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49ers Head Coach Candidates: Is Marty Mornhinweg The Next Bill Belichick?

Before anybody flips out about me comparing current Eagles OC and former Lions coaching failure Marty Mornhinweg with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, give me a minute to explain. Thus far we've focused primarily on the 49ers 2011 general manager search. That discussion has naturally led to a lot of Jim Harbaugh discussion. However, recently the conversation has taken a turn towards Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Some folks here have mentioned interest in him and recently John Clayton mentioned him over at ESPN, while Jason LaCanfora briefly tweeted that it was a distinct possibility.

The mention of Mornhinweg has sent many folks into a bit of apoplectic shock. He was a brutal failure with the Detroit Lions and the links don't paint a pretty picture (thanks to bignerd for finding these):

A look back in incredulity: Marty Mornhinweg
Millen, Mornhinweg take the wheel
Should Marty Mornhinweg get another shot at the big job?
Mornhinweg kicks Lions out of practice after 35 minutes

Whether it's the 5-27 record with the Lions, or his lame attempt to motivate them by leaving practice on a Harley, the Mornhinweg era in Detroit is hardly even good enough to call it simply a failure. Disaster is a better word. Matt Millen had plenty to do with it, but Mornhinweg was an equal contributor during his stretch. Although he's found success lately in Philadelphia, the Detroit stench remains.

So given all that stink, where is the Belichick comparison? I point you to a pair of articles. The first is an ESPN Insider article return2greatness found (written this past January). I'll break down the key points so if you don't have an Insider password don't worry. The second article is a free ESPN article about Belichick's days in Cleveland where he was a bit of a failure. The first article looks to use some cold, hard numbers to figure out a quantitative method for finding great head coaches.

In the first article, Seth Wickersham stated that NFL teams and independent researchers had looked at over 100 NFL head coaches to try and determine what factors went into making great head coaches. I haven't seen the report that produced this and the details are a bit fuzzy in some instances. I showed the article to Florida Danny and he looked at this as a type of profiling that's using causation in a backwards manner. However, I thought it was worth at least exploring as we consider a guy mentioned in connection with the 49ers. It makes a couple points outside the statistical research that I think are worthy. But first, a quick look at the article so people know the context from where I'm coming.

Apparently this research revealed that successful head coaches have possessed at least one of the four following characteristics:

1. They were between ages 41 and 49.

2. They had at least 11 years of NFL coaching experience.

3. They were assistants on teams that won at least 50 games over a five-year span.

4. They had only one previous NFL head-coaching gig.

Wickersham then applied these characteristics to assistants available for head coaching jobs last offseason and Marty Mornhinweg was the only candidate to meet all four. In regards to the first two characteristics, Wickersham stated that:

For starters, the 47-year-old has spent 15 years in the league, including the past four as Eagles' offensive coordinator. According to Robert Boland, the sports management prof who spearheaded that 2007 NYU study, those two data points represent the ideal intersection of age (41-49) and NFL coaching experience (at least 11 years) ...

The reasoning is simple: A coach in his 40s with more than a decade of NFL experience has the ideal mix of managerial competence and personal confidence to lead a team. He's young enough to relate to players but old enough to command respect.

In regards to the fourth characteristic, Wickersham stated:

According to the NYU researchers, coaches who were fired or resigned from their first head coaching job often thrived in their second. Since 1992, 35 of these so-called "once-over retreads" have won 57% of their games ...

Successful retreads also clear two major hurdles: Many once-over retreads will identify the external pitfalls that contributed to their firing while addressing the personal traits that caused them to fail.

This is where Bill Belichick comes into the picture. He was a failure in Cleveland in part because of personal failings. He struggled to deal with his players on the right level and it in part cost him their loyalty to a certain degree. When he went to New England he found success in large part because of Tom Brady, but also because he learned how to manage people better. The Bledsoe/Brady dynamic could have been a complete disaster. Bledsoe handled the situation well, but a wrong move by Belichick could have destroyed that.

The article also points to Tom Coughlin as another example. In Jacksonville, Coughlin was a harsh disciplinarian, and when he moved on to the New York Giants he apparently adapted to the situation and brought it down a notch.

As some of those Mornhinweg links above point out, he had some issues in dealing with his players and it cost him:

For his part, Mornhinweg has spent the past seven years learning from the mess in Detroit. By watching Reid, he's figured out how to become a more consistent leader. He has a better sense of owners and prefers those who talk directly with their coach, which didn't happen with the Lions ...

Despite his secondary role, he preps for press conferences so that he's a more disciplined spokesman. During each session, he mentions specific characteristics of upcoming opponents so that his players will remember them if they hear his quotes.

Now this is not to say that Marty Mornhinweg will be an overnight success if he gets a second chance as a head coach. This is one study and who knows what kind of errors might exist. Furthermore, even if this study is accurate, there are always statistical outliers. Marty Mornhinweg might just not be meant to be a head coach. Maybe he's a better coordinator. The Eagles have an explosive offense this year, but I think even Jimmy Raye could make something happen with the likes of Michael Vick and Desean Jackson (ok, maybe not).

However, is it wise to immediately dismiss MM so quickly? Hiring MM doesn't have the flash of a Jim Harbaugh, but maybe there's something to him worth considering. One interesting aspect to him is his knowledge of the West Coast offense through his work outside of Detroit. What's to say he's not the guy to bring it back to the Bay Area?

I'm not advocating for Marty Mornhinweg at this point. I'm still in the Harbaugh camp even as that situation gets more and more bizarre by the day. However, given the way all this is unfolding, anything could happen in the GM and head coach search and it wouldn't surprise me, so we might as well be prepared for anything.

2004-present: Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
2003: Senior Assistant, Philadelphia Eagles
2001-02: Head Coach, Detroit Lions
1997-00: OC/QBs, San Francisco 49ers
1996: QBs, Green Bay Packers
1995: Offensive Asst/Quality Control, Green Bay Packers
1994: OC, Northern Arizona
1991-93: Tight Ends/Offensive Line, Missouri
1989-90: OC/QBs, SE Missouri State
1988: Running Backs, Northern Arizona
1987: Quarterback (player), Denver Dynamite (AFL)
1986-87: Grad Asst, UTEP
1985: Receivers, Montana