Challenge for NFL coaches: 'Adapt or die'

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy looks up to the scoreboard during an October 2015 game against the St. Louis Rams.

You don’t last a decade as an NFL head coach by doing the same thing over and over again.

Some would argue you won’t make it two games without evolving your schemes and philosophies.

The winds of change never stop blowing in a league where what works today doesn’t always succeed tomorrow. Each year, a new crop of coaches takes aim at turning around franchises — some thrive, some fail. Yet, the process starts over again after every season.

There are a few men who have outlasted the rest. Six NFL coaches hired before the 2010 season remain at their post today, including Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy. Those six have combined for 658 regular-season victories, 45 playoff appearances and only nine losing seasons.

Most importantly, they’ve combined to produce eight of the last 15 Super Bowl championships.

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There is no magic formula for sustaining what is so often unsustainable. There are basic ingredients — good coaching, inexhaustible talent and a consistent front office. It also doesn’t hurt to unearth a franchise quarterback along the way. Still, it’s essential that you always have your sights set on the future at all times.

“The elements of everything that we do are ever-changing — the players, the rules, semantics,” said Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who’s entering his ninth NFL season as head coach.

“It’s an adapt-or-die approach.”

The league’s six longest-tenured coaches — Tomlin, McCarthy, Bill Belichick (New England), Sean Payton (New Orleans), John Harbaugh (Baltimore) and Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati) — each have taken their own route to success. Each has his own ideas on developing structure and maximizing production.

The constant thread is evolution. While many teams alter the course of the franchise through coaching or personnel changes, the NFL’s perennial contenders must grow from within. In 10 seasons in Green Bay, McCarthy has overhauled his offense, defense and special teams at least once.

In 2009, he hired Dom Capers as defensive coordinator and moved from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. Five years ago, he shifted his offensive philosophy from a multitude of packages to a streamlined no-huddle approach led by Aaron Rodgers, who since has become a two-time MVP quarterback. After a tumultuous 2014 season, McCarthy handed his special-teams unit to former Florida and Illinois coach Ron Zook.

Internally, McCarthy has embraced the role of analytics in player conditioning and overall health with the Packers going so far as to develop new practice schedules during training camp and in-season. The organization has invested in new facilities and brought aboard Adam Korzun (director of performance nutrition) and Ryan Feder (football technology analyst) to keep pace with growing trends.

The basic principles of McCarthy’s program haven’t changed, but you also can’t ignore how different the league is today than it was when he was hired in 2006. For example, McCarthy pointed out at last week’s owners meetings how rules changes have opened up the middle of the field for passing games.

“Our whole league is changing and growing all the time,” McCarthy said. “The opportunity for creativity and innovation is right there in front of you. I’ve always believed in it, myself. I don’t find it as big of a challenge as I may have in my earlier years because it’s not like you need to reinvent yourself every year, but you do need to press forward in areas of innovation and we’re doing that.”

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The biggest challenge for long-time coaches is tailoring your message to a group of players who’ve played their entire career only for you. That’s especially important in places such as Green Bay and Cincinnati, where the front offices lean heavily on the draft-and-develop process in building a team.

Like McCarthy, Lewis likes to develop a yearly theme for his players and coaches. It often goes back to when he first came to Cincinnati in the midst of the Bengals' decade-long playoff drought. While it's still looking for its first playoff win since 1990, Cincinnati has been to the postseason in seven of the past 11 seasons.

The key for Lewis is making sure players don’t grow complacent. His message routinely is based on players not taking winning for granted. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to fall back into failure.

“The hardest part of that is the players having an understanding that you don’t just get to the postseason,” Lewis said. “That each and every time you have to work your tail off to start right from scratch, Day 1, all the way through the offseason, all the way through training camp and throughout the season. You’re not promised anything.

“It’s important that everybody understands their role. We love them to grow and expand upon it, but don’t think you’ve arrived and remember how we got here each and every time.”

No franchise in the NFL better exemplifies consistency than the Steelers, who have had only three head coaches since 1969. Tomlin was only 34 when hired in January 2007, but he understood what it meant to succeed Bill Cowher (15 years) and Chuck Noll (23 years).

Tomlin, too, has had to make sweeping changes over his nine seasons in Pittsburgh. A year ago, the Steelers parted ways with long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who helped create the zone-blitz scheme with current Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

The Steelers continued their offensive evolution this offseason in signing speedy tight end Ladarius Green to replace the retired Heath Miller, a two-time Pro Bowler who was a more traditional in-line tight end.

“I think we never seek comfort in our continuity,” Tomlin said. “We try to make our continuity a positive about asking the critical questions about how we can improve. I think that’s the mentality. I think when you start talking about seeking comfort and finding comfort in that continuity is when you’re going to have problems and that’s something I openly resist.”

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Change isn't easy, but sometimes necessary. McCarthy became the NFL's third-longest tenured coach this offseason when New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin retired after missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Coincidentally, McCarthy's protege, Ben McAdoo, was hired to replace the 69-year-old coach.

In Green Bay, McCarthy instituted changes despite a seventh consecutive playoff appearance. Shortly after the season, he fired running backs coach Sam Gash and tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot, a member of McCarthy's first coaching staff in Green Bay. On the personnel side, the Packers have signed tight end Jared Cook, allowed cornerback Casey Hayward to leave in free agency and informed veteran receiver James Jones he won't be retained.

It's all part of the process.

The start of the offseason program is three weeks away. Once it arrives on April 19, the Packers will venture into the early stages of their 2016 preparation. Like every year, they’ll have their list of repairs and improvements, including on defense where McCarthy already has alluded to changes.

One area that should help Capers is his ability to communicate directly from the coaches’ box to the field next season. In the past, Capers had to rely defensive calls through associate head coach and linebackers coach Winston Moss to whoever was wearing the communication helmet.

The Packers already altered their defensive calls last year, but eliminating the middle man in communication should help. What else do the Packers have in store? You’ll just have to wait and see.

“If you pay attention, you might figure it out,” McCarthy said. “We’re just doing some things differently. I don’t want to get into the more personnel and schemes.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

Longest-tenured NFL coaches

Bill Belichick, New England (hired 2000), 187-69 (.730)

Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati (2003), 111-94-2 (.541)

Mike McCarthy, Green Bay (2006), 104-55-1 (.653)

Sean Payton, New Orleans (2006), 87-57 (.604)

Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh (2007), 92-52 (.639)

John Harbaugh, Baltimore (2008), 77-51 (.602)

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