Coaches confidential: How NFL middle management secretly shares salary information

INDIANAPOLIS — Large men wearing hats and jackets representing different NFL clubs sit around tables eating lunch and drinking beer in groups of two or three or four. One man stands in front of the group and gestures emphatically, spreading his arms wide and counting on his fingers. Another walks around the room passing out pens and sheets of paper. Then the man in front says something that prompts many of the gathered to raise their hands.

The black shades facing the street are drawn. No one walking by could see a thing. Curious onlookers inside the bustling restaurant crane their necks to look through a panel of glass windows, but they can’t overhear the spirited conversation going on inside this private room.

“I think it’s a group of scouts,” says a visitor in town for a collegiate swim meet. Another outsider at the table turns his chair around to get a better view, then catches a glimpse of a reporter’s credential nearby. “Do you know what’s going on in there?”

These men are NFL coaches. Position coaches, to be more precise. Offensive line coaches, to be exact. The sheets of paper make up a secret, unofficial annual salary survey organized independently by these coaches.

NFL coaching contracts are not public information, unlike those for NFL players. In college football, public university employees’ salary information is public record, but that transparency doesn’t apply to the NFL, where each club is a private business. Surveys like the one organized by the offensive line coaches, which are replicated by other position group coaches around the league, empower them with information they couldn’t get elsewhere.

“The survey is for me to see where I rack and stack on the pay scale and then just to be able to have that information as you negotiate,” one NFL running backs coach said. “The GMs and the owners have this information, it’s just that we don’t as coaches. I mean, you know what players make, players know what other players make.”

NFL coaches are management, but position coaches are about as middle management as it gets. Some have agents to handle their contracts, but many negotiate on their own. And unlike player contracts, there’s no salary cap on a coaching staff.

When Frank Reich was hired in Carolina last winter, he said he pitched Panthers owner David Tepper on the exact staff he wanted, and Tepper was willing to spend to get those coaches. “We were able to compete against other teams who were vying for similar candidates where we came out on top because of that backing,” Reich said.

That Panthers staff didn’t even survive a full season, but in a league structured to create parity, paying coaches is one potential avenue for competitive advantages.

“There’s some teams that don’t pay a lot, and they’re not bashful about it,” the running backs coach said. “That’s just what they believe in.”

Each coach surveyed in the private room at the Indianapolis restaurant received two sheets of paper: one to write down their job title (sans personal or team identifiers), years of experience and salary information for 2024, 2025 and 2026; the other to write down personal contact information to receive the results later. The two-sheet method gives the coaches taking part plausible deniability.

One offensive line coach said the salary survey process wasn’t always so secretive, but that has changed in recent years. Another line coach said that when he negotiates a contract, he’s usually instructed by the team not to announce his salary, so the rest of the coaches on the staff don’t know what he makes. The Athletic granted coaches quoted in this story anonymity to protect from potential retaliation.

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“If the owner doesn’t have to tell you how much everybody’s making, they don’t, because they want to keep salaries low,” said Larry Kennan (right), former executive director of the NFL Coaches Association. (Gary Reyes / Getty Images)

The offensive line coach who organized this year’s meeting worried a reporter’s presence might spook the rest of the group. Participation is already getting harder as some teams opt not to send their coaching staffs to Indianapolis. Last year, about half of the league’s offensive line coaches took part in the survey. The coach who organized the survey in the early 2000s said he’d get 80 to 85 percent participation.

Most position group coaches organize annual combine gatherings. The only position group that doesn’t exchange salary information are the quarterback coaches, likely because that job is seen as a pit stop on the way to an offensive coordinator or head coach role rather than a career position.

Last year, according to the offensive line coaches salary survey, there was a $1.1 million difference in salaries among coaches with five or fewer years of experience. The highest-paid coach in the 1-5 years cohort reported a 2023 salary higher than all but one of the offensive line coaches with six to 10 years of experience. And one coach in that group reported a 2023 salary higher than the highest-paid coach in the next veteran cohort: 11-15 years of experience.

This information is useful when negotiating for a raise.

“It just behooves a coach to understand the market,” the running backs coach said. “Really there’s 32 separate entities that can keep their information close to the breast if they want to.”

An offensive line coach who doesn’t have an agent said teams will sometimes dispute the numbers that the coaches report on their salary survey.

“It gets contentious,” said a former offensive line coach who said he hired an agent after the discrepancy between the NFL’s numbers and the coach’s numbers became too much. “It gets hostile because you’re talking about money.”



