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Questioning if two years is enough to evaluate head coaches

The slate of Thanksgiving games featured two second-year head coaches -- Jim Schwartz of the Lions and Rex Ryan of the Jets. Ryan's short time as a head coach has been filled with success, but Schwartz has struggled to produce wins for the Lions.

Watching those two teams play as I stuffed myself with turkey and thanksgiving cheer, I wondered if two years is really enough time for an ownership or management group to make an accurate reading on the direction its team is headed under their head coach? Is 32 games enough evidence to know exactly what kind of head coach the organization has?

In the case of Ryan, that decision is easy as he took over a good, talented team, made it better, and now has the Jets Super Bowl-ready. In the case of Schwartz, he took over a winless team, made it competitive in spite of not having the services of his franchise quarterback, but has only won two games so far this year, and four overall (lowest among this season's second-year coaches).

Two years into his first head-coaching job in Cleveland, Bill Belichick won 13 total games, taking over a bad Browns team. Bill Parcells also won just 13 games in his first two years as the head coach of the New York Giants, but needed nine wins in his second season to reach that number. Both, obviously, went on to have great success, Parcells winning a Super Bowl for the Giants, Belichick making the playoffs in his fourth season and then winning three NFL titles as the head coach of the Patriots.

Wade Phillips won 22 games in his first two years as the head coach of the Cowboys, and Brad Childress won 14. Now both have lost their jobs. Could either the Cowboys or Vikings have known they would fail to produce after the first two seasons?

Among the current second-year head coaches, Ryan and the Colts' Jim Caldwell made the playoffs in their first seasons, and Kansas City's Todd Haley and Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris have put their teams in position for playoff berths after 10 games this season. Does this mean Schwartz (2-9 with Detroit), Josh McDaniels (3-7 with Denver), Steve Spagnuolo (4-6 with St. Louis), and Eric Mangini (3-7 with Cleveland) are not good coaches? Or does it mean they just took over some bad teams and faced tough schedules this year?

Mangini's case is interesting. Instead of firing him, the Browns took away some of his responsibilities outside the coaching spectrum, which might have actually helped him improve his team's on-field performance, even though his record might not indicate it.

Mangini came to Cleveland wanting to be the king, wanting to decide every minor detail that occurred in the building. By running the entire operation, he failed to coach the team well and appeared in over his head. This year, with Mike Holmgren running the organization, leaving Mangini with only coaching duties, the Browns look improved in every area and Mangini appears to be growing into the head-coaching role.

Records of second-year head coaches
Coach Team 2010 Overall
Jim Caldwell Indianapolis 6-4 20-6
Rex Ryan N.Y. Jets 9-2 18-9
Josh McDaniels Denver 3-7 11-15
Todd Haley Kansas City 6-4 10-16
Raheem Morris Tampa Bay 7-3 10-16
Eric Mangini Cleveland 3-7 8-18
Steve Spagnuolo St. Louis 4-6 5-21
Jim Schwartz Detroit 2-9 4-23

Evaluating a team is three-dimensional: The first looks at how sound the coach is; the second looks at the scheme; and the third centers on the personnel. The perfect paradigm is when the first two are in perfect harmony, leaving the third -- improving the talent base -- as the only obstacle to overcome. But setting up this paradigm is never easy, and requires everyone to know their roles and -- to borrow a phrase from Belichick -- "just do your jobs."

Yet defining those jobs is never easy because most new head coaches want to have full control. For example, Haley reduced his role as head coach by hiring two experienced coordinators, and letting them call the game. In turn, he has become more effective as a coach and leader, proving the point that being a head coach is hard enough and being the king of the company might be too much.

The critical aspect for an organization in evaluating their coach in his second year centers on the things they can do to put their coach in a better position to succeed. The front office must decide what change to the organizational structure has to be put in place to ensure the man hired some 18 months ago is successful. If there is no viable solution, and saving the coach is not a worthy option, then it might be time to move on.

After two years with Phillips, had Jerry Jones been specific in his overall evaluation and demanded he change in certain areas, then perhaps Phillips might still have a job. Everyone in the organization is similar to the players -- they need to be evaluated, motivated and told what areas they need to improve. Firing might be the easy answer, but it's not always the right answer.

