Ranking the New NFL Head Coaches for 2014
By Adam Hocking
Special to Pro Football Guru
We’ve seen it happen very recently. A brilliant new head coach comes to town, changes the culture of a franchise, and turns a loser into a winner. Jim Harbaugh rescued the 49ers from irrelevance taking a team that had suffered nine consecutive losing seasons to three straight NFC Championship games. Chip Kelly’s new age offense and progressive player friendly approach took the Eagles from four win also-rans to the playoffs.
Getting the right guy and the proper CEO for your organization can shift franchise fortunes in an instant. In that spirit I take a look at all of the new hires this year and rank them from first to worst. This isn’t a look at which teams will experience the quickest turn around, rather it is my take on which coaches will be the most successful in the long run.
1. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
Bill O’Brien was probably a sexier name, but I’ll take the experience and schematic brilliance of Zimmer. The fact that Zimmer brought offensive guru Norv Turner with him solidifies this as the best hire of the offseason. The Bengals ranked third in the NFL this past year in total defense, sixth in 2012, and seventh in 2011. Zimmer knows how to get the most from a defense and how to put his players in position to excel.
A relentless perfectionist, Zimmer brings the type of top down organization and accountability that has been lacking in Minnesota for years. You need a CEO, not just a schematic savant as a head coach, and Zimmer has been preparing for this role ever since he got his first defensive coordinator position with Dallas in the year 2000. He will know exactly what works, what doesn’t, and how he wants to approach every detail from OTA’s to in game adjustments. Xavier Rhodes, Sharif Floyd, Harrison Smith, and Chad Greenway provide a solid young foundation on defense that Zimmer will be able to mold and add to via the draft.
Turner, for his part, has never been a wildly successful head coach, but has been consistently excellent as an offensive coordinator. Zimmer will be able to control the defense and manage the big picture knowing that an elite offensive mind in Turner will take care of the other side of the ball. If the Vikings can hit on a quarterback in the draft they could be returning to the playoffs very soon.
2. Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans
I might be in the minority here but I love the Whisenhunt hire. As an offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, Whisenhunt helped develop Ben Roethlisberger into a Super Bowl caliber quarterback almost immediately. In Arizona as head coach he promptly turned a perennial loser into a contender, leading the Cardinals to a Super Bowl that by all accounts they had every chance to win.
Whisenhunt showed tremendous conviction in Arizona, ditching first-round pick Matt Leinart for the veteran Kurt Warner, and that bold decision proved to be a stroke of genius. The year after Warner led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, Arizona had another successful campaign ultimately losing to the eventual champion Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs. Success followed Whisenhunt from Pittsburgh to the desert and there’s no reason to think he can’t replicate those positive results in Nashville.
Jake Locker appears to be entering a make-or-break season and he will be in capable hands with the offensively inclined Whisenhunt who, as mentioned, helped mold a similarly mobile quarterback in Roethlisberger into a pro-bowl player. It might take time because Tennessee is talent poor right now, but with patience Whisenhunt will prove to be an excellent hire.
3. Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
That’s what this hire is all about. Lovie Smith has never blown me away as a head man, but he has experience, he’s been to a Super Bowl, and he knows how to put together an excellent defense. The fact that the Chicago Bears players were up in arms about his firing indicates just how well Smith plays in the locker room.
Smith cut his teeth in Tampa Bay under Tony Dungy helping mold an all-time great defense. He then took his talents to St. Louis where he transformed the defense in one season from a leaky unit allowing a league worst 29.4 points per game to an air tight group allowing just 17.1 points per contest.
Smith will have talent in droves to work with in Tampa Bay. Mark Barron, Darrelle Revis, and Dashon Goldson are all pro-bowl level players occupying the Buccaneers secondary. Lavonte David has been a revelation at linebacker, and Gerald McCoy is starting to play like the Top 5 draft pick that he was. Smith has the defensive chops to turn that group into a Top 3 unit in the league.
Offensively I liked what I saw from rookie quarterback Mike Glennon and he’ll have plenty of help with Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson. We see teams every season go from the bottom of the league to the playoffs and the Buccaneers have a great shot to do just that under the veteran stewardship of Smith.
4. Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans
O’Brien seems to be the apple of the media’s eye and I completely understand why. What he did keeping Penn State not only afloat but competitive during his two year tenure there speaks volumes about his character and coaching ability. His players remained focused and motivated under extremely difficult and unique circumstances, a testament to his leadership skills.
The fact that O’Brien worked with Tom Brady doesn’t hurt either. Holding the number-one pick, Houston has to feel confident about bringing in either Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater considering their head man worked with one of the best signal callers of all time.
The cupboards are stocked with talent for O’Brien. The defense boasts studs like J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing, while the offense has DeAndre Hopkins, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson.
The only reason O’Brien isn’t higher on this list is because of his relative inexperience. He spent just one year as the Patriots offensive coordinator and was only with the Nittany Lions for two seasons. Both of those stints were no doubt impressive, but track record matters and I need to see a little more from him.
5. Mike Pettine, Cleveland Browns
Pettine has been getting punished because people don’t know who he is, but name recognition does not necessarily equal greatness as a head coach. He’s also probably taken a public perception hit simply due to the fact that he was hired by an organization that is, ostensibly, a disorganized mess. Still, we’ve never seen Pettine as a head coach and it would be hard to rave about the hire without more of a sample size.
Pettine’s track record as a defensive mind is impressive. He worked on some of the best defenses in recent memory as a member of the Baltimore Ravens from 2002-2008, honing his skills at the knee of defensive guru Rex Ryan. Following his stint with Baltimore, Pettine followed Ryan to the Jets where he coordinated a defense that was largely responsible for dragging New York to consecutive AFC Championship appearances. Last year as the defensive coordinator for Buffalo, Pettine oversaw a renaissance of sorts, transforming the Bills from the 22nd- ranked total defense in 2012 to the 10th-ranked defense in 2013.
In Cleveland, talent abounds on the defensive side of the ball with Phil Taylor manning the nose tackle, D’Qwell Jackson playing excellent at inside linebacker, and a potential laden pass rushing tandem of Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard. Joe Haden is one of the best pure coverage cornerbacks in football and the Browns will also have two first round picks to add premier talent.
6. Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins
I like Jay Gruden, I just haven’t seen enough from him. He was solid as the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, but given the talent he had to work with the offense was too often pedestrian. Gruden deserves credit for turning a marginal talent in Andy Dalton into a playoff caliber quarterback, but he also deserves blame for mustering only 33 total points in the Bengals three consecutive opening round playoff losses over the past three seasons. Too often, the Bengals offense seemed to be focused on throwing vertically to A.J. Green and became one dimensional despite having playmakers like Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert, and Gio Bernard.
I also have to wonder how much of Gruden’s allure is based on his brother’s track record whether that’s fair or not. Energy and passion will never be in short supply. He is, after all, a Gruden and his love for the game is evident. As a young fiery guy Gruden will play well in the locker room, a prerequisite in Washington as keeping Robert Griffin III happy has proved no easy task.
It’s hard to gauge the relevance of Gruden’s time in the Arena League (he was the head coach of the Orlando Predators and Florida Tuskers) but at the very least he has some experience leading a franchise.
7. Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions
I never thought Caldwell was very effective as the head coach of the Colts. Yes, he did get them to a Super Bowl, but you have to wonder how much of that is attributable to the great Peyton Manning. Once Manning was hurt and unavailable the wheels absolutely fell off and the Colts went a putrid 2-14.
What I do like about this hire is that Caldwell has a calm demeanor and that could be something the young Lions need. Jim Schwartz always gave off an “inmates running the asylum” type of vibe and he seemed to be contributing to the undisciplined culture that permeated the franchise. A Dungy disciple, Caldwell will preach discipline and accountability.
The fact that Caldwell worked with Manning also has to bode well for the super talented, but not always mechanically consistent, Matthew Stafford. If Caldwell is able to impart to Stafford the same work ethic and attention to detail that has made Manning legendary, the results could be fantastic.
There’s upside to this hire but I could also see a dysfunctional locker room tuning out the soft spoken Caldwell. I haven’t seen enough success from him as a head coach to quiet those fears.
Adam Hocking is from Saint Paul, Minnesota where he covers the sporting world on his site: The Day in Sports. You can also check out his podcast by searching "The Day in Sports" on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter at @tdis_humblebrag