belichick was seen as another lousy retread when the Patriots hired him, Pete Carroll's re-entry into the NFL was not with great fanfare, Mike McCarthy oversaw an inept offense in San Francisco when the Packers hired him and Mike Tomlin was a Rooney Rule interview until he ironically dazzled the Rooneys and landed the Steelers job, and of course Andy Reid was an unknown when the Eagles hired him. But these are the exceptions to the rule, on average a head coach does not make it past three seasons.
There's little to indicate that Pat Shurmur and Sean McDermott are deserving of head coach positions at this point. If a team wants to hire them based on a stellar 2015, they should be prepared to be disappointed.