Eight NFL coaches were fired after the regular season. Less than a month later, all have been replaced.
The coaches fired were: Ken Whisenhunt of the Arizona Cardinals; Chan Gailey of the Buffalo Bills; Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears; Pat Shurmur of the Cleveland Browns; Mike Mularkey of the Jacksonville Jaguars; Romeo Crennel of the Kansas City Chiefs; Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles; and Norv Turner of the San Diego Chargers.
The combined regular-season record of those coaches with those franchises was 343-331-1 – three of them took their teams to the Super Bowl. None of them ever won a Super Bowl, however. That is why they were fired. The NFL is not a league in which second-best is acceptable for long. With only 32 franchises in a league that works for parity, changing a head coach can dramatically improve a team's fortunes. In fact, both of the coaches who will take part in the Super Bowl this year, John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens and his brother Jim, of the San Francisco 49ers, were hired within the last five seasons. That is why there is plenty of optimism surrounding each of the franchises who have hired new coaches.
Each new coach will bring to their team qualities and beliefs that were deemed absent under the previous regime.
Arizona – Bruce Arians
Arians has been coaching professionally since 1975 and has had two spells as a head coach. The first began all the way back in 1983 – he spent six seasons in charge of a college football team, Temple. He had a 27-39 record on the field, but an NCAA adjusted record of 22-44 – the college forfeited victories due to off-field violations by their star running-back. For the next 23 years, Arians filled various roles in college and professional football.
Having overseen the development of Peyton Manning when he entered the league, the Indianapolis Colts hired Arians to do the same with rookie sensation Andrew Luck in 2012. Arians filled that role until week four, but then head coach Chuck Pagano was hospitalised with cancer. Pagano would miss the next 12 games. By the time Pagano returned, Arians had wrapped up an unexpected playoff spot. As the team's interim head coach, the 60-year-old steadied a tumultuous situation and accumulated a 9-3 record with a team that had only won three of their previous 19 games.
Hiring Arians is a brave move by the Cardinals. He offers similar promise to Whisenhunt; in fact, this is the second time in six seasons that Arians has succeeded Whisenhunt, having become the Steelers' offensive coordinator after Whisenhunt left Pittsburgh for Arizona in 2007.
Arians' work with top quarterbacks should provide plenty of optimism. He has played a key role in the development of Manning, Luck and Ben Roethlisberger, and many of the Cardinals' recent struggles can be traced back to Whisenhunt's inability to replace Kurt Warner. The Cardinals also need major changes on the offensive line, having allowed the most sacks in the NFL last season. Arians' offenses over the past six years, however, have always ranked in the bottom 10 in the league, giving up 272 sacks. Much of that can be attributed to Arians' aggressive approach to the passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger had the eighth most pass attempts of 20 or more yards in his last season under Arians, while Luck led the way last year as the only quarterback with at least 100 attempts of 20 or more yards.
To help improve the offensive line in Arizona, Arians is taking the peculiar route of hiring more than one offensive line coach.
The departure of defensive coordinator Ray Horton will mean some adjustment will be needed. Horton excelled with the Cardinals over the past two seasons, but left after a heated exchange with the new general manager, Steve Keim. Todd Bowles of the Philadelphia Eagles is expected to be the new defensive coordinator. Bowles has very limited experience, and it's hard to judge his work in a difficult situation with the Eagles last year, but he is considered to be a promising young coach.
At the very least, Larry Fitzgerald approves of the hire.
Buffalo – Doug Marrone
Marrone has been head coach of the Syracuse college team for four seasons, compiling an underwhelming record of 25-25. However, Marrone completely changed the culture in an organization that had gone 10-37 over the previous four seasons. That's the kind of turnaround the Bills are hoping for. Last season was the franchise's eighth consecutive losing season and their fifth in a row placing last in the AFC East. Marrone shouldn't be intimidated by the prospect of building from the bottom up.
Marrone has never been a head coach at the professional level, but he was the offensive line coach of the New York Jets (2002-2005) and the offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints (2006-2008). His work in New Orleans is most significant, as he played a major part in creating the first top-ranked offense in the franchise's long history. His success in this area comes from year's of experience: offensive line coach at the US Coast Guard Academy, Northeastern University, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Tennessee (offensive tackles only) before being hired by the Jets. The offensive line isn't the problem that needs solving in Buffalo, although Marrone's watchful eye could push their young talent to greater heights. Instead, Marrone will need to make better use of running-backs CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson than Chan Gailey ever did, while replacing or repairing quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Considering his experience in the NFL, it's very possible that Marrone will implement a system similar to the one with which the Saints won the Super Bowl. Even though he wasn't with the team in 2009, he will have watched how head coach Sean Payton handed over the majority of his team's defensive responsibilities to Gregg Williams. A similar approach would allow Marrone to entrust the defense to new recruit Mike Pettine. Pettine had been the Jets' defensive coordinator for the past four seasons, having worked with Rex Ryan before that at Baltimore. The Jets didn't want to lose Pettine, but the 46-year-old needed to escape the shadow of Ryan. In Buffalo he will be able to give the defense an identity and Marrone has hinted at letting him run the various formations he ran in New York.
