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Sean McDermott’s coaching staff has a lot of experience

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Even when looking at other young coaches in NFL history, this staff has more experience than the norm.

With each addition to Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott’s staff, experience seems to be the theme. What did other teams do when hiring head coaches similar to McDermott in terms of age and experience? How successful were those moves?

Mike Waufle (defensive line), Rick Dennison (offensive coordinator), Leslie Frazier (defensive coordinator), Juan Castillo (offensive line/run game coordinator), Bob Babich (linebackers), Rob Boras (tight ends), Kelly Skipper (running backs), and David Culley (quarterbacks) all have more coaching experience in terms of total years than the head coach does himself. Not only do those assistants have a ton of experience, but some have even served as head coaches themselves, with Frazier coaching the Minnesota Vikings from 2011-2013 after taking over on an interim basis at the end of 2010, and Babich coaching at North Dakota State from 1997-2002.

Looking at a semi-recent list of the youngest first-time head coaches in NFL, a few trends emerged. First, Buffalo is not unique in attempting to surround the team’s young head coach with assistants with vast levels of experience. Where they are a bit unique, however, is with the number of former head coaches on the payroll as current assistants. If Chris Palmer remains on staff, the team will have three former head coaches, two of whom led teams at the NFL level. Here are some examples for comparison:

Mike Shanahan
Oakland Raiders
(1988-1989)

As should be expected with any discussion of the Oakland Raiders under Al Davis, they did things far differently than most other teams in similar situations. Rather than surrounding their young 36-year-old coach with experienced coordinators, they surrounded him with many former Raider players who had not coached for very long themselves. Art Shell, Terry Robiskie, and Willie Brown all appeared on the staff, and Davis forced Fred Biletnikoff on Shanahan at the end of the season. Biletnikoff replaced Nick Nicolau as wide receivers coach. Nicolau moved on to become Buffalo’s wide receiver coach from 1989-1991, when he left for Indianapolis with Bills’ offensive coordinator (and the newly-hired, at the time, head coach of the Colts) Ted Marchibroda.

Shanahan’s tenure as the head coach of the Raiders was, to put it lightly, a bad one. He was fired after four games in 1989, compiling an 8-12 record as the head coach. Alex Gibbs (Special Assistant to the Head Coach), Charlie Sumner (linebackers), and Joe Scanella (offensive backs) all had at least 25 years of coaching experience, but only Sumner spent a majority of his time as a coach in the NFL. Special Teams coach Pete Rodriguez had been a head coach in college at Western Illinois.

Bill Cowher
Pittsburgh Steelers
(1992-2006)

As difficult as it was for some to envision the Steelers without Chuck Noll, it’s impossible now to think of the Steelers without Bill Cowher. At 35, Cowher was only the second head coach the Steelers had hired since the AFL-NFL merger. His staff was loaded with experience on both ends of the ball. Dick Hoak had been Pittsburgh’s running backs coach since 1972, and he would remain in that role until 2007. Ron Erhardt, who had been coaching since 1956, was Cowher’s offensive coordinator, and his defensive staff included Dom Capers (defensive coordinator), Dick LeBeau (defensive backs), and Marvin Lewis (linebackers). The greenest of those men was Lewis, who had 11 years of experience at the time. Capers began his coaching career in 1972, and LeBeau began his in 1973.

Cowher continued the Steelers’ tradition of excellence, leading the team to a 149-90-1 record over his career. That includes a 1-1 record in Super Bowls, losing to Dallas in Super Bowl XXX and defeating Seattle ten years later in Super Bowl XL. His Pittsburgh teams played in six AFC championship games. While Erhardt was the only former head coach on staff, Capers, LeBeau, and Lewis would all eventually become head coaches, experiencing varying levels of success in the role.

Jon Gruden
Oakland Raiders
(1998-2001)

“Chucky” had a solid run as Al Davis’s young head coach du jour, compiling a 40-28 record over four seasons (including a 2-2 record in the playoffs). This coaching staff had some more experience than Mike Shanahan’s, partly because it included some of the same names (Brown and Biletnikoff, for starters) ten years after Davis hired Shanahan. Gruden’s staff included Bill Callahan (offensive coordinator; began coaching in 1980), Willie Shaw (defensive coordinator; began coaching in 1970), and Mike Waufle (defensive line; began coaching in 1979). After a date with one of the best defenses in NFL history ended their season in 2000, the Raiders ran into the budding Patriot dynasty (and a little-known rule where fumbles are incomplete passes) in 2001, thus ending their chance at glory either year.

