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Coordinators not always worthy to lead again

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

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It's as inevitable as a Terrell Owens(notes) swipe at his quarterback, a tawdry reality-TV scandal, or a booth of broadcasters competing with one another to gush over Brett Favre's(notes) greatness – and, I would argue, it's equally annoying.

I call it the Coordinator Cleansing Phenomenon, and here's how it works: A hot NFL assistant, usually in charge a successful team's offense or defense, gets hired as a head coach. A few years later he is dismissed, having failed to win enough games and to make the tricky transition from brainy play-caller to big-picture overseer.

So he takes another job as a coordinator and – lo and behold – he's still good at serving in that role. The unit he oversees on his new team has some early success, and suddenly he is being talked up once again as a hot head-coaching candidate, causing otherwise semi-stable people like myself to bang my BlackBerry against my head in frustration.

The reason I bring this up is that, during my visit to Denver this weekend to see the Broncos defeat the Cowboys, I heard a lot of people heap praise upon the job Mike Nolan has done as defensive coordinator. This is understandable. The Broncos, who gave up 112 points in their final three games of '08, have allowed just 26 in their first four (all victories) this season.

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Williams' D is ninth in fewest yards allowed per game (295.3).
(John David Mercer/US Presswire)

Then, while flying home in a sleep-deprived state of delirium, I read on the ultra-insider site profootballtalk.com that in the wake of their respective teams' fast starts, Nolan and Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams have catapulted "back to the 'A' list" of head-coaching candidates for 2010.

In the case of Williams, who previously has been a terrific defensive coordinator in Tennessee and Washington, I can understand why his name might be in play: There were some mitigating factors that kept him from winning during his stint as the Bills' head coach from 2001-03 – chiefly, a lack of support from general manager Tom Donahoe – and I believe he learned from the experience and would be less tightly wound and more effective in a second go-around.

But Nolan? Really? This is the guy who had full control of personnel during most of his time as the 49ers' head coach (from 2005-08), made a big stink by choosing Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers(notes) as his quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick in the '05 draft, hung said quarterback out to dry by suggesting he wasn't really injured as Smith tried to play through a shoulder injury that later required surgery and was so arrogant and unable to motivate that he finally was fired with an 18-37 career record seven games into last season. Then one of his assistants, Mike Singletary, took over and had more success with the same players.

Given that Nolan was a successful defensive coordinator for the Ravens from 2002-04, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he'd still be good at that job. I applaud him for the great work he's doing in Denver, yet the notion that he's now in play for another head-coaching job is maddening.

There's a huge difference between running a unit and running a team, and some people are better suited to the former role than the latter. That doesn't mean Nolan isn't ultimately capable of learning from his 49ers experience, adapting and thriving as a head coach if given another opportunity. But Nolan's ability to come up with effective defensive game plans and achieve results in Denver provides zero evidence that he's ready for another head-coaching opportunity.

Look, I don't mean to pick on Nolan. (OK, maybe I do, but there are others to pick on as well.) We were hearing the same rumblings about Mike Martz as a hot candidate after the Lions' offense put up some impressive numbers in the early stages of the '06 season. I realize Martz was a winning head coach who took the Rams to a Super Bowl, but as I detailed in Sports Illustrated article shortly before he was fired, the man had some serious leadership issues toward the end of his tenure in St. Louis.

On a much more depressing note, we should probably brace ourselves for the repackaging of Cam Cameron (Ravens offensive coordinator), Rod Marinelli (Bears assistant head coach/defensive line) and Marty Mornhinweg (Eagles offensive coordinator) if their units and teams stay hot.

The Coordinator Cleansing Phenomenon has helped Norv Turner get two additional head-coaching jobs after he was fired in Washington – his work as Nolan's offensive coordinator in San Francisco in '06 led to his current opportunity in San Diego – and Wade Phillips, if you count his interim stint as the Falcons' head coach at the end of the '03 season, can do him one better. In fact, the Cowboys' current (and former Bills, Broncos and Falcons kinda/sorta) head coach essentially became his own defensive coordinator after last season, perhaps in an effort to save his job.

This is not to suggest that the Coordinator Cleansing Phenomenon is always a ruinous thing. It was responsible for the rehabilitation of Bill Belichick's reputation after he was fired as the Browns' coach following the '95 season, and that worked out OK for the Patriots.

However, I would argue that the four-season gap between head-coaching opportunities served Belichick well, because it's tough to do a lot of self-introspection when you quickly land another sweet gig after failing in another. And it's probably for the best if you don't get me started on the Eric Mangini Phenomenon.

