Oftentimes, the greatest minds are hardly anointed as such from the get-go in any professional realm.
Albert Einstein wasn’t born as the chosen one of quantum physics, in fact it took him nearly a decade to even get a job in academia following his schooling. If you asked anyone what they thought of Einstein’s intellectual scope back in 1900, nobody would’ve advocated for the dissection of his brain to discover his genius. (This actually happened, I’m not exaggerating.)
Football isn’t quantum physics, and nobody will be literally picking Andy Reid’s gray matter for the perfect screen play, but the same logic has held for much of history: sometimes all the best coaches need is a chance to show what they’re capable of.
The NFL has long suffered from nepotism and recycling amongst its coaching ecosystem. You’re likely in good graces if you’ve got a famous coaching dad, did a moderately good job once 15 years ago, or even breathed the same air as an all-time great QB. It not only significantly hinders racial diversity, but it also creates a narrower path for younger coaching candidates who either didn’t play professionally, serve under a legend, or simply emerge as an unignorable wunderkind.
Of course, there is logic for holding more experienced men on a higher pedestal. It’s true for any workplace, as experience presumably begets knowledge and general capability. That works out wonderfully in numerous cases, like Wade Philips, Vic Fangio, or Frank Reich.
However, it also gives you lemons like Adam Gase, Matt Patricia, Todd Downing, and many others when that experience isn’t isolated from other factors. Those are all just recent examples, too.
And you need also to consider myriad assistant coaches who may be far from the best options but hold previous or close connections to higher-ranking staffers. Yes, they may have proven themselves worthy of a shot in the past, but how long should that carry someone?
Now, how does this all tie in with the Buccaneers?
Well, a lot of people seem concerned about the team’s offensive coordinator search, as the franchise has largely steered away from well-worn members of the NFL coaching fraternity and instead focused on younger or less proven coaches whose paths upward are less flashy.
To some, this reads as desperation. After all, the Bucs just finished 8-9, have a dubious cap situation, and lost Tom Brady to retirement with no obvious replacement. Who wants this job?
To some degree, there is fairness in this mindset. Head coach Todd Bowles could easily be fired this time next year if the 2023 season goes poorly, which likely means a one-and-done stint for the new OC. The prospect of shaky long-term security and possible scapegoating could absolutely be turning off hotter established candidates like Georgia’s Todd Monken, who currently has the cushiest job in college football and can freely pick his return to the professional ranks.
However, I posit this perspective. Tampa still offers one of only 32 jobs of its kind, and one of currently nine that’s overseen by a defensive-minded head coach. Its desirability is magnified by the prospect of having overarching control of offensive playcalling, design, and general approach. Of course Bowles will mandate some type of general philosophy, but he’s not going to have day-to-day oversight like the Kyle Shanahans and Andy Reids of the league.
And the Bucs still possess plenty of talent on offense; it’s not a bare cupboard. We’re still talking about Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Ryan Jensen, Tristan Wirfs and Shaq Mason as high-quality veterans, in addition to young up-and-comers like Rachaad White, Cade Otton, and Robert Hainsey. There are holes absolutely, the most glaring of which being a signal caller to make it all go, but you see worse-off teams do more with less every year – you need not look any further than the Seattle Seahawks turning heads with Geno Smith or Brian Daboll’s incredible turnaround with the New York Giants.
Bowles has not earned the benefit of the doubt as a leader, I will be the first one to tell you that. However, I also don’t think he’s an idiot (even though my emotionally charged game-day tweets might say otherwise). Reporting from people more plugged in than I support that notion, too, as Pewter Report dished shortly after Byron Leftwich was fired that Bowles wanted to see more innovation in the offense as soon as training camp and had a plan to fire Leftwich mid-season because of his creative shortcomings. Bowles didn’t pull the trigger because he felt no one on staff, who basically all came from that Bruce Arians line of thought, could aptly change direction in any meaningful way.
He wants something new, and he’s willing to look outside of his circle to do it. At the least, that forward thinking should be commended.
