One Question Every New Head Coach Must Answer in NFL Training Camp
In the NFL, training camp is a time when questions must be answered. For those teams transitioning to a new head coach, there should an inherent amount of uncertainty about the state of the franchise heading into the summer months. Most of these questions, both internal and external, should ideally be cleared up before the start of the regular season.
This offseason, seven new head coaches took over NFL teams—an annual turnover which constitutes nearly one-fourth of the entire league.
So let us take a look at one burning question that every new head coach must answer at some point during training camp.
Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Question: How will the offense look under new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford?
If there is a new head coach among the group that has more respect than Lovie Smith, that is news to me. After a brief hiatus from coaching, Smith will try to turn around a Buccaneers squad that finished 4-12 in 2013, missing the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.
When you take over a team that has struggled as much as the Bucs have, it’s not surprising that a massive roster overhaul is one of your first orders of business. As such, 48 of the 89 players signed up for training camp are new to the roster—that includes 20 rookies.
With so much youth splashed around the offensive side of the ball and a journeyman in Josh McCown set to start at quarterback, what type of philosophy can we expect from new coordinator Jeff Tedford, the former head coach of the California Golden Bears for 11 years?
Having been recruited and coached by Jeff Tedford at the University of California, I can attest to the type of coach he is to a certain degree. His offensive background is one that has been very experimental over the years and rarely stayed the same.
One thing, however, that did remain consistent in a Tedford-led offense was his emphasis on establishing a balance between the run and pass.
Aside from that, the Bucs offense is cloaked in mystery.
There’s a good chance that Coach Smith is waiting around to see what he has with his two quarterbacks before a firmer offensive identity is established. After all, that is part of what training camp is about for a first-year coaching staff. The coaches must become familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of their roster while figuring out how best to utilize it.
In any case, we should know a lot more about what this offense is going to look like by the end of training camp, even if it is only a preview.
Mike Pettine, Cleveland Browns
The Question: Which quarterback will the Browns customize the offense around?
According to one of Kyle Shanahan's former quarterbacks, Sage Rosenfels, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, the job with the Browns will be coach Shanahan’s first real chance to spread his wings. “Kyle's learned from some of the really good offensive minds the last 10 years in the NFL, but this is going to be his first opportunity to truly make the offense his own,” Sage explains.
Pettine obviously trusts his new coordinator to install an offense that will lead to success, but much of the offense’s identity will depend on which quarterback is under center—that is, if they plan on being under center at all.
Obviously the city of Cleveland, and fans from across the NFL landscape for that matter, will be watching and waiting to catch a glimpse of the polarizing Johnny Manziel. This training camp the inspiring young quarterback and the veteran Brian Hoyer will go toe-to-toe for the rights to the starting quarterback job. Ideally, establishing the winner of this competition needs to happen sooner rather than later, considering the unique situation at hand.
If the plan is to move forward with Johnny Manziel this season then Shanahan needs to account for the rookie signal-caller's presence in the offensive philosophy. His unique skill set lends itself to a wide array of creative options, not unlike what the coordinator dealt with in Washington in 2012 when Robert Griffin III was a rookie. A Manziel-led offense will need to be simplified in terms of reads and more versatile in terms of allowing the kid to make plays with his athleticism.
Ultimately, choosing the starting quarterback will be one of the biggest coaching decisions Pettine will have to make in his inaugural campaign. In the end, final say falls on his shoulders.
Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins
The Question: Is DeSean Jackson a guy Gruden can build his passing game around?
When it comes to Jay Gruden and the Washington Redskins, there are several questions that need answers this summer. For starters, did Coach Gruden do the things needed to make RG3 feel comfortable with the offense?
This was obviously an area of emphasis for the coach. It seems as if RG3 is constantly surrounded by a narrative involving his ability to grasp an offense or accept coaching. Another valid question concerning RG3 centers on the workload he will see in preseason.
Jim Haslett is the defensive coordinator and has been retained from the previous coaching staff. Will the retention of his services prove to be a good move? The answer to that question is likely to be found later on in the season.
But what about the arrival of DeSean Jackson?
Will Washington's biggest offseason acquisition pay dividends by showing that he is worthy of being the focal point of the passing game?
This is indeed a question that will need to be addressed if not fully answered this summer. Jackson’s ability to progress and fit into the Redskins style of offense is going to be a key dynamic this summer. Jackson and Griffin will continue to work through training camp and the preseason to establish a rhythm, so the jury is still out on what type of impact this speedy playmaker will have.
In addition, Gruden will need to have answers regarding Jackson’s work habits as well as his willingness to buy into the program.
After what happened to Jackson in Philly, it would be hard to envision him blowing yet another opportunity to dispel negative perceptions about his character.
If Gruden determines Jackson to be unreliable as an offensive foundation, expect this team to rely pretty heavy on Alfred Morris and Co. in the running game.
Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans
The Question: Is Coach Whisenhunt sold on quarterback Jake Locker, or will he turn to his depth chart for answers?
After leading the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2009 and, as offensive coordinator, turning the Chargers around last year, Ken Whisenhunt received numerous offers to return to head coaching. Apparently he saw the Titans position as a great opportunity with a lot of potential for success.
With the Titans, Whisenhunt faces the challenge of turning around a team that has posted a 9-21 division record over the last five seasons.
Coach Whisenhunt already has an established history of pulling quarterbacks who underperform, regardless of their status or paycheck. Look no further than Matt Leinart who was the 10th overall pick the year before Whisenhunt arrived in Arizona, and yet he never won the starting job. In fact, Whisenhunt didn’t drag out the process very long when it came to moving away from the organization’s face-of-the-franchise investment.
Keep in mind back in 2011, Whisenhunt and the Cardinals were badly in need of a quarterback and passed on Locker in the first round. That should tell you this coach is not in love with his inheritance at QB and will need to be convinced before signing off on the guy.
After all, Jake Locker is 1-8 against division opponents and has struggled mightily with accuracy beyond 10 yards.
During the draft this offseason the Titans pulled the trigger on a Zach Mettenberger, a sixth-round pick out of LSU who is somewhat in the mold of a Ben Roethlisberger. He would have gone higher in the draft but was coming off of a knee injury and then failed a drug test at the combine.
It’s possible that a guy like Mettenberger could come along and steal away Locker’s starting job. The Titans also have a former third-round pick from the Raiders, Tyler Wilson.
Expect Whisenhunt to let us all know how he feels about Jake Locker before September rolls around.
Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans
The Question: Can Bill O’Brien handle double duty as head coach and offensive coordinator?
Many of you Texans fans out there might be wondering how they’ll utilize the No. 1 overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney, in the defense.
And while that's a legitimate area of focus, the more important question is whether or not new head coach Bill O’Brien can handle the double duties of both a first-time NFL head coach and the offensive coordinator.
There are indeed some head coaches out there who call the plays and control a great deal of the offense. Coaches like Chip Kelly, Sean Payton and Bruce Arians all call their own plays but still manage to employ an offensive coordinator. Coach O’Brien might be the only active coach this year who did not hire an offensive coordinator.
As difficult as it is for a new coach to adjust to his first NFL head coaching job, one can only imagine how challenging it will be to execute his myriad responsibilities while having to devise game plans and call plays during games.
By the end of training camp, Coach O’Brien should have a good idea as to whether it’s preferred having an offensive coordinator on staff—even if that role was less hands on than it would normally be.
Former NFL coaches talk candidly all the time about how much they had to learn in their first attempt as an NFL head coach. The former Penn State coach may have some head coaching experience under his belt, but O'Brien may have bitten off much more than he can chew by pulling double duty in his first season leading an NFL team.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
The Question: Will Coach Zimmer’s often abrasive tactics impede his ability to earn the respect of the team?
During my time in the NFL I happened to be on the same team as Mike Zimmer. This was back when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons and I happened to be there for an offseason before being abruptly cut.
However, I was there long enough to witness a certain treatment and behavior from coach Zimmer that I personally found alarming and overtly disrespectful to several of the players.
There’s no denying that every coach has their own strategy for delivering a message, Zimmer’s style is to be loud and insulting. For some players, this might be the only way to penetrate deep enough to alter their behavior, as for me, I found his tactics to be overly harsh and frankly insulting.
Keep in mind that coach Zimmer never spoke negatively about me personally, but if you just watch him with specific players it can make you feel uncomfortable.
This was about five years ago and Zimmer appears to have matured a lot since then. But has he developed enough well-rounded people skills to get an entire team to believe in him?
From what I’ve seen in the past, I have my doubts about how much his players will buy in. Keep in mind, a similar personality type failed miserably with players in Tampa Bay under Greg Schiano, who was fired and replaced with another coach on this list.
By the conclusion of training camp this summer, we should know a lot more about how balanced Mike Zimmer can be as a head coach. This is his opportunity to prove all the owners wrong about not giving him a chance to be a head coach.
If his players stand behind him in full support, the Vikings could be a lot better than most are giving them credit for.
Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions
The Question: Will the players respond with more personal accountability?
Jim Caldwell appears to be the only first-year head coach who doesn’t have serious questions at the quarterback position. That sentence should be an indicator of what happens when you struggle at the most important position in football—games are lost and people lose their jobs.
Luckily this is one less thing the new coach will have to worry about in Detroit.
This question for Jim Caldwell is one that may take longer than a summer to fully answer but the end of training camp should give him (and us as fans) a pretty good idea. Under former head coach Jim Schwartz, the Lions were considered one of the most undisciplined teams in the league, both on and off the field.
Since Schwartz arrived in Detroit back in 2009 through last season, the Lions ranked in the top three of the NFL's most penalized teams in two separate seasons and never finished on the better half of that category.
In addition, the Lions lost eight of the 15 games they played in last year that were considered winnable in the fourth quarter.
One of the ways Caldwell has distinguished himself from his predecessor is his calm demeanor. Apparently, the Lions' new head coach is already establishing a certain relationship with his players—one that the players describe as being treated like a man, according to Albert Breer via the Detroit Free Press.
His coaching style is to limit his talking to the classroom and use a much more silent approach when observing his players on the practice field.
By the end of summer we should have a better idea as to how the players respond to the contrasting coaching styles. Will players be able to hold themselves more accountable than in years past?
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player who currently writes for B/R.
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