The Politics of NFL Coaching

Growing up a Jets fan in New York City can be tough. Not only do we have to deal with our divisional rivals (like the worthless, good for nothing, cheats that are the New England Patriots), but also, we are constantly berated by fans of our intercity rivals, New York’s other team, the Giants. The fact that the success of these teams is not at all interrelated–they are in different conferences and only play each other once every four years–is irrelevant, as New York City is undeniably divided by its football allegiance.

The Jets and Giants, from top to bottom, could not be more different, and nowhere is this difference more clear than in the ruling styles of their head coaches.

New York Giants v New York Jets

Tom Coughlin, the hard-nosed disciplinarian leader of the Giants, subscribes to old-school NFL principles of coaching; he is tight-lipped, strict, and intense, a perfectionist who rules his team with an iron fist. In fact, in a recent Sporting News poll of NFL players, Coughlin was named the NFL coach players would least want to have. This story by Nate Collins, a former Giants player, encapsulates harshness of Coughlin’s coaching style:

“I was on the Giants. It was my rookie year. I was on the practice squad, and I was late one morning. And [coach Tom] Coughlin told the equipment guys to take all the stuff out of my locker. So when I’m walking into the locker room, I see my locker, and it’s empty. And I’m thinking it’s over. I already got cut for being late. So I’m walking up to his office with the worst feeling in the world. He was like, “How do you feel right now? Do you feel like I was going to cut you? I want you to feel like that. Because if you’re ever late again, that’s what’s going to happen.” (http://bleedbigblue.com/tom-coughlin-coaching-style/).

Rex Ryan‘s relationship with his players could not be more different. Instead of fostering an environment of seriousness and intensity, Ryan makes jokes to keep the mood light. He often, much to the New York media’s delight, makes bold predictions and rash declaration to shift the spotlight from the players to himself. Unlike Coughlin, he was named the NFL coach players would most want to have. Rex Ryan is the consummate players coach and has completely backed by his team, as evinced by the player’s ecstasy when finding out he would be retained has head coach.

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Rex Ryan and Tom Coughlin represent two diametrically opposed philosophies on how best to rule in the NFL. Ryan, like Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, believes that the ideal ruler strives to be loved by his players. Subscribers to this ideology unite themselves with their players, fostering a locker room environment that is positive, happy, and unified. Moreover, these coaches have an open door policy, allowing players to freely interact with the coaching staff and give input on game preparation. Coughlin, on the other hand, subscribes to the ruling philosophies of Patriots coach (and cheater) Bill Belichick and 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Bill Parcells, who believe that it is best for a coach to motivate with fear. These disciplinarians keep the locker room mood serious and intense and isolate the coaching staff from the players. Conventional NFL wisdom holds that only disciplinarians were a successful ruler of their team. However, with the recent success of Ryan, Carroll, and other player-coaches, the NFL has seen a shift in ideology.

By now, I’m sure you have recognized the Machiavellian sentiments in these NFL coaching ideologies. You could say that Tom Coughlin is the Niccolò Machiavelli of the NFL; he subscribes to the Machiavellian principles that it is better to be feared than loved, and that one should only seek counsel (interact with players) when he so choses. His players do not rally around him in love and support, but rather, they are motivated to perform by fear of punishment.

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Recently, political philosophy has shifted from striving to be feared to striving to be loved. In our current political atmosphere, politicians campaign exclusively to gain the love of their constituents. Similarly, the NFL now contains more and more player-coaches, those who gain the love and support of their players rather than alienate them. The NFL serves as a microcosm of Machiavellian political theory, and the evolution of world politics is mirrored in the evolution of coaching, as rulers now seek love rather than fear. It is astonishing to see Machiavellian influences in a game which was invented hundreds of years after his death.

-DJR

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3 thoughts on “The Politics of NFL Coaching

  1. One thing I found very interesting in your blog was that you included a pole for people to decided whether a disciplinary or friendly approach was most effective. Out of the three people who voted, two agreed that the friendly approach was most successful, however when conducting my own research I have come to find that the Giants have beat the Jets more times than the Jets have beaten the Giants. This rises some questions: does a friendly approach truly create success? I think Machiavelli was right when he said, “…it is better to be feared than loved…” because even though Rex has a better relationship with him players, Tom’s players deliver at a higher performance. Therefore public opinion is wrong, being friendly doesn’t create as good of results as when a disciplinary leader rules. I like that your blog helped support this claim and bring an interesting perspective to Machiavelli’s theory in the modern age. I want to extend your blog to a political level… if disciplinary ruling is truly the most effective, why do American’s dislike it? We prefer our politicians to be more personable and friendly rather than strict, even though not much work gets done this way. Do we as American’s prefer no progress to be done as long as our rulers are kind? And if so, should we as a society try to elect more disciplinary leaders so that work can actually be accomplished?

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  2. Dustin,

    I believe your blog is very interesting and insightful. I really like how you tie in Machiavellian principles with the ideals of NFL coaches with polar opposite coaching styles.As a die-hard Cleveland Browns fan, I have seen coaches with all sorts of coaching styles in my life time.

    One thing that I think could have been included and improved upon would be talking about the results of these juxtaposition of coaching styles. Many people reading this blog may not know about the varying success levels of Rex Ryan and Tom Coughlin, so this would be a good point to add. While you seem to say that it is better to be loved than feared, the results may say otherwise. While Ryan has been good, leading the Jets to two straight AFC Championship games, Coughlin has won two Super Bowls with the Giants (both, ironically, over your bitter nemesis, Bill Belichick).

    Also, you cite a poll of players saying Ryan would be the coach players would most want to play for, and Coughlin would be the coach that players would least want to play for, but we don’t know how many of these players have actually played for each of the two coaches. For all we know, some players who have played for Ryan eventually could become annoyed by a perceived “lack of leadership”, while some players playing for Coughlin could believe he shows love, just not very much while on camera.

    I’m not disagreeing with anything you said, just raising further points and things to think about. However, this was a great and interesting post! Good luck to your Jets this season, and hopefully we can watch our usually-crappy teams do a bit better this season!

    – Korey Burdman

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  3. Hi Dustin,
    I really enjoyed your post, and learned a lot about the football norms and rivals for a New Yorker. I can definitely feel you, as I grow up watching my dad both suffering and enjoying the fight he and his friends have on their favorite Chinese soccer teams.

    You did a great job juxtaposing coaching styles and Machiavellian ruling principles. The debate on whether it is better to be loved or feared has been going on for centuries, and I tend to agree with you that more and more leaders are switching to getting people’s love rather than their fear, either in politics or sports. This change in ruling strategy, from my perspective, could be related to the fact that democracy is more popular than dictatorship nowadays. Democracy requires the leaders to have people’s support so that they will vote for them, and making themselves scary does not work very well in this context. Moreover, fearful leaders are often accused of inhumanity, which is not necessarily true, by mass media that “plant” ideas in the heads of many potential voters. Therefore, trying to be loved seems like the right thing to do for modern leaders. Still, there are people who agree with Machiavelli, such as Tom Coughlin and Putin, making a tradeoff between efficiency and belovedness. For me, the choice is complicated and multi-faceted, and there are no right or wrong decisions as long as they are effective and good for people.

    Also, I really like your writing style, which is both sophisticated and casual at the same time, and I love your inclusion of the interactive voting widget. One last thing, some of your outside links need to be fixed, such as the last two links in the first paragraph. You might want to make sure that your links work fine next time. Thanks for sharing your brilliant thoughts!

    –Niaoniao

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