From this perspective, it’s understandable why the Bucs are looking under unturned stones from a variety of creeks, so to speak. They’ve talked with the following: people with strong past coordinating experience on their resume (Monken, Jim Bob Cooter); former NFL players who’ve made the leap to coaching (Keenan McCardell, Ronald Curry); the progeny of a Super Bowl-winning coach (Klint Kubiak); and then a group of unheralded young assistants (Dan Pitcher, Dave Canales, and Shea Tierney).
The latter subsection is the one disgruntled fans seem bothered by. Some quick background on all three.
Pitcher went to SUNY Cortland in New York, hardly a football powerhouse of any kind. He coached at his alma mater for a year in 2012 before latching on with the Colts scouting department for four seasons. He then served as a coaching assistant for the Bengals for several seasons before Zac Taylor elevated him into a much more prominent role as quarterbacks coach and game situation analyst.
Pitcher is universally loved in Cincinnati by the coaching staff and Joe Burrow, as seasoned Bengals writer Joe Goodberry notes.
He went on to mention that Pitcher has mutual interest in Tampa and turned down multiple opportunities to interview elsewhere. As it stands, he’s seemingly the team’s top choice given he’s the only candidate who’s gotten a second interview as of writing.
Canales has been a Pete Carroll disciple since 2009, when he served with Carroll at USC as his strength and conditioning coach. The 41-year-old has since filled various roles in Seattle over the last 12 years, most prominently as QBs coach and passing game coordinator. As the former, Canales helped Geno Smith to reestablish himself as an NFL starter. Certainly experienced, though hardly prominent.
Finally, Tierney started as a graduate assistant at NC State before getting a crack with the Eagles as an analyst intern. He then received analyst opportunities with Alabama and the Buffalo Bills before Daboll brought him along to New York as his QBs coach. His guidance helped Daniel Jones to his best season.
Giants QB coach Shea Tierney being interviewed for Bucs OC job, per @MikeGarafolo. Impressive young coach.— Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) January 27, 2023
Davis Webb told me few weeks ago he thought Tierney was ready for an OC job. Apparently others agree. Webb saw Tierney’s work in Buffalo and with Giants.
Sense a theme? It’s not a coincidence the Bucs are seeking out young quarterback mentors with humble beginnings. The first part is its own discussion, but we’ll focus more on the second point. None have received their big break yet, but all have worked their ways up the totem pole and proved their worth in various ways.
It might feel risky to take this route, as these guys seemingly come out of nowhere, but you know who also came up similarly? Ben Johnson, the 36-year-old Detroit offensive coordinator who just designed and shepherded one of the most dynamic attacks in football this season. You know how he started? As a no-name backup QB at UNC before serving as a graduate assistant and assistant coach for more than six years.
Another example is Shane Waldron, the Seahawks offensive coordinator who bounced around as a low-level assistant in college and the pros for more than a decade before breaking through as passing game coordinator under Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams.
Seahawks are now creating openings with motions and meshes and leaks, and Eugene Cyril Smith III is here for all of it. What Shane Waldron can create with a quarterback who gets the whole damn playbook. pic.twitter.com/krIv31aK9K— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) October 24, 2022
My ultimate goal is that you can have fast track legacy coaches like Klint Kubiak, former players like Mike Kafka, or simple geniuses like McVay…but there’s still room for people who pay their dues, study the game hard, and maximize their available resources despite a lack of obvious connection or influence. Just because their ascent was quiet doesn’t make it any less real, and it happens more often that we think even though the payoff isn’t always as a head coach or playcaller. They’re just drowned out by the tales of people like Dowell Loggains or Brian Schottenheimer.
Hell, how do you think Andy Reid became one of the greatest head coaches of all time? He shared an office with other assistants at San Francisco State making minimum wage in 1985.
So, consider re-framing this search in your mind if you’re a doubter. Where you see lack of qualification, dig a little deeper and consider it instead as lack of opportunity. It could all go sideways, but if it could just as well go the right way too. All someone needs is another person, or a group of people, to believe in their vision and empower them with the chance.
Maybe even in 30 to 40 years time, someone might even suggest studying their brain for science.