Chicago Bears – Marc Trestman
Lovie Smith was fired after a 10-6 season, partially because of his inability to craft a successful offense. Therefore it is little surprise that the Bears replaced him with an offensive-minded head coach. What was a surprise was who and where they signed that coach from: Marc Trestman has coached in Canada for the past five seasons, with the Montreal Alouettes. The Alouettes won four division titles and went to three Grey Cups, winning two. At 57, this is Trestman's first head-coaching job in the NFL, but he does have 17 years of coaching quarterbacks, running backs and as an assistant head coach in the NFL.
It's difficult to know what to expect from Trestman, because the Canadian league carries a different set of rules. It is clear that he values the quarterback position as much as any other coach. Trestman told the assembled media at his introductory press conference:
"The No1 marriage in all of sports is between the quarterback and his coach. The quarterback is going to have the keys to the car... [Bears QB] Jay [Cutler] is not a first-year player coming in."
Cutler seemingly welcomes the added responsibility, as he took part in the process to chose the next head coach. Trestman also spoke extensively about situational football and assembling a high-quality staff, so it is no surprise that some scouts are already comparing him to Bill Belichick. Just like Belichick, he will need to carry his reputation as a hard worker into the NFL.
Belichick is known for his attention to detail, so Trestman has made a good start if he is to prove those comparisons true with the addition of Aaron Kromer. Kromer was the offensive line coach for the Saints from 2009 to 2012, and spent the first six games of the 2012 season as the franchise's interim head coach. Kromer will be the Bears' offensive coordinator, but his primary responsibility will be fixing the offensive line. The Bears don't have a huge amount of talent up front, so finding someone who can get the best out of what he has is an astute choice. Kromer also fits in with Trestman's idea to put the offense more on Cutler. During the three years when Kromer was with the Saints' offense, Drew Brees attempted more than 650 passes each season. The Saints also spread the field significantly more than the Bears did last year. They had at least three receivers on the field 48.3% of the time compared to the Bears' 40.8%, according to Pro Football Focus.
Cleveland Browns – Rob Chudzinski
Jimmy Haslam may be a new owner for the Browns, but he brought in an old coach. Chudzinski was the offensive coordinator for the Browns from 2007-2008 as well as a tight ends coach in 2004. He had two spells with the San Diego Chargers in between, before becoming the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator in 2011. His first season in Carolina saw the Panthers go from the last-ranked offense in the NFL to a top-10 unit in both yards and points. That coincided with the arrival of quarterback Cam Newton, who enjoyed a record-breaking rookie season, and the Panthers fell off somewhat during Chudzinski's second season. Some of that could be attributed to the work of the general manager, who was fired mid-season, and the regression of Newton's performances.
Chudzinski is only 44 and this is his first head-coaching position at any level. He has been a coach since 1994, when he was a graduate assistant at the University of Miami. Crucially, the Browns have hired two coordinators with experience to ease his transition. Norv Turner may have failed as a head coach in San Diego with the Chargers, but he has a proven track record as an effective offensive coordinator. Turner has also worked with Chudzinski before. The other coordinator is the former Cardinals and Steelers coach Ray Horton. Horton was thought to be a hot candidate on the head-coach market – he definitely thought he was – but he missed out. Horton is considered to be a fiery coach, which should fit with the players on an aggressive Browns' defense. He learned his trade under Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh and ran a 3-4 in Arizona, but isn't the type of coach who is scheme reliant.
The Browns' roster has plenty of young talent: Star cornerback Joe Haden, emerging running-back Trent Richardson, wide receivers Josh Gordon, Greg Little, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, defensive tackle Phil Taylor, a group of excellent young offensive linemen and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson give Chudzinski a base to build on. Having two proven coordinators means that he is in a good position to succeed, but will also be under pressure to perform sooner rather than later.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Gus Bradley
The Jacksonville Jaguars fired general manager Gene Smith after five seasons without a winning record. Smith was replaced by David Caldwell, who decided to fire head coach Mike Mularkey. In Mularkey's place, the Jags hired Bradley, a former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator. The Jaguars have trusted a first-time general manager to make an against-the-grain hire, as Bradley is the only head coach hired this off-season with a defensive background.
That said, Jaguars fans shouldn't be disappointed with their new regime. Caldwell has already ruled out Tim Tebow:
"I can't imagine a scenario where he'd be a Jacksonville Jaguar. I have others in mind [and I'm] comfortable with what's here."
