A Look at NFL Coaching Changes

Five Quick Hits

* I don't normally advertise for other writers, but ESPN's Michael Smith has a really good, level-headed take on race and the latest round of NFL coaching hires.

* Salon's King Kaufman wrote a nice piece about games being broadcast on NFL Network.

* The Super Bowl should be played on a rotating schedule, with each team hosting the game once every 32 years. How nuts is it that the Super Bowl is never at Lambeau Field?

* Big congrats to Amelie Mauresmo and Roger Federer. Major boos and hisses for Nicolas Kiefer.

* The 49ers lost their offensive coordinator to a head coaching position, and I'm pretty sure they're going to be better off with Norv Turner.


In the two-week run-up to the Super Bowl, many fans and observers of the NFL are turning their attention to coaching moves around the league. After all, there are only so many times you can hear about Shaun Alexander's contract or Dan Marino's phone call to Ben Roethlisberger.

As analysts examine the league's coaching moves, some are noticing that all of the league's new head coaches are white. This was supposed to be a banner year for minority hiring, with highly-regarded candidates including (but not limited to) Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. With the only remaining vacancy in Oakland, those defense-oriented coaches are unlikely to get a shot, although there is speculation that Art Shell may get another shot at coaching the silver and black. For now, however, the smart money is on Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who is white.

And to think that less than a year ago I wrote an entire article asserting that the NFL's minority hiring policies were working. Looks like I was wrong.

Anyway, here's a brief breakdown for each team with a new head coach.

Buffalo Bills — Dick Jauron

I'm going in alphabetical order, but this strange situation is a good place to start. Bills management decided after the season to retain head coach Mike Mularkey, but days after his status was revealed to be secure, Mularkey resigned. Now he's signed on to replace Scott Linehan as offensive coordinator in Miami, and the Bills have hired Jauron.

Jauron most recently concluded a five-game shift as interim head coach of the Lions, but his hiring has more to do with his five years as head coach of the Bears. Jauron got his start as an assistant for Marv Levy in Buffalo and initially made his name working with Mike Holmgren in Green Bay and for Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville.

Jauron epitomizes the mistake of hiring a re-tread just to get a guy with experience. In five years with the Bears, Jauron had one winning season and lost his only playoff game. His work with Detroit in the two years since has been unremarkable. What has Jauron shown that would merit putting him in charge of a team?

With so many coaching moves this offseason, there were bound to be some uninspiring hires, but wouldn't it make sense to take a chance on a guy like Rivera — who might be great — rather than someone like Jauron, who is almost certainly mediocre?

The caveat to this, and any other move I criticize, is that Jauron could be terrific this time around. If you look over the past four seasons, though, predicting coaches' success hasn't been a terribly difficult task, and in contrast to someone like Bill Belichick, Jauron hasn't redeemed himself as a superior assistant. Despite talented defensive players like Shaun Rogers and Dre' Bly, the Lions ranked in the bottom half of the league in both yards and points allowed during Jauron's tenure as defensive coordinator.

Notable assistant hirings — Steve Fairchild, former offensive coordinator of the Rams, will have the same position in Buffalo. Jauron's background is on defense, so it's likely that Fairchild will have some latitude in his the way he runs the offense.

The bottom line — Jauron should be okay — nothing disastrous — but he'll be gone within four or five years.

Detroit Lions — Rod Marinelli

This year's coaching hires are remarkable for the collective inexperience of the league's new head coaches. Marinelli is especially noteworthy, though, because he has never been a coordinator. For the last four seasons, he has been Tampa Bay's assistant head coach/defensive line.

While he may not have the same pedigree as someone like Gary Kubiak, perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this hiring is that it was made by Matt Millen. Detroit's GM has a, shall we say, less than sterling record of hiring head coaches. I'm dubious that Marinelli will be a better head coach than Steve Mariucci.

It would be easy to say that the Lions have nowhere to go but up, but they could still go even. This organization has developed a culture of losing that will be difficult for it to shake, and I doubt Millen or Marinelli will be around long enough to see that happen.

Notable assistant hirings — Donnie Henderson is on board as defensive coordinator, after holding the same position with the New York Jets. Henderson is regarded well and has even been interviewed for head coaching vacancies. It's a nice start for Marinelli's staff.

The bottom line — I don't know enough about Marinelli to issue a blanket condemnation of this hiring, but it seems awfully weak. This team presents an enormous challenge to its new head coach, and I strongly doubt that Marinelli is up to the task. The Lions are impatient for success, and Millen's successor will probably want to bring his own man, so I give Marinelli three years.

Green Bay Packers — Mike McCarthy

The strangest hiring of all, which is a strong statement. McCarthy spent last season as offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. Unfortunately, the Niners finished dead last in total offense, yards per play, first downs, third down conversion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, passer rating, and interception percentage. Say what you will about Marinelli's lack of experience as a coordinator, at least he isn't a proven failure.

Who gives a promotion to the leader of the league's worst offense? I know McCarthy didn't have much to work with in San Francisco, but there's simply no way an above-average coordinator allows his team to perform so badly. The 49ers weren't just last in all those categories; in many, they were worst by a wide margin.

