Different Football Coaching Styles and Philosophies

By Howie Long, John Czarnecki

Without question, a coach can have a dramatic impact on a football team. Some coaches want to control the emotional pulse of their teams; others attempt to use their influence by establishing good rapport with selected team leaders. A coach needs to stand apart as an authority figure, especially if he coaches younger players. He makes the rules, and the players must follow his orders.

Still, a coach can’t be as demanding as an army sergeant because he wants his players to feel comfortable talking to him about any serious off-the-field problems they may be facing. A pro coach may even allow himself to become friendly with his players and treat them like the adults they are.

No one set standard for being a head coach exists, nor is there a particular philosophy that a coach should adhere to. Good head coaches learn from the men for whom they’ve worked, absorbing the good qualities and tossing out the bad ones that don’t work with their personality.

A coach needs to be himself and be true to how he would want to be treated. Players can spot a phony as soon as he walks into the team meeting room. Following are the different types of coaching styles and philosophies.

The yell-your-head-off coach

Players don’t like coaches who yell and scream all the time. But some coaches can communicate only by screaming. They aren’t screaming because they’re angry; they just know screaming is the only way their instructions are going to sink into their players’ heads. (Granted, players can barely think on the practice field when their bodies are tired and aching from a long day.) The screamers are generally defensive coaches; offensive coaches tend to be calmer and more cerebral.

Many of these screamers are good coaches. When Steve Mariucci screamed at any of his Detroit Lions or San Francisco 49ers, everyone at practice knew he meant business. Mariucci wasn’t a screamer by nature, but he, like many other coaches, yelled when a player or unit constantly repeated the same mistake. After all, a coach can be patient for only so long.

You can spot the yell-your-head-off coach anywhere. Here are some examples of that coaching style:

  • Whenever these coaches believe their teams have been penalized unfairly, you can bet they’re yelling at the referee or some official along the sidelines.

  • Whenever a player misses an assignment and causes a critical play to fail, you may see these coaches actually grab the player and tell him, inches away from his face, how and why he screwed up.

  • These coaches often grab a player’s face mask and rattle his cage before telling him how poorly he’s playing or practicing.

  • These coaches throw things. Coaches who scream a lot love to toss their hats, clipboards, or whatever they’re holding to get everyone’s attention.

The kinder, gentler coach

Another kind of coach takes the kinder, gentler approach. These coaches rarely yell, and they believe that teaching good character to players can be as important as teaching physical skills. Tom Landry, revered coach of the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 through 1988, was known for his calm, stoic demeanor.

The smash-mouth football coach

Smash-mouth coaches love nothing more than to see a tremendous block by an offensive lineman and then watch their running back gain 10 yards while running over the opposition. Most of these coaches began as defensive coaches, and they believe in dominating the line of scrimmage and want their defense to decide the outcome of a game.

On offense, they’d rather win by running the football. Bill Cowher (who won a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers) and Bill Parcells (who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants) are examples of the smash-mouth coach. They prepared their teams to be the stronger, dominant team in a matchup, and that’s why they were successful.

So that you’re sure to recognize this type of coach during a game, take a look at these examples of the smash-mouth coaching style:

  • When the game is close and the offense needs to convert a play on fourth and 1, these coaches are likely to gamble, believing that their offensive line and running back can pick up the first down.

  • These coaches are more apt to continue to run a successful play until the opposition stops it.

  • These coaches’ football teams usually focus on both the offensive and the defensive linemen. Their teams may not always win the game, but they plan on winning the war along the line of scrimmage.

  • These coaches rarely waiver from their beliefs in how to approach a game or a particular opponent. They’re very strong-minded coaches.

The offensive-genius coach

You see a lot of offensive-genius coaches in the NFL. Mike Shanahan, who directed the Denver Broncos to their 1998 and 1999 Super Bowl wins, typifies this type of coach. An offensive-genius is a coach who seems to have an unlimited ability to develop new plays; defensive coaches know that these coaches will try more than one new play or variation of an old play every week.

Offensive-genius coaches aren’t always viewed as tough guys because they’re so cerebral. Nevertheless, although their minds may be working overtime on the sidelines, they don’t tolerate a lack of discipline or shoddy play on the football field.

This kind of coach is constantly looking for an edge on the field. One example of Shanahan’s genius took place in the 1997 season when the Broncos had to beat the Kansas City Chiefs to reach the Super Bowl. The Chiefs had a great pass-rusher in Derrick Thomas, and they preferred to line up Thomas on the weak side, away from the tight end. The Chiefs had a strong linebacker, Wayne Simmons, who demolished most tight ends. Prior to the snap, Shanahan would move his tight end off the line of scrimmage and motion him over until he was in front of Derrick Thomas. Then he’d call a running play directly at Thomas.

That simple formation adjustment prior to the snap gave Shanahan’s offense the matchups that he wanted on a running play. In such a short period of time, Thomas and Simmons couldn’t switch sides before the ball was snapped. Denver had success running at Thomas while negating the Chiefs’ greatest asset: Thomas’s pass-rushing ability.

Here are some typical actions of the offensive-genius coach:

  • These coaches generally wear headsets on the sidelines to communicate with their assistants upstairs in the press box, and they always have a playsheet (the game plan of offensive plays) in their hands. They’re more involved with the offensive team than the defensive team during a game.

  • These coaches tend to be more thoughtful and under control during sideline sessions with their players. They don’t rattle easily.

  • When they talk during practice, these coaches explain the whole play and show how a small aspect can lead to a gigantic reward. For example, each player’s alignment dictates a defensive alignment response. Anticipating the defense’s alignment to a certain formation or pass route can lead to an opening to spring a big play.

  • At the training facility, these coaches work alone most of the time. They have a daily staff meeting, but they like to think and tinker with the offense for hours on their own.