The NFL’s four finalists have balance, resilience and defense

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If you’re obsessed with offense, you will look at the last four NFL teams standing, see four head coaches with offensive backgrounds and deduce once again that play-sheet-toting, scoreboard-lighting leaders are the only ones worth coveting. Sizzle always captures attention, but you should do a more thorough inspection of the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. There’s much more balance to them.

They all ranked among the league’s top eight in yards and points per game this season, but these are multidimensional teams. Consider them equal threats to win the Super Bowl because they can succeed in different ways. They have stylish offenses, but they aren’t obsessed with style. You will see great defense Sunday. The AFC and NFC title games also feature three teams that ranked among the NFL’s top 11 in total defense. Three of the defenses were allowed in the top eight in fewest points per game.

There are levels of effectiveness within the remaining four teams, with the 49ers and Eagles standing out as the best defenses in the entire league. But they all have won games on the defensive end and possess either talent or schemes that can change the complexion of matchups.

Despite being built in four vastly different ways, all count complementary football (special teams included) as essential to their success. When pondering what this field says about the current direction of the NFL, the conclusion shouldn’t be merely that offense still rules. That ignores how complete some of these teams are and how much the modern game is starting to level out as defenses catch up.

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For downtrodden, envious teams hoping to compete, the fascination with finding the next Kyle Shanahan or Nick Sirianni should shift to selecting a coach, regardless of specialty, who can get players to compete with passion the way they do. Their ingenuity isn’t limited to offense. It’s the way they teach what they believe, and it’s their ability to hire assistants who accentuate their strengths and mask their weaknesses. It’s the disciplined and thorough manner in which they do everything.

The rest of the league is looking to follow a magical trend instead of craving transformational leadership. As the hiring cycle churns during these playoffs, perhaps this will be the year that teams searching for head coaches pursue people with the right qualities.

Offense-centric coaches lost three of the five jobs currently open. two of them, Arizona’s Cliff Kingsbury other Denver’s Nathaniel Hackett, were woefully ill-equipped to command their locker rooms. Hackett lasted just 15 games. There’s nothing wrong with hiring young, creative offensive minds. The success of Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur and Kevin O’Connell makes it a justifiable pursuit. At 39, Zac Taylor has the Bengals in back-to-back AFC championship games for the first time in franchise history. But these coaches aren’t winning because they match a prototype. They are from the same coaching tree, but they entered those jobs with their own identities and self-confidence.

Their charisma and attention to detail aren’t traits exclusive to offensive coaches. This cycle is full of defensive-minded coaches who have similar, if not greater, leadership qualities.

San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans may be the most coveted candidate nach Sean Payton. Denver’s Ejiro Evero is receiving legitimate interest from multiple teams. Philadelphia’s Jonathan Gannon is reportedly making an impression.

But I’m most intrigued by some of the defensive coordinators now vying for their second head coaching gigs: Vance Joseph, Raheem Morris, Dan Quinn, Brian Flores and Steve Wilks. In Carolina, Wilks should be rewarded for making progress with the Panthers after they fired Matt Rhule. Arizona, just one season removed from a postseason appearance, could achieve continuity and change by elevating Joseph, the Cardinals’ well-respected defensive coordinator, who understands the dynamics of that locker room. If not Joseph, their situation — after Kingsbury’s tenure resulted in a lackadaisical team and an immature young quarterback in Kyler Murray — still seems to demand a strong leader who can inspire toughness, which is partly why Flores is a candidate.

All indications are that Morris caught the attention of Indianapolis during his interview. If Payton doesn’t land in Denver, Quinn may very well get that job. There are several offensive coaches besides Payton receiving interest. Among them: Philadelphia’s Shane Steichen, the New York Giants’ Mike Kafka and Dallas’s Kellen Moore. But the intrigue seems to be with men who have expertise on the other side of football. For diversity — of race and skill set — it would be good for the NFL if defense wins this hiring cycle.

In truth, the NFL is not as skewed toward offense as it looks. If you want to lift the Lombardi Trophy, you have to get stops. Look at the past four winners, who celebrated right in the prime of an era in which great offense supposedly overcomes all. New England beat the Rams, 13-3, in 2019. The next year, in a game San Francisco’s defense owned until Kansas City matched the 49ers’ physicality and mounted an impressive comeback, the Chiefs won, 31-20. In 2021, the Tampa Bay defense shut down the Chiefs, who scored just nine points. Last season, the Rams sacked Joe Burrow seven times in what was mostly a defensive struggle with Cincinnati.

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Defensive teams with clueless offensive systems are obsolete now. That has always been the fear with defensive coaches—that they will play too conservatively. But if the popular model is to pair a young offensive head coach with an accomplished defensive coordinator, there’s no reason to think you couldn’t have just as much success flipping those roles. When he led the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl, Quinn did just that, partnering with Shanahan to produce a historic offense anchored by a speedy, aggressive defense.

Teams needing coaches would be wise to seek football aptitude — and then be prepared to spend what’s necessary to build out the coach’s staff. The most appealing style of play is the one that allows a team to play deep into January.

When Taylor compliments his team, he doesn’t talk about the offense. He focuses on attitude.

“We’re built for this,” he said after the divisional-round victory over Buffalo. “It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks about us. We don’t care who’s favoured, who’s not. We’re built for this.”

The Chiefs, in prevailing while Patrick Mahomes played on one leg last week, are built for this, too. So are the Eagles. And the 49ers, who might be willing to play on concrete, are definitely as well.

These aren’t finesse teams. They play with power and resilience. The obsession with their offenses makes them all the more dangerous. Before other teams try to copy them, they ought to comprehend the full lesson.

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