Caldwell understands that he has hired a primarily defensive-minded coach, so he is taking the responsibility of finding him a franchise quarterback. This should be the way the Jaguars move forward. Caldwell handling almost all personnel matters, allowing Bradley to focus on coaching.
For the past four seasons Bradley has been the defensive coordinator of Pete Carroll's defense in Seattle and he has developed that unit into arguably the best in the league. John Schneider, the Seahawks' general manager, searched far and wide for all kinds of raw talent that Bradley then crafted into an elite defense. Bradley was able to do this thanks to his ability to enlighten those around him and his understanding of the game.
He has relatively little experience in the NFL and next-to-no experience working on the offensive side of the ball. He has hired a former colleague, Jedd Fisch, from college football to be the Jaguars' offensive coordinator. Bradley worked with Fisch in 2010 when he was the quarterbacks coach for the Seahawks. His other professional experience coaching offense came as an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens from 2004 to 2007 and as the Denver Broncos' wide receivers coach in 2008. Fisch was the play-caller and quarterbacks coach for the Miami Hurricanes offense for the past two seasons, running a group that was consistently one of the most efficient in the country. Most importantly, he ran a pro-style offense in college and that will allow him to easily transfer to the NFL. What needs to be determined, however, is just how much control he and Bradley will share on that side of the football.
Kansas City Chiefs – Andy Reid
There may not be much to say about Andy Reid that you haven't already heard. Reid spent 14 seasons as the Philadelphia Eagles' head coach. He finished that tenure with a 130-93-1 record in the regular season and a 10-9 record in the playoffs. Before the revamp of the whole franchise (something Reid was heavily involved in) two years ago, the Eagles had a record of 128-73-1 in the regular season, appeared in the playoffs nine times, had the most wins in franchise history, the best winning percentage in franchise history, the most playoff wins in franchise history, appeared in five consecutive NFL championship games, made it to one Super Bowl and won NFL coach of the year honors three times. Reid was the longest-serving NFL head coach at the time of his dismissal, playing in front of arguably the toughest audience each season. Prior to being the Eagles head coach, he was an offensive coach for the Green Bay Packers and spent time at various colleges. He brings a wealth of winning experience and is still only 55.
Reid should be the perfect fit for the Chiefs. He has consistently proven capable of getting production from the quarterback, whether it be Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick or to lesser extents Kevin Kolb and Nick Foles. Even though none of those players were superstars, they did play their best football when in Reid's system. The Chiefs were desperate to sign Reid, so much so that they stole him from under the nose of the Cardinals, largely because of his track record with quarterbacks. Many of the Chiefs' recent problems stem from the quarterback position. A roster loaded with individual talent has been held back by the quarterback.
The Chiefs have run rigid, tight offensive systems in recent seasons, but Reid will look to spread the field out and ask more questions of the opposition. That should put elusive playmakers such as Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster in space, while getting Jonathan Baldwin and Dwayne Bowe (should he re-sign as a free agent) better matchups against defensive backs.
Reid is less certain on the other side of the football and his best years came when the late, great Jim Johnson ran his defense in Philadelphia. Johnson ran a very aggressive defensive scheme. However, the Eagles were unable to replace him and Reid's lack of defensive expertise culminated in the hiring (and firing) of his then offensive line coach, Juan Castillo, to be his defensive coordinator in 2011. Reid was so separated from his defense that there were even unnecessary issues between the coaches on that side of the ball.
Reid, nonetheless, is a smart coach who made a very smart decision when he hired Bob Sutton to run a 3-4 defense in Kansas City. Reid has always played with a 4-3, but the Chiefs had spent a lot of valuable time developing their personnel to fit the 3-4.
Philadelphia Eagles – Chip Kelly
Andy Reid actually played a part in helping the franchise find his successor. Kelly was probably the most sought-after coach following his four very successful seasons as Oregon head coach. He had instant success when he took over in 2009, finishing with a 10-3 record. Kelly won 12 games in each of his next three seasons to finish with a 46-7 record and a 2-2 record in bowl games. He did take over a very good program, but it was also one that he had been a part of for two seasons as the offensive coordinator. Offense is where Kelly has built his reputation.
He didn't have much of a career prior to making his name at Oregon. He filled minor roles for Columbia, New Hampshire and Johns Hopkins, none of which are major programs and had to wait 17 years to get his chance at Oregon, but quickly established himself as a guru. During his first season as offensive coordinator Kelly's unit set a school record for total yards in a season, when they averaged an incredible 467.5 yards and 38.2 points per game. The following year, 2008, he broke his own records with 41.9 points per game and 484.8 yards per game. Kelly became the head coach the following season, winning the Pac-10 coach of the year, and led his team to the prestigious Rose Bowl. In 2010, Oregon finished 12-0 before playing in the biggest game college football has to offer, the BCS Championship game. They lost to Auburn but that didn't stop Kelly from winning the AFCA coach of the year award and the AP coach of the year award.
