By Steve Silverman
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The game is constantly evolving, and the best coaches figure out a way to stay ahead of the curve. Bill Belichick, of course, is at the top of the class, and Andy Reid, Mike McCarthy and John Harbaugh regularly find a way to stay ahead of the curve and are secure in their positions.
But there are a number of coaches who are put to the test every season and have to make adjustments if they are going to remain positive attributes for their teams. The game provides new tests and issues on a yearly basis for head coaches. I look at five of them who have to come up with positive adjustments to ensure their teams will be successful in 2017.
Ben McAdoo, Giants
McAdoo became head coach of the Giants in 2016 because Tom Coughlin consistently screwed up end-of-game scenarios in 2015 and many of his decisions led to key losses that kept New York from having any hope of making the playoffs.
McAdoo had much to do in order to rebuild the Giants, and he received quite a bit of help from general manager Jerry Reese, who brought in three defensive studs in Olivier Vernon, Damon “Snacks” Harrison and Janoris Jenkins.
The improved defense meant McAdoo could concentrate on dominating his game management, and if he was successful, the Giants could return to respectability – and the playoffs. It started in Week 1 last year when the Giants won at Dallas (ahem), and he was able to build on that success. The Giants had a 7-1 record in games decided by six or fewer points in 2016.
That was last year. McAdoo must now show he can continue that success. It’s not just a matter of building on those kind of numbers; it’s the way he runs the team that will prove to be the most influential on the season and his overall head coaching career.
McAdoo was a breath of fresh air compared to Coughlin, and the players responded. But in Year 2, is McAdoo a strong enough leader to retain the respect of his players, or will they find a way to gain an advantage over the man in charge?
If McAdoo cedes any of his control – and it looks like Odell Beckham Jr. could be a problem – his career with the Giants will suffer a downturn.
Adam Gase, Miami
Gase had a very tough job in 2016, as he took over an undisciplined team that did not have a viable running game and appeared to give a full effort only when it wanted to.
The Dolphins knew that previous head coach, Joe Philbin, had no clue how to lead the team and was probably better suited for coaching a high school squad than an NFL franchise.
They looked at Gase and were similarly unimpressed by his stature and lack of playing background, but that changed quickly because Gase is an excellent strategist and a leader who can correct mistakes even if he never played the game.
He was especially good with quarterbacks, something he proved with up-and-down Miami signal-caller Ryan Tannehill.
Gase cemented his reputation in 2015 with the Bears as their offensive coordinator because he actually coaxed a good season out of Jay Cutler. Many thought that was an impossibility.
When Tannehill went down and out for the season in training camp, Gase went back to the recently retired Cutler. Instead of moving to the Fox broadcast booth, Cutler decided to become the Dolphins’ starting quarterback.
Here’s the issue: Cutler is almost certainly in Miami for the paycheck. If he wins, great; if he doesn’t, so what? He’s still getting paid.
Gase has to find a way to get Cutler to play hard and inspire his teammates for 16 games, and that seems like a task that will likely cause a major issue for the second-year head coach.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh
There is a major difference between Tomlin and the other coaches on this list. He is part of the Pittsburgh troika of head coaches that includes Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. Tomlin is in his 11th year as head coach and has won a Super Bowl and has lost another.
The Steelers are perennial powers and have made the playoffs seven times in his career. By all measures, he has been a successful coach.
But this is a critical year for Tomlin because the talent on the Pittsburgh roster is clearly at a Super Bowl level. If the Steelers barely scrape along and either win the division or a wild-card spot with a 10-6 record and then go quietly in the playoffs, it will be a disappointing season.
Pittsburgh has explosiveness on offense thanks to wide receiver Antonio Brown, running back Le’Veon Bell and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and enough strength on defense to be much better than that. The Steelers should be the No. 1 challenger to the New England Patriots at the very least, and they should demonstrate their talent on a weekly basis.
Tomlin and the Steelers barely got by the Cleveland Browns in Week 1, and that’s troubling. If they can’t rise above that kind of performance, Tomlin could find himself in quite a bit of trouble at the end of the season.
Bill O’Brien, Houston
Few coaches have done less with more than O’Brien with the Texans. You have to understand that O’Brien was hired in 2014 because he earned a reputation as a quarterback guru who could turn that weakness into a strength for the Texans.
As O’Brien begins Year 4 of his tenure, nothing has changed. O’Brien has judged his quarterbacks poorly and changed his starters the way most men change socks, and the team is no closer to dominance than it was when owner Bob McNair gave him the job.
O’Brien’s only hope is that rookie QB DeShaun Watson is ready for prime time, plays to his potential and ignores the mixed signals he gets from the coach.
O’Brien may have been a respected assistant under Belichick and did a decent job during his short time at Penn State, but head coaching responsibilities are too much for him.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota
Zimmer was considered to be the most viable assistant coach in the business when the Vikings hired him to become their head coach in 2014.
He is the best defensive mind in coaching, and he has had a tremendous impact in that area during his run with the Vikings. He has also given the team a sense of discipline that was missing under previous head coaches Mike Tice, Brad Childress and Les Frazier.
While Zimmer did not have the same facility on the offensive side of the ball, the Vikings were willing to live with that.
However, Zimmer is now in his fourth season, and inexperience, injuries and poor offensive coordinators are no longer excuses. The Vikings have to get much better on offense this year under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
While the Vikings looked like something of an offensive machine in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints in their 29-19 victory, that game should not be taken seriously. They were playing the Saints, who have set new lows on how to play defense each of the last two years.
Quarterback Sam Bradford and rookie running back Dalvin Cook looked like a winning combination, but the Vikings must prove it through the first full month of the season before anyone should be convinced that things are going to be better this year.
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