Seven NFL teams will be under new leadership for the 2014 season. Of the latest crop of head coaches, four are rookies as it applies to the pro level, while three are getting a second chance to head up an NFL team. Last season, Philadelphia's Chip Kelly and San Diego's Mike McCoy wound up in the postseason in their first season as an NFL head coach, while Cleveland's Rob Chudzinski went 4-12 and promptly got fired.
So which members of the coaching class of 2014 are most likely to succeed or potentially be interviewing for a new job sooner rather than later? Here's a breakdown (alphabetical order) of the NFL's newest head coaches.
Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions
Previous job: Offensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens
Pros: Tony Dungy’s successor-in-waiting with the Colts went 24–8 over his first two seasons as an NFL head coach, with an upset loss to Drew Brees and the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV. Those, however, were the final two years of the Peyton Manning era in Indy. After a three-year run with the Colts, Caldwell was hired as QB coach of the Ravens. He then was promoted to offensive coordinator following the midseason firing of Cam Cameron. With Caldwell calling the plays, Joe Flacco threw 15 TDs and only one INT — leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl XLVII “Harbaugh Bowl” victory over the 49ers.
Cons: The 59-year-old Caldwell went 2–14 in his one season without Manning in Indy and 26–63 in eight seasons as the coach at Wake Forest. The Motor City is bringing in a retread who may not be capable of producing the high-performance results fans have expected since the 10–6 run of 2011.
Final Analysis: The hiring of Caldwell is the most depressing news at Ford Field since Nickelback played at halftime of the Thanksgiving Day game.
Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins
Previous job: Offensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals
Pros: Jay is Jon Gruden’s brother and, as a result, the subject of hilarious Frank Caliendo impressions like the recent instant classic “Gruden vs. Gruden QB Camp.” Jay won Super Bowl XXXVII as an offensive assistant for his older brother. He also coached the Orlando Predators to two ArenaBowl championships after winning four ArenaBowl titles as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Storm. After leaving the AFL for the NFL, Gruden was the offensive coordinator of the Bengals, making the playoffs each of his three seasons.
Cons: Jay is not Jon Gruden and, as a result, may disappoint fans expecting a Super Bowl-winning, live-wire head coach. Also, most of Jay’s success has come in the Arena Football League, which is played indoors on fields that are 50 yards long with starting lineups of eight players on each side.
Final Analysis: Since taking control of Washington in 1999, owner Daniel Snyder has hired six coaches — Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs, Jim Zorn, Mike Shanahan and Gruden. Three of those were proven NFL head coaches; the other three — Gruden included — were ex-quarterbacks with zero NFL head-coaching experience.
Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans
Previous job: Head coach, Penn State
Pros: In his first head-coaching gig, O’Brien did an admirable job after inheriting a disaster at Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal and the death of Joe Paterno. The 44-year-old went 15–9, with wins over Michigan and Wisconsin, and he swept the Big Ten Coach of the Year awards in 2012. The quarterback guru has extensive experience in the NFL with the Patriots, as an offensive assistant who worked his way up to offensive coordinator — losing Super Bowls XLII and XLVI to Eli Manning’s Giants along the way.
Cons: O’Brien is the eighth Bill Belichick assistant to become an NFL head coach, joining Al Groh, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Jim Schwartz and Charlie Weis. Once out from under the protection of the short-sleeve hoodie, disciples of Belichick not named Saban have struggled. And even the great Saban — who has enjoyed tremendous success on the collegiate level — went only 15–17 in two NFL seasons.
Final Analysis: The third coach hired by Bob McNair follows in the footsteps of Dom Capers and Gary Kubiak, who delivered the 13-year-old franchise’s only two playoff appearances in 2011 and 2012 before tanking to 2–14 in his final season. O’Brien has been handed a playoff-ready team in what was the league’s weakest division in 2013. The pieces are in place for immediate success.
Mike Pettine, Cleveland Browns
Previous job: Defensive Coordinator, Buffalo Bills
Pros: Since the expansion Browns rejoined the NFL in 1999, the franchise has hired seven different head coaches and enjoyed just two winning seasons. Butch Davis in 2002 is the only one of those coaches to reach the playoffs. Expectations are low, despite the fact that the original Browns (now the Ravens) have won two Super Bowls since leaving Lake Erie. Pettine arrives alongside Johnny Manziel, whose personality and playing style likely will make or break his head coach.
