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The evolution of coaching strategies in the NFL


To the untrained eye, football is simply two teams of massive men charging at each other, with someone occasionally throwing the ball. The reality is far more complex and interesting. Every football movie makes a point of showing the coded play calling language used by quarterbacks to telegraph their moves to their teams. This gives a hint at how much strategy is involved in the game.

And it is the coaches who are behind all of that strategy. Coaches play a huge role in guiding their teams and developing the complex strategies that can become the hallmark of their style.

While it’s unfair to say that football is a simplistic game, the strategies and thought behind the game are less complex than in soccer. NFL coaches have learned from the coaching risks and strategies of European soccer managers. These European managers dedicated their lives and careers to developing personal styles and creating definable and replicable strategies. Until recently, we hadn’t seen quite the same level of personal style in the NFL. Perhaps this is because of a more deeply ingrained cultural attitude towards the sport.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the most important stages in the evolution of coaching strategies in the NFL. From the lawless days of the 1970s and 80s to the data-based approaches of today, these strategies give a fascinating insight into how the game works.


The brutality of the 1970s-80s

By the 1970s, football strategy had entered a more modern era. The players were also starting to get bigger and stronger. This was unfortunately due in part to the fact that steroid use had become widespread by the 70s and would continue to be an issue throughout the 2000s.

As a Sports Illustrated article from 1978 made clear, the strategy of NFL coaches of the era was built around the physical brutality of the players. The article highlighted that injuries were becoming common at all levels of the sport, and had reached a level where fans were beginning to notice and worry that the sport might come to an end.


No team better captures the brutality of this era of football than the Raiders. They were one of the best teams of the era, especially during the John Madden years. They were also a devastatingly physical team that developed a reputation for the violence they brought to the field.


This strategy of physicality worked really well in the short term but the impact on the players and the game was obvious. The NFL introduced new rules and new gear to protect players, and coaches realized that their strategies would have to change.


All about the tapes


Bill Belichick is one of the most influential figures in the history of NFL coaching strategy. He spent his early coaching years at various teams developing his plans and ideas. From 2000-2023 he was head coach of the New England Patriots and is responsible for the team’s dominance during those decades.


What Belichick brought to NFL coaching was an attention to detail and flexibility. He would watch the tapes from games and practice sessions to learn everything he could about the teams he was about to face. Then he would adapt his strategies to take advantage of his opponents’ weaknesses. This flexibility made it almost impossible for other teams to prepare to face the Patriots.


Seeing the success that heavy data analysis and attention to detail were having for Belichick led other coaches in the NFL to adopt similar strategies, changing the game forever.


A more scientific approach


The newest generation of coaches and coordinators is beginning to make waves and reshape the sport with new approaches and strategies. These young coaches, such as Kyle Shanahan, have worked their way through the ranks to head coach positions so they can finally put their plans into action.


The latest approaches are far more science and tech-based than any previous coaching strategies. On the scientific side, coaches are working with nutrition and physiology experts to create plans tailored for each player to reach their peak fitness, without having to rely on traditional methods of bulking or performance enhancement.


On the tech side, today’s coaches are using more complex data analysis tools to do deeper research. Instead of just reviewing game footage, today’s coaches combine observable data with algorithmic statistics. Coaches can now see exactly how each potential play could play out, based on an algorithmic breakdown of how that play has worked for every team in every previous attempt.


While this approach replaces some of the romance of strategy development with an emotionless, logic-based system, the results cannot be ignored. Of course, there will always be upsets, accidents and amazing moments (players are human, after all) but these new coaching strategies have brought the game into a more streamlined future.


Final thoughts


The NFL has changed a lot over the years and these major rules changes have helped to shape coaching strategies. It will be very interesting to see how any future rules changes – particularly the changes that will need to be made to protect players from developing CTE – will shape the future of NFL football.

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Shane Hallam