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In the late 90s, so the story goes, a veteran assistant coach climbed on a ladder in a ballroom during a coaches’ reception at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. He blew his whistle to make an announcement.

Hey everybody! We’re forming the NFL Coaches Association.

In 1999, the NFLCA named Larry Kennan its first executive director. Kennan coached in the NFL for six teams starting in 1982, serving as a quarterback coach, wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator. He quit his last job in the NFL following the 1997 season after the Patriots demoted him from offensive coordinator.

At the urging of his peers, the self-described “sh—stirrer” became the NFLCA’s first leader. “Understanding that I would probably never coach again in the NFL,” Kennan said. “Because yeah, it was gonna piss off the owners.”

He was right.

“The owners, many of them came out and said, ‘If any of you coaches join this association and give up your salary survey, we will fire you,’” Kennan said. “It was really ugly for a good while.”

Early in Kennan’s NFL coaching career, he was offered a job by another team. He said was afraid to negotiate for more money until his dad gave him some advice.

“He said, ‘Stop right there. If you don’t ask for more money, you’re not putting a value on yourself, and the minute you ask for more money, you put a value on yourself. And everybody respects that,’” Kennan said.

Helping coaches determine their own value became his mission for the NFLCA.

“In any business you’re in, if the owner doesn’t have to tell you how much everybody’s making, they don’t, because they want to keep salaries low,” Kennan said. “In business, lying about it is part of business.”

Kennan said Bengals owner Mike Brown and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones were initially adamantly against the idea of the NFLCA and a salary survey. Kennan met with both and talked them through the value of the exercise for coaches, but Bengals coaches never did turn in their salaries.

“Mike’s just a real cautious person, and he doesn’t want a lot of people knowing what the Bengals are doing,” Kennan said.

Coaching agent Dennis Cordell, who worked for Kennan at the NFLCA, said at its peak in the early 2000s around 90 percent of coaches participated in the salary survey, which included information up to the coordinator level, not just the position coaches.

The NFLCA fought for better retirement benefits and health insurance for its constituents and had the financial backing of the NFLPA, keeping an office inside the union’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Coaches paid $2,000 each year to become dues-paying members (about 40 percent did, Kennan said). But the NFLCA was only ever a trade association and never became a formal union itself — with coaches at varying levels of management, they’d have a complicated argument to make to the National Labor Relations Board, and there was too much paranoia among the membership anyway.



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Kennan left the NFLCA by 2011, and under different leadership, the organization had a falling out with the NFLPA and eventually ceased operations. The last remnant of the NFLCA are these annual position group meetings, and the group with the longest history of solidarity is the offensive line.

“The type of guy that is an offensive line coach, they’re just more in it for everybody than a lot of coaches are,” Kennan said.

Offensive line coaches are typically among the highest-paid position coaches in part because they operate like pseudo-coordinators. Longtime offensive line guru Howard Mudd, recognized as one of the best-ever coaches at the position, was also the original leader in organizing the O-line coaches.

According to Kennan, Mudd, who died in 2020, was the first coach to use the salary survey in his contract negotiations. When Mudd worked for the Colts, he used the numbers to get tens of thousands of dollars over what Indianapolis originally offered him, which helped convince other coaches about the value of participating in the survey.

“There’s only one reason why salaries have gone up for coaches as they have, because we were willing to share information back then, ” the former offensive line coach said. “And it was amazing how fast salaries went up.”

Before this year, the annual offensive line coaches meetings were held at the Indiana Convention Center, inside a room used by one of the many companies that rent space to market football products to NFL teams during the scouting combine. The banners advertising the product at the doors were a nice front to disguise what else was going on inside.

This year, the convention center informed that company that the room it rented out for the last 15 years or so — a prime location on the building’s main straightaway — would not be available. The NFL needed the space. Without the prime real estate, that company chose not to come to the combine. So that’s why the coaches are meeting inside the restaurant during combine week.

The actual salary survey is a small part of this year’s meeting, the rest is socializing and a lesson on financial planning from a wealth management company that paid for the private room and the buffet. An hour and a half into the meeting, after the financial chat finished and the salary surveys were collected, a handful of coaches grabbed their bags and headed back to their hotels. The majority stayed well into the afternoon, trading stories and knocking back beers.

As the winter sunlight faded, they pushed their small tables together, making a large one.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Maddie Malhotra, Mark Brown, Nic Antaya / Getty Images)

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