Ready or not: Breaking down new coaches' chances of winning in '09
Eleven NFL teams will have new head coaches next season
Jim Caldwell taking over Colts will be most seamless transition
Chiefs, Rams, Lions all have rebuilding projects ahead
With a nod to the mileage our new president got from one of his signature catch phrases, the idea of change someone can believe in is the goal about this time of year in various venues throughout the NFL. But if it seems like the fresh starts and new regimes came at a dizzying pace this time around, there's good reason.
With Todd Haley installed as the Chiefs new head coach just days after his turn on the Super Bowl stage, a whopping 11 teams have now made a change at the top of their coaching staff since Week 5 of 2008. That's more than one third of the 32-team NFL, and ties 1997's league record for the most coaching movement in any one year (although it bears noting the NFL was a 30-team league at that point).
But it hasn't been just the head coaching ranks that has seen such volatility this year. Six teams enter the 2009 offseason with a new general manager, and that doesn't even include New England, where departed VP of player personnel Scott Pioli has seen his old job split between two men: Nick Caserio and Floyd Reese.
And on the coordinator front, well, you can't tell the players without a scorecard. Twenty-three of the league's 32 teams will wind up replacing at least one coordinator, with 10 clubs featuring two new coordinators. All told, 25 new coordinators already have been hired, with eight more slots still open and waiting to be filled. That's 33 of a potential 64 coordinator slots (more than half) that will be manned by new faces in 2009.
To put it another eye-opening way, there are just nine teams in the league who will start this season with the same three-man head coach/coordinator combination they began 2008 with, and five of those clubs made changes at either head coach or coordinator last offseason (Miami, Washington, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Buffalo). The only four teams in the NFL that have had continuity at those three key positions since 2007 on are Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago and Minnesota. Perhaps not so coincidentally, three of those were playoff teams in 2008, and the fourth missed the postseason by one game.
All that relocation will make for a lot of fresh hope around the NFL this year. But from the vantage point of early February, before the personnel acquisition season begins in earnest later this month, let's identify the new head coaches who have the best possible chance to succeed quickly in 2009. Then again, after last season's overnight rebuilding projects in Miami, Atlanta and Baltimore, do fans have the patience to wait two or three years for the payoff (and the playoffs) any more?
Ready to win from day one
1. Indianapolis -- While you can't make the case that Jim Caldwell's ascension to head coach in the wake of Tony Dungy's retirement has been as seamless as the Colts were hoping for -- not with defensive coordinator Ron Meeks leaving for Carolina and being replaced by Larry Coyer -- Indy still had fewer pieces of the puzzle to change than any other team with a new head coach.
While I'm not prepared to predict the Colts will continue to crank out 12-wins seasons indefinitely, Caldwell's advantages are obvious in Indianapolis: 1. His great familiarity with the players and general manager Bill Polian makes him a known quantity, and means he won't have to go through the feeling-out stage with his team, or be forced into taking bold new steps that provide a dramatic change in culture from the Dungy administration. None are necessary. 2. He has Peyton Manning as his quarterback. And one should never underestimate how much that is worth.
2. New York Jets -- There's a huge caveat to the Jets' inclusion on this list, of course, and it surrounds the question of who plays quarterback for Rex Ryan's team. If it is Brett Favre -- and my hunch is it won't be -- then the Jets are at least in roughly the same position they were in last year. They're a team capable of knocking on the door of the playoffs, and if a break or two goes their way, of making some noise once there.
After all, this is a veteran-laden team just one year removed from dishing out more than $100 million in guarantees as part of its 2008 spending spree, which was a win-now movement if there ever was one. On the other hand, if the Jets wind up playing out the year with Kellen Clemens, Brett Ratliff or Erik Ainge at quarterback, and the inevitable growing pains ensue, the season could take on an entirely different hue.
This much I'm fairly confident of: Ryan will have the Jets defense playing an attacking, aggressive style, which will be eminently popular among his guys on that side of the ball. While I think Ryan is a rookie head coach who's definitely ready for his opportunity, the Jets are a tricky team to forecast because they've got cap issues this offseason and so much rides on who will be throwing the ball.
3. Cleveland -- I talked to one league observer this week who believes Eric Mangini is temperamentally a much better fit in Cleveland than he was under the unforgiving bright lights of New York, and that will translate into a decent shot of having early success. I tend to agree the intense, ultra-focused Mangini will bring a sense of discipline and diligence to a Browns team that was a chaotic mess last season, just as he quickly injected the Jets with renewed purpose as a rookie head coach in 2006.
Mangini should also benefit from inheriting a defense whose players were picked to suit the 3-4 formation he runs. After all, Mangini has experience at taking over a Romeo Crennel defense and winning with it, just as he did in New England in 2005. We're also counting on Mangini's New York tenure to teach him something about what does and doesn't work in the NFL. Our gut tells us he'll be a better, more seasoned head coach this time, with a better radar for separating the important from the non-essential parts of the job. It doesn't hurt a bit that he and Browns owner Randy Lerner already have a well-formed friendship.