There are eight new head coaches in the NFL this year. Some of them have inherited great teams with a chance to win, while others, have not. Here we break down the pros and cons for each new head coach.
San Francisco 49ers: Jim Harbaugh
Previous Job: Head coach, Stanford
Pros: Like predecessor Mike Singletary, Harbaugh had a long NFL career, and that should remind his players that he knows what he’s talking about on the field. Also like Singletary, he prefers a physical, tough team. Harbaugh knows that his offense has to diversify, though, which is a lesson Singletary never seemed to learn during his time as the boss.
Cons: Singletary’s fiery personality finally resulted in him losing large pockets of the 49ers’ locker room, and Harbaugh’s not exactly a shrinking violet himself. The hope is that Harbaugh will keep the disputes out of the media better than Singletary was able to do. Harbaugh will also battle the usual concern about college coaches transitioning to the NFL game.
Final Analysis: Harbaugh took a once-solid Stanford program and brought it back to the top of college football, so he’s not unfamiliar with tradition. The Cardinal’s tradition, however, is nothing compared to the five-time Super Bowl champion franchise that now signs his checks. His West Coast offense could make quarterback Alex Smith and wide receiver Michael Crabtree breakout performers, and it helps that he’s stepped into a weak NFC West. In this division, a title is not out of the question, even for a team that may consider 8–8 a good year.
Tennessee Titans: Mike Munchak
Previous Job: Offensive line coach, Tennessee Titans
Pros: Munchak has been with the Oilers/Titans since 1982 as player and coach, impressive longevity for any job, let alone the revolving door that is the NFL. Based on early comments, Munchak may be savvy enough to be a CEO and let his coordinators do their jobs.
Cons: Yes, Munchak’s a fixture in the organization, but he’s been an offensive line coach for 14 years. He doesn’t have even a day of coordinator experience. Linemen aren’t often in the headlines for the wrong reasons, so a situation like Kenny Britt’s recurring legal problems or Chris Johnson’s contract chirping will test Munchak’s tolerance early. How he handles those issues could win or lose him the locker room quickly.
Final Analysis: Munchak may have the best job security of any coach in the NFL, given his lengthy tenure with the Titans and Bud Adams’ reluctance to part with members of the “family.” He’ll need it as the Titans try to retool around Johnson, new quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and a defense whose production fell off tremendously last year. Last place in the AFC South still seems a virtual certainty barring strange developments in Jacksonville, Houston, or even Indianapolis.
Carolina Panthers: Ron Rivera
Previous Job: Defensive coordinator, San Diego Chargers
Pros: Rivera has a superb track record as a defensive coordinator, building top-5 units in both Chicago and San Diego. The surprising part is that he ran a 4-3 with the Bears and a 3-4 while with the Chargers (No. 1 in the NFL in 2010). His work with star middle linebackers Jeremiah Trotter and Brian Urlacher suggests that he could be the perfect teacher for Carolina Pro Bowler Jon Beason.
Cons: Rivera has gone through a reported 10 head coaching interviews since 2005 and is just now receiving his first top job. While some of his opportunities may have been mere pandering to the Rooney Rule, it raises questions of what the teams who passed on him were seeing — or not seeing — in the interviews.
Final Analysis: The Panthers experienced a steep drop defensively last season, but the impotent offense bears some of the blame. Still, there were precious few playmakers on either side of the ball. Rivera brought in ex-Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott for his staff, and if anyone can get the defense performing on a high level, it’s those two.
Cleveland Browns: Pat Shurmur
Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, St. Louis Rams
Pros: Shurmur is not likely to panic upon seeing the understocked cupboard of offensive talent in Cleveland. After all, his 2010 Rams offense had a similar look to it, with a young quarterback, patchwork receiving corps and a strong running back who could find few openings. He has the complete trust of team president Mike Holmgren, who wanted a coach who could call his own offensive plays, much like Holmgren did in Seattle and Green Bay.
Cons: Shurmur is not only adjusting to the pressure faced by every rookie head coach, but he also has the eyes of a proven winner like Holmgren looking down on him from the front office. Holmgren has essentially hitched the fate of his entire executive tenure to Shurmur as well. Shurmur had only two years as a coordinator in St. Louis, and while the Rams improved slightly, they were still only 26th in the NFL in yards and points.
