Projecting 2014 Impact of New NFL Head Coaches
The great thing about parity in the National Football League is that a bad team can quickly pull itself out of the mud and catapult back into playoff contention—but only if the team has the right head coach.
Just take a look what the Kansas City Chiefs were able to accomplish with Andy Reid last season, going from 2-14 to 11-5. On the flip side, Chip Kelly took an Eagles team that was languishing under Reid and won the NFC East title in his first season. Those particular examples speak to how vitally important and impactful a new head coach can be.
This offseason, seven teams hired new head coaches, and all seven are hoping for the kind of turnaround that the Chiefs reveled in last year.
In this column, I assess the impact that each new head coach will have in 2014 as well as whether or not each coach can hep lead their respective team into the playoff hunt.
Cleveland Browns: Mike Pettine
Fact: The Cleveland Browns made an atrocious hire when they named Rob Chudzinski as their head coach last year.
Fact: Despite the first fact, the Browns' brain trust acted hastily and brashly in firing Chudzinski after one season.
Fact: The Browns' head coaching search was long, drawn out, embarrassing, and they interviewed everyone under the sun except for you and me.
Fact: The Browns slammed the hire of former Bills and Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine out of the park.
You didn't misread that. Pettine was an outstanding hire by the Browns. Don't listen to the critics who point to his only head-coaching experience coming at the high-school level. The man knows how to relate to and get the most out of his players.
As a defensive coordinator, Pettine never had one of his defenses finish outside the top 10, and that includes last season in Buffalo, where he breathed life into a moribund unit and coaxed 57 sacks out of it.
In Cleveland, he'll get to work with a host of pass-rushers, including linebackers Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger, plus one of the best cornerbacks in football in Joe Haden.
It's obviously critical that new general manager Ray Farmer makes the right move at quarterback, whether it's by trading for a veteran (Kirk Cousins?) or drafting one with the fourth-overall pick (Johnny Manziel?).
There's no doubt that Pettine will coach up the defense, and if the team acquires a franchise quarterback, the Browns could be on their way toward a massive improvement in 2014.
And that's a fact.
2014 Impact: High
Houston Texans: Bill O'Brien
The Houston Texans were the worst team in the NFL last season, going 2-14 and "earning" the No. 1-overall pick in the draft.
But given the talent on the roster and the outstanding hire of former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, the team is a prime candidate for a "worst-to-first" turnaround.
Texans owner Bob McNair fired former coach Gary Kubiak after a Week 14 loss at Jacksonville. The time was right; Kubiak had run his course, and the Texans were going nowhere. The move was smart, because it enabled McNair to get a leg up on the competition when it came to hiring a new coach, and he landed perhaps the most coveted one on the market in O'Brien.
O'Brien was well respected as the offensive coordinator of the Patriots, and he did a masterful job of bringing Penn State's program out of the doldrums of a major scandal. Let's be clear here: O'Brien is not a college coach in the NFL; he was an NFL coach in college, and now he's back where he belongs.
The Texans have talent throughout the roster, especially on defense, and play in a very weak AFC South. It stands to reason that a significant improvement in the win column is not only likely but expected.
With the team in the catbird seat for the draft, expect more talent to be added to the roster, especially in the form of a franchise quarterback. Whether the Texans stay put and make the first pick or trade down and accumulate more selections, the upcoming draft should be bountiful for the organization.
Don't be shocked if the Texans are right back in the playoff hunt next season under the direction of O'Brien.
2014 Impact: High
Tennessee Titans: Ken Whisenhunt
Former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was the belle of the offseason ball.
He was linked to seemingly every head-coaching vacancy and had two teams (including the Lions) fighting for his services, much in the way Zack Morris and A.C. Slater fought over Kelly Kapowski.
In the end, Whisenhunt chose to coach the Tennessee Titans, and it's a move that will pay off handsomely for both parties.
It's unfortunate that Whisenhunt's success in the desert is somewhat masked by how poorly things ended there. Whisenhunt did the impossible when he injected credibility into the Arizona Cardinals, and if not for a miracle touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLIII, there'd be a statue of Whisenhunt outside University of Phoenix Stadium.
Critics will point to the fact that Whisenhunt failed once Kurt Warner retired, forcing Whisenhunt to groom new quarterbacks. But I'm not sure even the lovechild of Bill Walsh and Don Shula would have been able to coax success out of guys like Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Max Hall.
Whisenhunt inherits a Titans team with some talent but more questions than answers. Running back Chris Johnson is as good as gone, according to Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean, and it's unclear if the team will be able to keep ascending young cornerback Alterraun Verner (with Wyatt also reporting that the team has given no indication they'll hit Verner with the franchise tag).
But the biggest question mark is at quarterback. Jake Locker is the incumbent, and while he played well last season when healthy, the problem is that he usually wasn't, missing nine out of 16 games due to various maladies.
Whisenhunt is a terrific coach, and Titans fans should have confidence in his ability to get the team back into the postseason.
But due to roster issues, it probably won't happen this year.
2014 Impact: Medium
Washington Redskins: Jay Gruden
The 2013 Washington Redskins were a complete and utter circus, with deposed coach Mike Shanahan serving as the ringmaster. They were a chaotic mess, both on and off the field, and desperately needed a new voice and new leadership.
Enter former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, the team's new head coach. Despite the foibles the Bengals offense (specifically quarterback Andy Dalton) faced in the club's three consecutive one-and-done playoff losses, this was a terrific hire.
