By Steve Silverman
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Brilliant coaching and innovation have been big keys in the NFL this season.
Teams like Seattle, San Francisco, New England, Denver, Green Bay and Washington are surging as the season comes to its conclusion. All but the Packers have made dramatic changes during the course of the season, and are dramatically different from the teams that were on the field at the end of last season or even the beginning of this season.
Innovation is another way of saying that the team is led by a thinking head coach who can make changes when they are needed.
The 49ers made it all the way to the NFC Championship game last year while the Pats made it to the Super Bowl, but both of these teams made major changes and were not satisfied to go about their business the same way they did before.
That’s because Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick know that their opponents are studying them, and they know that past success doesn’t guarantee it in the future.
Here’s a look at what five innovative teams have done to become so successful in 2012:
Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks thought that they found their quarterback of the future when they signed Green Bay backup Matt Flynn to a free-agent contract in the offseason. They drafted Russell Wilson in the third round to serve as Flynn’s backup and possibly become the team’s quarterback of the future if Flynn had difficulties.
But a funny thing happened in training camp. Wilson looked like one of the more confident players on the team and he didn’t care about being a rookie. He wanted to play, and he was going to do whatever he could to put his athletic skills and passing ability on display.
Luckily for him, Pete Carroll was watching and paying attention, and was not married to his offseason plan. The more he looked at Wilson, the more he knew that his rookie quarterback could play. By the final weeks of the summer, Carroll believed that Wilson was the better quarterback.
He went with him, and that took guts and trust. Carroll evaluated his talent honestly and realized that the team would be better off with Wilson under center. It has worked out beyond his wildest dreams.
New England Patriots – Belichick’s team was once again within a solid fourth quarter of a Super Bowl title, but they were vanquished by the Giants.
Belichick probably felt sorry for himself and his team for about five minutes before he started his next assault on the league. He did two things to make sure that the Pats would be better.
He got them a solid running game, with Stevan Ridley taking pressure off of Tom Brady. He also installed a fast-paced, no-huddle attack that puts nearly every opponent on its heels.
The fast-paced no-huddle is not a guarantee that New England will win, but it does cause problems for opponents that will make the Pats very difficult to beat the rest of the way.
San Francisco 49ers – Harbaugh’s decision to bench Alex Smith and install Colin Kaepernick at quarterback is the kind of move that can make or break a coach’s career. Smith is a competent pro who combines accuracy with athleticism. He was completing 70 percent of his passes when Harbaugh benched him.
Kaepernick appeared to be a gimmick quarterback who could run the 49ers’ version of the Wildcat offense because of his freakish running ability. However, Harbaugh saw a near-perfect throwing motion and the ability to make big plays with his skills.
The Kaepernick-led 49ers have been devastating on occasion, but there have been some mistakes that could cost the Niners in the postseason.
Washington Redskins – The big change was the installation of Robert Griffin III as the starting quarterback, but it didn’t stop there. Not only did RGIII get the job, but head coach Mike Shanahan took off the blinders and let him go at it without any limitations. Then the Redskins voted RGIII the captain of the team.
Few coaches would trust a rookie — even one with as much talent as RGIII — to take over and run the offense. Shanahan had the guts to give his quarterback freedom to run the show as he sees fit. The Redskins, of course, are one victory away from winning the NFC East.
Denver Broncos – The big move was getting rid of Tim Tebow in the offseason and signing Peyton Manning to be the quarterback. It seems obvious now, but general manager John Elway showed a lot of guts and foresight to make the move.
Head coach John Fox has turned the offense over to Manning, and the attack has fully developed this season with the improvement of Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Knowshon Moreno.
Willis McGahee was the starting running back, but he has been sidelined with knee and leg injuries. Moreno has stepped in and performed like a star in McGahee’s absence.
These five teams have made key adjustments during the season, and all have a chance to make memorable postseason runs.
Which head coach deserves the most credit for his innovation and guts this season — Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Shanahan or John Fox? Make your case in the comments section below…