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How much experience does a potential head coach need?

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Many important facts to consider as the Bills begin their head-coach search.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Bills interim head coach Anthony Lynn is a pretty big favorite to keep the job on a full-time basis. It seems like a lot of people inside and outside of the organization would be happy with that, except for one issue: Lynn only has 14 games of experience as an offensive coordinator.

My response: so what?

The NFL’s 32 head coaches (including interims and recently fired coaches) averaged about 3.7 seasons of experience as a coordinator on either the offensive or defensive side of the ball before earning their first NFL head coaching job. Ten of the 32 spent either zero seasons or one season running the offensive or defensive side of an NFL team before earning the keys to the whole thing.

Now, there are some caveats to note in there. Two (John Fassel of the Rams and John Harbaugh of the Ravens) have extensive careers as special teams coordinators. While there are limited play-calling opportunities, the position still allows coaches to develop themselves while learning some important general coaching principles that they can use as a head coach. Harbaugh, for example, has had great success in Baltimore despite never serving as an offensive or defensive coordinator at any level.

Fassel also has some NCAA head coaching experience, spending two years at New Mexico Highlands University (a Division II school). Detroit’s Jim Caldwell (Wake Forest), San Francisco’s Chip Kelly (Oregon), and Houston’s Bill O’Brien (Penn State) also used their college experience as a substitute for the NFL coordinator role (O’Brien spent one year as an offensive coordinator in New England). While the experience they earned in charge of the coaching staff is extremely important, managing a team of grown men who earn millions of dollars and can jump ship with relative ease is a lot different than managing a group of teenagers who are largely on four-year terms of indentured servitude.

That still leaves five coaches who earned a top job with minimal (if any) experience at the next step down the ladder. Interestingly, all five are in the AFC, and three of them lead teams whose seasons don’t end on Sunday:

Chuck Pagano spent one year as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator before the Colts hired him in 2012. Pagano had an extensive career as a defensive backs coach, but only three non-consecutive seasons running defenses at UNLV (1991), North Carolina (2007), and Baltimore. Despite his tenuous standing with the Colts, he has a career 39-28 record in Indy (not including their 9-3 record under Bruce Arians when Pagano was hospitalized for cancer treatment in 2012).

Andy Reid’s experience as an offensive coordinator prior to being hired as the head coach of the Eagles in 2000 was three seasons at San Francisco State, a program that no longer exists. Prior to Philadelphia, Reid spent six seasons on Mike Holmgren’s staff in Green Bay, highlighted by two years as the quarterbacks coach following Brett Favre’s three-year run as NFL MVP. Now, 17 years later, Reid is tied for 11th all-time in coaching wins.

Jack Del Rio actually began his coaching career as a strength and conditioning coach for two seasons in New Orleans before spending three years coaching linebackers in Baltimore. He parlayed that into replacing John Fox as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator in 2002, before Jacksonville hired him as their head coach in 2003. Del Rio recorded a 68-71 record in three years with the Jaguars before being fired near the end of the 2011 season. He’s still the last coach to lead the Jags into the playoffs (2007). After three years as Denver’s DC, Del Rio has Oakland above .500 at the end of the season for the first time since 2002.

Mike Tomlin played wide receiver in college, but spent most of his NFL coaching career with defensive backs. He led the unit in Tampa from 2001 to 2005, under both Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden, before spending a year as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator. When Pittsburgh hired him to replace the retiring Bill Cowher as their third coach since the 1969 season, Tomlin kept the team afloat with a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance. They won a Super Bowl the next season, and will be returning to the playoffs for the seventh time in Tomlin’s 10 years on the job this season.

Excluding interims Lynn and Fassel, all eight coaches with fewer than two years of NFL coordinator experience prior to their first job coached a playoff game within their first three seasons, and only Del Rio didn’t coach one within his first two. Their circumstances were different, but they all either managed to turn around the losing team they inherited or keep the winning one on course.

Furthermore, while Lynn doesn’t have a boatload of coordinator experience, he’s been serving on NFL coaching staffs for 17 seasons. Only the Cardinals’ Arians and the Vikings’ Mike Zimmer (both 20 years) waited longer to be hired as a head coach among current coaches. Among current head coaches, nobody waited longer for their first coordinator job than Lynn did; Todd Bowles spent 13 years as a defensive backs coach before his first DC job, and a few others needed 10 years (including Bill Belichick).

If you don’t want Anthony Lynn to be the next head coach of the Buffalo Bills, and you’d rather see them look outside the organization for a head coach, I understand that. Just don’t go thinking that extensive coordinator experience is all that necessary.