Prior to his less than distinguished work with San Francisco, McCarthy ran the offense in New Orleans, with better results. But what he was apparently hired for is his relationship with Packer legend Brett Favre, who may retire this offseason. Conventional wisdom is that the presence of a familiar coach will encourage Favre to play for one more season, and McCarthy fits that description. He was Green Bay's quarterbacks coach in 1999. However, as another strike against the new coach in Titletown, Favre — playing with a hand injury — had one of his worst seasons in '99, and indicated this weekend that he is leaning towards retirement. Are we to three strikes yet?

No matter how you slice it, this hiring looks bad.

Notable assistant hirings — Defensive line coach Bob Sanders was promoted to defensive coordinator, replacing Jim Bates, who left after being passed over for the head coaching position. Green Bay's defensive line was the strongest piece of that unit, but Bates leaves big shoes to fill. Tom Clements joins the Packers as QB coach, his fifth team in the last eight seasons.

The bottom line — The first step in a long rebuilding project. McCarthy is the second-youngest head coach in the league, and I may be underestimating him, but he's got a steep uphill battle. Four years.

Houston Texans — Gary Kubiak

I'm not just here to be mean. Kubiak and Brad Childress, among all the league's new top dogs, come closest to being a Marvin Lewis or Lovie Smith. Kubiak has been a respected coordinator for a decade, and in my mind, this move makes sense. The Texans — unlike Buffalo, Detroit, and Green Bay — had to fire their coach, Dom Capers, after a 2-14 season left fans ready to revolt. And Kubiak, whose background is on offense, is a logical choice to address the team's struggles in that area, working with potential stars such as David Carr, Domanick Davis, and whoever the team drafts this April.

I'm not entirely sold on Kubiak — Lewis and Smith were near 100%, and I don't see that here — but there's not a lot to criticize in this move. It's refreshing, too, that the team was willing to wait an extra week or two to get the best guy available.

Notable assistant hirings — Kubiak hasn't had time to do much with the staff yet.

The bottom line — There are a lot of problems to fix, so don't expect immediate success.

Kansas City Chiefs — Herman Edwards

Shockingly, the only transfer this offseason. Jim Haslett, Mariucci, Mike Martz, Mike Sherman, and Mike Tice were all fired this year, and all were rumored to be getting new head coaching gigs for 2006. Barring an unexpected move by the Raiders, none will. Only Haslett even has a job right now.

The situation in Kansas City is a peculiar one. Dick Vermeil, one of the most beloved men in the NFL, retired after going 44-36 during his five seasons at the helm in Kansas City. All reports seem to indicate that his retirement was voluntary, although there have been rumors to the contrary. Even before the season was over, it was well-known that the front office hoped to replace Vermeil with Edwards, then the head coach of the Jets.

I don't have space to go through the ins and outs of the strange process that brought Edwards to Kansas City, but that process concluded with the Chiefs sending a fourth-round pick to New York in exchange for the rights to Edwards. It can be seen as a win-win situation. The Jets get a draft pick to replace the coach they didn't really want any more, and the Chiefs get the coach they did want on the cheap. Most observers, however, wonder how New York got ripped off so badly.

I think Edwards is a pretty good coach, and a fourth-round pick is a meager price to give up for a known quantity.

Notable assistant hirings — The most notable assistant coaching move in KC has been the departure of assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Al Saunders.

The bottom line — I don't see Edwards as significantly better or worse than Vermeil. Expect the Chiefs to continue as an upper-middle team in the short term.

Minnesota Vikings — Brad Childress

Childress has been a hot coaching name since 2002, his first year as offensive coordinator of the Eagles. He was the first head coach hired after the end of the 2005 regular season, and the Vikings have reason to be optimistic. The team has a ton of talent on the roster, and if Childress can get his players to perform, Minnesota should be a contender in the NFC as soon as next season.

The biggest knock against Childress is that head coach Andy Reid called the plays in Philadelphia, a duty normally reserved for the offensive coordinator. Fans will remember, though, that the team's playcalling this season was miserable, with twice as many passes as runs. The Eagles finished 26th in time of possession and 30th in third down percentage.

As with Kubiak in Houston, I'm not crazy about this, but it's hard to find anything definite to criticize.

Notable assistant hirings — Childress has filled out his staff, but there aren't any big names here.

The bottom line — There's potential here for both short-term and long-term success.

New Orleans Saints — Sean Payton

I use "New Orleans" loosely, since the team's status for the future is still in question. Wherever the team plays, though, Payton is its new head coach. With so many compelling choices out there, it's hard to say which new coach steps into the worst situation, but you could make a strong case for Payton. His team is in utter disarray, and his first job will be to get the whole group going in the same direction.

Payton has an impressive résumé as an offensive assistant, most recently in Dallas under Bill Parcells. The Tuna's coaching tree has been hot recently. Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, and Romeo Crennel are all former Parcells assistants, as are first-time head coaches Eric Mangini (Jets) and Payton.

