By Steve Silverman
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The battle is about to begin. For the next six-plus months, NFL football will dominate our lives.
For many of us, that’s a very good thing. But for the 32 men who lead NFL franchises through the preseason, 16-game regular season and the NFL playoffs, it is a delicate balancing act that requires expertise in psychology, strategy, personnel management and talent analysis.
Seven of the head coaches are leading new teams this year. Three of those coaches have had experience and are with new organizations, while four will man the position for the first time. Two of the coaches – one in each category – have a chance to do special things in the seasons to come.
Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Smith made his bones in the league as a defensive coach with the Bucs and a defensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams before becoming the Chicago Bears’ head coach for nine seasons.
Throughout his tenure with the Bears, his personal emphasis was on defense, and he was largely content to let his coordinators handle the offense. The Bears were a nasty defensive team with Smith at the helm, but their offense was largely inefficient and disorganized.
That won’t be the case with the Bucs. He will not let others seize control of his team, and will make the key decisions and not let his offensive coordinator determine his future. Smith may relinquish some powers on defense, but he will be a more complete and thorough coach and will have the Bucs in the playoffs either this year or next.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings – Talk about a coach who has paid his dues. Zimmer has been an NFL defensive coordinator for the last 14 years, and he has earned his position.
He’s as sharp as any defensive mind in the league and absolutely nothing escapes him when it comes to his own players’ effort and technique. That should translate well to a head-coaching slot because he knows what everyone is supposed to do. That includes his assistant coaches, as well as his players.
The Vikings are clearly lacking at the quarterback position, but Zimmer should maximize Adrian Peterson and he will get every drop of ability out of his players. There will be no easy games against the Vikings, who will prove to be a more physical team than they have been in the last five years.
Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans – There are few better offensive minds than Whisenhunt. While Jake Locker does not rank with the top quarterbacks in the game, Whisenhunt will give him a game plan that he can exploit, and the Titans will be a more dangerous team than most observers expect.
Whisenhunt has the rare combination of being an intellectual coach who can get the best of his opposite number while still appealing to his players’ emotions. Whisenhunt can rally his team to a remarkable effort. If he can get his team off to a good start, the Titans have a chance to play .500 football or better.
Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions – The Colts cut ties with Caldwell after three seasons even though he won 14 games in his first year and 10 in his second. No, Caldwell could not stop the bleeding in 2011 (2-14) when Peyton Manning was unable to play with his neck injury, but there aren’t a lot of coaches that could have done much better.
Caldwell is smart and focused, and the Lions are a lot better off with him at the helm than they were with inconsistent Jim Schwartz on the sidelines. This is a case of addition by subtraction, and the talented Lions may make a surprising run at the NFC North crown.
Caldwell and Manning communicated well in Indianapolis, and he should be able to get a lot more out of quarterback Matthew Stafford than his previous coach did.
Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins – Unlike his more famous brother, Jay Gruden does not have the huge ego that demands the spotlight. Jon Gruden wanted the whole football world to look at him when he was on the sidelines for the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Bucs, but Jay merely wants his players to gain the spotlight.
Jay Gruden is a creative play caller who wants to exploit his team’s strength against his opponents’ weaknesses. He will study film until he finds those deficits, and his players will exploit them quickly.
Gruden’s presence is good news for quarterback Robert Griffin III. After a brilliant rookie year that ended with a brutal ACL injury, RGIII was never able to find his game last season. Gruden will give the quarterback a scheme that will allow him to get the most out of his considerable talent.
Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans – It all spiraled out of control for the Texans last year after they went into the season as one of the favorites in the AFC.
Gary Kubiak failed because his team made too many errors throughout the game and then did not execute at crunch time. O’Brien’s main job will be to get this talented team to play with discipline and avoid costly mistakes.
O’Brien is smart and disciplined, and he should be able to help the Texans play a much more competitive game. Still, there are too many questions on the offensive side to expect anything more than a .500 season.
Mike Pettine, Cleveland Browns – If you never heard of Mike Pettine before, you are not alone. Pettine got the job as the Browns’ head coach after numerous candidates turned down the opportunity to work for embattled owner Jimmy Haslam and the dysfunctional Browns front office. Pettine had served as the Jets’ defensive coordinator for four years before manning that position in Buffalo in 2013.
Pettine wants to simplify things for the Browns and play a hard-hitting, nasty style of football, but that type of game rarely works anymore unless your team has an overwhelming dose of the Neanderthal gene. Pettine will be oblivious to complaints and criticism, and that is probably his greatest strength.
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