Breaking down nine rookie head coaches after NFL annual meeting
Of the record-tying 11 new head coaches, nine will be top dog for the first time
The NFL annual meeting provided our author a chance to get to know all nine
Insights and breakdown on Josh McDaniel, Rex Ryan, Jim Schwartz and more
There has never been an influx of new faces to the NFL head coaching ranks on par with what we're seeing in 2009. Seattle and Cleveland gave Jim Mora and Eric Mangini second chances at the top job, respectively, but of the 11 record-tying new head coaches, nine will be calling the shots full time for an NFL team for the first time.
At this time last year we were just getting to know first-timers John Harbaugh (Baltimore), Mike Smith (Atlanta), Tony Sparano (Miami) and Jim Zorn (Washington), but there are more than twice that many rookie head coaches to watch and learn about this season. So I spent as much time as I could listening to and talking with the new guys at last week's annual NFL meeting, where head coaches and the media get to breakfast together on back-to-back mornings.
Here are some quick-hit observations and topical snippets I gleaned while table-hopping among the nine new members of one of the most exclusive clubs in the entire sports world:
Josh McDaniels, Denver
Thanks to the Jay Cutler saga, nobody has undergone anything remotely approaching the indoctrination by fire that McDaniels has in his first months on the job. The other eight rookie head coaches combined haven't spent as much time under the microscope as the fresh-faced, 32-year-old, former Patriots offensive coordinator.
To be sure, McDaniels deserves blame for some of the Cutler drama, but watching McDaniels as he endured more than a half-hour of non-stop Cutler questioning last Tuesday morning made me think he won't blink easily in the face of pressure. I also got the distinct impression that he picked up more than a few crisis-management survival skills from being in close proximity to Bill Belichick during 2007's never-ending Spy-gate controversy.
One of the most revealing things I heard McDaniels say came about 15 or 20 minutes into the grilling, when one veteran reporter asked if he was now willing to declare Cutler "untouchable" via trade. After all the grief McDaniels has endured since briefly -- and publicly -- considering a trade for his starting quarterback, it would have been easy for him to let down his guard for a minute, call Cutler an "untouchable" and try one last time to move his new team on from the story that won't go away. But he didn't, even though the Broncos really don't want to trade Cutler at this point.
"I think I would be contradicting myself if I said that," McDaniels said, matter of factly. "Like I said, he's our quarterback. We're committed to him and we will always do what's in the best interest of our team."
I liked that answer, particularly his special emphasis on the word "and," because nobody's job in the NFL is 100 percent guaranteed all the time. Other than maybe Jerry Jones', that is.
Todd Haley, Kansas City
The Chiefs' head coach was the last guy to land a new gig on this year's coaching carousel, and I still have to catch myself when I start typing the words "Arizona" or "Cardinals" in front of his name. Even after covering this year's Super Bowl and seeing him all week in Tampa, I didn't find Haley all that recognizable at the NFL annual meeting. He still has a bit of a look in his eyes that says, "I can't believe all this has really happened." But he seems to have a good handle on where he wants to take the Chiefs, and he's open to any good idea that will help Kansas City improve upon its NFL-worst six wins over the past two years.
Someone asked Haley how a guy from the Bill Parcells coaching tree could feature the spread offense, as Arizona did for much of last season. Parcells teams are known for being able to bludgeon a team with the running games when they have to, and the Cardinals, especially in the regular season, were never a threat to pound the ball against anyone last year.
"What I came out of it with Parcells is to play the way that gives you the best chance to win," Haley said. "Don't be so system-oriented that you're trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Do what your players do best. These last two years [in Arizona], with no tight end, or a tight end who's hurt, and a quarterback who clearly liked to see things spread out [Kurt Warner], it was a natural gravitation. We haven't really conversed a whole bunch about the style of offense we'll play [in Kansas City]. Intentionally."
That's because Haley doesn't know his Chiefs players and all their strengths and weaknesses just yet. But he knows enough to realize the best coaches aren't the ones who walk in the door forcing their philosophy upon the roster. They're the ones who learn what their roster can or cannot do, and then adapt and adjust their approach to what gives their players the best chance to win. Haley gets that, and believe it or not, that's not all that common in the NFL.
Rex Ryan, New York Jets
Ryan likes to play the role of the guy who shoots from the hip and says whatever's on his mind, as did his famous coaching father. But what is sometimes overlooked about Ryan is that he's very smart and calculating as well, and rarely says anything without having a motive or a method to his madness.
Case in point: He keeps talking up the Jets' lightly experienced three-man quarterback depth chart, even though most observers don't seem to share his enthusiasm for the Kellen Clemens, Brett Ratliff and Erik Ainge trio.
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