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How Many NFL Head Coaches Are Former NFL Players?

Yagya Bhargava

How Many NFL Head Coaches Are Former NFL Players?

NFL team owners are closely watching former NFL players who are transitioning to successful coaching roles. The reason being? There have been only a few playmakers in the past few seasons, like Antonio Pierce, Dan Campbell, Kevin O’Connell, and a few more, who have not only developed their players but also built a close-knit relationship with them. They are bringing in special dynamics to help young talents adjust in a better way. This will only help the franchise in the long run, and it’s no wonder why the 2024 hiring cycle alone has seen more former players becoming coaches.

However, despite the league’s preference for ex-players in coaching roles, there are currently only ten NFL head coaches who have previously played in the league. It is surprisingly low considering the importance of developing players for long-term success. The numbers will surely rise in the coming years, but for now, let’s take a look at the NFL head coaches who have been a part of the National Football League as players.

Jim Harbaugh

Jim Harbaugh recently went from winning the NCAA Championship with Michigan last season to aiming for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the NFL. He was hired by the Los Angeles Chargers as their head coach following several disappointing seasons.

Harbaugh was a quarterback himself and had a successful career. He was drafted as a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears in the 1987 NFL Draft.  Over the course of his 14-year career, Jim was a part of several franchises such as the Bears, the Ravens, the Colts, and the Chargers. Harbaugh’s mesmerising career lasted from 1987 to 2001 in which he bagged 26,288 yards and 129 touchdowns in 177 games and 140 career starts.

Jim was no slouch when it came to achievements too. He led the Indianapolis Colts to the 1995 AFC Championship game, had several Pro Bowl selections, and was even named NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 1995.

Antonio Pierce

Antonio Pierce used to play as a linebacker back in his playing days and is currently serving as the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. Pierce started his career with the Washington Redskins and later cemented his legacy with the New York Giants. He won a Super Bowl with the Giants in 2007 and was also considered the centerpiece for the team’s victory that year.

Take a look at his career stats in the NFL — Antonio recorded 691 tackles, 9.0 sacks, 43 passes defended, 7 interceptions, and 10 fumble recoveries in his nine-season career. He quickly transitioned into coaching after retiring from the league in 2010.

DeMeco Ryans

Just like Antonio Pierce, DeMeco Ryans was also a linebacker in the National Football League. The Houston Texas head coach was drafted by the franchise in 2006 in the second round of the draft. It did not take a lot of time for DeMeco to establish himself as a standout linebacker, as he was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year in the same year.

The Houston coach also played with the Eagles for three years out of his ten-season-long career. Throughout his career, he earned two Pro Bowl selections and impressive stats, including 970 tackles, 46 passes defensed, 13.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries, and seven interceptions in 140 games, starting in 139 of them.

Todd Bowles

Todd Bowles is the current head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Before starting off his coaching career, Todd played as a safety in the National Football League. The former NFL player went undrafted in the 1986 draft but was signed by the Washington Redskins as a free agent soon after the draft.

Todd Bowles had 15 interceptions and 2 sacks under his name in 117 games for the Redskins and even clinched Super Bowl XXII with the team. In 1991, Bowles was left unprotected by the Redskins only for the San Francisco 49ers to have his back. They signed him for a year when he played all 16 games and started 14 of them. His journey was filled with challenges after the Redskins signed him but waived him in 1993, ending his playing career.

Dan Campbell

Dan Campbell is a former NFL tight end and his journey spans several teams in the league. He played for the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, and the New Orleans Saints. Campbell became a vital part of some successful squads and one rather disappointing squad in his career. He contributed to the New York Giants’ Super Bowl run in 2008, however, he was sidelined in the Super Bowl game due to an injury.

Moreover, he played for the New Orleans Saints during their Super Bowl XLIV victory in 2009, even though he was on injured reserve that season. While he experienced Super Bowl victories with the Giants and Saints, he was also part of the infamous Detroit Lions team that ended the season with a winless 0-16 record.

Throughout his career, The current Detroit head coach had 91 receptions, 934 receiving yards, and caught 11 receiving touchdowns.

Doug Pederson

Doug Pederson’s NFL journey is indeed marked by versatility and experience but also a lot of patience. He was primarily a backup to legendary quarterback Brett Favre with the Green Bay Packers. He was even considered one of the most vital members of the team that went on to secure Super Bowl XXXI.

