Winners and Losers of NFL Coaching Changes This Offseason
As is the case with rookies, free agency signings and everything else in the NFL, judging new coaches is a dicey business.
Still, with all the tumult of the post-season free-for-all coaching feeding frenzy finally settling down, we can at least take a look at some of the new faces in new places to see if the initial fit looks good.
It's tough to be a new coach, whether we're talking about a head coach or a coordinator. So much is out of your control because of injuries, the previous regime's mistakes or even just plain old bad luck, that sometimes what you can control isn't what helps you keep a job.
So we know that, despite these early judgements, some of these guys will prove us wrong—whether that will be good or bad, we'll have to wait and find out.
Winner: Cleveland Browns—Mike Pettine
It took a really long time for the Cleveland Browns to decide on a new head coach (in part because of how quickly they ditched the last new head coach) but they may have ended up with the perfect fit in Mike Pettine.
After serving under Rex Ryan with the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, Pettine headed to the Buffalo Bills at the start of 2013 in order to get out from Ryan’s shadow. Pettine’s aggressive defense in Buffalo set a franchise record for sacks with 57 and was second in the NFL for interceptions with 23.
The Browns have the pieces for a solid defense and Pettine has shown an ability to scheme out an effective defense. It may be a passing league, but you need to stop the pass as well.
As the offense is going to be a work in progress, the team will need the defense to keep in the game. Pettine will be able to do that and always give the offense good field position and a puncher’s chance to win.
Loser: Cleveland Browns—Kyle Shanahan
There were times over the course of his three year tenure as Washington’s offensive coordinator where one could have wondered—fairly—if new Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan only had his job because his dad was head coach.
Once Robert Griffin III got to Washington in 2012, Shanahan’s offense went from the No. 16 in the NFL to the No. 5 and in 2013, despite a gimpy Griffin, finished as the No. 9 offense in the NFL.
Griffin, however, went from having the third best quarterback rating for starters (102.4) in 2012 to being No. 22, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.
While Griffin was hurt, something which absolutely made a difference, there were a lot of rumors of a rift between Griffin and both Shanahans, as mentioned in this piece by CBSSports.com’s Ryan Wilson.
While both sides downplayed it, something seemed to be going on (at least as far as you could tell from the outside) and while the injury hampered Griffin and the offense, no alterations, changes or improvements were made to account for it.
In fact, you could make the argument that Griffin never should have been in the game during the early part of the season, instead healing and getting to 100 percent.
In Wilson’s piece, he mentions that Griffin is not the first quarterback to have allegedly had issues with Shanahan, pointing to rumors that he and Donovan McNabb butted heads over pretty much everything in Washington.
All this makes one concerned that perhaps Shanahan is, and has been, over his head. Being separated from his father could be a good thing—or could prove that dad was covering for his son over the last few seasons.
All this as Shanahan comes to a franchise which has been a mess all offseason and which is coming off a disastrous season, with one good offensive player and a big gaping hole where the quarterback should be.
New head coach Mike Pettine isn’t an offensive-minded guy. So having an unproven question mark as the offensive coordinator is a poor decision.
Winner: Minnesota Vikings—Mike Zimmer
Much like the Cleveland Browns and new head coach Mike Pettine, the Minnesota Vikings got a defensive-minded coach who has a knack for getting the most out of any player.
New head coach Mike Zimmer takes over a defense which is in the midst of a rebuild. There are talented players, but many of them are young and inexperienced. However, that’s nothing he hasn’t dealt with before.
While the defense may not know him now, Zimmer has a reputation for gaining intense loyalty from his players as evidenced by the tweets by his former Bengals players and compiled by Eric Goldschein of SportsGrid.com.
Zimmer has had a lot of success with the Bengals, and I feel confident that he will be able to lead the Vikings to some very successful seasons.
The big question is whether or not Zimmer can have success on the offensive side of the ball. To make sure that happens, the Vikings need to get the right offensive coordinator to help him.
The question is—did they?
Winner: Minnesota Vikings— Norv Turner
One thing is certain—Bill Musgrave didn’t exactly push the envelope in terms of dynamic offense despite having one of the more dynamic rookie wide receivers in the NFL in Cordarrelle Patterson. You might excuse that because of the dearth of talent at quarterback, but other coordinators have done more with as little.
