But if 2008 is any indication, some lesser-known NFL assistants should also garner strong consideration to fill the slew of head coaching vacancies expected during the offseason.
All four of the league's first-year head coaches—Washington's Jim Zorn, Baltimore's John Harbaugh, Atlanta's Mike Smith, and Miami's Tony Sparano—weren't considered viable candidates for those spots at this time last year. Smith was the only one who even held a coordinator title.
Yet after the first half of the season, all four are legitimate candidates for NFL Coach of the Year honors.
All four teams have winning records, which is especially impressive considering Miami, Baltimore, and Atlanta had a combined 2007 mark of 10-38. As for Zorn, he has Washington (6-3) in the running for a second consecutive playoff appearance.
The first-year general manager who hired Smith believes such achievements will prompt NFL owners searching for new head coaches to expand their list of potential hires.
"I think owners should be very impressed by the guys who come in and interview as real people and not just on reputation," Atlanta's Thomas Dimitroff said. "I really believe owners want to see coaches who not only carry themselves with confidence but also show their real side. In today's game, players respond to coaches who shoot straight and treat them like men. It's not all about the mystique and ego of being a head coach."
A straight-forward approach was key in Smith's selection by Dimitroff and Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who was burned by his previous hire of Bobby Petrino from the college ranks. During his five seasons as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator, Smith forged a strong reputation among his peers despite being in the shadow of Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, who received much of the public credit for the unit's success.
Dimitroff had no previous experience working with Smith, who was one of seven candidates the Falcons interviewed. What separated Smith from the pack was the willingness to work closely with Dimitroff in personnel matters and a similar outlook in talent assessment.
"Some coaches who interviewed here asked, 'Why Mike and not me?' " said Dimitroff, who previously worked in New England's front office. "My point to them was Mike really came to the table talking a lot about players and evaluations. It's imperative you have someone who puts the time in and realizes the importance of that. That was very impressive."
Like Smith, Harbaugh, Zorn, and Sparano also were joining franchises that had strong general managers. None of the four were seeking control over personnel moves, which added to their appeal.
Still, there's no question Miami, Atlanta, Washington, and Baltimore were rolling the dice.
Smith or Harbaugh might not have gotten a chance if Garrett hadn't decided to stay with Dallas rather than respond to strong interest from the Falcons and Ravens. Garrett also had passed Sparano on the Cowboys' coaching ladder when hired as offensive coordinator in the 2007 offseason. Sparano, though, benefited from a strong previous relationship with Bill Parcells, who tapped him shortly after being hired to head Miami's football operations.
Zorn wasn't Washington's first choice, as he was initially hired as offensive coordinator. Zorn was promoted two weeks later after the Redskins ended a wide-ranging interview process by meeting with Spagnuolo, who withdrew from consideration afterward.
Because he never called plays during seven previous seasons as Seattle's quarterbacks coach, there was no tangible proof Zorn was ready to replace the retiring Joe Gibbs. The fact Washington currently ranks 11th in total offense has shown Zorn was up for the challenge.
Harbaugh, too, had stereotypes to overcome. Before becoming Philadelphia's secondary coach in 2007, Harbaugh had spent the previous nine seasons running the Eagles' special teams. Traditionally, such a position hasn't commanded as much respect in the head-coach hiring process as offensive/defensive specialists have received.
Harbaugh hopes Balltimore's success—the Ravens are currently tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North at 6-3—causes owners and general managers to reassess that line of thinking. Not only do special teams require detailed planning, assistants gain valuable experience in dealing with players from both sides of the football.
"There are so many guys over the years who should have been head coaches who got stacked up and never got a chance because of that 'special teams' whatever and owners just not understanding," Harbaugh said during a preseason interview. "But now you've got this new breed of (young) owners that are not looking for that stereotypical 'title' guy. They're looking for a leader."
Harbaugh said one special teams coach who would fit the bill is New England's Brad Seely, whose units have ranked among the NFL's best during his 10 seasons with the Patriots. Praised in league circles for his intelligence and coaching intensity, Seely's name might generate more buzz if he didn't keep such a low profile with the media.
Other under-the-radar assistants who could receive a long look this offseason include:
- Philadelphia quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur: Andy Reid isn't the only constant during Donovan McNabb's 10 seasons with the Eagles. McNabb also has enjoyed the luxury of having the same quarterbacks coach. The 43-year-old Shurmur has clearly done great work with McNabb and brought out the best in several Eagles backups, notably A.J. Feeley and Jeff Garcia.
Shurmur, the nephew of the late NFL defensive guru Fritz Shurmur, has never served as an offensive coordinator. But neither did Reid, who was Green Bay's quarterbacks coach before being hired by the Eagles.
- Tampa Bay secondary coach Raheem Morris: NFL insiders believe Morris could be the second coming of Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, a close friend who helped tutor him while both were Tampa Bay assistants. After leaving in 2006 to become Kansas State's defensive coordinator, Morris returned to Tampa Bay and helped the Buccaneers field the NFL's top-ranked pass defense following a No. 19 ranking the previous year.
Morris, 32, has helped resurrect the career of cornerback Phillip Buchanon while also developing promising young safeties Tanard Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli.
An NFL defensive coordinator's job seems like the next step for Morris, possibly in Tampa Bay if Monte Kiffin leaves during the offseason to work for his son Lane in the college ranks. But Morris could be an intriguing option for a patient franchise looking to make a long-term investment like Pittsburgh was with Tomlin.
- Miami Dolphins assistant head coach/secondary Todd Bowles: The improvement of Miami's secondary—especially cornerbacks Will Allen and Jason Allen—and the dip in Dallas since his offseason departure may not be coincidence. Bowles spent two seasons on Parcells' Cowboys coaching staff and followed Sparano to Miami.
Having played defensive back for eight NFL seasons, Bowles does an excellent job interacting with his players. Bowles, who turns 45 next Tuesday, was a finalist for the Cowboys head coaching vacancy that went to Wade Phillips in the 2007 offseason.
- Baltimore quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson: Jackson's tutelage of Ravens rookie Joe Flacco may draw him some well-deserved attention for a head coaching spot. Jackson, 43, has NFL experience as an offensive coordinator (twice) as well as a running backs and wide receivers coach.
Jackson, who recruited and coached Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer at Southern Cal, also helped develop wide receivers Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh during his three seasons with the Bengals (2004-06).
Of course, none of these candidates will excite the fan who wants their teams to land the biggest name possible. Making a relatively obscure hire also requires a leap of faith and might not pay off (Detroit's Rod Marinelli and Oakland's Lane Kiffin are two examples). But it's a jump that some owners may be willing to take considering the mixed track record of promoted coordinators.
Since 2005, 11 offensive/defensive coordinators have received their first NFL head coaching opportunities. Four of them currently have losing records. Three more—Scott Linehan (St. Louis), Mike Nolan (San Francisco), and Cam Cameron (Miami)—already were fired.
One of the successes is Tomlin, who was chosen by the Steelers in 2007, despite being 34 years old and having served just one previous season as an NFL coordinator. But while there was some initial skepticism about his hiring—especially considering he was replacing a legend in Cowher—Tomlin quickly grew into the head-coaching role just like Zorn, Sparano, Smith and Harbaugh are doing.
"All four of those guys had the reputation in the football world as being very passionate, solid people who were not egomaniacal," Dimitroff said of the 2008 hires. "They were focused on their work and working with the players. These guys are carrying a bright torch for the next wave of assistants coming up. The next step is for ownership and management to make the move and hire that type of coach."
It could happen in early 2009.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
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