Over the last few seasons a trend had been developing. NFL teams were no longer content to continue recycling existing names in the world of head coaching. They were still just as eager to unload their own coach, but the replacements were coming from a new cadre of talent.
The trend started well, with John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin taking stewardship of the Ravens and Steelers. The two teams met in the AFC championship round with Mike Tomlin’s Steelers driving all the way to a Super Bowl victory. In the NFC, Mike Smith coached the resurgent Falcons to an 11-5 playoff berth.
The success began a flood of candidates in the offseason. Tampa Bay replaced John Gruden with relative unknown, Raheem Morris. Denver brought in fiery Bill Belichick disciple Josh McDaniels, while another young offshoot of the ever growing Belichick tree, Scott Pioli, gave Todd Haley the keys to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Among other first-time NFL head coaches stood Jim Schwartz for Detroit, the interim tag lifting from Tom Cable in Oakland, and New York Giants Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo inheriting the St. Louis Rams (although technically a first-year coach, Indianapolis Coach Jim Caldwell was being groomed to replace Tony Dungy and therefore was maintaining an existing regime).
While both Eric Mangini and Jim Mora Jr. had head coaching experience before, they were still young and considered part of the newer guard when brought on by Cleveland and Seattle, respectively. Rex Ryan was a more established name, but still in his first season as a head coach when the Jets replaced Mangini with him.
By and large the results were unimpressive. Smiith, Harbaugh, and Tomlin’s teams all dropped to 9-7 (a combined seven game dip from 2008), with the Ravens edging out the Steelers via tie-breaker for a sixth-seed and playoff berth.
None of the first-year coaches this season could match their predecessor’s first year success. Rex Ryan came the closest, securing a wild-card berth for his Jets with a 9-7 record (identical to the Jet’s 2008 record) that was aided by Indianapolis’s choice to let Curtis Painter close out their Week 16 game.
Mangini and Mora improved their teams with one game jumps, both going to 5-11. Cable also secured a 5-11 season, identical to the Raiders record in 2008 where he closed out the year as interim coach of Oakland. Also among the "same as 2008" crowd was Josh McDaniels, whose 8-8 record was a mirror image of the Shanahan-led 2008 Broncos (both started the year hot, then collapsed late in the season to miss out on a playoff berth they held for the bulk of the year).
Haley and Schwartz came out the biggest winners on the year improving by two games apiece. That success was far from overwhelming, however. The Schwartz-led Lions improved to 2-14 on the year, playing far more competitively than their 0-16 forbearers. That said, they hold the second overall draft pick this offseason for a reason.
Kansas City moved up from 2-14 to 4-12 this year with an encouraging second half that saw them take three of their four wins. They were also a team with slightly higher expectations though, after trading for quarterback Matt Cassel and undergoing a large roster turn.
Despite Spagnuolo’s Rams going 1-15, Tampa Bay head Coach Raheem Morris was the big loser in the first year-head coach battle. The Buccaneers only managed a third of the team’s 2008 win total, dropping from 9-7 down to 3-13 behind the removal of nearly all established veterans.
NFL executives seemed to take note this offseason. The first newly signed head coach was former Super Bowl-winner Mike Shanahan, replacing Jim Zorn in Washington. Seattle followed by dislodging USC mainstay Pete Carroll. Carroll had coached in the NFL to a 33-31 record prior to leading USC to a steady diet of Pac-10 championships.
Around the league other teams elected to forgo hot young names in favor of continuity. Jack Del Rio was retained by Jacksonville after a near firing. Tampa Bay elected to keep Coach Morris after the six-game back-step.
John Fox and Lovie Smith were also talked of for the unemployment line after both Carolina and Chicago turned playoff aspirations into mediocrity. Gary Kubiak missed the playoffs, and was likely one loss away from missing the Texans 2010 season. One of the more interesting retainments was that of Eric Mangini with Cleveland.
The coach drew criticism from players, media, and fans after the Browns spent the first two-thirds of the year appearing to be the NFL’s worst team. The team brought on former Packer and Seahawk Mike Holmgren to be president of operations, effectively giving him the call. Holmgren elected to keep Mangini likely due to a season-ending surge of four consecutive wins.
There will still be job openings this offseason. Buffalo unloaded its entire coaching staff, including interim Head Coach Perry Fewell. Oakland is expected to part ways with Tom Cable after a promising 3-2 stretch ended with back to back losses.
Will those teams with vacancies pursue new young names or go for veteran unemployed coaches? That remains to be seen. Big names John Gruden and Bill Cowher are likely out of the head-coaching hunt, so they may be compelled to look younger by sheer availability.
Either way, the number of first-year head coaches in 2010 looks to be its lowest in a long time, and a radical dip from 2009’s young coach boom. With the economy making it difficult to fire a coach outright, and young names meeting with little success over the past regular season, it seems to be a trend that will be much more tempered across the future.
For a closer look at the Seahwks hiring of Head Coach Pete Carroll see: