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There is an old adage that says, “Those who can, play. Those who can’t play, coach.” While being a good player is not a prerequisite to be a good coach, it definitely does not hurt to have playing experience.
Many great coaches have proven that you don’t have to be a great player in the NFL to become a great coach. Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Sean McVay, Mike Tomlin, and several other Super Bowl winning coaches never stepped foot on the field as an NFL player.
However, there are a few coaches in the NFL who do have NFL playing experience and hope to use that experience to their advantage.
There are close to 100 NFL head coaches who actually played in the NFL. These coaches include Mike Vrabel, Frank Reich, Doug Pederson, Mike Singletary, Dick Lebeau, Todd Bowles, Otto Graham, Ron Rivera, Kevin O’Connell, Bart Starr and many more.
Some of them were more successful than others, but they can all relate to their players in the sense that they were once in their shoes.
Which NFL Coach Was the Most Successful Player?
None of the head coaches in the NFL were Hall of Fame players in their day, but several of them did have respectable playing careers.
1. Bart Starr
The most successful playing career of all NFL head coaches is probably Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers. Starr was the starting quarterback for the Packers from 1960-1971. He is one of the main reasons for their historic prowess in the NFL.
He is the only quarterback to lead a team to three consecutive championships. He then went on to be the Packers head coach but was less successful in that part of his career.
2. Mike Vrabel
Mike Vrabel was part of three teams that won Super Bowls with the Patriots and was selected to the Pro Bowl and voted 1st team All-Pro in 2007.
Despite playing defense his whole career, he is most known for catching touchdown passes as a fullback in goal line situations in Super Bowl XXXVIII and Super Bowl XX.
3. Ron Rivera
Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera’s playing career is nothing to look over as well. He was selected in the 2nd round by the Chicago Bears in the 1984 NFL Draft. He played linebacker for the Bears for nine seasons before retiring.
Rivera was a rotational player on the ‘85 Bears defense, a unit that is often described as the best defense to ever play in the NFL. Rivera won the team’s Man of the Year award in 1988.
4. Todd Bowles
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles played safety for the Washington Redskins from 1986-1992. He signed as an undrafted free agent and started for the 1987 Redskins team that won Super Bowl XXII.
5. Dan Campbell
Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell played 10 seasons at tight end in the NFL for three different teams: New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, and the Lions. Known mainly for his blocking ability, Campbell often served as a secondary tight end in the passing game.
6. Frank Reich and Doug Pederson
Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich and Jacksonville Jaguars signal caller Doug Pederson both had long careers as backup quarterbacks.
Reich served as Jim Kelly’s backup for the Buffalo Bills from 1986-1994. He is known for leading the biggest comeback in NFL playoff history in 1993 against the Houston Oilers after trailing 35-3 in the third quarter. The Bills won that game 41-38.
Pederson had a 13 year career in professional football between the NFL and the WLAF (World League of American Football). He served as a backup quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, Green Bay Packers (twice), and the Cleveland Browns.
7. Kliff Kingsbury, Kevin O’Connell, and Dennis Allen
Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona Cardinals), Kevin O’Connell (Minnesota Vikings), and Dennis Allen (New Orleans Saints) had short stints as reserves and on practice squads for NFL teams.
Kingsbury and O’Connell were actually both drafted by the Patriots and served as backup quarterbacks for Tom Brady.
Who is the Best Former Player Turned Coach in NFL History?
There have been several former players in NFL history who have become head coaches. Some of them have seen success; many of them have not. However, there is one who experienced more success as both a player and a coach than anyone else in NFL history.
Former Chicago Bears tight end turned head coach Mike Ditka is the best former player turned head coach in NFL history. Ditka had successful careers both as a player and a coach. He won an NFL championship as a player and a Super Bowl as a head coach.
As a tight end for the Bears, Ditka made five Pro Bowls and was selected to the All Pro team twice. He also won an NFL championship in 1963, before the Super Bowl era.
Ditka was the first ever tight end voted into the Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1999, he was named to The Sporting News’s list of the Top 100 NFL players of all-time coming in at number 90.
He immediately began his coaching career following his retirement in 1972. He coached for the Dallas Cowboys as an assistant before being hired by the Bears in 1982. He experienced a lot of playoff success with the Cowboys including a Super Bowl victory.
He was the head coach for the 1985 Bears team that is considered to be the best Defense to ever play in the NFL. After several losing seasons in the early 90s, the Bears eventually fired Ditka in 1993.
He went on to be the head coach of the New Orleans Saints for three years from 1997-1999 but was fired after a 3-13 season in ‘99.
He may not be the greatest single player or coach of all-time, but there is no one who can match the combined success that Mike Ditka had in the NFL.
How Many Assistant Coaches Played in the NFL?
In the NFL, like other professional sports, the head coach can’t do it all. That is why an NFL staff features 10 staff members on each coaching staff. That does not count interns and other lower level operations members.
There are many former players who have become assistant coaches in the NFL. In fact, it is more common for former players to take on the role of assistant coach than head coach.
Retired players who became assistants are 49ers receivers coach Wes Welker and defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans, Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to name a few.
There are many more who played in the NFL to some extent, but these are some who were well-known as players before they got into coaching.
Do You Have to Play in the NFL to Coach in the NFL?
Different owners have different preferences when it comes to hiring a head coach. Some prefer offensive-minded coaches while others prefer defense. Some are looking for up and coming young coaches while others want someone with more experience.
One thing many of them do not care about is a coach’s playing career.
Playing in the NFL is not a prerequisite to coaching in the NFL. As long as you know the game of football and can prove that you are a winner, then you can find a spot on a coaching staff in the NFL.
It was long believed that former players made great coaches because they could relate to players more than those who never played in the league. While that certainly is not false, it does not mean that someone who did not play in the NFL can’t relate to their players.
As mentioned earlier, many of the all-time great coaches never played a snap in the NFL. Most of them did, however, play in college.
How Can I Get Started Coaching in the NFL?
Internships, in both college football and the NFL, are typically the best way to start a coaching career in the NFL. Some would argue that being a graduate assistant for a college team is a great way to start as many NFL scouts often communicate with low-level college assistants.
Also, teams are always looking for video coordinators and quality control coaches. Any low-level – which also means low-paying – job in the coaching ranks is the best way to get started in coaching.
How Much Do NFL Head Coaches Get Paid?
The average salary of an NFL head coach is around $6 million per year. The highest paid head coach in the NFL is Bill Belichick who makes $12 million per year. The average salary for assistant coaches is around $2.5 million. Usually, the coordinators get paid the most.
What Does a Coordinator Do?
A coordinator is an assistant coach who is in charge of managing a unit: offense, defense, or special teams. They report directly to the head coach. Some coordinators call the plays for their unit during the game while others are simply in charge of developing the game plan.