Finding the next Sean McVay: Head coaches who call offensive plays

COSTA MESA, Calif. — Anthony Lynn got his first taste of calling plays while serving as the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills in 2016. And Lynn wasn’t sure he wanted to give it up.

Hired as the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers in January of last year, Lynn debated whether to continue to call plays. Ultimately, Lynn decided an experienced playcaller in Ken Whisenhunt was a better alternative.

With defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and special-teams coordinator George Stewart also part of his coaching staff, Lynn could operate as the CEO on the field.

“I was brought here to lead,” Lynn said about his decision. “I was brought here to carry out a vision and help everyone, not just the offense.”

However, other offensive coordinators have taken a much different tack.

The Oakland Raiders and Chicago Bears hired offensive-minded coaches in Jon Gruden and Matt Nagy this offseason, following a successful blueprint the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers used in 2017 when they hired Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan.

Of the seven new head coaches hired in the NFL this offseason, four of them are former offensive coordinators who will call their own plays in 2018. That increased the number of head coaches who will call their own plays to 14 out of 32 — nearly half the league. According to ESPN Insider Mike Sando, that number is the most head coaches who have also served as offensive playcallers in the NFL going back at least a decade.

That’s up from 11 of 32 in 2017. Traditionally, NFL owners have wanted a head coach to act as a CEO for the football side of the organization.

However, with the intense focus on the quarterback position and with playcalling being such an important part of game days, former offensive coordinators are choosing to continue doing what they are best at: calling plays.

And that includes the head of the Super Bowl champions, Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson.

Pederson offered this advice to his former offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who will — you guessed it — call plays as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts:

“The biggest challenge is just getting your own study time in because of all the other things you have to do,” Pederson said at the NFL combine in February. “Leading the football team, meeting with doctors, meeting with [GM] Howie [Roseman], the personnel department. Meeting with the [team] president, meeting with the owner.

“Those are things that can take away your time during the week, and it’s just finding time to get your own study and preparation in and being in a position to help your team. That’s the one thing that if I ever get nervous about a game, it’s, ‘How well did I study during the week?’ I think that’s the biggest challenge for a head coach who calls plays, is being able to do that for his football team.”

Most new head coaches who continue to call plays came up as assistants under someone who operated the same way. It’s natural not wanting to give up the specific skill that resulted in them getting a head-coaching job.

Rick Neuheisel spent 12 seasons as a head coach in college at Colorado, Washington and UCLA. Neuheisel also served as an offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL and said that during his time with the Buffaloes, he shared playcalling duties with then-offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell.

Neuheisel noted his reluctance to give up calling plays.

“It’s auto pilot as opposed to holding the stick,” Neuheisel said. “When you’re holding the stick of an airplane, there’s an adrenaline to that, rather than sitting back and letting the thing fly itself. So when your hand is on the wheel, there’s no question that feels like the real, live deal.”

Mike Holmgren led two teams to the Super Bowl in the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, serving as a head coach who also called plays. Holmgren learned how to handle that role while working as a quarterbacks coach for former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh.

“I thought about it on occasion, just handing this to somebody, let them do it and take that responsibility off my plate,” Holmgren said. “I could probably sleep better at night. But then I started thinking, if I do that — and there’s a play out there that I don’t like — I’m going to be horrible, I’m going to be really bad on these guys. And so instead of doing it that way, I just chose to do it myself.

“And it’s fun. As a head coach, you’ve got to deal with a lot of stuff. I love coaching. I was one of the lucky ones, and I’ve said that many, many times, but sometimes you have to do things that aren’t much fun. Calling the game and the chess match of that on Sundays, that was fun. And so I used to say, ‘I’ve got to have some fun doing this.'”

The Rams’ McVay leaned on his experience working with head coaches who were also playcallers in Jon and Jay Gruden. And McVay benefits from having a veteran staff, including longtime defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and special-teams coordinator John Fassel, so he could delegate game-day duties and focus on managing the offense during the game.

McVay was responsible for engineering one of the best offensive turnarounds in recent NFL memory. The Rams went from scoring a league-low 14 points per game in 2016 to an NFL-high 30 points per contest in McVay’s first year as head coach last season.

“It’s all about surrounding yourself with great people,” McVay told reporters at the combine. “Certainly, the year provides a great opportunity to look inward and feel like, you know, there’s a lot of things that even though you might think you did a lot of things well, if you’re really being honest with yourself, you can improve.

“Just being more organized, a better playcaller, a better way of continuing to be consistent with the messaging for our players. So that’s what you’re excited about going into Year 2, is looking at how you can improve specifically as a head coach. There were definitely some challenges, but the great people kind of allow you to handle it in a manner that’s conducive for us to be able to have a little bit of success.”

Former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck started nine seasons for the Seahawks, where he was directed by one of the best offensive playcallers in league history in Holmgren. Hasselbeck said that in his first year in Seattle, Holmgren would give the play to quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn, who then would relay them to Hasselbeck on the field. Hasselbeck said that the next year, Holmgren switched to calling the plays directly to Hasselbeck, which the quarterback preferred.

“Having that direct line to the playcaller as the head coach, I actually liked it a lot,” Hasselbeck said. “It’s third-and-8 and he tells you that you have two chances here because we’re going to go for it on fourth down. That’s helpful.”

Neuheisel will return to the sideline next year as head coach of the Phoenix franchise in the Alliance of American Football. Like Holmgren, Neuheisel said handling the playcalling duties helps a head coach avoid second-guessing the offensive play calls on game days.

“This business is full of regret,” Neuheisel said. “If you’re going to regret something, make it be your decision rather than somebody else’s. When you are having a sleepless night, it is much easier to deal with that sort of remorse when it was your call rather than you gave that decision to someone else.

“And why would you give it to someone else when it mattered that much to you and you were going to spend sleepless hours pondering it? I’d rather just make it my call. I can live with that.”

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy knows that too well. After a stinging loss to Seattle during the 2014 playoffs, McCarthy handed over playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Tom Clements during the offseason so he could be more involved on defense and special teams, only to take them back 12 games later during the 2015 season after the offense sputtered.

“Mike blamed himself, saying he’s giving the playcalling to his offensive coordinator,” Holmgren said. “And I go, ‘Oh, boy.’ So I bumped into him at the banquet and I said, ‘Hey, Mike, one man’s opinion and you don’t need my advice; however, I’m going to give you some: Do not give up the playcalling.

“‘Don’t do that, because you are good at [it] and you’re reacting to one game.’ That was my thought. And there will come a time during the season where you might have to take it back. And if you have to take it back, that’s hard on the guy you gave it to. It’s just hard.

“I would say to any of these young guys calling plays, stick with it.”

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