To review new head coaching hires in the NFL this season:
*Mike Singletary, San Francisco (replacing Mike Nolan mid-season, was interim)
*Jim Mora, Seattle (replacing Mike Holmgren, was coach-in-waiting)
*Eric Mangini, Cleveland (replacing Romeo Crennel)
*Josh McDaniels, Denver (replacing Mike Shanahan)
*Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis (replacing Tony Dungy, was coach-in-waiting)
*Jim Schwartz, Detroit (replacing Rod Marinelli)
*Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay (replacing Jon Gruden)
*Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis (replacing interim Jim Haslett, who replaced Scott Linehan)
*Rex Ryan, N.Y. Jets (replacing Eric Mangini)
*Tom Cable, Oakland (replacing Lane Kiffin mid-season, was interim)
*Todd Haley, Kansas City (replacing Herman Edwards)
We put these hires through the theory of relativity. We’ll do it on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the best possible hire, and 1 being the worst possible hire. And you’ll note that we didn’t hit either extreme this offseason.
10- None yet.
9- Mike Singletary, San Francisco. Everybody noticed Singletary’s first-week craziness. (kicking Vernon Davis off the sidelines, reportedly dropping his pants in a locker-room motivational tactic, and prattling on about how “I want winners” in a press conference) But more impressive was Singletary’s performance coming down the stretch. The Niners finished 5-4, even though offensive coordinator Mike Martz was never going to be Singletary’s guy. While Singletary wasn’t ready when he got the job, his half-season definitely moved him closer to that mark. And when he is ready, Singletary is going to be a terrific head coach. Think Mike Ditka’s emotion, only without the condescension or combustibility. It still may take a year or two, but Singletary will be a winner in the league, and the Niners were right to lock him in now before he got a chance elsewhere. Given the way the season played out, this was absolutely the right move. Only the first-game jitters keep this from the 10 level.
8- Josh McDaniels, Denver. This is the ultimate “hot candidate” hire. McDaniels is this year’s it-guy, the young, up-and-coming assistant who is lighter on track record but bursting with buzz. McDaniels, just 32, has done a great job coordinating New England’s offense the last couple of years, and his Belichick connection is an asset as well. And you can see why Denver owner Pat Bowlen would make this move — he has a young offense in place (Jay Cutler @ QB, Ryan Clady @ OLT, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal @ WR are all young buidling blocks). Plus, the last time Bowlen hired the young offensive genius, Mike Shanahan won 2 Super Bowls. So Bowlen sticks what’s worst. There’s great upside here, but McDaniels’ relative inexperience means there’s some significant downside too. A three-year-and-out failure will begin to waste Cutler’s prime and force him to start over in a new system at a time when he should be establishing himself as elite. So this hire a chance — but it’s a chance worth taking.
7- Jim Schwartz, Detroit. If you took a break from Christmas dinner last month to create a list of the 3 hot assistants this offseason, the list would have been Steve Spagnuolo, Schwartz, and whoever your personal flavor of the month was. Schwartz epitomizes the assistant who’s ready to take the next step. He’s worked under one of the best coaches in the league in Jeff Fisher and guided a defense that has been at least good and at times outstanding. Plus, Schwartz brings a new edge to football. He’s one of the biggest proponents of new-wave statistics in the league (and has been for a while). So if he can get a Billy Beane type of jump on the rest of the league, he may be able to take a quicker step forward than most coaches.
That said, this hire for Detroit is not quite ideal. First of all, Detroit’s going to have to draft a quarterback in the first round. They have the No. 1 overall pick plus Dallas’ pick at 20, which means Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez have to be considered, even though they would be minor reaches at No. 1 overall. So it might have made more sense for the Lions to hire an offensive. Schwartz will need to hire a QB guru (someone like Scott Linehan, or perhaps Norm Chow, whom he worked with at Tennessee) to make it work. Even more, the Lions probably could have used someone with a veteran hand who could contribute to personnel and organizational decisions. The front office in Detroit is far from experienced, so a Marty Schottenheimer or a Dan Reeves type would have been an even better hire.
Schwartz has the tools to be successful, but he’s stepping into a sorry situation. While there are guys who might have been a little better suited to lift the Lions out of the morass, Schwartz at least has a chance to do so. That means the Lions have hope that they haven’t had in a long time.
6- Jim Mora, Seattle. Mora’s record in Atlanta was better than you think – 26-22, plus 1-1 in the playoffs. He was run out of the Dirty South more for personality (including his stated interest in the U.Washington job) than for performance. You don’t have to worry about the U-Dub connection anymore, because the job was open this offseason, and Mora probably could’ve gotten it had he wanted. Instead, he cashed in the coach-in-waiting card Seattle gave him last year. Mora is a proven coach, and his past experience will help him. Plus, Seattle isn’t as bad as its 4-12 2008 mark, because injuries knocked at least 2-3 wins off the ledger. But there isn’t a lot of energy behind Mora’s hire, since the defense he helped to coach was pretty wretched (30th in yards against, 25th in points against). If not for the coach-in-waiting deal, could Seattle have gotten a hotter candidate? Maybe. But there were definitely worse options out there. With Mora and health (especially Matt Hasselbeck), Seattle is at least a contender to win 8 or 9, and as we see now, that’s contention in the NFC West. All in all, this hire is more good than bad, but barely.