Gruden would be traded to Tampa Bay after that, where he led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory against his former team in 2002.

Gregg Williams
Buffalo Bills
(2001-2003)

Jerry Sullivan was quick to point out the similarities between Williams and McDermott in terms of their pedigree. They were the same age when they were hired and both are recent defensive coordinators who lost a Super Bowl. There is, however, a big difference in experience on each man’s coaching staff.

Williams was hired at the end of an arduous, exhausting process, one which was expected to end differently. The Bills interviewed Marvin Lewis , who was considered a favorite to land the job, and also John Fox, who was thought to be a favorite for the job until the day Williams was actually hired. Hiring Williams on February 1st certainly made filling out an experienced staff difficult.

Mike Sheppard, Williams’ offensive coordinator, began his coaching career in 1974. He lasted only one year before he was replaced with Kevin Gilbride, whom Williams also interviewed for the position. His other assistants included Steve Fairchild (running backs; began coaching in 1982), Steve Kragthorpe (quarterbacks; began coaching in 1990), Fred Graves (wide receivers; began coaching in 1975), John Levra (defensive line; began coaching in 1966), and Jerry Gray (defensive coordinator; began coaching in 1999).

Williams’s tenure was the worst in team history for any coach who led the team for at least 32 games. He has yet to be offered another chance as a head coach at any level.

Mike Mularkey
Buffalo Bills
(2004-2005)

If at first you don’t succeed, try again! After striking out on a hot coordinator who was a first-time head coach, the Bills decided to hire another first-timer immediately after Williams’s dismissal. Mularkey was 42, and was tasked with turning around a dreadful offense that went from scoring 379 points in 2002 to scoring 243 in 2003. The staff that he built was one of the better coaching staffs we’ve seen in Buffalo in recent years, including the former head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sam Wyche (quarterbacks; began coaching in 1967). Jim McNally (offensive line; began coaching in 1966) and offensive coordinator Tom Clements (quarterbacks coach since 1992) were added and he retained Jerry Gray, who had just served as the coordinator for the Bills’ number-two ranked defense.

After leading the Bills to a 9-7 record in 2004, Mularkey’s Bills regressed to 5-11 in 2005 for a multitude of reasons (foremost among them J.P. Losman). Mularkey resigned abruptly at the end of the 2005 season.

Mike Tomlin
Pittsburgh Steelers
(2007-Present)

The second entry from the Steelers franchise is another example of how to do it the right way. The Steelers hired Tomlin, who was 35 at the time, after he served as the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings for one season (2006). He had previously worked in Tampa Bay as the secondary coach under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden.

Tomlin’s staff was full of experienced coaches, including Bruce Arians (offensive coordinator; began coaching in 1975), Ken Anderson (quarterbacks; began coaching in 1993 after playing for the Bengals for 16 seasons), Harold Goodwin (offensive line; began coaching in 1995), John Mitchell (Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Line; began coaching in 1973), Ray Horton (defensive backs; began coaching in 1994), and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Tomlin picked up right where his predecessor, Bill Cowher, left off, winning Super Bowl XLIII and losing Super Bowl XLV while compiling a 111-63 record (including playoffs).

NFL: Buffalo Bills-Sean McDermott Press Conference Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

At the risk of sounding like an injury law firm, past results have no bearing on future successes or failures. Merely showing other organizations’ success doing exactly what Buffalo has done does not mean that the Bills will magically become a playoff team in 2017. A difficult schedule will include three games with this season’s Super Bowl participants plus questions on both sides of the ball will make breaking the drought a difficult task.

However, one thing seems clear. If an organization wants its young head coach to be able to succeed, it should surround that head coach with plenty of other experienced position coaches and coordinators. If other people can help the new coach to acclimate to his surroundings, then the team should have a good chance at success. The Bills are hoping that the combination of talents on their current coaching staff unlocks the potential on their roster, and finally helps the team to break back into the playoffs.