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Head coach is an enormously important position

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With Sean Payton taking over today, it’s worth making a broader point about how important getting the head coach hire right in the NFL is. One staple of talk radio dogma — which is also present in our comment section — is that you should never trade draft capital for a coach. Even in theory, this doesn’t make any sense. I think it would be very conservative to say that Sean Payton is worth 3 wins a year more than Nathaniel Hackett, and teams pay more than what the Broncos gave up for Payton for less win expectancy than that all the time. It’s fairly unusual to do this because generally top-level coaches either eventually get fired (Reid) or don’t come on the market, but in an unusual situation where a top-level coach resigned while still under contract like this, then go get him if you want him. Obviously, all things being equal you’d rather get your coach for just money, but after the Broncos struck out with the top hoshot coordinator (Ryans) and top established coach (Harbaugh) on the market, trading for Payton makes perfect sense.

But let’s leave aside the theory. In practice, paying compensation for the rights to a coach in the NFL has a great track record — one home run after another:

  • Don Shula: Took over a franchise had been 17-39-2 in its history. Went 10-4 his first year, went to the Super Bowl in year 2, won the Super Bowl in years 3 and 4 including a perfect season. I’d say that was pretty good value.
  • Bill Parcells: One of the less impactful trades, but still 48-29 — including a 12-4 season with an 35-year-old Vinny Testaverde — with the Jets is pretty good.
  • Mike Holmgren: took a team that went 8-8 with Dennis Erickson almost literally every year and was much worse before that to the next level, culminating in a 13-3 year and a Super Bowl loss I am definitely not still bitter about. You don’t want him as your GM but he was an excellent coach.
  • Bill Belichick: Acquired after resigning as HC of the NYJ. Here at LGM we are not afraid to take the boldest, most contrarian takes possible. So let me come right out and say this: I think Bob Kraft would make this trade again.
  • Jon Gruden: this may be hard to believe for younger fans, but Gruden really was an outstanding coach back in the day. I think that I can just mention that he won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson (over a team he had also built) and drop the mic. In fairness, the Raiders did use that draft capital to acquire [checks notes] Phllip Buchanon and Tyler Brayton. And they did show that NFL head coaches are pretty much interchangeable and it would be crazy to trade for one by hiring [taps earpiece] Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell 2.0, Lane Kiffin, and Tom Cable. Yee-ow!
  • Bruce Arians: Again, I’d say this worked out great — flags fly forever.

The one exception here is that the Chiefs trading a 4th rounder for Herm Edwards didn’t work out. So yes, I would say don’t bother trading for a replacement-level coach, although I don’t think your teams future hinged on that fourth round pick. Otherwise, trading what is essentially two second rounders for Payton is perfectly sound.

How this will work out I don’t know, but one last point I’ll make again is that I really don’t get the idea that the Broncos shouldn’t try to win because of Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert being in their division. I mean, Mahomes and Reid aren’t going anywhere for a while, I don’t think a 10-year tank is a real option. And while I like Herbert preemptively conceding to a QB with a lifetime playoff record of 0-1 is even more nonsensical. Trying to win beats galaxy-brained theories for why losing is good most of the time.

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