Payton is another reasonable hire, so I hope you didn't read the first three entries and assume I was going to be ripping everyone. Alphabetical order, and most of the crappy hires came before 'M.'

Notable assistant hirings — Both coordinator positions have been filled, but the most interesting development involves Joe Vitt, the interim head coach who guided St. Louis in 2005. Vitt has been named linebackers coach and assistant head coach.

The bottom line — Payton has sort of slipped under my radar, but as I write this, I feel strangely optimistic on his behalf. That could change.

New York Jets — Eric Mangini

McCarthy was the league's youngest coach for five days. Mangini has him beat by more than seven years. Heck, Mangini is only four days older than his own starting center, Kevin Mawae. Mangini was 2 years old when Rod Marinelli got his first high school coaching job. He was 12 when Joe Gibbs won his first Super Bowl. He was still in the womb when Marty Schottenheimer's NFL playing career ended. You get the idea.

Mangini was chosen on the strength of his connections to Belichick. When Crennel left for Cleveland, Young Eric was promoted to defensive coordinator. A year later, he's head coach of the Jets. This season, New England's defense ranked 26th overall, 17th in points allowed, and 31st in pass defense. With Crennel in charge the year before, those numbers were ninth, second, and 17th.

Ninth to 26th. Second to 17th. Seventeen to 31. You can't even pin those drops on injuries, because Troy Brown played DB for most of the 2004 season. Ty Law was gone, but he barely played in '04. Tedy Bruschi played more than half the season. And don't forget, the Bills (28th in total offense) and Jets (31st) — whom New England played twice each — were really bad this year, after pretty good seasons in 2004.

Without doubt, the Jets hired Mangini because Belichick liked Mangini, and because GM Terry Bradway knew Young Eric from his days as a Jets assistant under Parcells. By the way, in case anyone is wondering, I don't plan on regularly using "Young Eric" the way I use "Little Manning" to demean Peyton's little brother, but there are only so many times you can use the name "Mangini" in a five-paragraph summary. It's been eight already, plus another earlier in the column.

Whatever you call him, the team's new head coach steps into a decent situation that also calls for some rebuilding. Curtis Martin looked done last year, even before he was injured, and if it's too early to give up on Chad Pennington — which it might not be — it's certainly past time to make sure there's a reliable backup available. It will be interesting to see how Mangini handles the team's issues. People will keep hiring Belichick assistants until they start failing.

Notable assistant hirings — Brian Schottenheimer is on board as offensive coordinator. As quarterbacks coach in San Diego, he oversaw the Drew Brees renaissance.

The bottom line — Mangini isn't a sure thing, but he's worth taking a chance on. Better to roll the dice with someone like Mangini ( that's 11, if you're counting) than roll out a re-tread like Haslett or a fruitcake like Martz.

St. Louis Rams — Scott Linehan

Twice, Daunte Culpepper helped Linehan get this job. First, Culpepper was magnificent with Linehan as his offensive coordinator in Minnesota. Then, the Viking offense — and Culpepper in particular — fell apart without him. Meanwhile, Linehan's Gus Frerotte-led offense in Miami ranked in the top half of the league. Minnesota finished behind Baltimore.

What the Rams said with this hiring is that they wanted another coach like Martz, only not crazy. Linehan's background is on offense, and he prefers passing to running. The organization's idea is that if Marc Bulger can stay healthy, the offense will be fine running the same way it has in the past. The defense needs some work, but nothing a talented coordinator can't take care of.

Linehan is another young guy — he's only 42 — and he doesn't have a lot of NFL experience. Mangini has been in the league longer than Linehan. But during his brief tenure with the Vikings and Dolphins, Linehan has shown that, at the very least, he's a pretty good offensive coordinator.

Notable assistant hirings — Haslett will be Linehan's defensive coordinator, which is a pretty big deal.

The bottom line — The Rams are past contention, and they need a major kick-start, possibly even some pretty serious rebuilding. I don't know whether or not Linehan is the man to get that done, but I don't anticipate a rapid drop-off in production with him in charge of the team.

Movers and Shakers

Two teams have made big news with their assistant hirings this offseason. The Dolphins replaced Linehan with Mularkey, and added Bates as their defensive coordinator. Nick Saban has assembled quite a staff in Miami. But it's nothing compared to Washington, where Daniel Snyder has decided to buy his championship with assistant coaches, since Deion Sanders and Steve Spurrier didn't work out.

Washington's coaching staff currently includes Joe Gibbs, Al Saunders, Gregg Williams, Joe Bugel, Greg Blache, and Jerry Gray. Gibbs is a Hall of Famer, and his staff includes three former head coaches and four former defensive coordinators. Saunders, Williams, and Blache will all be hot head coaching prospects if Washington does well in 2006.

Comments and Conversation

February 1, 2006

Billy D:

Evaluating coaching hires based on recent record, age, media hype, and any tenuous tie that can be found to Parcells/Belichick? You’re throwing darts in the dark with that method (just like most)

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