KANSAS CITY, Mo. —When the Chiefs unveiled Bill Muir as their offensive coordinator last week, it was almost as if they announced they were going back to leather helmets. In a league that features far more passes than running plays, having a line coach serve as the coordinator is throwback maneuver.
"The game has become what it is," former Chiefs quarterback coach Terry Shea said. "It's become a high-percentage passing game and the running game comes almost as a complement.
"It's tough for an offensive line coach to become a coordinator in this day and age. He'd better be sharp or he'd better have someone at his hip who knows what you need to know about the passing game."
The pass is coach Todd Haley's area of expertise, so the promotion of Muir makes a lot of sense of Haley winds up calling the plays. Haley wouldn't say when announcing Muir as the coordinator last week but the situation has all the signs of the head coach serving as the play-caller.
Twenty-nine of the 32 NFL teams have a designated offensive coordinator or a clearly defined situation where the head coach serves as one. Of those 29, only three have coordinators with coaching roots mostly in the offensive line.
Besides Muir, the others are in Houston and Green Bay. In both of those situations, the head coach calls the plays.
"If a head coach is going to call the plays, having a line coach who's obviously very strong in the running game makes for a very nice combination," said Shea, who also was the Bears offensive coordinator in 2004.
Otherwise, like most other coordinators these days, Shea was groomed in the passing game. Almost all coordinators were once wide receiver or quarterback coaches.
The reason that line coaches mostly get passed over is that their world rarely ventures outside that of the five linemen and the techniques and strategies they have to use to block in the running game and protect the quarterback when he passes.
Coaches at other positions are allowed to see the bigger picture, particularly the interaction of the quarterback with other players.
At the same time, offensive line coaches are often the coordinator's most trusted ally. Line coaches are essential in building a weekly strategy against a particular opposing defense in blocking for the running back, protecting the quarterback and making adjustments during a game.
"He's been such a big, big part of the continued development of our team and a big, big part of us leading the league in rushing this year," Haley said of Muir, 68 and a 33-year NFL coach.
"I would not pigeonhole Bill strictly into a run guy. Bill has had a great contribution across the board here offensively . . . He has contributed in both the run and pass game for us here the last two years. He has contributed to me as the head coach with advice and words of wisdom that only someone like he can have through his experience."
The Chiefs went with a line coach as their coordinator for two seasons, one of them regrettable, when they promoted Mike Solari in 2006. Solari, one of the league's most respected line coaches, hadn't called plays other than in high school.
The Chiefs managed to make the playoff as a wild-card entrant Solari's first season, largely on the strength of Larry Johnson and the running game. But the offense collapsed the next season, leading Herm Edwards, then the coach, to fire Solari and replace him with Chan Gailey, a veteran play-caller.
Solari never got comfortable calling the plays. The difference now is that Haley will likely call a majority of the plays.
Muir also served as offensive coordinator from 2002 through 2008 with Tampa Bay. Jon Gruden called the plays and the Bucs won the Super Bowl using this arrangement after the 2002 season.
"Basically, we were in collaboration," Muir said. "I would say that most of the passing game was his and the running game was mine. I know there's a big hang-up about who calls the plays but basically the most important part is to get it right.
"Football in the National Football League is really a situational game. As you prepare for it during the course of the week, not one person can totally encompass all of the situations, so they're delegated. When you put your game plan together and those situations come up during the course of the game, quite often the signal-caller is going to the person who has researched the red zone, short-yardage, goal-line. . . ."
That's why there will always be room on a staff for an offensive line coach. But when it comes time for a promotion, he may have a long wait.
Shea served as his own offensive coordinator and called the plays when he was a collegiate head coach at Rutgers and San Jose State. He indicated he wouldn't have considered a line coach for the job.
"If when I was a head coach I had relinquished those duties, I would have leaned more toward the coach who had been involved a good portion of his career with the passing game," Shea said. "My style is geared more toward creating plays with the passing game and that's my preference. If I had felt like I was going to run the football and try to develop an attack based around the running game, I might have been more inclined to go with either a running back coach or an offensive line coach.
"It all depends on how you want to move the football. It just seems like in this day and age, the game has turned in the direction of the passing game. It's become a passing game."