6 (con’t) – Todd Haley, Kansas City – As the playoffs progressed, Haley became another “it” guy this offseason. Haley has football pedigree (his dad was a long-time front-office exec), and he has showed a fiery demeanor on the sidelines on more than one occasion. He also has play-calling chops, showing this offseason his prowess at making adjustments as games go on. (That’s an underrated skill.) But is Haley ready? Is he too combative to be a franchise’s lynchpin? We’ll see. Haley appears to be a hot prospect, but his situation in K.C. is what makes this hire a good one. New Chiefs G.M. Scott Pioli is going to win, and his prior relationship with and existing respect for Haley puts Haley in a good situation. The talent level in K.C. is still below average, but Pioli will fix that in time. Meanwhile, Haley figures to get time to get it done. That means playoff visits are in his future at Arrowhead in 2-4 years.
5- Eric Mangini, Cleveland. This is a Mora-esque hire, only just below. Mangini’s record (23-25) wasn’t bad with the Jets, although he did have the stinker year that Mora avoided. The reason this hire is a notch below is the philosophy question. Mangini’s pedigree is similar to the man he replaced – the main difference being that Romeo Crennel had no previous head coaching experience, along with Mangini’s age. Mangini has proven to be a decent NFL head coach, and he’s young enough that he could still be very good. But that’s far closer to a coin flip than a real guarantee.
5 (con’t) – Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay – Starting last year, there were rumblings that there was a defensive backs coach in Tampa named Raheem Morris who was going to be an NFL coach one day. But that day came a lot sooner than expected, as Tampa bounced Jon Gruden to promote Morris. Morris, just 32, probably isn’t ready yet. But he is a terrific prospect who can continue the strong defensive tradition the Buccaneers have had over the last decade or so. That’s important, because the defense will soon lose stalwarts Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber. If Morris had at least one year as an NFL coordinator, this ranking would be much higher. (Remember, that’s the background Mike Tomlin had when the Steelers hired him.) But Morris’ inexperience (one year as a college coordinator, just 4 as an NFL assistant) means that an adjustment period is likely, at least early on. This could be a home run, but that dinger is more likely to come in the fifth inning than in the first.
4 – Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis – Spagnuolo trained under Andy Reid and Jim Johnson in Philly before spending 2 years as the Giants defensive coordinator. That run in New York made him a hot head coaching candidate. While Spagnuolo’s pedigree is positive, the question us whether his leadership qualities match his tactical abilities. I can’t shake that question, and so I can’t rate Spagnuolo above Schwartz or even Morris. For some reason, I have a sinking feeling that this hire may end up looking more trendy than successful in the long run.
4 (con’t) – Rex Ryan, Jets – Ryan is a qualified candidate, with a resume as good as first-time head coach can have. But there’s one troubling thing about him – his team for the last 10 years, the Ravens, passed him over last year. The Ravens’ brass is top notch, so that judgment weighs heavily. If they don’t want him, I’m not sure I do. With that in mind, I just can’t bring myself to say the Jets are better with Ryan than they would be with Mangini. You might believe in change for change’s sake, but I don’t.
3- Jim Caldwell, Colts – The fall of 1993 brought many people to the Wake Forest University campus for the first time. Me. A then-unknown basketball player from the Virgin Islands named Tim Duncan. And football coach Jim Caldwell, who had left his post as an assistant coach under Joe Paterno at Penn State to become the ACC’s first African-American head coach. Caldwell lasted eight years at Wake Forest, compiling a 26-63 record and one bowl berth. So I’m familiar with Caldwell’s work.
The question is whether things will be better with the Colts. For one thing, Caldwell has much more experience, under a head coach in Dungy with whom he shares a steely demeanor. Caldwell undboutedly has learned something from Dungy, and his similiarities to Dungy are why he now has this opportunity. But can Caldwell keep the Colts at an elite level? Remember, the Colts are getting older. Peyton Manning is still in his prime at 32, but it would appear that WR Marvin Harrison (36), C Jeff Saturday (33) are closer to the end than the beginning. DE Dwight Freeney (28), WR Reggie Wayne (30), and S Bob Sanders (27) are in their prime, but if Caldwell has any sort of adjustment period, that prime period will soon be slipping away.
Caldwell has the best job available – better even than Denver – but also no margin or time for error. And because of the standard Dungy said and the age of the roster, Caldwell needs to be at least an A-minus coach right away for this succession plan to work. I could see him being a B-minus coach, or even a B, but anything more seems like a stretch. That stretch means the end of elite-dom for the Colts. And that, in turn, makes this Caldwell as coach-in-waiting plan a mistake. My hunch is that former defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, who should become a head coach in the league soon, would have been a better choice to continue Dungy’s legacy in Indy.
2- Tom Cable, Raiders – Cable was awful at Idaho (11-35 record) and had just 2 1/4 years as an NFL assistant before getting his shot as an interim head coach. His 4-8 mark, though unimpressive, was a minor upgrade over what the Raiders had been doing under Lane Kiffin. More pertinently, the Raiders’ performance at the end of the season gave a small glimmer of hope. With that, there’s a bit of a defense for keeping Cable on, but it’s not like the 49ers’ move to hold onto Mike Singletary. I just can’t get over the feeling that the Raiders could have hired a coach who wanted another chance — a Jim Fassel type — who had a much better resume and background. Or there could have been another Kiffin-type hire — a young coach looking to prove himself. The last time the Raiders were relevant, it was because they took a chance on Jon Gruden before he was truly ready to be a head coach. Even for the shipwreck that is the Raiders right now, there had to be better options. The Raiders just didn’t really look for them.
1- None yet.