Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Coaching Carousel

When the coaching carousel stopped spinning this offseason, there were ELEVEN new head coaches:

TeamNew CoachFormerly
SeattleJim Mora JrSeahawks DC; Falcons HC; Niners DC
San Francisco Mike Singletary Niners DC; Ravens LB coach
ClevelandEric ManginiJets HC; Pats DC, DB coach
DenverJosh McDanielsPatriots OC, QB coach
DetroitJim SchwartzTitans DC; Ravens asst; Browns scout (Belichick)
TampaRaheem Morris Bucs DB coach
St LouisSteve Spagnuolo Giants DC; Eagles Def asst
OaklandTom CableRaiders OL coach; college OC and HC
NY JetsRex RyanRavens DC / asst HC
IndianapolisJim CaldwellIndy QB coach / asst HC; Tampa asst; Wake Forest HC
Kansas CityTodd HaleyCards OC; Dallas passing game coord/WR coach; Bears WR coach

One third of all NFL coaches are new this season. Unprecedented.

Media outlets will tell you all about these new guys: what their coaching background is, what witty or forceful comment they made at their press conference, etc. But no one else will tell you which of these guys is going to succeed, which fail, and which just muddle along. That falls to me.

(Plus one case where I don't know what's going to happen.)


Jim Schwartz!
Detroit; formerly Titans DC, Ravens asst, Browns scout under Belichick

That's right, the Lions head coach. I think he's a really talented, capable coach; he's hired a great staff; and he seems to be supported by a methodical, intelligent player personnel function. That's possibly the most shocking assessment of all: but I've been impressed with their plodding, deliberate moves this offseason. Larry Foote & Julian Peterson are nice pieces, and the Roy Williams trade was good. I guess I like everything but the Stafford pick; but maybe Linehan can make some sense of that. It's also not like they have a particularly forbidding organization in their own division, although the Vikings look strong these last couple years and the Packers are a traditional power.

Maybe we should define for a moment what "success" would look like for the Lions. They're certainly not making the playoffs this year; probly not next year either. "Success" for the Lions could look like 4-6 wins this year, 7 or 8 wins the next year, competing for a playoff berth the following season, making the playoffs the year after that. Schwartz could have a losing record after 5 yrs, and still have done a really good job. Tom Landry was under .500 for 5 straight years at the start of his tenure with the Cowboys, including 0-11 in year one. His next 21 seasons were pretty decent. Current wisdom in the NFL is that if a coach is any good, the team's record will show an immediate impact; if a team is still losing after 3 seasons, the coach must go. Schwartz might be able to have that kind of impact, but I dunno: the Lions are coming from pretty far down. This might be a case where we will have to actually have to watch the team, to judge Schwartz's performance.

On the other hand, it might even by LIKELY that the Lions record will show a big jump this season. The Pythagorean projection gives them 3 wins last season, based on their points-scored and points-allowed, so they were unlucky in addition to being bad. Imagine normal luck this year, plus a bump for an improvement on D (I'm impressed with those LBs) – they could flirt with 7 wins.

Rex Ryan
Jets; formerly Ravens DC / asst HC

Rex is my boy. I've been saying for years that Rex was going to make some organization very happy. That lucky organization is the Jets. Rex himself seems positively tickled to be stomping the same grounds where his Dad won a Super Bowl as an assistant. Good for him. I think Rex has the tools to be a great head coach: shrewd tactical mind, ability to lead players, plays well with others in the organization. If he has half the ability to evaluate talent that his dad had, he will do very well.

But like Schwartz, maybe this is a case where we need to think about what "success" would look like. Dude has to compete with Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells in the division. If Belichick keeps putting up 16-win seasons, there aren't going to be a whole lot of division titles left for other guys to win. The AFC East standings could often look like last season's – which of course got Mangenius fired.

Another area for concern is the player personnel function. I don't know how good Mike Tannenbaum is: he was part of the Belichick mafia back in Cleveland, so you'd think he'd be good, but he doesn't have an outstanding rep.

Anytime a guy who made his name on one side of the ball gets a HC gig, you wonder what he believes in on the other side of the ball. Rex retained OC Brian Schottenheimer, which is uninformative – Little Schott is regarded as a hot commodity, much like Jason Garrett was last year. His roots are of course in Martyball. Not sure exactly what that means: vaguely West Coast-ish, I would guess, with some emphasis on running the ball. But I might be wrong about that: Lil Schott worked as QB coach under Cam Cameron in San Diego. Anyway: it'll be interesting to see what Rex will do if/when he has to hire an OC. My guess is that Rex would pick over the Bengals offensive coaching staff, when that group gets fired after this season: tab OC Bob Bratkowski or QB coach Bob Bratkowski. Those guys are in the lineage of the Don Coryell - Norv Turner - Cam Cameron offense; emphatically not a "West Coast Offense". My impression is that Mark Sanchez' talents are more those of a WCO QB, so I dunno how good a fit would that be.

