No experience necessary
NFL embraces fresh faces in latest coaching hires
Posted: Tuesday February 12, 2008 12:39PM; Updated: Tuesday February 12, 2008 1:59PM
Now that Washington's bizarrely conducted coaching search has concluded with perhaps the fastest promotion in the history of the NFL -- Jim Zorn went from newly hired Redskins offensive coordinator to head coach in a couple weeks -- the theme behind this year's crop of coaching hires is: The cleaner the better.
As in blank canvases are better canvases, because there are no previous pock marks or mistakes that require covering up. Not only did the four teams looking for a head coach this offseason shy away from candidates with past head coaching experience (Hello, Jim Fassel), they wound up largely avoiding the tried and true practice of identifying and landing the promising coordinators around the NFL. Consider the final results:
Miami hired Dallas assistant Tony Sparano, who has never coordinated in the NFL, and whose only head coaching experience came at NCAA Division II New Haven from 1994-98.
Baltimore hired Philadelphia assistant John Harbaugh, who has never coordinated in the NFL and made his name leading the Eagles special teams units from '98-2006.
Washington hired Seattle assistant Jim Zorn, who has never been a head coach, coordinator or play-caller in the NFL, and whose only experience as an offensive coordinator came at Utah State from '92-94.
Atlanta hired Jacksonville assistant Mike Smith, whose five-season stint as the Jaguars' defensive coordinator ('03-07) bucked this year's trend, but never resulted in him being widely recognized as anything other than the executor of head coach Jack Del Rio's defensive blueprint.
Juxtapose those additions with the following facts about what many consider the world's most exclusive 32-member club: In the five previous NFL offseasons ('03-07), 31 of the 32 head coaching vacancies were filled by candidates who previously had been either a head coach or a coordinator in the NFL or in a major college program. The lone exception to that was Detroit's hiring of longtime Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli in '06.
True, that five-year sampling includes some lightly experienced and trend-setting hires such as then 31-year-old Lane Kiffin in Oakland, the youthful Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, and Eric Mangini of the Jets. But Tomlin and Mangini at least had one season of NFL coordinating under their belts when their promotions came, and Kiffin had served as Pete Carroll's offensive coordinator at Southern Cal, which is, in essence, the NFL's 33rd franchise.
What in the name of Ray Handley is going on here? In the 17 NFL coaching jobs that were filled the previous two offseasons, hot coordinator hires or ex-head coaches were plentiful. The former coordinators in that group included Ken Whisenhunt (Arizona), Cam Cameron (Miami), Tomlin, Kiffin, Gary Kubiak (Houston), Mike McCarthy (Green Bay), Brad Childress (Minnesota), Sean Payton (New Orleans), Scott Linehan (St. Louis) and Mangini. The ex-head coach factor included the likes of Wade Phillips (Dallas), Norv Turner (San Diego), Bobby Petrino (Atlanta), Dick Jauron (Buffalo), Herm Edwards (Kansas City) and Art Shell (Oakland).
But teams were clearly looking for something a bit different this year. I talked to one head coaching candidate within the league who ripped an analogy of this year's hirings straight from the coverage of this year's presidential campaigns.
"To me, the whole run on these head coaches this year is a little like Barack Obama's candidacy,'' the coach said. "The experience factor may be light, but these guys who don't even have any coordinating experience, they're squeaky clean. They don't have any negatives that you can attack. The interesting thing is that their lack of a track record is actually seen as a positive.
"I can't help but think that if a guy is that clean, he sells better. If you have no blemishes, you can mold them and spin them to your fans and the media any way you want. Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War because she was in the Senate at the time, and if she hadn't, she probably would have been labeled a traitor. But it's still being held against her, while Obama didn't have to cast a vote, so he can say he was against the war from the very start.''
Digging even a little deeper, you can see that each of the four openings this year were unique in their own way. The Dolphins, Falcons, Ravens and Redskins were all looking for something a little different, befitting their own particular circumstances.