Coaching staffs finally take shape
There will be seven new NFL head coaches at the start of the 2012 season — which begins next week at the scouting combine. But there were several late-season moves that were bigger than just the huge change at the top. Playoff teams like the Saints and Falcons underwent major reshuffling of their coaching staffs. Here are the moves and the decisions that should have the biggest impact moving forward:
1. Rams' total makeover: St. Louis landed the most qualified free-agent head coach, Jeff Fisher, who didn’t want to wait another year to see if a job in Chicago or Washington would open.
Fisher reached the playoffs six of his last 12 seasons with the Tennessee/Houston franchise. He also has major clout on the competition committee and league-wide respect among his peers. Fisher drew interest from the Colts and Chargers, but he believes quarterback Sam Bradford can be great. Fisher has assembled an all-star coaching staff that includes Dave McGinnis, Gregg Williams, Paul Boudreau and Brian Schottenheimer.
What’s further fascinating in St. Louis is that the team has a new general manager, Les Snead (formerly of Atlanta), who should work extremely well with young COO Kevin Demoff. This threesome could ultimately reap a king’s ransom for their No. 2 overall draft pick, which figures to be Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. There is a lot of experience and wisdom at Rams Park now.
2. Spags joins Saints: There isn’t a better offensive mind in the league than Saints head coach Sean Payton, who tends to defer to his defensive coordinators. Steve Spagnuolo, who lost his head-coaching job in St. Louis, was a terrific defensive coordinator with the Giants and also improved the Rams’ defense.
In two seasons with the Giants, his defense allowed 17 points or less 19 times, winning each of those games. The Saints are capable since they allowed 17 or fewer points in five of their last eight games, all wins. But too much blitzing and a man-to-man defense in the secondary killed the Saints against the 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Spagnuolo brings enormous stability to the defensive scheme. Going against Payton and Spags is a scary proposition.
3. Great news for Forte: To say that Mike Martz messed up Chicago’s running game qualifies as the understatement of the year.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith thought he could control Martz, and failed, but Smith was wise enough to turn his offense over to former Vikings head coach Mike Tice. Tice fixed the offensive line last season as best he could and now will focus the offense on Forte, who needs a new contract.
Tice passed on his knowledge of the passing game to Scott Linehan, helping him land a head-coaching gig after four years as an NFL assistant. Jeremy Bates, Jay Cutler’s favorite coach, also joins the staff after spending some time in Seattle and the University of Southern California.
4. New England of the Midwest: When Scott Pioli took the GM job in Kansas City, he wanted to hire Josh McDaniels as his head coach but ended up with Todd Haley instead. The two never were compatible.
Haley swears his office and cell phone were bugged last season, an accusation Pioli denies.
Elevating Romeo Crennel, whom the players wanted, was an easy call for Pioli since the two worked together with the Patriots when that franchise was winning Super Bowls. Brian Daboll, who spent seven seasons in New England, will run the offense. Daboll is also familiar with Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel.
5. Rooney power play: Speaking of Haley, he’s the Pittsburgh Steelers' new offensive coordinator, a move created by boss Art Rooney II. What’s interesting about this move is that coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger weren’t in the loop on the move to dump Bruce Arians.
When the Steelers went to the Super Bowl after the 2010 season, they ran the ball 47.4 percent of the time. Haley called running plays 52.3 percent of the time in 2010 when he directed the Chiefs to the playoffs while leading the NFL in rushing at 164 yards a game with a healthy Jamaal Charles.
Rooney is hoping Haley restores the Pittsburgh running game, a source of pride in the 1970s and also in the past two decades with Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis. Big Ben shouldn’t fret, though. Haley was the offensive coordinator in Arizona when the 2008 Cardinals reached the Super Bowl while attempting 630 passes.
6. Raiders transformation: I’m sure Hue Jackson believes he’d still be coaching in Oakland if Al Davis were still alive. But Al’s son, Mark, has totally different ideas. He opted for general manager Reggie McKenzie, a former Raider who knows the Packers’ formula, and together they hired Dennis Allen, who turns 40 in September.
Allen, a defensive whiz, never played pro ball and had no connections whatsoever to the Raiders. One should expect totally prudent, common-sense personnel decisions from Allen and McKenzie.
Even without Jackson, quarterback Carson Palmer’s offense remains in solid hands with coordinator Greg Knapp and senior offensive assistant Al Saunders.
7. No messing around: Raheem Morris didn’t mind socializing with his young Tampa Bay players, but that definitely won’t be the style of former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, 45.
Schiano's presence should be an upgrade for the Buccaneers — and ownership must agree, because his annual salary is more than twice what Morris earned in his first season. Had the Rams not landed Fisher, Schiano might have landed in St. Louis. He added veteran coach/friend Butch Davis to help him with the transition since a lot of Schiano's assistants worked in college.
8. Commitment to the run: Both the Cowboys and Jets made significant staff changes on offense.
Dallas added Bill Callahan, a former Oakland head coach and Jets offensive line coach, to put some punch in the Cowboys’ running game, and New York's Rex Ryan dumped his offensive assistants to add former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano as his offensive coordinator.
You can bet both teams will make significant commitments to their running backs.
9. Ball back in Manning’s court: Colts owner Jim Irsay cleaned house with his coaches and his front-office staff, and now he’s telling the franchise, Peyton Manning, that he’d like him back if he’s willing to rework his contract — down from the $28 million he's due March 8.
When free agency begins March 13, no team will know whether the nerve that powers Peyton’s right arm is 100 percent. If he’s willing to take an incentive-laden contract from teams like Washington, Miami or San Francisco, why not give the Colts the same deal?
Yes, the Colts could afford both Peyton and No. 1 pick Andrew Luck in such a scenario. Soon we will learn Peyton’s definition of team loyalty.
10. Falcons’ Smith upgrades: Mike Smith has taken the Falcons to the playoffs in three of his four seasons, an achievement like no other in Atlanta’s history.
But owner Arthur Blank wants a Super Bowl, as does Smith, who made three significant coaching hires: defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, offensive line coach Pat Hill, (a former Fresno State head coach) and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. I will bet the Falcons are more physical on both sides of the ball next season.