I should mention that Rex has hired Matt Cavanaugh, to be his QB coach. As a Ravens fan, I am required to hate Cavanaugh, the former Ravens OC; and I can't help but wonder if he's there to be the OC-in-waiting. If so, then – wow, I can't imagine that. That would change some of the stuff I wrote above.

So there are some challenges there. I still think Rex is too good not to do well as a HC. Luck to him.

Jim Caldwell
Indianapolis; formerly Indy QB coach / asst HC, Tampa asst, Wake Forest HC

Has all the advantages of the Indy organization. That means Peyton Manning and Bill Polian. How can you not win, with a setup like that?

Maybe this is another case where we need to consider what "success" would look like. Not many new coaches walk into a situation where the team is coming off six straight seasons of 12+ wins; seven seasons of double-digit wins. If Indy posts another couple 12-win seasons with division titles, is that because Caldwell is good?

Well, it certainly doesn't prove that he's bad.

I should mention that Caldwell has strengths of his own, including six years as HC at Wake Forest. He knows his business. The interesting challenge for the Indy organization over the next several years will be succession planning for Peyton Manning. At some point they have to get The Next Guy into the program, and start grooming him. (No, I don't think Jim Sorgi is The Next Guy.) Caldwell's background is as a QB coach, so maybe he gives them a leg up in that area. Anyway, I certainly think he can win there in the near term.

Jim Mora
Seattle; formerly Seahawks DC, Falcons HC, Niners DC

Dude already has a 26-22 record as an NFL head coach. Seattle has averaged 9 wins over the last six seasons, so they're a half-decent team. Mora has had a few seasons working under a great HC, to rethink some aspects of his approach. Patch has written elsewhere that a former HC is usually a great hire to be a HC: Mora is this year's prototype for that.


Josh McDaniels
Denver; formerly Patriots OC, QB coach

This is self-explanatory. I have never seen a more bumbling start for a new coach, or clearer evidence of guy in over his head. He's also got nothing in terms of resume. You will say that he was the OC for the highest-scoring team in NFL history; I will say that he got to coach Tom Brady & Randy Moss & Wes Welker et al after Charlie Weiss spent years tutoring that offense. McDaniels basically played Madden with a real NFL roster. Fun! But preparation for a head job? I don't think so.

Look at some of the guys above, in the first category. Can you imagine Rex Ryan (with 25 yrs of college coaching experience) or Jim Caldwell (~23 yrs college coaching) running off a 25yo Pro Bowl QB who's coming off a 4500-yd season? Before even getting to see him in minicamp?? An experienced coach comes in and he gets buy-in from his star players, and uses them as ambassadors for the program. Ok, Marty and Parcells wouldn't do exactly that, they would force buy-in and run a guy out of town if they didn't get it. But even with those two, a star player would get a chance to demonstrate buy-in.

McDaniels is still young enough to believe that his own genius wins games, that he doesn't depend on players. He will learn otherwise, these next couple seasons. And then he'll be fired.

Tom Cable
Oakland; formerly Raiders OL coach, college OC and HC

It's kind of sad to watch another Oakland coach be led to the slaughter. Cable seems like a tough, straightforward football guy, a leader. Oh well.

Raheem Morris
Tampa; formerly Bucs DB coach

The most exciting young coach I've seen come on the scene these last few years is Mike Tomlin. (As a Ravens fan, that's a little painful for me to say: but not too bad, because Harbaugh is a close second, and it's still early for both of those guys.) Tomlin is just amazing as a leader; and as an opponent, he's a stone cold killer. I've got a few clips in my Tomlin admiration file: two of them are how he cracked down on Willie Parker last season when Parker complained about not getting enough rushing attempts ("Those aren't rushing titles we have on display in the lobby"), and his post-game press conference after the first Ravens game, when the Steelers lost a bunch of key guys to injury ("What we'll do, we'll put some men out there, and the expectation
will not change."). Tomlin speaks, and you want to run out onto the field and play. Watch him on the sideline, the way his players interact with him. The dude is Shaft.