Another important role that he had in his playing career was as a backup to Dan Marino with the Miami Dolphins. Although he was not just a backup throughout his career, Doug later started for the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns before retiring in 2004.

Doug Pederson’s playing career statistics reflect his contributions as a quarterback in the NFL. With a completion percentage of 54.8%, he amassed 2,762 yards, throwing 12 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. His longest pass stretched to an impressive 84 yards, showcasing his ability to make substantial plays on the field. Pederson’s passer rating stood at 62.3, showing his role as an experienced quarterback during his playing days.

Sean Payton

Sean Payton is the current head coach of the Denver Broncos. His journey in football includes a brief stint as a quarterback which somehow led to a unique connection to the New Orleans Saints. Sean went undrafted in the 1987 NFL Draft but he made an attempt to join the Kansas City Chiefs one day. However, that did not work out well for the former quarterback.

Payton eventually started playing as a quarterback in the Arena Football League’s inaugural season in 1987, representing the Chicago Bruisers and Pittsburgh Gladiators. Later, his CFL rights were then sold to the Ottawa Rough Riders for $1,000.

Payton participated in the NFL as part of the “Spare Bears,” the Chicago Bears’ replacement players during the 1987 NFL players’ strike. Notably, he was beaten by the New Orleans side that he later coached to a Super Bowl victory in 2010.

Mike Vrabel

Mike Vrabel was serving as the head coach of the Tennessee Titans before the end of the 2023-24 NFL season. Although there are certain doubts revolving around his return to the league, one can not forget the 14-season-long career he had as a linebacker in the NFL. Mike was an All-American at Ohio State before he entered the NFL in 1997 and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round.

Vrabel’s career took the turn he wanted when he joined the New England Patriots in 2001. Initially, he was serving as a backup for the Steelers, however, he started making significant contributions to the Patriots’ defense in the early 2000s. The former NFL player achieved three Super Bowl victories and earned First-team All-Pro honors during his eight-year tenure under Bill Belichick. He became the defensive player to score two touchdowns in back-to-back Super Bowls (XXXVIII and XXXIX).

Vrabel finished his playing days with the Kansas City Chiefs after being traded to the team in 2009. Throughout his illustrious career, he appeared in 206 games, tallied 704 tackles, 57 sacks, and 11 interceptions.

Kevin O’Connell

Kevin O’Connell has been leading the Minnesota Vikings as their head coach since the 2022 NFL season. He has been sending shockwaves through the league with his style of coaching, however, he couldn’t do the same in his playing career as a backup quarterback. Drafted by the New England Patriots in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, O’Connell’s NFL career also included stints with the Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and San Diego Chargers.

Kevin could only make six pass attempts and completed four of them in his career. That being said, he was recognized for his intelligence, diligence, and notable athleticism too. The former NFL player could run the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds.

It couldn’t work out still. After retiring as a player, O’Connell easily transitioned to coaching, serving in assistant coaching positions for multiple NFL teams before the Vikings picked him up as their head coach.

Jared Mayo

Former New England linebacker turned head coach, Jared Mayo, had an impressive 8-season career with the team from 2008 to 2015. He gathered a total of 905 tackles in 103 games. Jared was drafted in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft and he was too eager to earn recognition, which he did. He made two Pro Bowl appearances and even won the Defensive Rookie of the Year.

In 2015, a shoulder injury limited his playing time and he was placed on injured reserve. Mayo retired gracefully on February 16, 2016, expressing gratitude for his time with the Patriots. He smoothly transitioned to coaching after retiring as a player and posting 536 solo tackles, 266 assists, 11 sacks, 7 fumble recoveries, and 3 interceptions throughout his career.

About the author

Yagya Bhargava

Yagya Bhargava

Yagya Bhargava is a Senior Journalist/Writer at The Sports Rush and has been following the NFL over an year. He transitioned from being a chef to sports journalism due to his profound love for sports. With over 200 articles with The Sports Rush, he has previously delved into various US sports, including basketball, baseball, and golf. Yagya, with a sports passion and keen writing eye, thrives in delivering sports news that's not just captivating but also accurate. He embraces the competitive spirit, having played football at the National level.

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