Who are the NFL's 10 best coordinator/play-caller hires of 2014?
You might have noticed, but there are no slow-paced years on the NFL's coaching carousel any more. No pendulum swings to the calmer side of the hiring/firing cycle. Every year spawns a furious reshuffling of staffs, and nowhere is the turnover more consistently active than at the coordinator level.
By my count there will be 10 new defensive coordinators at work in 2014, and 13 new offensive coordinators, or coaches charged with the duty of being their team's play-caller, as in the case of new Dallas passing game coordinator Scott Linehan and Houston's first-year head coach Bill O'Brien, who will serve as his own OC this season, as he did at Penn State.
That means the new blood extends far beyond the league's seven new head coaching hires. Roughly half the league (15 teams) will have at least one new coordinator this year, and eight teams will have two new coordinators and/or play-callers. Change can be good, but not all good. Here are the NFL's 10 best coordinator/play-caller hires of 2014, as the league's long offseason gets underway for all 32 teams:
1. Gregg Williams, St. Louis, defensive coordinator -- Obviously Williams nearly ruined his career and once-stellar reputation for coaching defense with that frequent-maimer rewards program (we're not using the B word) he ran for his players in New Orleans from 2009-11. But after a year of penance out of the game and a strong season of career rehab work in Tennessee, where he assisted Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, Williams was a shrewd hire by Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, who clearly is under pressure to win more than seven games and get St. Louis over the hump next season, his third on the job.
In the heavyweight division known as the NFC West, where the defenses in Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona aren't messing around, last-place St. Louis has to make sure it can hold its own. The Rams have loads of talent in the defensive front seven, but everyone in the division does. All four teams in the NFC West finished in the top nine against the run, and top 13 in scoring defense. All but the Rams were in the top 14 in pass defense as well. Williams and his aggressive, edgy coaching mindset will be a nice fit with the physical style of play in the division, but he certainly knows where the line is drawn post-New Orleans. Some of Fisher's best defenses in Tennessee were with Williams as his coordinator, and both men see the potential for a renewal of that success.
2-3. Rod Marinelli, Dallas, defensive coordinator, and Scott Linehan, Dallas, passing game coordinator and play-caller -- I'm lumping the Cowboys' two moves together because it's such a strange brew that Dallas is concocting with its coaching staff. On one hand, I consider Marinelli and Linehan to be clear-cut upgrades from Monte Kiffin, who was bumped up to more of an oversight role as assistant head coach/defense, and Bill Callahan, who will keep the offensive coordinator/offensive line coach title, but no longer call plays. But on the other hand, embattled head coach Jason Garrett now has three former NFL head coaches on staff (Marinelli, Linehan and Callahan), all of whom could be candidates to replace him on an interim basis at any downtrending moment in 2014. That's so Dallas.
But elevating Marinelli from defensive line coach to coordinator was absolutely the right call. Under Kiffin, Dallas switched to a 4-3 defense in 2013 and finished last in the NFL in defense, surrendering the most yards in franchise history (6,645, third most in league history), the second-most points in Dallas history (432) and a whopping 388 first downs, second-most in league history. Yes, there were injuries to work around on defense, but Kiffin did little to stop the bleeding.
Marinelli did better work in Chicago from 2010-12 than most remember, with the Bears scoring the most defensive touchdowns (13) and forcing the most fumbles (59) in the league in that span, with the third-most interceptions (65) and fourth-fewest points allowed (904). With just a little more defense, the 2013 Cowboys would have won the weak NFC East and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Linehan becomes the Cowboys' third play-caller in three years, but he's done quality work in the offensive coordinator role in both Minnesota and Detroit in his coaching career, and has shown skill and imagination in putting together game plans built around the passing game. Tony Romo and Co. should love his play-calling approach, and after working with Calvin Johnson with the Lions, Linehan will know how to feature Dez Bryant on gameday. Under the play-calling of both Garrett and Callahan, the Cowboys were explosive but far too inconsistent.
4. Ray Horton, Tennessee, defensive coordinator -- Horton's one season spent as Cleveland's defensive coordinator probably didn't enhance his resume, but when has that ever been the case for anyone spending time with the perpetually struggling Browns? Cleveland's defense started far stronger than it finished last year, but the Browns still finished ninth in the league in yards allowed, after being 23rd in that category in 2012.
New Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt knows what he's getting in Horton, having had him on staff as defensive coordinator for his final two years in Arizona in 2011-12. The Cardinals defense took significant steps toward improvement both years, finishing 12th in yards allowed, ranking second-best in the league on third downs, first in passer rating (71.2), second in interceptions (22) and fifth in takeaways (33) all in 2012.
Horton coaches an aggressive, player-friendly style of defense, and his expertise in the defensive backfield almost always translates into better pass defense and increased emphasis on takeaways by his team.
5. Ben McAdoo, New York Giants, offensive coordinator -- The Giants aren't known for risk-taking or trend-setting outside-the-box thinking as an organization, but I like the chance they're taking on McAdoo, the 36-year-old first-time coordinator who replaces the retired Kevin Gilbride. Under Gilbride, New York's offense last season was predictable and stale, and McAdoo's fresh perspective should inject some much-needed life into the attack. After 10 years of the Tom Coughlin era, the offense is in desperate need of a makeover.
McAdoo is a former Green Bay quarterbacks coach and his main priority is obvious: restoring Eli Manning's faltering game to its Super Bowl-winning level. Manning threw a league- and career-high 27 interceptions last season, and forced way too many throws that ended up costing the offensively-challenged Giants. McAdoo comes with a seal of approval from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and is steeped in the West Coast-based offense of Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy, with whom he has spent the past nine seasons in both San Francisco and Green Bay. Likened to a young Andy Reid, McAdoo will have Manning getting the ball out quickly and accurately in an attempt to hit receivers in stride and allow them to gain significant chunks of yardage after the catch.