Will that change with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner? Turner tends to employ a vertical passing attack with a solid commitment to the ground attack as well. He’s got Adrian Peterson to keep the rushing offense moving and with the aforementioned Patterson, tight end Kyle Rudolph and receiver Greg Jennings, Turner has the targets to throw the ball.
He just doesn’t have a quarterback, though he means to remedy that soon according to CBSSports.com’s John Breech.
Even if Turner doesn’t find the permanent answer to the quarterback issue, he should make a big difference in this offense.
As National Football Post’s Joe Fortenbaugh outlined in his piece from May of last year, Turner has had a positive impact on every offense he’s had a hand in as an offensive coordinator.
In one season with the Cleveland Browns, the passing offense leaped up from No. 19 in the NFL to No. 11 and the overall offense jumped from No. 25 to No. 18.
That was with a carousel of ineffective quarterbacks and a “who’s that?” of running backs and wide receivers not named Josh Gordon.
He’s in an even better situation on Minnesota and should help the offense to finally become reliable.
Loser: Detroit Lions—Jim Caldwell
It’s hard to get down on a hiring which was in some ways spurned on by one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time calling a team and saying “Hire this guy!”
When Peyton Manning calls your team, as reported by NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling, you tend to listen. Same thing when former coach Tony Dungy gives you a ringing endorsement for the same guy, as NFL.com’s Kevin Petra relayed.
Still, while that’s all well and good, do those endorsements mean this is a good hire?
He’s certainly had success with quarterbacks, and not just the ultra-talented Manning. In 2012, Caldwell was the Baltimore Raven’s quarterback coach and late in the season, he was promoted to offensive coordinator.
The result? Under Caldwell’s tutelage, the inconsistent Joe Flacco had a career year, with (at the time) his highest yardage total and second highest touchdown total of his career, while also tying his career low for interceptions.
Oh, they also went on a tremendous playoff run, resulting in a Super Bowl win.
The issue is, that was just one year. When he lost Manning in Indianapolis, the team collapsed. Sure, it’s a hit, but did the New England Patriots implode when Tom Brady was hurt in 2008?
No, they went 11-5, and finished second in the AFC East with Matt Cassel under center. Cassel, you will remember, went on to be terrible for a lot of money in Kansas City and then look average in Minnesota last season.
And while you can blame the offensive line on some of the issues with Baltimore last season, the playcalling and overall execution was poor as well.
So, in terms of Matt Stafford and his development, this seems positive.
However, in terms of the rest of the team—Detroit doesn’t seem to have taken much of a step forward.
Winner: Tennessee Titans—Ken Whisenhunt
Life is good when you have one plane gassed up and ready to fly you to a job with the Detroit Lions and a job offer in hand from Tennessee Titans.
Such was the choice Ken Whisenhunt had back in January when he ultimately decided Tennessee was his choice, as relayed by Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.
On the one hand, you have to think that quarterback Jake Locker is happy.
His new head coach developed the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger and helped reboot the career of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
He also was a huge reason why the Arizona Cardinals made it to their first Super Bowl ever with aging veteran Kurt Warner at the helm.
Adding Whisenhunt as head coach means Locker gets a coach with a proven track record of success with quarterbacks—both old and young—who can hopefully get him to the level of franchise quarterback. Whisenhunt has the pieces to put together a talented offense overall if he can get Locker up to snuff (and somehow keep him on the field).
It’s not just about the quarterback either. Whisenhunt also found a way to help Chargers running back Ryan Mathews have one of his best seasons, ending with a Pro Bowl selection (as did Rivers). While this won’t become a run-centric offense, he could find a way to get Chris Johnson happy and back to the level of success he’s had off and on during his career so far.
Looking at this at least from an offensive standpoint, this hire seems positive for all involved.
Loser: Washington Redskins—Jay Gruden
It’s hard to get too enthusiastic about hiring a former offensive coordinator whose quarterback imploded during the playoffs each of the last three seasons.
Maybe new Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden was hampered by the limitations of his quarterback, Andy Dalton. Dalton showed flashes but ultimately kept unraveling and was absolutely disastrous in two of his three playoff appearances, merely being bad in the third.
Gruden never seemed to be able to get him to take that next step and yet now he’s in a very similar situation with Robert Griffin III, who had his own (alleged) issues with offensive coordinators and coaches.
