The NFL Coaching Game

There was so much to talk about following the NFL’s first wild playoff weekend: Tony Romo’s chokehold, Jeff Garcia’s redemption, the post-season wobbles of the Manning brothers, and Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork’s at-once brawny and brainy play. Yet the incessant chatter has been focused on coaches. Nick Saban has left, Bobby Petrino is coming. What did Bill Belichick have to say, along with his quick hug, to his former acolyte Eric Mangini? What could Tony Dungy possibly say, along with his long hug, to best pal Herman Edwards, after his offense was a no-show in Indy? Will Bill Parcells stick with the Cowboys? Why would the Giants ever let “Screamin’” Tom Coughlin stay around for another season?

I don’t exactly know when our obsession turned from the men on the field to the men on the sidelines. Perhaps it happened as baby boomers, with their overarching influence, aged, and, with their aching bodies, could no longer muster playing fantasies. But there is no doubt that the coach has emerged as the central figure in the weekly NFL drama. The question of the week is no longer phrased: Will LaDainian Tomlinson run wild on the Pats tough ‘D’? Rather it is: Will Belichick figure out a way to put the clamps on “L.T.”? We know no middle ground in our perspectives on these men. Coaches are either the salvation—they are geniuses or the ruination; they are clowns—of their teams. And some of the former discover how quickly they can wind up on the other side of the divide. So heading into what is my favorite weekend of the NFL season, the final four-pack, here’s my coaches’ edition.

Open Season: With the Atlanta Falcons having moved quickly to lure Bobby Petrino from the University of Louisville, there are just four NFL coaching vacancies at the moment. Here’s how they rank as opportunities:

Pittsburgh Steelers: This may not be the best-paid opening nor boast the biggest budget. But there has to be something enormously comforting about the prospect of taking over the helm of a team that has had only two head coaches, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, since the ‘60s—and both left the job voluntarily. The ownership is as classy as any in all of sports, the young quarterback is still a stud (despite his slow post-motorcycle accident rebound this season) and a strong nucleus remains from last year’s Super Bowl champs.

Miami Dolphins: Granted you would inherit a headache at quarterback. And possibly a head case at running back, as Ricky Williams wants to return from Canada and his most recent drug suspension. Still, remember that some experts picked this team to reach the Super Bowl this season. The defense is aging, but stalwart. And the Dolphins will benefit next year, as the New York Jets did this season, from an easier fourth-place schedule.

Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals play in a state-of-the-art facility with some of the best young talent in the league. But one name hovers above all the others: Bidwill! That’s an ownership curse that has loomed over a Cardinals franchise that went 51 years without a playoff win. It can’t get much worse than Denny Green’s 16-32 mark over the past three years, but they say that each and every time a new coach is hired, which is often.

Oakland Raiders: Imagine life on a short leash and even shorter budget, under the thumb of a 77-year-old legend, Al Davis, who—even though it has been 32 seasons since Daryle Lamonica hung ’em up—still dreams of an offense built around the long bomb. Then again, after fired coach Art Shell spent an entire season appearing to confuse soporific with stoic, any new coach can look inspired. The sole comfort is that the new hire can spend his first few months dreaming of that first pick in the draft.

Feeling the Draft: No matter how brilliant a coach may be, the surest path to success is snaring a superstar quarterback, as well as a complementary one. Who knows what Bill Belichick would have achieved in New England had he not been forced by injury to turn to an untested sixth-round draft choice, Tom Brady, as his quarterback?

This year’s draft looms as potentially the richest harvest of college quarterbacks since 1983, when Dan Marino was only the sixth quarterback selected in the first round. (For trivia buffs, there were no complete busts: the order of selection was John Elway with the first pick, Todd Blackledge seventh, Jim Kelly 14th, Tony Eason 15th, Ken O’Brien 24th—before the University of Pittsburgh star was taken by Miami with the 27th pick.) The 2007 draft will likely include Ohio State’s Heisman Trophy winner, Troy Smith, Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn, LSU’s JaMarcus Russell, Louisville’s Brian Brohm and University of Hawaii record-setter Colt Brennan.

The Raiders, in desperate need of a quarterback (and so much more), will almost certainly make one the first pick of the draft for the eighth time in the last 10 years. The Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, both with high picks, are needy at that position, too. Of course, all No. 1 selections are not created equal, as Mannings (Peyton, No. 1 in ’98, and Eli, No. 1 six years later) have amply demonstrated. Coaching and front-office careers have risen and fallen based on the critical choice of signal-callers. Drew Bledsoe or Rick Mirer in 1993? Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf in 1998? Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb or Akili Smith in 1999? Eli Manning or Philip Rivers in 2004?