Cons: Owner Jimmy Haslam's truck-stop company, Pilot Flying J, agreed in July to pay $92 million in fines following a federal investigation related to customer fraud. Last year’s coach, Rob Chudzinski, was fired after only one season. The expansion Browns have a cumulative minus-1,399 point differential over 15 seasons. Simply put, this is one of the worst jobs in pro sports.
Final Analysis: Pettine is the son of legendary Pennsylvania high school football coach Mike Pettine Sr. and the one-time right-hand man of Rex Ryan. If the Johnny Football experience goes well, the 47-year-old Pettine could be the franchise’s longest-tenured coach since Bill Belichick coached the final five seasons of the original Browns from 1991-95.
Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Previous job: Head coach, Chicago Bears
Pros: The 56-year-old Smith is a familiar face re-hired by the Glazer family, having served as the Bucs’ linebackers coach from 1996-2000. He helped Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin perfect the Tampa-2 defense while coaching Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks. Smith then served as the defensive coordinator for the Rams, losing to Tom Brady and the underdog Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. After taking over the top spot for the Bears in 2004, Smith posted an 81–63 record with three NFC North division titles and a 3–3 postseason mark, including a loss to Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLI.
Cons: Smith doesn’t inspire cannon fire; his personality is more Dungy than Jon Gruden. The lack of fireworks likely contributed to Smith’s firing in Chicago, despite a 10–6 record in his final season.
Final Analysis: The 2005 AP Coach of the Year has had just three losing seasons in nine years as a head coach. There’s less style but plenty of substance with Smith, who has assembled a strong staff led by Leslie Frazier (defensive coordinator), Jeff Tedford (offensive coordinator) and Bucs legend Hardy Nickerson (linebackers).
Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans
Previous job: Offensive coordinator, San Diego Chargers
Pros: A former tight end with seven years of NFL experience under his belt, Whisenhunt was a Super Bowl XL-winning offensive coordinator with the Steelers — famously calling the only TD pass thrown by a wide receiver in Super Bowl history, with Antwaan Randle El tossing a 43-yard scoring strike to Hines Ward to seal the victory over the Seahawks. After being hired as head coach of the Cardinals in 2007, Whisenhunt turned around and lost to his former team in Super Bowl XLIII.
Cons: Whisenhunt’s tenure in Arizona got off to a hot start before burning out, or maybe just fading away. A 27–21 record with two playoff appearances in his first three years was followed by an 18–30 mark. The coach failed to develop Matt Leinart — a jilted passer who recently claimed Kurt Warner, not Whisenhunt, should be credited with the Cards’ early offensive success.
Final Analysis: The 52-year-old Whisenhunt is the first coaching hire in Oilers-Titans history made by someone other than franchise founder Bud Adams (1923-2013). And unlike predecessors Mike Munchak and Jeff Fisher, Whisenhunt doesn’t have Oilers-Titans blue blood. Whisenhunt is bringing a new tune to Music City.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
Previous job: Defensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals
Pros: Zimmer has weathered a few storms in his day. He survived four coaching tenures — Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, Dave Campo and Bill Parcells — over 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, winning Super Bowl XXX as defensive backs coach. He spent one fateful season as Bobby Petrino’s defensive coordinator with the Falcons before joining the Bengals, where he coached for six seasons and made four trips to the playoffs.
Cons: The 58-year-old Zimmer has made a name for himself on defense. But he was hired as a head coach only after serving as the defensive coordinator under Marvin Lewis, who is a defensive mastermind in his own right — having coordinated the Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV-winning defense before taking over the top spot in Cincy.
Final Analysis: After interviewing for the Browns job last offseason and being on the short list of several openings this year, Zimmer has finally earned his shot . But he’s never been a head coach on any level, and the NFL is a tough place to learn on the job.
(Bill O'Brien photo courtesy of Houston Texans' Web site, www.houstontexans.com; Jim Caldwell photo by Stuart Zaas, courtesy of Detroit Lions' Web site, www.detroitlions.com; Mike Pettine photo courtesy of Cleveland Browns' Web site, www.clevelandbrowns.com, Ken Whisenhunt photo courtesy of Tennessee Titans' Web site, www.titansonline.com)