Raheem Morris impresses people as the next Mike Tomlin. Morris is 33, with just 7 years of coaching experience. The Bucs didn't want to lose him, so they promoted him too far too soon. The guy picking the players is GM Mark Dominik, age 38. He's been with the Tampa personnel dept for over 10 yrs, starting as a scout, then promoted to pro personnel coordinator in 2000, and pro personnel director in 2004.

This is not going to work out for them.

Morris does have a good, experienced DC in Jim Bates. The OC, Jeff Jagodzinski, is less experienced (almost everyone is less experienced than Bates) but a potential star. (Shout out to the Bucs head strength & conditioning coach Kurtis Shultz, ex Maryland basketball player for Gary Williams.) To the extent that Morris really is the next Mike Tomlin, he might keep this situation afloat for a couple years.

Or maybe not. Jon Gruden & Monte Kiffin were able to coax winning records out of this squad the past two seasons, and three of the past four. But those guys are gone: and I don't think this is a super-solid roster. It might fall apart all at once. I don't think the two whiz kids have the chops to deal with it.

Steve Spagnuolo
St Louis; formerly Giants DC, Eagles def asst

A first-time head coach with TWO first-time coordinators: now THAT's a recipe for success! Compare this situation with, for example, the staff John Harbaugh surrounded himself with when he got the Ravens job last season; or Mike Tomlin's 1st staff, or Jim Schwartz's coaching staff, or Todd Haley's staff. It's not that I think Ken Flajole or Pat Shurmur are not good coaches: they're at the point in their careers where they are ready to step up to being coordinators. But where is the voice of experience coming from? The best coach on the Rams staff might be Sylvester Croom, whom they have coaching RBs. (Although Croom did not set the world on fire at Mississippi State.)

Spagnuolo himself has more experience than you might think. 13 yrs coaching in college, 2 Spring seasons in Europe, and a couple of brief stints in pro personnel depts before serving a 7 or 8 year apprenticeship with the Eagles under Jim Johnson. You will learn some defensive football coaching for Johnson, I imagine. Spags coached DBs and LBs in Philly; then of course he became a star coordinating the Giants stacked D.

Who's going to be picking the players? Billy Devaney, who joined the team last year as VP of player personnel and handled their draft, and is now the their GM. His background is mixed. He started as a scout for Bobby Beathard's Redskins orgnization for 8 seasons, then went with Bobby to San Diego where he was director of player personnel for 11 seasons, 1990-2000. So he knows his business, right? The stint in San Diego includes the entire Bobby Ross era, and thus their Super Bowl appearance. But it also includes a number of 5-11 records and even a 1-15, which is not supposed to happen if you are regularly bringing in good players. There was also The Mike Riley Experiment. This is the regime that got cleared out so that Marty could make a fresh start in San Diego. Devaney worked in SF as a pro personnel asst the last 2 years they were good under Mariucci; then he worked on the CBS pre-game show for two seasons, before returning as the Falcons asst GM for 2 bad seasons in 2006-7, getting cleaned out so that Thomas Dimitroff could make a fresh start.

Maybe Devaney knows what he's doing. This year they picked up Jason Smith & James Laurinaitis in the draft; last year, Chris Long & Donnie Avery. They also signed Jason Brown from the Ravens to be their new center. I applaud Devaney for focusing his attention on their lines. On the other hand, Devaney also signed Kyle Boller to be the backup QB. ;-) Bulger is 32. Boller can probably be an effective backup (as Steve McNair's backup in 2006, Boller completed 60% of his passes with a 2-1/2 to 1 TD/INT ratio and 8.8 ypa, for a rating of 104!); but he's already 28. I don't see any obvious long-term successor on the roster.

And this team is BAAAAD. They've won 2 and 3 games the last 2 seasons. Bulger can play, but the rest of this roster needs to be blown up, and Bulger is not going to be around the next time they are ready to be competitive. Probably not Steven Jackson either. He's already 26: figure a 2- or 3-yr rebuilding project and Jackson will be near the end of his productive career.

Do you see any signs that the Rams have embraced the full rebuilding project they face? Parcells and Marty would have cleaned everyone out and started over with a huge batch of undrafted free agents, all of whom would play their lungs out for fear of going home. They'd struggle to 6 or 7 wins in year one, and in a couple years be a feared, physical opponent. These guys look like they're trying to tweak here or there, as if the foundation is solid and they just need to change a couple things in order to field a winning team. Compare this with the Lions, who clearly know the scope of the task they have and are facing it head-on.