Final Analysis: Shurmur received credit for some of the success that Donovan McNabb achieved in Philadelphia, and that could bode well for young Colt McCoy. Unfortunately, McCoy doesn’t have McNabb’s physical gifts or receivers of much renown. Shurmur’s success will be built on how productive his offense can be, and it may need a few more tools to become a high-powered machine.
Dallas Cowboys: Jason Garrett
Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys
Pros: Garrett’s audition as interim coach was a smashing success. His 5–3 record in the second half of 2010 is even more impressive considering that the three losses were by a total of seven points. He’s gained the trust of the entire team, not just the quarterbacks or the offense. Having a few years in the organization, he’s better equipped to handle Jerry Jones’ persistent meddling than a newcomer would be.
Cons: Garrett must be able to keep players like Martellus Bennett and Tashard Choice from popping off about playing time and other assorted issues. A divided locker room is much more difficult to rally.
Final Analysis: The Cowboys won four games with the aged Jon Kitna under center and another one with third-stringer Stephen McGee as the starter. That reflects impressively on the staff’s gameplanning abilities, and if Garrett can keep the team’s varied egos and personalities in check, the Cowboys could return to contention in the NFC East.
Denver Broncos: John Fox
Previous Job: Head coach, Carolina Panthers
Pros: Where many analysts would look at Fox and see “retread,” Broncos VP John Elway saw experience. Before last season’s disastrous 2–14 mark, Fox’s Carolina teams had never finished worse than 7–9, and of course, he’s the only new coach this season who’s been a head coach in the Super Bowl.
Cons: Fox has never been known as a coach who can develop and improve quarterbacks. This could be a problem for Denver’s passers, Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. Another issue is one shared by all new coaches, that being the lockout. Installing new systems takes time, especially when a newcomer’s system differs so radically from his successor’s. Digging out from under the Josh McDaniels era may take time, and Fox doesn’t have as much of that as he’d like.
Final Analysis: Denver’s defense destroyed any chances they had to contend last season. The addition of Von Miller, the return of Elvis Dumervil, and Fox’s own ability to scheme will certainly help the team improve on that side. Fox may not be able to rely as much as he would like on the running game, though, with the seemingly brittle Knowshon Moreno as his main option. There’s still work to do before the Broncos challenge the Chargers and Chiefs in the West.
Minnesota Vikings: Leslie Frazier
Previous Job: Defensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings
Pros: Frazier’s not afraid to shake up his roster. He and the team appear more than ready to get out from under the endless Brett Favre soap opera. His Vikings defenses have been in the NFL’s top 10 for the past three seasons. Last year’s defense allowed 21 points or more in Brad Childress’ final six games as the head coach, then stiffened up with Frazier in charge and allowed 21-plus points only twice in six games.
Cons: Frazier’s not afraid to shake up his roster. The Vikings are taking a chance on losing starters like Ray Edwards, Husain Abdullah, and Sidney Rice to free agency. New quarterback Donovan McNabb doesn't exactly have anybody at the wide receiver position who strikes fear in the opposition.
Final Analysis: With the Packers expecting better health, the Bears still stocking their offense, and the Lions improving fast, the Vikings appear to be bicycling on the freeway. Frazier will need instant results out of his young quarterbacks, and his stout defensive line could take some hits. Making the playoffs would be a masterful achievement with the Vikings’ transitioning roster.
Oakland Raiders: Hue Jackson
Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, Oakland Raiders
Pros: Jackson proved that he knew how to maximize this group of offensive players when he took the team from 31st to 10th in total yardage and 31st to sixth in scoring in his first season as offensive coordinator. He’s helped develop players like Joe Flacco and Chad Ochocinco, so a true breakout could soon await players like Jason Campbell and Jacoby Ford.
Cons: Jackson’s lack of head coaching experience is obvious, but even his other two stints as an offensive coordinator were in name only. The 2003 Redskins (under Steve Spurrier) and 2007 Falcons (under Bobby Petrino) fizzled offensively, to boot.
Final Analysis: The Raiders’ young offensive talent appears primed to keep on producing, especially if rookie linemen Stefen Wisniewski and Joseph Barksdale grow up fast. The defense may have some issues, though, without all-world cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and possibly without safety Michael Huff. The Raiders owned the AFC West last year (6–0), yet still failed to make the playoffs. The schedule does them no favors (Oakland plays teams from the AFC East and NFC North), but a few out-of-division wins could get the Silver and Black into the hunt for a playoff spot.