Can we get a little love for the old-head head coaches in Sunday’s Super Bowl?
Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians is 68, and Kansas City’s Andy Reid is 62. This is nice. This is good. It makes those of us of a certain vintage feel like some things are still possible. Like climbing Mt. Everest. Or learning a new language. Or making peace with smartphones, which are stealing our personal information, emptying our bank accounts and relieving us of our souls, even as we speak.
There is nothing wrong with being young. You can’t get to old without going through Youngstown. But all those life experiences we collect are supposed to add up to something better and richer by the time we’re gray. Nothing against 41-year-old Kyle Shanahan, who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl last season, or 35-year-old Sean McVay, who coached the Rams to the Super Bowl the season before. But just because they’ve spent most of their relatively short adult lives staring at game tape doesn’t mean they know a lot about life.
Do you need to know a lot about life to be a football coach? The very existence of monosyllabic coach Bill Belichick would argue strongly that you don’t. But even the Patriots 68-year-old coach has come a long way from the dour 39-year-old Browns coach he was in 1991. He actually smiles once in a while now, though when he does, I wonder if he’s thinking of a joke in which a Jew, a Catholic and a Muslim walk into a crossbar.
When I look at Reid and Arians, I see two men in complete control of their worlds. Both calm. Both collected. If you want to make the argument that you’d feel in control of your world if you had Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) and Tom Brady (Buccaneers) at quarterback, you won’t get much disagreement here.
But when Arians took over as Cardinals coach in 2013, he went 10-6 with Carson Palmer as his quarterback. The next year, he went 11-5 with Drew Stanton starting eight games. So Brady isn’t the only reason for Tampa Bay’s excellence this season.
Apropos of nothing other than your profound pain, the Bears could have had Arians as their head coach in 2013, but then-general manager Phil Emery chose Marc Trestman instead.
As I said, pain. Deep, enduring pain.
Where was I? Age. Old = good.
The Bears’ connection to the wise Reid is that they hired his offensive coordinator, 39-year-old Matt Nagy, as their head coach in 2018. We knew then that the apple had a chance of falling about a mile from the tree. That’s not necessarily a shot at Nagy. It’s an acknowledgement that it has taken Reid years to get where he is in his development as a coach. Just because you stood next to him on the sideline doesn’t mean you absorbed his acumen.
ESPN.com had a feature story Friday about Eric Bieniemy, Nagy’s replacement as the Chiefs offensive coordinator. The headline was, “The secret to Eric Bieniemy’s unstoppable offense.’’ Anybody in their right mind knows the “secret’’ is Mahomes. The other “secret’’ to the Chiefs’ offense is Reid. He designed it, and he’s the primary play-caller. It’s a shame that Bieniemy hasn’t gotten his shot as a head coach, but come on.
Good NFL coaching is not all about age, obviously. The Eagles hired Reid to be their head coach in 1999. He was 41. Six seasons later, he had them in the Super Bowl. He lost to a chipper, 52-year-old Belichick.
Maybe the best way to put it is that you’re more likely to be hurt by youthful inexperience than you are by a large accumulation of birthdays. I don’t know what 41-year-old Packers coach Matt LaFleur was thinking when he called for a field-goal attempt instead of going for it on fourth down and goal late in the NFC Championship Game. I’d like to think a 61-year-old LaFleur will know better in a similar circumstance.
Of the seven new head coaches hired this offseason, two are 38, one is 39 and another is 41. That’s a lot of youthful energy. But what about wisdom?
Pope Francis is 84. President Joe Biden is 78. There is no mandatory retirement age for U.S. Supreme Court justices, and although the framers of the Constitution probably didn’t think that judges would live as long as they do today, the idea behind it was smart: Older people bring a lot of wisdom to the table.
(But wait, Rick, aren’t you the same guy who criticized the White Sox in October for hiring 76-year-old Tony La Russa as their manager? Yes, I am. My issues with La Russa had less to do with age and more to do with inactivity (he hadn’t managed in nine years) and his ability to relate to young players (no one has ever mistaken him for Mr. Congeniality).
I don’t know what the sweet spot is in terms of age for an NFL head coach. It’s not a healthy lifestyle, given the stress, the hours on the job and the lack of sleep. But if a man can navigate through all that, can build up knowledge and still be coaching into his 60s, maybe he’s better equipped to be the best he can be.
Brady has been on this planet 43 years. He still has a very good arm. When you put that arm together with all the football knowledge he has in his head, you have a dangerous quarterback. Same with the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, who is 37, which used to be considered an advanced age for a quarterback.
Perhaps you can see a theme here. Getting Older: What’s Wrong With That?