The second-year coaches are at a crossroads, whether they have reached any level of success or not. Each one has areas of improvement that must be handled and must be supported by the front office. This is not the time for the coach to evoke power or control, but rather the time to self-evaluate. If the organizations is smart and proactive, it demands change and might not have to make a coaching change for years to come. If the problems linger, then it soon might be looking at other alternatives.

The script: My first 15

1. The Chicago-Philadelphia game will determine much about the quality of the Bears as a team and if they are a legitimate playoff team. Can they handle Michael Vick? They will need to coordinate their pass rush and make sure Vick is not allowed to move freely.

2. The same goes for the Bucs as they face a solid team in the Ravens. If Tampa can handle Baltimore's toughness in the Ravens' hostile environment, they will prove to the league they are not just the benefactors of a soft schedule.

3. The Packers-Falcons game features two great wide receivers in Roddy White and Greg Jennings. The winner of this game might be the team that gives extra defensive attention to these receivers. Each week, I wonder why teams just don't double these great players. How can White or Jennings ever see single coverage?

4. Phillip Rivers can match Peyton Manning point-for-point, throw-for-throw this week when the Chargers travel to Indianapolis, so the winner of this game might be the team that can play the best defense. And based on the way the Colts tackle in their secondary, I am thinking the Chargers can win.

5. Without receiver Austin Collie in the slot, the Colts are limited in how explosive they can be on offense and the Chargers match up well with Indy's defense. Whether the Chargers can get off a punt is another question.

6. The Jaguars-Giants game could be called the giveaway game because both teams are bad at protecting the football. The Giants are 27th in turnover differential and the Jags are 31st. Oddly, both teams are 6-4.

7. The Jags are not an explosive team on offense and should struggle to protect David Garrard against the Giants' defensive pressure. I would be shocked if Jacksonville is able to brave the weather elements and the Giants' pass rush and win the game.

8. With Ahmad Bradshaw being sent to the bench and Hakeem Nix not being able to start, the Giants on offense are becoming awfully slow. This has to concern their offensive coaching staff.

9. I have a feeling the Vikings will play well for interim coach Leslie Frazier this week. Childress was never well-liked, and there was constant conflict in the locker room. The black cloud has finally been lifted off the Vikings.

10. I do not think the Broncos should make Tim Tebow their starter yet, but they will need to make sure they know exactly what he can become before the draft next year and not pass on a quarterback, especially since they might have a high pick.

11. The Bills are riding a two-game winning streak and will try to make it three straight when they face the Steelers. It might be hard, but their only chance is if Ryan Fitzpatrick can continue his quality play. The Steelers will shut down the run and try to force Fitzpatrick to win the game behind the Bills' still-porous offensive line.

12. Don't you think the Browns at 3-6-1 sounds better than 3-7? I still think they should have played for the tie two weeks ago against the Jets. But letting the Jets win after gaining six turnovers has to be a tough pill to stomach.

13. Speaking of the Jets, their win last week against the Texans was tremendous, but Houston defensive coordinator Frank Bush has to be regretting the zero blitz call on the last play of the game. The Texans should have taken a time out, had a look at what the Jets were planning, and then not allowed Mark Sanchez to have an easy throw along with an easy decision.

14. The Raiders' problem in their offensive line is a huge concern, and handling the defensive front of the Dolphins, especially end Cameron Wake, has to be a concern. The Bills drafted Aaron Maybin in the first round of the 2009 draft from Penn State, but the best pass rusher from PSU is Wake, who went undrafted in 2005. So goes the scouting world.

15. My deepest thoughts and prayers are with my good friend Mike Heimerdinger, the Titans' offensive coordinator who will call plays on Sunday before he takes a treatment for cancer. 'Dinger is great man, a great coach, and I know he has the toughness to beat his cancer. But along the way, 'Dinger will get many well wishes, many prayers each day. I am here for you, my friend.

See you at the games ...

I'm looking forward to seeing the Jaguars and Giants play this weekend at Giants Stadium. Big game for both teams as the Jags have done a remarkable job of sneaking into first place in the AFC South without gaining much attention. Are they for real, or are they like they were last year when they lost their last four and five of their last six? The Giants must prove they are not going to fall apart as they did last year when they lost three of their last four, giving up 45, 41 and 44 points in those defeats. Should be fun following both storylines.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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