Gruden is a no-nonsense coach, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the carnival-like atmosphere that permeated Redskins Park under Shanahan's watch won't take shape with him in charge.
Gruden's main directive is clear: to elevate the play of franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III. There's no question that a full offseason in Gruden's program will greatly help Griffin, especially as time moves further and further away from his torn ACL.
Plus, there will be no question as to who's calling the shots in Washington. You think Gruden would leave an injured Griffin in a game because Griffin claimed he was healthy and able to keep playing? Not a chance.
The Redskins have a lot of work to do, starting with keeping pass-rushing demon Brian Orakpo in the fold. And with a lot of cap space ($38 million, per Spotrac), it's quite possible that the 2014 iteration will be a lot more talented than the one that went 3-13 in 2013.
It might take a year or two, but Gruden is definitely capable of getting the best out of Griffin and returning the Redskins to the playoff chase.
2014 Impact: Medium
Detroit Lions: Jim Caldwell
The Detroit Lions' hire of Jim Caldwell was definitely the most scrutinized and least inspiring of the offseason, but that doesn't mean he can't be successful.
The Lions were in desperate need of a new voice and energy following the ending of a bitterly disappointing 2013 season. It was a campaign where the NFC North was all but gift-wrapped for them with injures to Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, but they couldn't get it done—and that was a major indictment on former coach Jim Schwartz.
Schwartz coached an undisciplined football team and made a series of wacky decisions throughout the season, none zanier than attempting a fake field goal on the road in Pittsburgh while holding a lead. He also failed when it came to the development of quarterback Matthew Stafford. While Schwartz is a defensive coach, he still should have made sure his quarterback was improving, not regressing.
Now, Caldwell will be counted upon to be both a steady hand and a positive influence on Stafford. There's no question the Lions will be a more disciplined team under Caldwell, although that's not really saying much given how undisciplined they were under Schwartz. And it's hard to imagine that Stafford won't improve under Caldwell's tutelage.
The biggest question is if Caldwell can be a successful game-day coach. While he did lead the Colts to Super Bowl XLIV, critics would say that it was Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning's team, and once Manning was lost with his neck injury, the bottom fell out on the franchise. Caldwell also failed to sparkle with in-game management throughout his tenure.
This doesn't mean he can't or won't succeed; it just means that he faces the most scrutiny of any coach hired this offseason.
Stafford should play better in 2014, and the team should be more disciplined, but it's unknown if that will help lead to more wins and if Caldwell can master in-game management.
2014 Impact: Medium
Minnesota Vikings: Mike Zimmer
The Minnesota Vikings slammed their head coaching hire out of the park with former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
The fiery and passionate Zimmer is the salve to cure the Vikings' ails. Former coach Leslie Frazier is, by all accounts, a good man and did lead the team to the postseason in 2012, but he didn't exactly inspire with his words or demeanor. Zimmer is a fire and brimstone coach who will get the most out of his players.
That doesn't mean that Zimmer is too blunt and hardheaded—a notion that he's worked hard to overcome in the wake of his appearances on HBO's Hard Knocks, where he incorrectly garnered a reputation as a brash coach with little-to-no decorum.
Speaking on that reputation in 2012 to CBS Sports' Pete Prisco, Zimmer said this:
I'm honest. If they ask me something, I will tell them. I also think there's a reputation that people have about me after seeing us on Hard Knocks. They saw me cursing out guys and all that stuff. But I am not like that anywhere outside of in this locker room or in our rooms or on the field. I am never that way when I deal with people in the building.
Zimmer knows how many head-coaching jobs he missed out on because of this perception, and he said this in his introductory press conference, via Kevin Patra of NFL.com: "I've got a chip on my shoulder. I want to make sure that 31 other teams know that I'm here and I'm ready to coach this football team."
While there's little doubt that Zimmer will coach up the defense and inspire his players, the biggest question for the Vikings remains at the quarterback position. Christian Ponder has failed to inspire and clearly isn't the answer. The team will look long and hard at selecting a new franchise signal-caller with the eighth overall pick of the draft.
If the team selects a winner at quarterback, Zimmer should be able to find immediate success in Minnesota.
2014 Impact: Medium
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lovie Smith
The Houston Texans aren't the only team capable of a "worst-to-first"-type turnaround in 2014. Count the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and new coach Lovie Smith as another possibility.
The Buccaneers have a host of talent on the roster and aren't far away from being a major contender in the NFC. The mistake that former coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik made was starting last season with Josh Freeman at quarterback instead of rookie Mike Glennon. If they had gone with Glennon, both men would probably still be employed.
But, as the great author Charles Dickens wrote, "The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry," and now Smith is the team's new coach, inheriting a squad that is ready to win right now.
Smith will bring his "Tampa 2" defense back to where it originated, and with the talent present throughout the unit, it's hard to imagine it not being a successful transition.
On offense, there are pieces, including Glennon, running back Doug Martin and receiver Vincent Jackson. If new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford can coach up Glennon, the team could be scary.
Smith was a successful head coach in Chicago, going 81-63 and leading the team to Super Bowl XLI. He brings credibility to a team in dire need of it after going through the Schiano experience over the past two seasons.
Last season, the Buccaneers went 4-12. This season, it should surprise no one if they more than double their win total.
2014 Impact: High