Kelly would continue to win games and awards over the next two seasons. He has always run a spread attack, something that is not revolutionary on it's own, but his ability to run his offense at an overwhelming tempo quickly created incredible results. Kelly's approach was so intriguing that the New England Patriots eventually adapted his no-huddle offense, scoring 557 points this season. The offense itself is not too different from that run by the San Francisco 49ers or Washington Redskins, but it is the execution that has set Kelly apart.
Pat Shurmur will be the team's new offensive coordinator, but that is more a title than a role. Shurmur should be thought of as a head coach assistant because Kelly will be the team's head coach and offensive coordinator.
Kelly focused solely on offense in college. Nick Aliotti, his defensive coordinator at Oregon, had this to say when recently questioned about Kelly's involvement on defense:
"Chip has not said one word to me on the headset in four years as a head coach... He's never been in a meeting, he's never questioned a call. He's never said anything when we've played badly. He doesn't say a whole lot when we've played well. He's left me completely alone. Its been unbelievable autonomy".
This is something that can work on the college level, but in the NFL he will have to be involved in the discussions about what draft picks are spent on defense and how much salary is committed to that side of the football. Those quotes from Aliotti intimate that Kelly won't have any reason to change the Eagles from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, but it does put into question whether he can hire the right coordinator. The Eagles don't have a defensive coordinator. They do have an awful lot of talented pieces on the offensive side who fit Kelly's scheme, but most of their problems emanate from a defense that needs retooling.
In spite of his defensive deficiencies, the Eagles still felt comfortable in making Kelly one of the highest-paid coaches in the league before he had coached a game at the professional level.
San Diego Chargers – Mike McCoy
The Chargers replaced one offensive mind with another when they hired Mike McCoy to replace Norv Turner. McCoy is just 40 and only retired from playing in 1999. After leaving the Calgary Stampeders, he began his coaching career in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers in 2000. He spent the next eight years with the Panthers, spending much of his time as an offensive assistant but also a season as the wide receivers coach (2001) and quarterbacks coach (2006). When Josh McDaniels became the head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2009, he hired McCoy as offensive coordinator.
McDaniels' Broncos ranked 20th and 19th in points scored in his two seasons in charge. McDaniels was fired after Week 13 of the 2010 season, but McCoy's work with Kyle Orton and a limited offense had earned him the respect of John Fox, who took over. McCoy entered the season as the offensive coordinator with Orton as his quarterback. However, after the team started 1-4 before hitting their bye week in Week 6, the Broncos decided to completely revamp their offensive scheme and switch to Tim Tebow at quarterback. The difficulty of implementing a new offense during the regular season cannot be overstated, but McCoy was able to get production out of a quarterback who would later be traded. McCoy was able to identify his players' individual strengths in order to limit the mistakes of a limited group. The Broncos went on to win seven of their final 11 games and make the playoffs. Fox has always been a defensive coach so McCoy received most of the plaudits for the success of the offense.
After that season, Tebow was sent to the Jets and McCoy's job was made much easier with the addition of Peyton Manning. Manning is like a coach himself, so it was easy to forget about McCoy this past season, but Manning has endorsed him as a head coach:
"I think he's ready. I think he's paid his dues. He's a strong leader. In my opinion, he deserves a shot at one of these head coaching gigs. Mike has been a great resource for me. He's been incredibly supportive and patient with me in kind of putting together this hybrid offense. He's a worker. We spend a lot of hours together – early mornings, late nights – trying to get kind of our plan in place for what kind of offense we were going to be. There's no substitute for a work ethic, and Mike certainly has that"
That work ethic helped the Broncos to be the second-highest scoring team in the league this year. Importantly, McCoy's work ethic is what could be the key to turning Phillip Rivers' career around. Rivers still has the talent and needs a better supporting cast, but his technical discipline appears worse than ever after years under Turner.
Much like Turner will be for Chudzinski in Cleveland, the Chargers have also hired an experienced offensive coordinator to help guide their young head coach. Ken Whisenhunt proved himself with the Steelers from 2004 to 2006, so he should seamlessly transition into that role with the Chargers. However, because he was in McCoy's position just six years ago with the Arizona Cardinals, he should also be able to advise the young head coach on how to handle certain situations. Crucially, the Chargers were also able to retain the services of impressive defensive coordinator John Pagano and his defensive staff. Pagano will provide stability after guiding the team's defense to a top 10 finish in yards allowed last season.
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