Which first-year NFL coach is in best situation?
FEB 07, 2013 2:35p ET
No joke. Those who don’t help their new teams instantly improve could be out of a job at this time next year.
Mike Mularkey and Romeo Crennel are the latest examples of the win-now culture permeating the NFL. Mularkey (Jacksonville) and Crennel (Kansas City) became the fourth and fifth head coaches in the past five seasons to get fired after just one year at the helm. They were canned following 2-14 debuts.
The rebuilding process is a more daunting task with some clubs than others, but team owners aren’t looking for excuses either. Jim Harbaugh inherited a 6-10 squad and immediately guided the 49ers to appearances in the NFC Championship Game (2011 season) and Super Bowl XLVII (2012). Harbaugh became the fourth coach in his first or second year with a franchise to take his charges to the Super Bowl since 2007.
Which teams with new X's-and-O's leadership are ready to make the leap back into the playoffs and who are the newbies with the greatest obstacles to overcome? Here are my FOXSports.com rankings of the most-to-least-attractive jobs as well as the biggest challenge each coach faces as we look ahead to looming personnel decisions, the free-agent signing period that begins in mid-March and April’s draft.
1. MARC TRESTMAN, CHICAGO
Predecessor: Lovie Smith
Others interviewed: Bears general manager Phil Emery spoke with 13 candidates before tabbing Trestman, Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and ex-Indianapolis offensive coordinator Bruce Arians as his finalists.
Why Trestman?: As evidenced by seven of the eight head-coaching hires to fill vacancies, offense-oriented candidates had favored status. Trestman also had appeal as someone who could bring out-of-the-box ideas into the NFL like Harbaugh has done with San Francisco’s use of Pistol formations. He spent the past five seasons as the Montreal Alouettes head coach in the Canadian Football League and spent 2005 and 2006 as North Carolina State’s offensive coordinator.
Biggest philosophical change: Trestman’s specialty is working with quarterbacks, from having coached and played the position personally (University of Minnesota/Minnesota State). This should be great news for Jay Cutler, whose units under three coordinators the past four seasons (Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice) never finished ranked above 23rd in average yards per game. New coordinator Aaron Kromer will specialize in the running game and bring some of the concepts he learned as offensive line coach of the New Orleans Saints.
Most pressing task: Earning the trust and respect of veteran players with strong loyalty to Smith, who was fired after nine seasons despite having a 10-6 record in 2012. Trestman’s brainy approach and white-collar background stand in contrast to Smith’s low-key delivery and East Texas roots. Trestman should get a boost from the hiring of ex-Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mel Tucker for the same position in Chicago. Tucker reportedly plans to keep the same Tampa-2 style of defense the unit played under Smith, which would ease the transition.
Overall: Of the eight vacancies, Trestman couldn’t have landed in a more appealing situation. The Bears have a franchise quarterback, an elite wide receiver ( Brandon Marshall), a two-headed running back combination ( Matt Forte and Michael Bush), some of the league’s best defensive talent and a history of outstanding special teams. With a few offseason offensive upgrades, particularly on the offensive line and at tight end, the Bears are poised to become a bona fide Super Bowl contender. It’s incumbent upon Trestman to quickly get Chicago into the playoffs – something Smith couldn’t accomplish in five of the past six seasons with much of the same core talent.
2. MIKE MCCOY, SAN DIEGO
Predecessor: Norv Turner
Others interviewed: McCoy topped four others in a field that included NFL former head coaches Smith and Ken Whisenhunt, who later joined the staff as offensive coordinator.
Why McCoy?: His work with quarterbacks. Jake Delhomme, Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow all enjoyed their best NFL seasons under McCoy’s tutelage. And while Peyton Manning already was a finished product by the time he signed with Denver last offseason, McCoy deserves credit for helping in his successful comeback from neck surgery.
Biggest philosophical change: There will be a greater emphasis placed on the running game, which is an approach McCoy brings with him from having worked under traditionally conservative head coach John Fox in Carolina and Denver. The Chargers ranked 27th in the NFL last season with a 91.3-yard average. Denver was 16th at 114.5 yards on 481 carries, which is the most attempts ever for a team on which Manning was under center.
Most pressing task: A bevy of quarterbacking gurus – McCoy, Whisenhunt and position coach Frank Reich – are responsible for helping Philip Rivers regain his mojo. Rivers entered his ninth NFL season in 2012 regarded as the best quarterback yet to reach a Super Bowl. That can no longer be proclaimed after a second consecutive turnover-plagued campaign. A better supporting cast would help. Rivers’ offensive line and receiving corps deteriorated because of ex-general manager A.J. Smith’s personnel moves.
Overall: Despite his flaws, no team with an opening besides Chicago had a better quarterback situation than the Chargers with Rivers. There also won’t be any transition time on defense with John Pagano remaining as coordinator.
3. ANDY REID, KANSAS CITY
Predecessor: Romeo Crennel
Others interviewed: The Chiefs went through a whirlwind interview process with only a handful of candidates before quickly settling on Reid, who also was given broad powers over personnel decisions after general manager Scott Pioli was fired. Kansas City struck quickly because of concerns that Reid would be hired elsewhere.
