PHOENIX – Ron Rivera learned an important lesson after he hired a staff as the first-time head coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2011. It was one that's stuck with him for over a decade, and one he passed along to some of the first-time coaches assembled at the Arizona Biltmore this week for the NFL annual meeting.
"The mistake that I made more than anything else is I didn't have another former head coach on my staff," Rivera said. "It was one of those things that if you have that guy with you, he's going to tell you what you need to know, he's going to tell you what you should know. Some of the new head coaches I've talked with, I've talked about that and told them hey, the best thing you can find right now is a mentor."
There's so much that you don't know as a first-time coach, Rivera said, and he didn't want to bother some of the head coaches that mentored him, since those guys – Andy Reid, Lovie Smith and Norv Turner – were all still coaching at the time. He eventually got connected with John Madden, which helped him answer some of the unexpected questions that would pop up, but having someone with that experience already in the building is key.
So when Shane Steichen, the first-time head coach of the Colts, faces an unknown over the next year, he won't have to go far for perspective in how to handle it. He can pop down the hallway and into the office of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who was the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach from 2013-2016.
And Bradley's experience will help Steichen navigate the challenges of being a head coach for the first time.
"There's no question when you got a former head coach on your staff for a sounding board, bounce ideas off him when things come up," Steichen said. "He's been there, done that. So it's awesome to have him for that."
This is all an added benefit in keeping Bradley on staff, one that goes beyond his ability to coordinate a strong defense. Steichen was on the Los Angeles Chargers' coaching staff with Bradley from 2017-2020 and came away impressed with not only Bradley's defensive mind, but also his coaching style and how he treated people.
"The four years I spent with Gus in L.A., just tremendous respect for him as a person, as a leader, as a teacher," Steichen said. "Just seeing it those four years, the way he coaches his guys, how hard they play for him. A ton of respect for him as a person — he really gets those guys to believe and play hard for him."
Sometimes you'll see an offensive-minded head coach pick a defensive coordinator based on which style of defense gave his offense the toughest game from the previous season. For Steichen, that coordinator would've been Bradley – the Colts held the Philadelphia Eagles to a season-low 17 points in Week 11. Bradley switched some things up with how he schemed his defensive line, and Steichen saw the players in the back end of the defense play hard over the course of what wound up being a 17-16 Eagles win.
"He did a great job just the way he played the front," Steichen said. "What he did on the back end from the secondary and linebacker standpoint, they play hard, they play physical, they're fast and just very fortunate to keep them on staff."
Steichen trusts Bradley to keep the Colts' defense playing at a consistent, high level. For a coach with an offensive background, having that trust in a defensive coordinator is critical. And whenever Steichen encounters a challenge as a first-time head coach, he can bounce ideas off Bradley on how to find a path through it.
"I have a saying — don't draw me a map unless you've been there," Rivera said. "And so what happened with that is, when things pop up, what's the best way to do it?"
And Bradley just might have an answer to that question when it pops up for Steichen.