Six new coaches facing toughest challenges
Taking over a foundering team or position group can be a mixed blessing. If the bunch you’re coaching was horrific, it’s likely you’ll be getting new parts to work with, and the expectations are generally lower to start than if you’re inheriting a juggernaut.
The counter-argument would be that in trying to escape rock bottom, you’re also dealing with most of the things that made the situation bad in the first place. Due to salary, personnel and political reasons, chucking everything out the window and starting from scratch isn’t always the best or most feasible option.
Here are six coaches tasked with first-year turnarounds who might find the landscape tougher than they thought:
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh
Jim Harbaugh is used to success. He’s in the Indianapolis Colts’ Ring of Honor for his work as their primary quarterback from 1994-97, and he turned the Stanford program into a relative powerhouse – or at least an attractive destination for players like projected first-overall 2012 pick Andrew Luck.
In his new capacity as the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach, Harbaugh may have to grin and bear it when looking at his quarterback this season. The 49ers are giving Alex Smith, the first pick in the 2005 draft, one more shot under center before going in another direction. He hasn’t shown anything this preseason to silence doubters. Rookie Colin Kaepernick(notes), the second-stringer, has great physical ability, but he played in the Pistol offense at Nevada which means it’ll take time for him to transition from that spread system.
That’s not Harbaugh’s only challenge; the team’s offensive line is still under construction, and a formerly aggressive and efficient defense fell off last season. Harbaugh also must counteract a culture of mediocrity (this formerly dominant franchise hasn’t put up a winning record since 2002) and the occasionally hare-brained decisions of a mercurial ownership group. He has the football acumen to do it, but he’ll have to hope for patience from the fanbase.
Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips
Phillips has more to work with than most of the coaches named here, but he’s also facing higher expectations. The former Dallas Cowboys head coach has been charged by Texas’ other NFL team to return to his roots as a brilliant defensive mind and give Houston a look of excellence it’s never had.
Head coach Gary Kubiak has put together one of the league’s more dynamic offenses, but Houston had the NFL’s worst pass defense last season. It will move from a vanilla 4-3 set of schemes to Phillips’ 3-4 concepts.
So far in the preseason, it’s been working well from a pressure perspective. The Texans are tied for second with the Buffalo Bills in sacks with 11 heading into Friday’s games, and only the Philadelphia Eagles have been better with 14.
But there are issues. Former Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph(notes), ostensibly the centerpiece of a better secondary, missed the first two preseason games with a groin injury. Middle linebacker Brian Cushing(notes) is still recovering from knee surgery. And former 4-3 end Mario Williams’(notes) new role as a 3-4 outside linebacker is looking like a failure based on early returns.
In addition, Phillips will have to deal with the expectations of being the engineer of change on the only thing keeping the Texans from the franchise’s first playoff berth. If he can’t force a quick turnaround, he may feel the gravity of the situation more than anyone else on this list.
Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski
Chudzinski’s used to performing miracles. He ran the 2007 Cleveland Browns’ offense that put quarterback Derek Anderson(notes) and receiver Braylon Edwards(notes) in the Pro Bowl. But the Panthers’ offense would be a tall order for Bill Walsh to turn around.
The 2010 Panthers scored 212 fewer points than they allowed, and six different people threw passes for a Carolina offense that proved to be historically inept. The primary offender was rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen(notes), who discovered that at the NFL level, there’s more to the art of quarterbacking than throwing jump balls to Golden Tate(notes).
Chudzinski, who followed new Panthers head coach Ron Rivera from San Diego, has a few new weapons to deal with: First overall pick Cam Newton brings a limited schematic palette but amazing athleticism to the position, and tight end Jeremy Shockey(notes), who Chudzinski coached at the University of Miami. The Panthers also retained running back DeAngelo Williams(notes) and persuaded receiver Steve Smith to stay in town, but Newton is very much a work in progress, as evidenced by his 6-for-19 performance Thursday against the Cincinnati Bengals. As it was last year, the Panthers will have to deal with a lot of eight-in-the-box defenses as their quarterback tried to figure it out.
The good news is that Newton flashes more physical potential than Clausen.
Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden
Best known for being Jon Gruden’s brother, a former standout Arena League quarterback and a UFL executive, Gruden will be installing an offense similar to the one his brother ran in Oakland and Tampa Bay (the brothers coached together in Tampa Bay from 2002-08). Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton(notes) ran a very simple spread offense at TCU.
Dalton gets a lot of praise from analysts for his intangibles and football intelligence, but he was a roll-right quarterback making easy reads in the style of Cam Newton and Tim Tebow(notes). Complicating his future is an arm that couldn’t beat the wind during practice week at the Senior Bowl in January – not a good thing for a quarterback in the AFC North.
Gruden would have been better off had Carson Palmer(notes) been able to work something out with team owner Mike Brown(notes), but as it is, he’ll be teaching Dalton a complex offense that features a bunch of talented but very young receivers around him. The arm strength issue isn’t germane to the West Coast offense, but the learning curve for Dalton could be steep.
Seattle Seahawks assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable
Above all else, great offensive lines are built on continuity. Former Oakland Raiders head coach Tom Cable is discovering this in his new role as the Seattle Seahawks’ assistant head coach and offensive line czar.
None of the five players on his projected starting five – left tackle Russell Okung(notes), left guard Robert Gallery(notes), center Max Unger(notes), right guard John Moffitt(notes) and right tackle James Carpenter(notes) – have ever played together in a regular-season game. Okung is a second-year player, and Unger missed all of 2010. Gallery came over from Oakland with Cable, and the Moffitt/Carpenter duo emerged from the Seahawks’ 2011 draft class.
The good news is that Cable has a great history of turning around running games from the lines out, including his stint in Oakland. Seattle could use that after half a decade of mediocre results on the ground. The bad news, at least in the short term, is that the newness of that line has been crushingly evident in the preseason. New quarterback Tarvaris Jackson(notes) rarely has time to complete his drop-backs and reads before he’s set upon by defenses, and the Seahawks failed to punch in a four-down sequence that started at the Vikings’ 2-yard line at the end of the first quarter against the Minnesota Vikings last Saturday.
San Diego Chargers special teams coach Rich Bisaccia
The 2010 Chargers were one of the more talented teams to miss the playoffs in recent NFL history, and most people would like to blame the season-ending injury to tight end Antonio Gates(notes), not to mention general manager A.J. Smith’s contract squabbles with receiver Vincent Jackson(notes) and left tackle Marcus McNeill(notes). But the real culprit was the worst special teams unit the NFL had seen in more than a decade – and that’s no hyperbole.
According to Football Outsiders’ metrics, the Chargers had the worst special teams since the 2000 Bills. The Chargers finished the season 9-7, and at least two of their losses were directly attributable to their special teams – a 27-20 Week 3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in which Leon Washington(notes) returned two kicks for touchdowns and almost broke a third; and a 35-27 Week 5 loss to the Oakland Raiders in which punter Mike Scifres(notes) had two consecutive blocked punts.
Bisaccia comes from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ staff; he’s replacing the understandably deposed Steve Crosby. Bisaccia has a solid reputation, but he’ll also be putting this unit back together without return ace Darren Sproles(notes), who departed to New Orleans. Perhaps no special teams coach will benefit more from the new restrictive kickoff rules than the Chargers’.