Why Reid?: He was the most successful head coach in Philadelphia Eagles history. Reid won 140 games and led the Eagles to nine playoff appearances in 14 seasons, including an appearance in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Biggest philosophical change: Reid will install the same style of West Coast offense that he used in Philadelphia. Although he has a history of pass-heavy play calling, Reid will likely lean on running back Jamaal Charles in the same fashion as LeSean McCoy in Philadelphia. New defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who worked under Rex Ryan with the New York Jets, is expected to place his own spin on the 3-4 defensive personnel used by former Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel.
Most pressing task: It starts under center. No quarterback drafted by the Chiefs has won a game for the team since 1983 first-round pick Todd Blackledge. The Chiefs need to make an investment in the position with a veteran and a rookie. It seems unlikely that either 2012 starter – Matt Cassel or Brady Quinn – will return. Cassel’s release would clear $5.8 million in salary cap space; Quinn is a pending free agent.
Outlook: The quarterback situation is problematic, especially because the free-agent pickings are slim and no college passer is likely to emerge as being worthy of selection with Kansas City’s No. 1 overall pick. Otherwise, there’s a lot to like about the Chiefs. There is cornerstone talent – five players were selected to the Pro Bowl – and Kansas City is likely to enter the free-agent signing period with eight-figure space in salary cap room available to bolster the roster. Reid has a golden opportunity to show that Philadelphia’s collapse over the past two seasons was largely the fault of others in the organization besides him.
4. ROB CHUDZINSKI, CLEVELAND
Predecessor: Pat Shurmur
Others interviewed: The biggest name was Oregon’s Chip Kelly. He spurned the team’s interest and ultimately went to Philadelphia. The Browns refocused their search and chose Chudzinski, who was Carolina’s offensive coordinator the past two seasons.
Why Chudzinski?: Some Browns fans may be asking themselves the same question because of the belief that new team owner Jimmy Haslam would make a Bill Cowher/Jon Gruden/Brian Kelly/Nick Saban-sized splash with his first head coaching hire. Instead, Haslam is trusting that Browns president Joe Banner struck gold with a far-less ballyhooed name once again like he did in Philadelphia with Andy Reid in 1999. Chudzinski was able to deliver a quality staff with Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense) as his coordinators.
Biggest philosophical change: The Browns will switch from the West Coast-style scheme utilized by Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress to the Joe Gibbs/Don Coryell-inspired attack that Turner ran in San Diego. Running back Trent Richardson will remain the offensive focal point. The defense will also get transformed with the Browns shifting to a 3-4 under Horton.
Most pressing task: Determining whether Brandon Weeden is the quarterback whom the offense should be built around. It’s public knowledge that new general manager Mike Lombardi wasn’t a big Weeden fan from when he was serving as an NFL Network analyst.
Outlook: The Browns are better off than two years ago when Shurmur first arrived but have a ways to go before being even the third best team in a division that features Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
5. CHIP KELLY, PHILADELPHIA
Predecessor: Andy Reid
Others interviewed: Then-Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was the rumored frontrunner for the job until Kelly changed his mind and re-entered the picture. Two days later, Kelly was hired away from the University of Oregon and the “Gus Bus” headed to Jacksonville.
Why Kelly?: Eagles brass say it was more than just the innovative offense Kelly fielded with the Ducks. They also were impressed with the way Kelly built “a program.” Kelly elevated the Ducks into a perennial national championship contender.
Biggest philosophical change: Every NFL defensive coordinator is anxious to learn exactly how Kelly will transfer his rapid-fire attack into the pro ranks. Some earmarks of Kelly’s approach with Oregon are already used by New England, which ran more plays at a faster pace than any other team in 2012.
Most pressing task: The Eagles have yet to hire a defensive coordinator. Candidates reportedly include Todd Grantham (University of Georgia), Ed Donatell (San Francisco) and Ted Monachino (Baltimore).
Outlook: Thanks to the success of Harbaugh and Seattle’s Pete Carroll, coaches from the college ranks are being viewed in a much more favorable light by NFL teams than during a stretch in which Saban, Steve Spurrier and Dennis Erickson were among those who couldn’t graduate to the big leagues. A large part to how Kelly fares will be determined by quarterback play. The Eagles must decide if Michael Vick or Nick Foles should lead the team into 2013 or whether there is a better option elsewhere. I get the feeling that Florida State’s E.J. Manuel could become a superstar under Kelly’s tutelage. The Eagles have a shot at him with the No. 4 overall pick. Ex-Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon also may get added to the QB mix.
6. BRUCE ARIANS, ARIZONA
Predecessor: Ken Whisenhunt
Others interviewed: The most intriguing candidate was Horton, whose work over the past two seasons helped the Cardinals field a standout defense. But when Steve Keim was promoted to general manager, he opted to head in another direction.
Why Arians?: Arians’ knockout work in place of the ailing Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis earned him 2012 NFL Coach of the Year honors. Arians also has a track record of success working with quarterbacks; Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger are among his prized pupils.
