In the last 20 years, there have been exactly two men who won the Super Bowl as an unproven head coach. Mike Tomlin and Brian Billick had yet to establish themselves as big time NFL coaches until they won championships with the Steelers and Ravens, respectively.
In three weeks, we are guaranteed to include another coach in that not-so-elite group. The four teams remaining in the 2010 NFL playoffs are all led by coaches who have never even sniffed the Super Bowl as head men.
The AFC title game is the Rookie Coach Bowl, featuring the loyal assistant who inherited a championship-caliber franchise in the Colts’ Jim Caldwell, against the fiery defensive mastermind with Super Bowl pedigree who single-handedly changed the mindset of a team in the Jets’ Rex Ryan.
The NFC Championship features two coaches who have had mild success with their respective franchises, but have yet to reach the Super Bowl with talented teams.
Sean Payton led the Saints to the conference title game in 2006 before losing to the Bears, but besides that year New Orleans has not even reached that far. Brad Childress was a well-known offensive coordinator under Andy Reid in Philadelphia, but had yet to make the Vikings contenders until Brett Favre jumped on the ship before this season.
With Caldwell and Ryan, both coaches are in their first seasons with their respective teams, and both have endured seasons that could not have followed more dissimilar paths. Caldwell inherited a roster chocked full of stars, namely 2009 NFL MVP Peyton Manning. As an assistant under previous coach Tony Dungy, there was little to no transition within the locker room.
Quite frankly, despite Caldwell’s inexperience, the Colts were expected to make it this far.
Ryan is another story. The son of defensive mastermind Buddy, who coached the Bears to the Super Bowl XX title, Rex took over a team coming off an embarrassing finish to the 2008 season and started a rookie quarterback. The Jets were not picked to make the playoffs by practically everyone, and for good reason.
Ryan, who coached the defense for the Ravens before coming to New York, brought his high-wired, tell-it-like-it-is attitude to the Jets, and after a ho-hum 14 weeks, has the Jets soaring into Sunday’s game.
The rookie quarterback is Mark Sanchez, who struggled most of the season before the offense was scaled back late in the year to allow the Jets to play similar to Ryan’s Ravens of old. Like Baltimore in 2008, the Jets used a persistent running game and a suffocating defense to carry their rookie quarterback through to the playoffs.
Each of these coaches come from much different backgrounds to their respective teams, and each have varying levels of experience, but the common denominator between them all is the lack of big-game victories as head coaches.
As history suggests, the Super Bowl champion requires an experienced head coach who has been in the spotlight for several years at the highest level of the sport. The trend will be bucked this year, and one coach will take the leap from promising young coach to established winner.
The sacred threshold awaits, begging to be crossed.