It should be a new and exciting way of doing business for a Giants offense that finally ran out of gas in 2013.
6. Norv Turner, Minnesota, offensive coordinator -- I have little doubt new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and his new defensive coordinator, George Edwards, will vastly improve the performance of a Minnesota defense that surrendered a league-worst 30 points per game in 2013. But the problem that hasn't gone away for the Vikings since Brett Favre retired has been Minnesota's lack of upper-tier quarterbacking, and how one-dimensional that has made the offense, led by the incomparable Adrian Peterson and the running game.
The Vikings almost assuredly will draft a new franchise quarterback with their No. 8 overall pick, and having an ultra-experienced offensive coach like Turner on hand to help him transition to the NFL at least gives Zimmer and staff a chance to succeed early. Turner will not forget about Peterson, but he'll be more focused on getting the ball downfield in the passing game than recent Vikings offensive coordinators. He couldn't make much of Brandon Weeden in Cleveland last year, but Turner did get decent play and production from the likes of journeymen such as Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell. That's worth instant respect right there.
7. Jeff Tedford, Tampa Bay, offensive coordinator -- Tedford's lack of NFL track record and his mixed record of producing NFL-ready quarterbacks while serving as head coach at Cal (you say Aaron Rodgers, I say Kyle Boller) scares some, and that's understandable. But he has a pretty extensive record of being able to identify and utilize offensive talent, both at the college level and in the CFL (where he played and coached), and I don't see his lack of play-calling experience in the NFL portending another Jeff Jagodzinski-like flameout.
In his college coaching years, Tedford put the likes of Rodgers, Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith and Boller in position to succeed in his offense, earning them first-round draft status in the NFL. Two of those guys did win Super Bowls, so .500 is not the worst batting average you could have in that regard. The Bucs need some juice on offense, where they finished last overall in the league, and it's all the more imperative that they build on the very solid first-year success of third-round quarterback Mike Glennon. Getting production from passers is Tedford's forte. With head coach Lovie Smith known for his defensive acumen, the Bucs have taken a calculated risk -- but a smart one -- that Tedford's ready for his new role.
8. Jim Schwartz, Buffalo, defensive coordinator -- Losing first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to the Cleveland, where he'll be head coach, was a blow to the Buffalo defense, which played pretty stout ball for the ex-Jets assistant in 2013. The Bills had four Pro Bowl players on defense -- Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Jarius Byrd, Marcell Dareus -- and the runner-up in the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year race, linebacker Kiko Alonso. Williams especially blossomed under Pettine, with 13 sacks, helping Buffalo get some return on its investment in the 2012 free-agent defensive end.
But before his Detroit head coaching tenure unraveled after five eventful seasons, Schwartz was considered one of the brightest and most resourceful defensive coordinators in the league under Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, and he always had the knack for getting his guys motivated and playing hard. Even Albert Haynesworth in a non-contract year. Bottom line? The Bills could have done a whole lot worse than Schwartz, who should be quite motivated himself, eager as you would think he is to do standout work in Buffalo and perhaps earn a second head-coaching opportunity.
9. Gary Kubiak, Baltimore, offensive coordinator -- Kubiak is one of four 2013 head coaches who have rotated back into assistant roles this year, joining Schwartz, new Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and new Pittsburgh offensive line coach Mike Munchak. The good news for the ex-Texans head coach? He has a low bar of expectation set for him in Baltimore, after the Ravens offense disintegrated last season, finishing 29th in yards, averaging only 3.1 rushing yards per carry (the NFL's lowest since 2007) and scoring 20 points per game.
Kubiak couldn't fix Matt Schaub and his pick-six throwing ways last season in Houston, but he has more to work with in Joe Flacco. The former Super Bowl MVP tossed a career-high 22 interceptions in 2013, but he's not an inaccurate passer. Last year's woes were mainly the result of his shoddy pass protection, the lack of a running game and the loss of Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta as reliable receiving options.
For years Kubiak was a successful offensive coordinator in Denver under Mike Shanahan. After Houston hired Kubiak, his Texans ranked in the top 10 offensively in six of his eight seasons with the franchise, showing the ability to both throw and run their way to victory. If Kubiak helped the likes of Brian Griese, Jake Plummer and Schaub lead playoff teams, he should be able to get Flacco's issues corrected and help return Baltimore to playoff contention in the AFC North.
10. Romeo Crennel, Houston, defensive coordinator -- New Texans head coach Bill O'Brien will intently focus on his team's offense, serving as his own offensive coordinator and play-caller, at least in his first season in Houston. Love that call, because O'Brien knows his stuff and will resurrect a Texans offense that went off the rails last season, providing the draft brings a starting quarterback to build around.
But that's why Houston desperately needed an old hand to run the defense, and there aren't many men in the NFL with more coaching experience than Crennel, who's been everywhere and done everything. The Texans could have retained Wade Phillips, but with O'Brien understandably opting for a clean break from the past, Crennel was a no-brainer.
Crennel's two head coaching stints, in Cleveland and Kansas City, didn't work out. But no one ever accused him of not knowing how to get the best out of the guys on his side of the ball. Players love playing for him, he invariably finds out how to put them in the best possible position to succeed, and he and O'Brien both bring toughness and their experience in teaching things the Patriot Way to Houston. Abundant playmaking talent is already on the Texans' roster, and Phillips showed how much could be done with it in a 3-4 defensive formation. Crennel will make for a seamless transition.