So this then is the problem. A truly bad team, a coaching staff that may not be experienced enough to grab the situation by the horns. If Devaney's strategy is to keep adding a few good players every year, not make flat-out mistakes in player acquisition, then that tactic will inevitably work – eventually. But it'll take maybe 4 years to completely turn over the roster at that pace. And by then, Spagnuolo will be fired, with a terrible won-loss record.

I think Spagnuolo might actually be able to coach. I'd be interested in hiring him NEXT TIME around, after this experience and a year or so back in the coordinator ranks. But in this situation right now, he will not be successful.

Muddle along

Eric Mangini
Cleveland; formerly Jets HC, Pats DC, DB coach

If a guy's not going to have a lot of coaching experience prior to getting a head job – and by "a lot" I mean multi-decade experience, although I will grant you that 5 yrs on Belichick's staff might be more like dog years (Mangini was also on staff with the Parcells/Belichick Jets for a few yrs before that) – then he needs to bring some other things to the table. Think Mike Tomlin: "leadership", "fire", "passion", etc.

Describes Mangini to a T, don't it?

He's not a bad coach. Over three seasons in NY Mangenius was close to .500, with some turmoil at QB. He authored two quick turnaround seasons, his first (10 wins after 4) and his third (9 wins after 4). He hired Rob Ryan to be his DC. Rob can coach a bit: he had some good D's in Oakland, despite everything (although they seemed to freelance a little too much this past season).

And Mangini operates with a potentially excellent advantage in new GM George Kokinis. They were members of the Belichick Mafia together. I have previously mentioned the terrific job last season's Ravens did in coming up with depth to replace injured starters. Most of that depth was pro player acquisitions, either free agents or trades, and Kokinis was Director of Pro Personnel for the Ravens, reporting to Ozzie Newsome. Kokinis is a professional. If he can bring some order to the Browns player evaluation function, that will be a huge leg up for Mangini.

If Brady Quinn turns out to be able to play, then you've got to say things are setting up nicely for the Browns to have a run of sucess, right?

Eh. Over the long term I don't think players are going to put themselves on the line for Mangini. He's going to strike them as arrogant and aloof. That can be ok if you're inventive and daring, and players perceive they get an advantage just from playing in your schemes a la Bill Walsh. But Mangenius is no Bill Walsh. Maybe if he hadn't gotten a head job this year, and instead had worked again as a DC for a couple seasons in another organization (like Jim Mora did), he would have had an opportunity to grow in his approach to players. But not the way this played out. Also, Kokinis is nice, but I don't believe he's better than Ozzie & Eric DaCosta in Baltimore, or whoever runs the show in Pittsburgh.

And that's the big thing: these Brownies have to compete with Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the division, and those are two of the best-run franchises in football (Pittsburgh is top three, Baltimore top seven or eight). The Browns can muddle along near .500, but playoff berths are going to be tough to come by.

Todd Haley
Kansas City; formerly Cards OC, Dallas passing game coord/WR coach, Bears WR coach

On the merits, I should put this guy in the "succeed" category. Scott Pioli knows his business, which is a tremendous advantage for a team. The divisional opponents are not formidable. Haley himself has had success everywhere he's been, and he seems to be a passionate football guy who knows what he's doing. He was on Parcells' staff in Dallas; and you can't coach for Parcells without knowing some football. Before that he tutored Marty Booker to his Pro Bowl seasons. They have an accomplished pair of coordinators and a quality guy in asst HC Maurice Carthon; also a very, very experienced OL coach. (Remember Tim Krumrie breaking his leg in the SB, years ago? He's on the staff as DL coach.)

Reflecting on what I said above about Mangini vs Tomlin, in terms of fire & passion etc: Haley certainly fits that bill.

Why, O why do I have trouble believing it?

It could just be me. It's possible I just have a mental block about the Chiefs. It's possible I'm just being prejudiced because the other guys were at least on my radar prior to a month before their hiring. It's possible I'm just playing a numbers game, and having picked 4 guys to be successful as head coaches, I'm arbitrarily drawing a line at 5. I don't know exactly what my problem is. I will note two things in passing:
  1. Just because you can score when you have Kurt Warner throwing to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, doesn't mean you are an offensive genius. (Someone cc that to Josh McDaniels.)
  2. That's a lot of money to commit to Matt Cassel.
Anyway: feel free to regard this as the pick where I'm most off-base. All the pieces seem to be in place for eventual success in KC. But for some reason, something doesn't quite add up for me.

