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Football fans now and then may hear banter on sports broadcasts or online discussions regarding the swapping NFL coaches. It might start with something like, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if Coach X could take the helm of Team Y?” In the National Football League, is it even possible to trade coaches?
Coaches can be traded in the NFL, and have been. The most recent was in 2006; and throughout the NFL’s history dating back over a century, the trading of coaches is quite rare.
While the most-recent trades of NFL coaches occurred around the turn of the century, they involved some very high-level names among the coaching brethren.
All of the major North American sports allow trading coaches. However, it seems to occur more often in the NFL; and when it does, it seems to involve well-known coaches.
The most recent trade involving NFL coaches was in (the previously mentioned) 2006, when the New York Jets sent Herm Edwards to the Chiefs for a 4th round draft pick.
Just prior to that, well-known NFL coaches like Bill Belichik, Jon Gruden, Bill Parcells and Mike Holmgren were traded.
Let’s explore the who, what, where, when, why, and if necessary how of the trading of coaches in the NFL.
The rules of the league simply allow it. Actually, trading coaches are allowed by the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), a contract valid over a set period of time that governs contracts of personnel between teams, among other things like player compensation rules.
Coaches in major sports are brought on board by contracts, either for a season or for several seasons. It’s the same with the players. In actuality, it’s not the person who is traded, but the contract.
The person named in the terms of the contract is bound to the entity (club) which holds it.
Since players in football (and baseball, basketball, and hockey) can have their contracts traded, so too can the coaches and their contract.
In the NFL, these transactions are usually unlike the well-known player(s)-for-player(s) swaps made famous in baseball.
Coaches in the NFL are usually traded for draft picks. The slots for selection of college talent is much more important (and valuable) to NFL clubs than for baseball clubs. So NFL clubs are more apt to use draft picks for leverage in deals.
Often, as you will see in the examples below, the transaction involves the new team simply rewarding the other for the right to take their coach. The reward could be draft picks, money, or whatever else they might think up.
Sometimes the NFL league office gets involved, such as when the team originally engaging the coach feels another team has tampered with their coach’s status, or otherwise engaged in shenanigans.
You might ask, shenanigans in the NFL?! Say it ain’t so!
It is so, and for whatever reason, many of these coach trades seem to have them.
The most famous trades of coaches in the NFL over the past 60 or so years also happen to be the most recent, and each carries a neat story:
After 5 seasons at the helm of the Jets, Edwards sought a new contract with a raise to stick around. The Jets had other ideas, and initiated discussions with the Kansas City Chiefs about being a trade partner.
The Chiefs played, and sent a 4th Round draft pick to the Jets to release Edwards from the final 2 years of his contract.
Edwards went on to coach Kansas City for seasons, with tepid success, finishing 9-7 in 2006, 4-12 in 2007, and 2-14 in his final season with KC before retiring to the broadcast booth.
The Jets hired Eric Mangini and went from a 4-12 disappointment in 2005 to a 10-6 record and playoff appearance.
However the following season the Jets fell back to 4-12, before rebounding to 9-7 in Mangini’s final season.
The Jets’ 4th Round draft pick ended up being Leon Washington, who had moderate success as a running back and kick-returner.
At the end of last century, it seems every NFL team wanted Holmgren, fresh off 2 Super Bowl appearances and a championship with the Green Bay Packers.
The Seattle Seahawks offered him the best deal, for 8 years and $32 million, plus naming Holmgren general manager and executive vice president.
Only, Holmgren was still under contract with Green Bay, so negotiations began.
The deal they struck was for Seattle to surrender their 2nd Round pick in that year’s draft.
Holmgren spent a decade with Seattle including directing the franchise to its first Super Bowl appearance.
In what kicked off the coach-trading “trend” in the NFL, the Patriots enjoyed their head coach and the franchise turnaround he commanded. But the Jets, in the same division, wanted him badly.
So badly in fact that they turned to the aforementioned shenanigans to try to pry Parcells from his contract. They hired Bill Belichick, Parcells’ assistant, as head coach. Parcells, of course, would merely be his “consultant.”
The Patriots balked, and ultimately they received 4 draft picks, 1 each in Rounds 1 to 4.
Parcells directed the Jets to a 9-7 record the initial year, followed by a 12-4 season and appearance in the AFC championship game, where at halftime they actually held a lead over eventual league champion Denver Broncos.
However, Parcells’ Jets finished 8-8 in 1999, and he went on hiatus until taking over the Dallas Cowboys in 2003.
The Patriots not long after took Belichick back from the Jets, and … He’s still with New England where for a few years he changed the NFL competitive landscape with Tom Brady.
Belichick apparently was promised control of the team once Parcells departed. When he was not awarded enough control, he resigned and bolted to be the head coach of New England.
The Jets took the Patriots to court in response, eventually getting draft picks in the 1st, 4th, and 7th rounds. (However additionally, the Jets gave the Patriots a 5th round and 7th round pick. Go figure).
As hinted at above, this trade made NFL history. Belichick went on to claim 7 Super Bowl victories and remains head coach of the Patriots as of the 2022 season ~ over 2 decades after the famous trade.
1. Jon Gruden, Raiders to Buccaneers, 2002
This trade was famous for several reasons, but the primary focal point was that both teams involved faced off in the next Super Bowl. Gruden went from coaching the Raiders to leading Tampa Bay to its first league championship.
It wasn’t just a win over Gruden’s former team. It was a 48-21 drubbing in Super Bowl 37.
The title did not come cheaply. In exchange, the Raiders received the Bucs’ 1st round picks in the 2002 and 2003 drafts, but also a couple of 2nd round picks, and $8 million.
Those picks turned into 21st and 53rd overall in 2002, 32nd overall in 2003 and 33rd overall in 2004. While the Raiders didn’t keep all the picks, the players selected at those spots were OT Langston Walker, DE Tyler Brayton
CB Phillip Buchanon, LB Sam Williams and WR Ryan Hoag.
After 8 seasons, Tampa Bay fired Gruden, who became a familiar voice on NFL game telecasts. Gruden returned to the Raiders in 2018 and lasted 5 games into the 2021 season before resigning.
It’s not against any rules, but the trading of NFL coaches between teams is very rare. In fact, other than a glut of coach trades over about a decade just before and after the turn of the century, coach trades are difficult to find.
Just as the players do, NFL coaches do their job via a contract with the franchise. As such, that contract can be sold or traded to other clubs ~ where the player or coach is still bound by the terms, only with the contract’s new holder.
Head coaches can tremendously impact the success of NFL teams. However, aside from Bill Belichick landing with New England, most coach trades in NFL history have been quite ho-hum.
It’s even rarer for a coach to be traded for another team’s coach. What typically happens is, the new team wanting the new coach has to deal with the other team for compensation if they agree to cancel the existing contract. Essentially, a team will ask, “What would it take for you to release your head coach from his contract?”
Sometimes those terms are worked out, but many other times they do not and die a rumor.