Now here's our weekly trip from awesome to awful, with the team that employs Williams in the sweetest place of all.

1. New Orleans Saints: Wait, now they have a dominant defense, too?

2. New York Giants: If Eli Manning's(notes) foot injury keeps him out of Sunday's game, don't you still think the Giants could beat the Raiders by having David Carr(notes) hand the ball to Brandon Jacobs(notes) or Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) every single play?

3. Philadelphia Eagles: Does Jeremiah Trotter(notes) still have it – and, if so, will this defense get even better?

4. Indianapolis Colts: Is Robert Mathis(notes) the NFL's most underrated defensive end?

5. New York Jets: Is Mark Sanchez(notes) dirty?

6. New England Patriots: Is Junior Seau(notes) headed for Foxborough, or Pamplona?

7. Baltimore Ravens: Did the other Mark Clayton ever have a drop as costly as his Ravens namesake did Sunday – and how ballistic would Dan Marino have gone if he were in Joe Flacco's(notes) shoes Sunday?

8. Minnesota Vikings: Was that Favre's redemptive moment, or can he keep it going and make this team a legitimate title contender?

9. Atlanta Falcons: Don't you get the feeling Roddy White(notes) is headed for a breakout game against the 49ers on Sunday?

10. Denver Broncos: Now that Brandon Marshall(notes) is back in a big way, will the real Eddie Royal(notes) soon surface as well?

11. Cincinnati Bengals: Even when they're winning, they never make it easy on their fans, do they?

12. San Francisco 49ers: This "you can't live without me" strategy isn't going too well for Michael Crabtree(notes), is it?

13. Green Bay Packers: When Aaron Rodgers finally hit the sack early Tuesday morning, did Jared Allen(notes) follow him into his bedroom?

14. Chicago Bears: Has any team ever had more players who are ridiculously dangerous on kick and punt returns?

15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Did Rashard Mendenhall(notes) just become a real NFL running back – and, if so, how much credit does Mike Tomlin get for pushing the right motivational buttons?

16. Dallas Cowboys: Is it just me, or did it look like Tony Romo(notes) and company could have used a certain popcorn-pimping wideout in the key moments of Sunday's game?

17. San Diego Chargers: Didn't it look like defensive coordinator Ron Rivera wished he could still put a helmet on during his first-half sideline speech to fire up his troops – and how does this man not yet have a head-coaching job?

18. Arizona Cardinals: Is first-year defensive coordinator Billy Davis smarter than the rest of us, or is he just talking smack like yours truly before the Cal-SC game?

19. Jacksonville Jaguars: After David Garrard(notes) responded to his radio-show ban with his best outing of the season, will coach Jack Del Rio attempt to keep the quarterback from speaking, period?

20. Houston Texans: Why can't this team run – and can it stop the run against anyone besides the Raiders?

21. Tennessee Titans: How much longer will I cling to my delusion that they're a legitimate AFC contender?

22. Carolina Panthers: Does Steve Smith realize he's now the second-most productive NFL wideout with that name – and will he do something about it Sunday against the Redskins?

23. Miami Dolphins: If the forward pass were declared illegal by the NFL's competition committee, would they suddenly be the team to beat?

24. Buffalo Bills: When the Bills complete their 5-11 season, will they look back on their Week 1 gift to the Patriots and try to convince themselves it was the turning point?

25. Seattle Seahawks: Is it possible that the great Walter Jones(notes) has played his last game?

26. Washington Redskins: If they only played the five teams below them in these rankings, don't you get the feeling they'd still struggle to go 8-8?

27. Oakland Raiders: If the Napa Valley Police Department's chief had a sense of humor, would he deputize Rich Gannon and Jeff Garcia(notes) and send them to Alameda to serve a warrant on Tom Cable?

28. Kansas City Chiefs: If Todd Haley was presumably down with the notion of benching No. 10 overall pick Matt Leinart(notes) two years ago, don't you think he's at least considering sitting Matt Cassel(notes) and playing Brodie Croyle(notes)?

29. Detroit Lions: Seriously, do these guys pass around the beer bong at halftime?

30. Cleveland Browns: If LeBron is Cleveland's "King James," is Braylon Edwards(notes) the court jester?

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Are they getting better, or did they simply go up against a Redskins team that's nearly as miserable?

32. St. Louis Rams: Has anything – one single thing – improved about this team under the new regime?