With the Colts already naming Dungy's successor in current associate head coach Jim Caldwell, has the front office risked Dungy being undermined during the season?
"I'm just hoping that everybody can just focus on this year, on what we have to do," Manning said, referring to the fact that Dungy's career with the Colts is now a year-to-year proposition.
Similarly, the Seattle Seahawks have announced that assistant head coach Jim Mora will follow Mike Holmgren as head coach in 2009. Holmgren is going into the final year of his contract and is expected to step down at season's end.
While such announcements are designed to make the transition from one coach to another "seamless," as Seattle president Tim Ruskell said, the reality is that nothing is ever seamless in football. Manning knows that too well.
"Everybody talks about what's going to happen a year from now or whatever, but I don't think that's fair to the guys who are around now," said Manning, whose AFC squad takes on the NFC in Sunday's Pro Bowl. "A lot of guys who are going to be on the team this year aren't necessarily going to be there the year after. As a captain, I want to make sure guys understand that and just focus on what we have to do now."
In other words, Manning is concerned about people not giving Dungy the full respect and authority he deserves.
"Absolutely," Manning said.
While teammates such as safety Antoine Bethea and Seattle players Matt Hasselbeck, Marcus Trufant and Julian Peterson downplayed the idea that Dungy and Holmgren could be undercut, that's a naïve approach to the human condition. In short, while the Colts and Seahawks have diffused the controversy of who is next, they have created the possibility for a more daunting question.
Who's in charge?
For instance, on the sideline Wednesday afternoon following the NFC's practice, one person with very strong contacts to the Seahawks wondered if Mora was going to hire Greg Knapp to the offensive staff. Not that Mora can right now (Knapp is the offensive coordinator of the Raiders), but the basic point remains: Who is going to be in charge of hiring? Yes, it's easier to hire an assistant coach and to sign free agents when everyone knows the plan. But who's in charge of the plan?
Is it Holmgren, an erudite coach with a strong sense of feistiness? Or is it Mora, a smart but sometimes overly energetic and opinionated guy? While both men have the ability to see the big picture, they also both have healthy egos, a prerequisite for being an NFL head coach.
"I don't think that's going to be any issue with our team," Bethea said. "We have a lot of veteran guys who respect coach Dungy a lot and we're all going to be pulling with him."
That's a noble thing to say and believe, but the Colts and Seahawks have created situations that require careful tending. Dungy and Caldwell, and Holmgren and Mora must be completely on the same page. They have to know how they're going to handle it if a player or assistant coach plays one off the other.
It's like the difference between one parent making all the decisions on how to handle discipline versus having two parents trying to come to some agreement.
For instance, what happens when Holmgren wants to play someone on offense and Mora prefers someone else. This happens all the time in the NFL, particularly when coaches are arguing over the merits of playing a younger player who is developing over an older player who gives the team the best chance to win in a given game.
Beyond that, how do players interpret the differing styles of the coaches? In the case of Holmgren, he is more aloof, putting a healthy distance between himself and his players. That's typical for head coaches because they often have to make tough executive decisions about who plays and who doesn't. In the case of Mora, he's more the cajoling coach, a guy who jokingly chides his players to get more out of them.
"He'll tell you all the time in a game, 'What have you done for me lately?'" Peterson said, laughing lightly. "You might have three sacks in the game and he's smiling and saying, 'OK, what'd you do for me on the last play?'"
Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck took a similar what-me-worry approach to the matter.
"I don't think that much about stuff like that," Hasselbeck said. "Mike is the coach and that's who we play for. He calls the shots. Really, it's like you're asking the paper boy about something that's going on with the publisher of the newspaper."
Nice metaphor, but drastically overstated. In the NFL, quarterbacks are only a step removed from executive privilege. In the case of Manning, even that step is probably removed.
"It's just something you hope everyone can deal with and not let it affect their focus," Manning said.
- Tony Dungy
- Jim Mora
- Mike Holmgren