It’s always hard to tell which is the best way for a franchise to go when looking toward the future. And it’s not always the smart decision to just throw lots of money at the best-known coach they can find. Sometimes the smart hire is an unknown assistant. Sometimes it’s a retread who was a failure someplace else.
After all, Bill Belichick was a disaster in Cleveland before he went to New England and became one of the greatest coaches of all time.
So now that six of the seven head coaching vacancies have been filled — only the Cleveland Browns, obviously the worst of the seven jobs remains unfilled — it’s probably too early to really know who did the best and worst with their hires. But it’s never too early to give a preliminary grade and at least make a guess.
Here’s how they rank:
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New coach: Lovie Smith
Talk about a home-run hire. The Bucs got the most well-respected former coach out there (at least the most well-respected one still young enough to be a serious candidate), a man who is loved by his players and known for running a professional and winning organization. No, he never won a championship in Chicago, but he was 83-63 in nine seasons, got to a Super Bowl and another NFC Championship Game, had only three losing seasons and was fired after a year in which his team went 10-6. The Bucs were supposed to get professionalism under Greg Schiano, but the last year was more like total chaos, with an MRSA scandal and problems with their franchise quarterback who was traded away. Smith brings instant credibility, respectability, and will likely stabilize what sure looked like a sinking ship.
2. Detroit Lions
New coach: Jim Caldwell
Caldwell is known for two things: His unflappable, stoic, unchanging sideline demeanor and his offensive mind. Most recently he was the offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens – and his appointment to that role is a big reason why they’re the defending Super Bowl champs. But he also made it to the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, whom he coached from 2009-11. Sure, the Colts went 2-14 in his final season, but that was the year between Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. He had no shot. What the Lions needed is what they got – a well-respected coach with an offensive mind who can help turn quarterback Matthew Stafford from an erratic starter into a champion. He will calm down what is often an undisciplined team and refine the offense. It’s a good bet they will end up being contenders for years to come.
3. Minnesota Vikings
New coach: Mike Zimmer
The real reason the Cincinnati Bengals have been so good in recent years is because of their defense, and it’s about time someone recognized that it wasn’t just about head coach Marvin Lewis, but that their defensive coordinator was pretty good, too. Zimmer is well-respected, loved by his players and bubbling with energy, and many around the NFL think he’s long overdue for his chance to lead a franchise. The only odd part of this hire is that he’s a defensive mind, when the problem in Minnesota is on the offensive side. They have been unable to develop a quarterback and unable to truly take advantage of having Adrian Peterson, the best running back in football. His choice of an offensive coordinator will absolutely be key to his success.
4. Houston Texans
New coach: Bill O’Brien
After his quick, but well-received work at Penn State, O’Brien was near the top of a lot of lists. And it made sense. He took over a Penn State program riddled by scandal and torn apart by a loss of scholarships and some key transfers and was successful in keeping the program afloat. There are few people who could’ve bridged the gap from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the death of Joe Paterno to where the Nittany Lions are now, and O’Brien deserves credit for that. Here’s the only worry, though: As wonderful as Bill Belichick has been, he hasn’t exactly spawned a successful head coaching tree. From Romeo Crennel to Charlie Weis to Eric Mangini to Josh McDaniels, it’s not like plucking one of Belichick’s minions has been a ticket to the playoffs. Maybe O’Brien will be the guy to buck the trend, but the odds aren’t stacked in his favor.
5. Tennessee Titans
New coach: Ken Whisenhunt
There was a time when Whisenhunt was considered an offensive “whiz,” and in some quarters he still is. There is, however, a segment of the NFL that believes he’s one of those guys who’s better suited to be a coordinator than the man in charge. The center of that debate is this: Do you believe his trip to the Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals in 2008 was deserved or a fluke? Because he took over one of the NFL’s worst franchises in 2007 and the next year had them sneak into the playoffs at 9-7 and come within a whisker of a championship. Does he deserve the credit for that, or was it all because of his Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback, Kurt Warner? It’s a good and fair question. Whisenhunt was 45-51 in his six seasons in Arizona and missed the playoffs in each of his final three years.
6. Washington Redskins
New coach: Jay Gruden
Well, he certainly is a big name, but his brother Jon — who remains in the ESPN booth — is the one with the coaching credentials. Gruden was a successful coach in the Arena League, and that’s something. He also had three relatively successful years as the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, where he did a nice job with quarterback Andy Dalton. And he got a lot of attention and several interviews for head coaching vacancies. He may end up injecting some life into the Redskins, too, and with his offensive mind he could be huge for Robert Griffin III. But it’s hard to argue that there weren’t more qualified candidates available, and it’s hard not to wonder if some of the attention lavished on him isn’t about his famous last name.
— By Ralph Vacchiano, @RVacchianoNYDN