Biggest philosophical change: Arians likes to pass as much as Whisenhunt did, but there will likely be better balance in Arizona’s offensive attack. One of the reasons for Whisenhunt’s demise was the failure to develop a running game that took pressure off what proved a revolving door of quarterbacks. Todd Bowles, who inherited a 4-3 scheme when promoted to defensive coordinator in Philadelphia during the 2012 season, will be returning to his 3-4 background as Horton’s replacement.
Most pressing task: Arians and Keim have to rebuild the NFL’s 32nd-ranked offense. With the exception of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, there are personnel deficiencies across the board, from quarterback on down. On the bright side, Arians helped the Colts rebound from having the league’s worst record in 2011 to reaching the playoffs last season. The defense also is returning largely intact.
Outlook: Keim’s decision to bypass Horton was curious. The same could be said of new Chargers general manager Tom Telesco’s hiring of McCoy – someone he has never worked with before – instead of Arians, who was with him in Indianapolis in 2012.
7. DOUG MARRONE, BUFFALO
Predecessor: Chan Gailey
Others interviewed: After what newly promoted team president Russ Brandon called a “thorough, exhaustive and exhilarating search,” the Bills tapped a nearby college coach from Syracuse instead of Horton or Whisenhunt. Buffalo also spoke with Chip Kelly. However, the odds of a decaying franchise like this luring Kelly away from Oregon were as low as the Bills turning down loonies and toonies to play a home game each season in the sterile atmosphere Toronto provides. The Bills may have pulled the trigger on Marrone early because they feared losing him elsewhere.
Why Marrone?: Brandon, who was given power to run the club by ailing owner Ralph Wilson following Gailey’s postseason firing, is a Syracuse native who remains connected to the university through its “sports advisory board.” This helps explains his interest in Marrone, who helped the Orange get back on their feet to respectability over the past four seasons. Marrone previously served as New Orleans’ offensive line coach under Sean Payton.
Biggest philosophical change: Marrone is banking on 33-year-old offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, whose only previous NFL experience came as a lowly quality control coach with the Bills and Tampa Bay. He is the son of long-time NFL offensive coordinator Paul Hackett and was Marrone’s offensive coordinator at Syracuse. Hackett’s methodology will differ greatly from that of Chan Gailey, whose uneven game-planning and underuse of running back C.J. Spiller helped lead to his demise after three seasons as Buffalo’s head coach. Ex-Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will bring more creativity to the position than predecessor Dave Wannstedt.
Most pressing task: Determining whether to go forward with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback for at least the short term (i.e. entering the preseason) is where Marrone must start. After that, Marrone must change the losing culture throughout an organization that hasn’t reached the playoffs in an NFL-high 13 seasons. Getting more out of overpaid defensive end Mario Williams is a must.
Outlook: With Brandon and general manager Buddy Nix staying onboard despite another season of failure, it’s hard from the outside to see what exactly has changed in Buffalo that offers reason for excitement. Bills fans deserve better.
8. GUS BRADLEY, JACKSONVILLE
Predecessor: Mike Mularkey
Others interviewed: The most intriguing possibility in this process is someone who wasn’t screened. New general manager David Caldwell was college roommates with Greg Roman, who has done brilliant work as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator. But rather than wait until after Super Bowl XLVII to hire a close friend – which sometimes doesn’t translate into professional success a la Pioli and Crennel in Kansas City – Caldwell went outside the box with Bradley after immediately firing Mularkey.
Why Bradley?: Seattle’s defense was a bear under Bradley, who earned praise from Seahawks players for his upbeat coaching style. Caldwell also may have recognized that while offensive-minded coaches were the sexy choices for other vacancies, three of the four head coaches in last season’s conference championship games (Smith, Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh) had strong defensive roots.
Biggest philosophical change: Like Nathaniel Hackett in Buffalo, Jedd Fisch is making the jump from college offensive coordinator (University of Miami) to the same position in the NFL. Fisch, though, has a far more extensive NFL background than Hackett. He probably can’t do a much worse job than Jaguars predecessor Bob Bratkowski, whose play-calling and use of personnel left much to be desired.
Most pressing task: 2011 first-round pick Blaine Gabbert is on his third offensive coordinator in three seasons. For a player who entered the league without much college experience, that could prove disastrous to his NFL development. The Jaguars must decide whether Gabbert or Chad Henne is a potential long-term answer at quarterback. Otherwise, “over-drafting” a college standout like West Virginia’s Geno Smith or Florida State’s E.J. Manuel may be a prudent move with the No. 2 overall pick.
Outlook: A prized pupil of legendary general manager Bill Polian, Caldwell comes from Atlanta’s front office. Jaguars fans – there are about seven of you out there worldwide, right? — hope that his pairing with Bradley can duplicate the same success that general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith have enjoyed with the Falcons. Like with Caldwell and Bradley, Dimitroff and Smith had never worked together before but subsequently formed a tight bond and enjoyed unprecedented success in the franchise’s 47-year history. Caldwell and Bradley are a big part of the make-over second-year owner Shad Khan has given on the franchise. The Jaguars also introduced a new “cool cat” logo and will play annual games in London to make amends for tepid local support. Khan’s initiatives are encouraging, but Caldwell and Bradley inherit a mess from the previous regime.