Friday, June 12, 2009

Three Coaches

When NFL head coaches make the news it is usually a series of soundbites from pressers or as the focus of analysis buried deep within a column. This goes double for new head coaches who typically are "installing systems" and "evaluating players" and other insubstantial somethings. When new head coaches make the sports page equivalent of the gossip columns? Well usually it ends badly.

So here we are, slightly more than halfway through the offseason and seeing something that - if not unprecedented is at least on the far side of rare. Three incoming head coaches are making waves, not with their football decisions but with their relatively bizarre behavior outside the white lines.

I think if I was ever hired to coach an NFL team with a 25 year old Pro Bowl quarterback, if asked what the first thing I'd do, my answer wouldn't be "I will shop for a replacement quarterback while trying to sell my Pro Bowler and when challenged I will deny the whole thing so that I can get caught in a lie by the Pro Bowler and alienate him right off the team, leaving myself with no options whatsoever". For one thing I try not to speak in awful run-on sentences like that, but well, you get the point. And of course this is precisely what Josh McDaniels did. If I were Pat Bowlen I would have been sorely tempted to fire McDaniels, Brian Xander and turn to Mike Shanahan on bended knee rather than lose Cutler.

I'm tempted to argue that age plays a role, and probably it does, but the babies in the bathwater are Don Shula, John Madden, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, each who got their first HC position before the age of 35.

Moving on to Cleveland we have the curious case of Eric Mangini, another coach who got his first gig at the age of 34 and has been ruffling feathers ever since. Since getting hired by Cleveland he engineered the trade of Kellen Winslow for a handful of magic beans. To ensure his offense had absolutely no playmakers he also tried to trade his best wide receiver for some potting soil. He's alienated both of his quarterbacks to some degree, his stud defensive tackle wants out of town. He mixed it up with Josh Cribbs, arguably Cleveland's most important player.

Look, I get the idea of establishing an identity, of being firm with veterans, of creating a presence upon which to build. Considering the behavior of McDaniels and Mangini, the Belichick school seems to go far beyond that. 1) make all your important players hate you 2) get new players. Recipe for success? It's no coincidence that Belichick failed in Cleveland prior to returning to the system installed by his mentor in New England.

Finally we move on to Rex Ryan, who took the position forcibly vacated by Mangini. Everything seemed to go quite well up to the last couple of weeks. The Jets (arguably) "won" free agency, they got their guy in the draft, the installation of Ryan's defense seemed to be progressing. But then he just had to start talking, and once he started he apparently couldn't stop. I don't remember the last time any head coach got into a war of words with a player on an opposing team in the middle of June. I certainly don't remember the last time it was a rookie head coach that got involved. Even worse, Channing Crowder managed to make Ryan look like a fool in the process.

What started out as a funny exchange, Crowder calling Ryan 'the OTA Super Bowl winner' after all of Ryan's crowing, turned even more absurd with Ryan's claim that'if I was younger I'd handle him myself'. Uh ... really Rex? This isn't 3rd grade any more and Buddy isn't there to pull Crowder off of you while he beats in your head. Short message to the rookie head coach: STFU.

Typically, incoming head coaches get through their entire first year without much controversy. In 2009 we are treated with three ego-ridden coaches each taking preliminary steps toward their next trip to the unemployment office.


  1. Funny, I was gathering material for a Rex Ryan post, links to stories about his bravado etc.

    I think the difference is, Rex hasn't hurt his team. Josh McDaniels has, and Mangini too, to a lesser extent. Rex hasn't traded away playmakers or alienated key leaders, or anything like that. Also, his players seem to be lapping it up. Some quotes:

    Kris Jenkins - "At the time they let Mangini go, we didn't know about Rex Ryan. All we knew is that our coach had got fired. Now? It's not a situation where I'm going to slight my old coach or put him down. But I'm going to give credit where credit is due. Rex is a heck of a football coach."

    Alan Faneca - "He's a breath of fresh air, putting his stamp on this team. He is who he is. He's not going to change."

    Kerry Rhodes - On Twitter, he sent this: "We will be the best defense in the league this year!!! I feel for the offenses we are gonna face."
    ("I like that," Ryan said in response, with a big smile. "I'm excited about that comment.")

    Also Rex was a college coach for many years. Seven years in college, then two years on his dad's NFL staff in Arizona, then another 3 years coaching in college before joining the Ravens as DL coach in 1999. He's not a "young coach" in the same sense as McDaniels, or even Mangini -- has more than double Mangini's coaching experience.

    I think one thing that distinguishes him from McDaniels & Mangini, from an ego standpoint, is that Rex understands, profoundly understands, that success comes from his players playing well; not from him being a genius and running a special system. If Baltimore is any indication, Rex's players are going to buy in and play hard as hell. I think Rex is going to be a good head coach.

    Remember Buddy was like this too, mouthing off and challenging people. And Buddy had success, at least in the reg season with Philly, to the tune of a .550 winning pctg. Rex is probably not as driven & intense as Buddy; he's also probably not as insane. He'll play with others better in an organizational setting, he'll let his OC do his job, etc.

    God forbid I root for the Jets, but I think Rex is going to be successful.

  2. I agree that Ryan's is a weak sister to the behavior of McDaniels and Mangini. I just don't understand the need to throw down the gauntlet, particularly in June. Notice the low key response by Belichick to Ryan's taunts, I guarantee that they didn't go unnoticed in Foxboro and will be revisted in six months.

  3. Of course. Ryan knows that too. (Belichick's silence is unsurprising: he never says anything.) But it's more important to Ryan to get his team off on whatever he thinks is the right foot, than to worry about what any one opponent is going to think. He's "setting a tone" or whatever.

    That actually seems like pretty standard procedure for coaches, when there is one dominant team in the division/conference. Do you follow college basketball? Remember when Rick Barnes was the coach at Clemson, and almost had an oncourt fistfight with Dean Smith? Probably premeditated: and his team really reacted. "We're not deferential and happy with 2nd-place around here!"

    I think this is probably something that wears better on Rex's players, than it does from a distance. He has a very affable, likable presence. Kind of like Bum Phillips: he exudes a friendly homespun country cunning.

  4. Also, to this:

    "I just don't understand the need to throw down the gauntlet, particularly in June."

    I think Rex feels like throwing down the gauntlet is exactly what you do, the moment you walk into the room. Something like, "We are here to be champions. If you're not on board with that, get TF out." This kind of thing is not uncommon among football coaches.


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