Column: For first-year NFL coaches, the time to succeed is now ... not later
More than ever, NFL owners are long on expectations and short on patience with new coaches.
And can you blame them?
Consider the success last year’s new coaches had, with Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly, Kansas City’s Andy Reid and San Diego’s Mike McCoy directing their teams back to the playoffs, Arizona’s Bruce Arians guiding the Cardinals to 10 victories, and Chicago finishing a half-game out of first place in the NFC North under Marc Trestman, albeit winning two fewer games than the year before.
If head coaches aren’t quick-fix artists, it’s three years and a cloud of pink slips.
“The nature of the league now, with free agency and the draft, you can turn things around pretty fast,” former NFL coach Brian Billick said. “In the old days, when you were bad, you were bad for a long time.”
This season’s new coaches are Cleveland’s Mike Pettine, Detroit’s Jim Caldwell, Houston’s Bill O’Brien, Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer, Tampa Bay’s Lovie Smith, Tennessee’s Ken Whisenhunt and Washington’s Jay Gruden.
Three of those men — Caldwell, Smith and Whisenhunt — have previous experience as NFL head coaches and took a team to the Super Bowl before ultimately losing too many games, and their jobs.
“If you went the coordinator route and it didn’t go well, then typically you convince yourself that you’re missing that experience, so you go with a former head coach,” said Billick, who won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens and now is an NFL Network analyst. “And vice versa. If you went with an experienced head coach and it didn’t go well, it’s, ‘Well, we need some new blood.’”
O’Brien has experience running a major program, just not at the NFL level; he was head coach at Penn State. Gruden was a former Arena League quarterback and coach who later worked on the Tampa Bay staff of his older brother, Jon, and eventually was offensive coordinator in Cincinnati (where Zimmer was his defensive counterpart).
Jon Gruden, who was head coach of the Oakland Raiders before leading the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory, said his younger brother faces a different, and perhaps more daunting challenge as a head coach now.
“The league has changed dramatically in the last seven or eight years,” Jon Gruden said by phone. “The collective bargaining agreement has changed things. The way teams practice, the way they eat, the amount of time they can spend in the off-season. . . . The game is a completely different operation now.”
The Browns are on their eighth head coach since 1999, and so is Washington.
“And it’s not just the head coaches, it’s the coordinators,” Jon Gruden said. “When you look at successful quarterbacks, you see they’ve been in the same system for awhile. Changing systems year in and year out, it’s impossible to help a kid see progress.”
Still, there are lofty expectations, and recently many new coaches have fulfilled them.
The question in Houston: Can O’Brien be this season’s Kelly, carrying over the success he had as a college coach into the pros?
Unlike Kelly, who had never coached in the NFL, O’Brien was a New England assistant for five years and worked his way up to offensive coordinator. He took over a decimated Penn State program in 2012, one reeling from NCAA sanctions and the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and went 15-9 in two seasons. He was Big Ten coach of the year in 2012.
O’Brien will look to resurrect the Texans, who won AFC South titles in 2011 and ’12, and their first two games last season, before losing every game that followed to finish an NFL-worst 2-14. Instead of selecting a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick in May, they chose South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. That means the O’Brien era will begin with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback — although the Texans on Sunday made a trade with New England to acquire Ryan Mallet as a backup.
O’Brien is the fourth Patriots assistant under Bill Belichick to become an NFL head coach elsewhere, although the other three wound up fizzling in their new cities: Josh McDaniel (Denver), Eric Mangini (New York Jets, Cleveland) and Romeo Crennel (Cleveland, Kansas City).
In Minnesota, Zimmer replaced Leslie Frazier, whose team went 5-10-1 last season. Creating an airtight defense in a division that features quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford is a daunting challenge, although Zimmer’s defenses in Cincinnati finished in the top 10 in yards and points allowed in four of the last five seasons.
Pettine came from that side of the ball, too, formerly Buffalo’s defensive coordinator and, before that, defensive coordinator under Rex Ryan with the Jets. However, most of the buzz engulfing the Browns these days concerns their offense, what they’re going to do with rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel (a backup for now) and without All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon, suspended for the season.
Being a head coach anywhere is a daunting challenge, and especially in Cleveland. Pettine got a hint of that mere weeks after he took the job, when ProFootballTalk.com reported the Browns had tried to trade for San Francisco Coach Jim Harbaugh just before they hired Pettine.
At the scouting combine in February, Pettine recounted learning the news from a Browns staffer.
“I got a phone call saying that report was about to come out and I shot the messenger a little bit,” he told reporters. “I asked, ‘How does that affect my tenure as the head coach? Has that changed? The obvious answer was no, and I think my next sentence, I either used the word ‘flying’ followed by something, or referenced a part of a rat’s body.”
Whisenhunt was a candidate in Cleveland and Detroit before being hired by the Titans, who were 36-44 the last five years and haven’t won a playoff game since the 2003 season. He was head coach of the Cardinals for six seasons, taking them to their only Super Bowl, and, as offensive coordinator in San Diego last season, helped the Chargers get back to the playoffs.
Caldwell was on the losing sideline for a Super Bowl, too, during his tenure as coach in Indianapolis from 2009-11. He replaced Tony Dungy as coach of the Colts and went 26-22, reaching the Super Bowl in his first season and playoffs in the second. The collapse came when Peyton Manning missed the 2011 season with a neck injury and the Colts finished 2-14.
Caldwell, who replaced Jim Schwartz in Detroit, has more career playoff victories (two) than the Lions have in their last 55 years.
For an NFL-record 11 consecutive seasons, at least one team finished first in its division the season after finishing last (or tied for last) the previous season. Carolina and Philadelphia pulled off that feat in 2013.
Tampa Bay’s Smith might be best positioned to do that this season. The Buccaneers are teeming with talent but in recent years have been short on leadership and resiliency when adversity hit.
Smith was 81-63 in nine seasons in Chicago, leading the Bears to the Super Bowl against Indianapolis in the 2006 season. He returns to the Buccaneers, where he was linebackers coach from 1996-2000.
With a wealth of experience as an NFL head coach, Smith understands high expectations — and not just those coming from team owners.
“Even if we want them to, fans are not going to be patient,” Smith recently told the Chicago Tribune. “There is no such thing as rebuilding and ‘we will eventually get it together.’ It’s about now.”
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