New coaches (cont.)
A work in progress
1. Denver -- As tempted as I was to put the Broncos at the bottom of the ready-to-win-now category based on what Josh McDaniels might do with Denver's offense at his disposal, I couldn't justify it due to the truly pathetic state of the Broncos defense. Denver needs to do some major demolition work on that side of the ball, and if new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan does transition to a 3-4 scheme as expected, it's going to take a while to get the necessary parts to make that defense work (just as he experienced when he slowly switched the 49ers to a 3-4 front).
The other thing that bears noting about the speed of McDaniels' learning curve will be that after 14 years of the very autocratic Mike Shanahan era, it's going to take some time for everyone in Denver to adapt and adjust to a new atmosphere and a new way of doing business. Those new mechanics are potentially no small detail.
2. Tampa Bay -- In firing Jon Gruden and elevating Raheem Morris from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator to head coach, all within a month or so, the Glazers have taken the biggest gamble of the NFL's hiring season. And while it has been oft-mentioned that the 32-year-old Morris conjures up comparisons to Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, there are more than a few areas in which the similarities break down.
For starters, Tomlin took over a perennial winner with a proven personnel department, one of the finest defensive assistants in NFL history in coordinator Dick LeBeau, a young and talented Super Bowl-winning quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, and one of the most respected and successful ownership families in the Rooneys. Add in the loyal and absolutely rabid fan base of the Steelers and you have a tremendous head start on winning.
Suffice to say Morris doesn't have quite that combination going for him. In fact, some league sources I talked to this week describe the Bucs as being in disarray at the moment, and wonder if Morris has been given much of a chance to succeed with a team that's getting old defensively. "The problems there [in Tampa Bay] run deeper than people understand,'' said one league source. "I almost feel sorry for Morris, because he's going to be under a tremendous amount of pressure in making that transition to head coach. It won't be easy.''
Morris's Bucs also must deal with uncertainty at quarterback, a first-time general manager in Mark Dominik, two new coordinators after years of Gruden's offense and Monte Kiffin's defense, and playing in one of the NFL's toughest divisions in the NFC South. It's a tall task indeed.
3. San Francisco -- Going 5-4 during his nine-game stint as the team's interim head coach was enough to convince the 49ers to invest in Mike Singletary's long-term future, but now comes the hard part. Singletary had San Francisco (7-9) playing very competitively by season's end, but he has to build on that foundation and prove that his half-year of work was the promise of things to come rather than just a sales job designed to land the position.
Not many interim head coaches wind up surviving to get the fulltime gig, but Singletary managed it in part by showing some real growth over the season's final two-plus months. I believe he'll benefit from his 2008 half-season's worth of experience and know both the landscape and the job description much better this year because of it. Head coaching in today's NFL is largely about people management skills, and delegating the key coaching tasks to the right people, and Singletary seems as if he gets that now.
San Francisco taking the next step in the NFC West depends on whether Shaun Hill is really good enough to win consistently at quarterback, and if the team's long search for yet another offensive coordinator finally yields stability in the hiring of Jimmy Raye.
4. Seattle -- I'm among those who think Jim Mora will be a wiser, more mature version of himself as a second-time head coach in Seattle. His judgment will be better, and he'll make shrewder decisions on which direction to expend his energy and bountiful enthusiasm. The disappointing end of his Atlanta tenure should serve him well in that way, teaching him what not to get caught up in and how to choose his words and his message more carefully.
What exactly Mora is taking over in Seattle is difficult to tell. Is this a team in full-blown transition, badly in need of a post-Mike Holmgren rebuilding job, or was 2008 just an injury-filled aberration unlikely to ever be repeated? The Seahawks reported to training camp last year looking like themselves, but then the injury bug hit at receiver and quarterback and you couldn't even recognize them before long.
5. Oakland -- Will Tom Cable stop the merry-go-round at the Raiders head coaching position? Who can say, but Oakland's 5-11 finish last season at least included a bit of hope for a change. The Raiders won their final two games, and went 4-8 in Cable's 12-game interim stint, pulling significant upsets at Denver and Tampa Bay in the season's second half.
Another encouraging sign was that 2007 No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell started looking like an NFL quarterback in the season's final month, and if he emerges as a steady play-making presence in his third NFL year, Oakland could improve fairly dramatically. The AFC West was won by the 8-8 Chargers last season, so the Raiders' aren't light-years away from contention.
To his credit, Cable had his team playing with intensity late in a season that started disastrously in Oakland, with the specter of the Lane Kiffin-Al Davis feud looming over everything. If he can manage to bring anything positive forth from that poisonous atmosphere, a typical regular season might seem a magic carpet ride by comparison.
Going to take some time
1. Kansas City -- If you close your eyes and squint, you can at least imagine a scenario where the 2009 Chiefs are the Falcons of a year ago. Atlanta in 2008 went with a new head coach, a new general manager, a new starting quarterback, a new lead running back and a new kicker -- and every move paid off spectacularly. I'm not sure that's ever happened before just like it did for the Falcons, but what an instant payoff Atlanta enjoyed.
OK, so the Chiefs only have the new general manager who used to work for the Patriots (Pioli) and the rookie head coach (Haley) part of the Falcons' one-year rebuilding formula down so far, but they do hold the No. 3 pick in the draft, just like Atlanta did a year ago. And we could see a rookie quarterback (Georgia's Matthew Stafford) and a new running back (goodbye, Larry Johnson) on their way to town too.
2. St. Louis -- Winning with the Rams figures to be difficult for a while yet, mainly because the organization is going through such significant restructuring internally while waiting to be sold. While rookie head coach Steve Spagnuolo begins the process of turning over a rapidly-aging roster in key spots, you've got St. Louis responding to the departure of team president John Shaw and general manager Jay Zygmunt, and the installation of temporary (for now, at least) general manager Billy Devaney. That's a lot of change and uncertainty to overcome.
The Rams need to figure out what they still have in quarterback Marc Bulger, who has absorbed a brutal pounding in recent years and no longer resembles the franchise talent of the late Mike Martz era. Spagnuolo likely will concentrate on building a defense that can make the Rams competitive in most games, and then try to ride running back Steven Jackson's talents on offense.
3. Detroit -- Plenty of teams have approached a rebuilding program with a nowhere-to-go-but-up mentality, but the 0-16 Lions are the first team to really mean it. Rookie head coach Jim Schwartz might get a Coach of the Year groundswell going just by showing up for work, such was the prevailing desultory atmosphere in Detroit during the 1-23 drawdown of the Rod Marinelli era over the past season and a half.
Schwartz is smart and analytical, and yet he's not afraid of letting his emotions show either. That's one reason I like his picks at coordinator, because they kind of mirror those two approaches with the brainy Scott Linehan on offense and the fiery Gunther Cunningham on defense.
The Lions have too many needs to fill in just one year, but with the No. 1 pick that they own in April's draft, they at least have the ability to add a major building block and maybe begin charting a new course for themselves. They don't have to hit a grand slam with the No. 1, but they absolutely can't miss, a'la most of those Matt Millen drafts from earlier this decade. Baby steps are the order of the day in Detroit.