I don't know

Mike Singletary
San Francisco; formerly Niners DC, Ravens LB coach

Star players do not normally make great head coaches. There's Bud Grant – and who else? Bart Starr coached 9 years for the Packers, which longevity is itself a marker of success. But Starr only once posted a winning record, barely, at 8-7-1; and finished .500 twice more.

Yet Singletary has remarkable personal qualities. Maybe it's just because I remember him as a player, but I am reluctant to bet against him. It's not difficult at all to imagine players jumping at his word; and in fact the team seemed to respond to him, when he took over last year. They went 5-4 under him, after starting the season 2-5. That makes Samurai the first Niners coach with a winning record since Mariucci. He's shown judgement and decisiveness as a coach, terminating the experiments of Mad Mike Martz and giving the starting QB job to Shaun Hill. The Vernon Davis incident did not seem to hurt the team – all of Singletary's wins came after the incident.

(Watch this clip of Singletary and Ray Lewis talking about working together. Doesn't that make you want to suit up and bang heads?)

Singletary's coaching staff is interesting. He's hired a greybeard set of offensive coaches. The OC is Jimmy Raye – who was calling the plays during Eric Dickerson's first two NFL seasons! Later a longtime offensive coach with Marty Schottenheimer, with the Chiefs and Redskins. I wouldn't say that Raye is an innovator, or that his offenses were known for their explosiveness; but he's been around and he does know his business. The team will learn how to run the football. Singletary's got possibly the most accomplished WR coach in the world, Jerry Sullivan. The OL coach is Chris Foerster, who coached OL for the Ravens over Billick's last 3 seasons (set a team record for fewest sacks allowed in 2006) and for Tony Dungy's Buccaneers. (Remember Tom Rathman? He's the Niners RB coach!) The DC is Greg Manusky, who played for Joe Gibbs and in Minnesota under Tony Dungy & Monte Kiffin, and for Marty; then he coached LBs with Marty for several years, with the Redskins and Chargers. They have Johnnie Lynn coaching the DBs: Lynn has a fairly distinguished career, including stints as DC and DB coach with the Giants and Ravens. They've also hired Al Harris to be a "Pass Rush Specialist", which is something I've never heard of before.

So, Singletary himself has leadership qualities, and they've got a capable coaching staff. But who the heck is Scot McCloughan? The Niners GM joined the organization as a VP of Player Personnel from Seattle in 2005, where he had been Director of College Scouting.
“I think Scot is one of the bright young talents in this League. I fought like crazy to keep him here,” Seattle Head Coach Mike Holmgren said at the time of McCloughan’s departure.
Prior to that he was a scout in Ron Wolf's orgranization in Green Bay.
“He’s very good at what he does and has a tremendous desire to improve,” Wolf said. “He has an exceptional eye for talent.”
McCloughan took over the GM role last season, although the little bio piece on him at the Niners web site says that he was in charge of their draft from the day he arrived. So does that say good things about him, or bad things about him? On the one hand, it seems to me that there is not a great deal of talent on the Niners roster. On the other hand, they've made some good picks:

2005 Frank Gore in 3rd; 10 picks make roster
2006 Vernon Davis & Manny Lawson in 1st
2007 Patrick Willis & Joe Staley in 1st
2008 (anyone?)
2009 Crabtree falls to them in 1st; snagged Panthers 2010 1st in trade

But back on the first hand again, dude also spent the 2005 #1 overall on Alex Smith, who is an utter bust. And it's not like Vernon Davis has been spectacularly productive either. As I said, it doesn't seem to me like this squad is bursting with talent. Is there a long-term answer at QB anywhere on the roster? (They did pick up Damon Huard over the offseason.)

So: I don't know what's going to happen here. Either players will continue to respond to Singletary, or they won't. Either his old-school coaching staff can coach-em-up, or they can't. Either McCloughan can find talent, or he can't. My hunch is this: McCloughan will continue to produce these flawed drafts, with the occasional bright star surrounded by a bunch of guys who just aren't good enough to play. Singletary & co will coach up these lopsided rosters with some playmakers but inadequate depth ("breadth" might be a better word) to the point where they will flirt with being over .500. A tough team, but never a dominant team. They'll muddle along. But I think there is wide variability in how well Singletary could do: his force of personality could push players to extravagant efforts; or he could ultimately just not have the chops.

I don't know what's going to happen.


So there you go, a little glimpse into the future courtesy of the Oblong Spheroid. Tune in next year, when we foretell the futures of the new coaching staffs of the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals, among others.


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