Given Al Davis’s throwback taste for the long ball, it’s hard to see Oakland passing on the giant (6 feet 6 inches, 260 pounds), strong-armed Russell. Scouts like his form and passing accuracy better than they did Vince Young’s a year ago. And Russell has a 25-4 record as a starter. Given what Young accomplished this season with Tennessee, “he just wins” may carry a lot more weight this time around. That notion might have benefited the Buckeyes’ Smith as well, until he and Ohio State just didn’t win the BCS championship. It will be interesting to see how far he falls in the draft as a result of a very shaky performance against Florida. Quinn, once regarded as a possible first overall pick, could also suffer from a dismal performance in his final bowl game.

The Mangini Factor: Given that New Orleans Saints’ 43-year-old Sean Payton won the NFL Coach of the Year award, while another rookie coach, the Jets’ Mangini, who will turn just 36 next week, was his stiffest competition for the honor, you would think that bright, young NFL assistants would snare all the head coach openings. And that after Nick Saban’s flop in Miami, teams might be wary of putting their fate in the hands of a top coach from the college ranks. But Atlanta didn’t hesitate to hire Petrino, and Miami is reportedly flirting with USC’s Pete Carroll. College coaches don’t seem to have suffered for Saban’s sins. But smart NFL retreads like the two Mikes, former Green Bay coach Sherman and former Vikings coach Tice, may have to wait at least another season before landing a second chance. How quickly we forget that Belichick was once a retread.

A Racial Divide: Those concerned about racial progress on the NFL’s management side will undoubtedly be distressed by what is likely to be a step backward. There were a record seven black head coaches in the NFL this past season; three—Dungy, Edwards and Lovie Smith—reached the playoffs, and three—Green, Shell and Romeo Crennel—presided over disasters, costing the first two their jobs. (Only Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis fell in the middle ground, though the Bengals were an 8-8 disappointment.) There is always at least one major surprise on the hiring front, but right now black assistant coaches don’t appear to be at the top of any teams’ wish lists.

Tuna Watch: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says he wants Bill Parcells back for another year, but then again he says that about Terrell Owens too. Parcells must hate to go out on such a sour note. On the other hand, his mantra has always been: you are what your record says you are. Of course, that is an observation about teams rather than coaches. But Parcells certainly bears much responsibility for Dallas’s disappointing finish, especially the back-to-back losses to the Saints and the Eagles, in which he was badly outcoached. By season’s end, Parcells looked like a man who was being fed daily doses of polonium. Hard to believe he could endure another season let alone survive it.

Miami Heat: So Nick Saban, once seen as the salvation of the Miami Dolphins, is now eternally “Nick Satan” in South Florida. Saban may insist that he left his heart in college coaching. But something tells me that had he opted for Drew Brees as his quarterback rather than the lethal combination of the still gimpy Daunte Culpepper and the not-ready-for-prime-time Joey Harrington, he might still be in Miami this coming Valentine’s Day. When he wound up with a Lemon at quarterback (Cleo), and Alabama waved record greenbacks at him, Saban’s heart suddenly belonged to Tuscaloosa.

Belichick vs L.T.: Yup, I see it that way too. The Pats have taken on the playoff challenge of a team with the reigning NFL MVP before—primarily quarterbacks like Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning and Steve McNair—with considerable success. The conventional wisdom is that the Pats can prevail this week in San Diego against the top-seeded Chargers only if Belichick comes up with a defensive strategy to contain LaDainian Tomlinson. In three regular-season games against the Pats, Tomlinson has run wild twice, including one game in which he gained more than 200 yards; no surprise then that the Chargers are 2-1 with Tomlinson against the Pats, including a 41-14 rout in Foxboro last year.

A Schott at Glory: Belichick is almost always portrayed as the coach who can pull off the upset against the Chargers. By contrast, Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer is most often portrayed as the man who can only blow the game. The consensus is he might do that if he reverts to his cautious “Martyball” approach and doesn’t let his explosive team attack. That pejorative stems from Schottenheimer’s 5-12 mark in the post-season, a record that obscures a remarkably successful coaching career. Schottenheimer has taken more teams to the playoffs than any coach in NFL history except Don Shula and Tom Landry. One Super Bowl win might put his career in a more balanced perspective and even land him in football’s Hall of Fame.