On the plus side, Gruden is excited to work with Griffin, as relayed by Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com, though he admitted at the time of the article that he hadn’t really studied him “on that type of foundation yet.”
While he’s trying to sort out Griffin, he’s also going to have to make sure the rest of the offense improves, as well as the defense. It’s a lot for a rookie head coach to take in, and concerning given the lack of success he had with consistent Dalton when that was all he needed to deal with.
Gruden may turn out to be an excellent hire, but I’ve never been a big fan of what he did in Cincinnati. I don’t feel as though he vastly improved Dalton over the course of their time together, and I don’t feel confident that he will be able to rectify that with Griffin and the Washington Redskins.
Winner: Houston Texans—Bill O’Brien
There’s always a college coach ready to make the leap to the NFL and this year’s selection was former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien.
The Houston Texans made the switch early, and it seems clear that O’Brien was high on their list, perhaps as their number one choice.
There are several reasons to be nervous about this. The fact that he comes from the “Bill Belichick Coaching Tree” which so frequently seems to produce nothing but huge failures. Or that he has just two years at the collegiate level. Or that his highest level of NFL coaching experience is one year in 2011 when he was the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.
The fact that, as reported by NFL.com’s Marc Sessler, he will handle offensive playcalling duties himself.
All are valid concerns. However, let’s take a moment to reflect on what he achieved at his last job.
When O’Brien was hired by Penn State two years ago, the program was in chaos. The scandal Penn State was embroiled in was the sort of thing coaches run from and the expectation around the world of collegiate football was that the school could get the heaviest penalties since SMU got the “death penalty” in 1987.
Penn State was banned from postseason play for four years, lost 40 scholarships and their players were allowed to transfer and play immediately.
Over the course of the next two seasons, O’Brien’s Nittany Lions went 15-9, he was able to recruit players to a university with a tarnished reputation and retain players who could have left, no questions asked.
This is a man who has been through some incredibly rough times and managed to do so successfully. While Penn State will probably always be a bit tainted by the Sandusky Child Abuse scandal, O’Brien helped bring some measure of honor and positive notoriety to it.
He can get players to buy into what he does and he can inspire them to put their best effort on the field. On top of that, he’s done good work with quarterbacks—after all he made Matt McGloin look good and also had success with Tom Brady while he was quarterbacks coach, offensive playcaller and later offensive coordinator. Whomever they end up with under center, the Texans have a guy who can wrest the most out of him and get him to develop.
Of course, the legacy of Belichick coaches isn’t great. Most have too heavy a hand and don’t last very long. O’Brien hasn’t been in New England in several years, and his experiences at Penn State should have softened his touch or at least taught him when to use a heavy hand and when not to.
And as mentioned earlier, having a first-time head coach also calling offensive plays is troubling as a head coach has to be focused on everything. Head coaches who have done this successfully tend to be guys who have a lot more experience—or at least some—at the pro level.
Still, the Texans are a team with a lot of talent already, so O’Brien has a lot to work with.
Right now, it looks like a great marriage.
Push: Tamp Bay Buccaneers—Lovie Smith and Jeff Tedford
We knew it wouldn’t be all that long before Lovie Smith had another head coaching job and it seems very much like a perfect fit.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have all the pieces to field a tremendous defense, and some very good offensive pieces as well.
As any Chicago Bears fan can tell you, Smith can put together a defense, but his efforts when it comes to the offense have been less than stellar.
Which means his tenure in Tampa Bay could be defined as much by Jeff Tedford, the team’s new offensive coordinator, as it is by his own efforts.
Tedford is an interesting choice, as he has never coached—at all—at the NFL level. After spending time in the Canadian Football League, Tedford went to Fresno State where he was a quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. Then he moved into the same position for Oregon, and then became head coach at the University of California, Berkley where he stayed from 2002 until the end of the 2012 season.
Smith is obviously hoping that the success Tedford had early in his career with quarterbacks like Trent Dilfer and later Aaron Rodgers, can translate to success with current starter Mike Glennon or perhaps a veteran or rookie replacement.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. This is a team which should bounce back and turn things around very quickly.
If Smith cannot get the defense going, or Tedford doesn’t make the offense work, this could be a short stay for both.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.