Are teams better off with first time coaches
By Bill Smith
Up until a couple of years ago, NFL owners that were in need of a coach overwhelmingly chose older guys with previous head coaching experience. Then in 2007 things seemed to change. First time HCs seemed to be in vogue.
Mike Smith was the defensive coordinator of the Jaguars from 2003-07. He was not exactly a young first time HC but a first time HC none the less. He was 47 when he was selected as head coach for the Atlanta Falcons. In his first year he led the team which had been 4-12 to the playoffs in 08 and a 11-5 record. He and rookie QB Matt Ryan also helped erase the stain that Mike Vick had caused to the franchise.
In January of 2008, the 1-15 Miami Dolphins hired Tony Sparano as head coach. He had coached the O line for the Cowboys and had 3 years as assistant head coach. He led one of the most inept teams in NFL history to 11-5 and the AFC East championship. Sparano had help. Bill Parcells joined the team as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Miami Dolphins and helped transform the roster.
Also in January 2008, John Harbaugh, another first time coach was hired in Baltimore. His background was 9 years as special teams coach and one season as secondary coach for the Eagles. He inherited a winning team that fallen to 5-11 in 07 from a 13-3 record in 06. When the starting and back up went down QB, Harbaugh turned to a rookie 1st round choice Joe Flacco. The two led the Ravens to 11-5 record and a wild card spot in the playoffs.
On Jan. 14, 2007 Ken Whisenhunt was hired as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. In 2006 the team had been 5-11 and last in the weak NFC West. In 08 he got the team to 8-8 and second place behind the Seahawks. In 2008 he led the team to 9-7, a NFC West championship and 2 playoff wins. He had been the offensive coordinator of the Steelers for 3 years.
These 4 have had significant success in most cases with a less than quality team. However, two things must be mentioned. First, the record of this group of first time head coaches is not the norm. In total, first year HCs have had a pretty lack luster history. Second, while quick success is nice, will it last? All NFL coaches will be fired at some point. Even those in the Hall of Fame like Paul Brown have been sent packing at some point.
The newest round of hirings of head coaches include both first time HCs and retreads. The Browns hired Eric Mangini who had been fired by the Jets a few days before. My crystal ball tells me that Mangini will do OK and OK will be a great improvement over Romeo Crennel who had no head coaching experience before taking the Browns even further down the tubes. But there are a number of retread coaches with HC experience that are looking for work. Those names include Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan, and Brian Billick all of whom have won Super Bowls. But these 4 teams decided to go the rookie HC route.
Tampa Bay picked Raheem Morris yesterday one day after firing Jon Gruden. Morris who is 32 was discussed yesterday morning on this site. My guess is that Tampa will struggle. Morris had just been selected to be D coordinator and went to get a hair cut for his news conference. When he arrived back at 1 Buccaneer Place, he was the head coach. The Glazer’s said in a press conference that one of the primary reason they selected Morris was that he could relate to the players. That is not the question. The real issue is does he have enough experience to get the respect of the players. Players can tell in the first 10 minutes of the first practice if a coach knows his stuff or not. If Morris isn’t up to the job, the veteran team will eat him alive whether they like him or not. I think Tampa fans are in for a disappointment.
The St. Louis Rams hired Giants DC Steve Spagnuolo as their first time HC. Reportedly, Rex Ryan DC of the Ravens was the teams first choice but owner Chip Rosenbloom decided not to wait for Baltimore to be eliminated from the playoffs. Rosenbloom was also worried that Ryan might opt for the Jets job over that of the Lambs. Spags deserved a lot of credit for the victory of the Giants over the Pats in the Super Bowl. But Spags has only one year of DC experience. Prior to that he had spent 8 years as a defensive position coach with the Eagles. Again I am not convinced he can turn the 2-14 St. Louis Lambs around. While Spags was the top candidate for several jobs, he just doesn’t have the depth of experience to get the most out of a team in desperate need of rebuilding.
Perhaps the best bet to keep his job for more than 4 years is the new head coach of the Lions, Jim Schwartz the Titans defensive coordinator. Schwartz can only hope that the Ford family will give him as many chances as they did for Matt “watch me mess up a franchise” Millen the former GM. Schwartz takes over a team that was historically horrible. It was the only team in NFL history to go 0-16 in a regular season. The biggest problem Schwartz has is the lack of talent both on the field and in the upper management positions of the team. The new executive leadership of the Lions is now in the hands of Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew. Mayhew was the former assistant GM and Lewand was promoted to executive vice president and chief operating officer February 1, 2003. His duties included football administration and player development. In the last 5 season, there has been very little of either. Both of these guys were there while Millen was allowed to run a muck with the roster. That is not a good sign for all 26 Lions fans. Neither of these guys seemed to have enough guts or power to convince the Fords to dump Millen years ago. Millen’s Lions produced the worst 8 year record in NFL history. Those long term problems are not going to be solved by those that were accessories to the carnage. Schwartz has an excellent reputation around the NFL. He was DC with Tennessee for 6 years leading the team to a top 10 finish statistically in almost all those seasons. The Titan defense ended up second in scoring D this season. Defense will be an entirely new concept in Detroit. They haven’t had one in years.
The Broncos replaced Mike Shanahan with Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels had been the Pats OC for only 2 seasons. McDaniels helped fine tune the Pats 07 offense into the highest scoring teams in NFL history. I am sure that having Tom Brady as your QB and Randy Moss and Wes Welker at WR really helped. However, he did have a direct effect on Matt Cassel’s success this season. Of the newbies, I think McDaniels might have the best chance. Unlike when Mangini was hired by the Jets, Bill Belichick gave McDaniels a glowing public reference and wished him the best. However, I am sure that does not include games against the Pats. I expect McDaniels to be fairly successful. However, the Broncos are going to have to get a lot better on defense and more consistent play from their offense to get back to the playoffs.
There are a lot of factors in turning a bad team around. One of the most important is getting the maximum performance out of the talent a coach has. Only time will tell whether the teams that hired first time HC made the right decision. If I am wrong, I will let you know. If they are wrong, it will set their franchises back years.
That’s what I think. Tell me what you think.
Bill Smith is a former coach of several semi-pro teams, has officiated both football and basketball, done color on radio for college football and basketball and has scouted talent. He is a senior writer for NFLDraftDog.com and edits fryingpansports.com. He has also published several novels on and edits .Are teams better off with first time coaches? by Bill Smith