The Schein Nine  

 

Lovie Smith, Reggie Wayne highlight best offseason decisions

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Lovie Smith has the Chicago Bears playing excellent defense and tied for first place in the NFC North at 4-1.

There is no offseason in the NFL. The moves that are made in the draft, during the free-agency period and in regard to the coaching tree will shape a team's season.

In this edition of The Schein Nine, I've highlighted nine offseason moves -- including some that were hotly debated and controversial at the time they were made -- that have affected the course of the 2012 campaign in a very positive way.

1. Chicago Bears say goodbye to Jerry Angelo, keep Lovie Smith

I'm usually against the idea of bringing in a new general manager with the stipulation that the incumbent coach is untouchable. But while Angelo had to go after a bevy of bad offseasons, Smith is a very good coach who has won a lot of games in Chicago. He needed help with personnel and he needed a new offensive coordinator.

Enter Phil Emery as the Bears' new general manager, who brilliantly traded for Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall and drafted defensive end Shea McClellin and receiver Alshon Jeffery. Enter Mike Tice, who was actually promoted from within to replace the overmatched and pass-happy Mike Martz as the Bears' offensive coordinator.

By keeping Smith, Emery allowed the defense, which had been built around Smith's Tampa 2 scheme, to stay together. Cornerback Tim Jennings explained on SiriusXM Blitz how everyone has rallied around Smith, how the defensive players love playing for the coach. And the unit is producing results. Jennings is putting together an All-Pro-caliber season. Linebacker Lance Briggs has returned an interception for a touchdown in consecutive weeks. Guys like defensive tackle Henry Melton and safety Major Wright have stepped up.

Here's what's scary about the Bears, whom I picked to make the playoffs in the preseason: They can only get better, and linebacker Brian Urlacher and running back Matt Forte can only get healthier.

Quarterback Jay Cutler might befuddle with his demeanor, but his play has been solid. The Bears are legit and a true force in the NFC. The Emery-Smith combination has worked.

2. Miami Dolphins hire Joe Philbin

Miami owner Stephen Ross craves the big name. He wanted Jim Harbaugh to be his coach two offseasons ago, even while he was still employing Tony Sparano. This offseason, Ross wanted Jeff Fisher to take the Dolphins job, but Fisher picked the St. Louis Rams. So enter Philbin, a long-time, well-respected assistant with the Green Bay Packers.

I liked the idea of Philbin as a head coach, but not for Miami. I didn't think Ross would give him much time to grow, since he wasn't that coveted big name. I loathed the fit.

But Ross has to like what he's seen since. I know I do.

Though he's working with a thin and young roster, Philbin has been incredibly impressive, from the character he showed on HBO's "Hard Knocks" when he jettisoned receiver/clown Chad Johnson to the way he's developed rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Philbin also put together a good coaching staff, highlighted by offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, whose unit has been strong and consistent all season.

Philbin comes on SiriusXM NFL Blitz every week, and I appreciate his candid approach. He has challenged his "work in progress" receiving corps, which has outperformed expectations thus far, and he's raved about the dedication and leadership of running back Reggie Bush.

The Dolphins are now 2-3 after beating a good Cincinnati Bengals team on the road, and they could be 4-1, had they won overtime games against the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals. The roster is relatively weak, but Miami plays incredibly hard for Philbin. He's doing a great job coaching. It won't result in a trip to the playoffs this season, but if the owner stays out of the way, the Dolphins can build something. I hope Ross is paying attention.

3. St. Louis Rams hire Jeff Fisher

I don't like hyperbole, and I don't like to toss around the word "great." But I would call Fisher a great head coach for how he shaped the Tennessee Titans with his style and ability to overachieve. After hiring Fisher this offseason, the Rams are 3-2 and playing a fantastic brand of football, despite the prior regime leaving the roster with a lack of talent.

James Laurinaitis and Chris Long are the young leaders of this Rams team. A jubilant and emotional Laurinaitis joined me on SiriusXM NFL Radio last Friday after the Rams crunched the Cardinals on Thursday Night Football and told me that this is the first time in his career he's actually been over .500. I got the chills listening to Laurinaitis describe the change in culture under Fisher.

"He's soft-spoken with a purpose, with a matter-of-fact approach," Laurinaitis gushed. "You listen to him and you sense the football knowledge. He is so good at situational football. In an early meeting, he told us, 'We are not rebuilding. That's crap and nonsense. We are remodeling.' "

St. Louis is winning under Fisher. I couldn't be happier for Laurinaitis, Long and the Rams' fans.

4. San Francisco 49ers keep Alex Smith

Why would any team flirt with Peyton Manning when it was already likely to re-sign the model of efficiency in Smith, a winner and a team leader?

That's not an attempt to be funny. That's how I feel.

Smith is perfect for the 49ers. He's been through hell and back, and that adversity has made him tough. For the first time in his NFL career, he finally has consistency with his head coach and play caller. On Sunday, San Francisco embarrassed the Buffalo Bills, throwing literally everything at them.

Smith's teammates respect him, and he's emerged as the leader of this hard-working, versatile and dominant 49ers squad.

"We have a special team," Smith said Monday on SiriusXM NFL Blitz. "We are not about numbers. We are about winning. You can't stop us all. And the pass protection (on Sunday) was ridiculous."

5. Indianapolis Colts keep Reggie Wayne

The New England Patriots came close to signing Wayne. But credit Colts owner Jim Irsay for stepping up to keep the veteran receiver in Indy, even as the rest of the roster was undergoing a total makeover. Irsay surely knew that the Colts were picking Andrew Luck with the first choice in the 2012 NFL Draft. Wayne's return was a must.

As I said at the time, Wayne is still an elite player. He's also a fantastic worker and great teammate. If Luck was going to fully reach his potential as a rookie, he needed Wayne. The combination between quarterback and receiver has been outstanding all season, particularly on Sunday, when they hooked up 13 times for 212 yards and the game-winning touchdown. That comeback win over the Green Bay Packers, with the Colts playing for coach Chuck Pagano as he fights leukemia, was one to remember forever.

6. Atlanta Falcons change coordinators

After another Falcons season ended without a playoff win, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars and former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took a college gig. It was time for fresh voices and change.

As I predicted they would, the Falcons' defense has responded brilliantly to new coordinator Mike Nolan's coaching, no surprise to anyone who has followed his career. Atlanta is making more splash plays and surprising opponents by mixing up the front. The Falcons desperately needed a jolt on defense, and Nolan, who is a major upgrade over VanGorder, has given it to them. Credit the defensive-minded Mike Smith for bringing in help.

While he made sure not to criticize Mularkey, quarterback Matt Ryan raved on SiriusXM NFL Blitz about new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Koetter is smart, aggressive and gets all of his weapons involved.

The Falcons are 5-0 and in prime position to win one of those elusive playoff games, thanks to the coordinator changes.

7. Pittsburgh Steelers bank on Rashard Mendenhall

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With Rashard Mendenhall having suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament last season, I thought Pittsburgh needed to add a running back. But at the NFL Scouting Combine, general manager Kevin Colbert was adamant that Mendenhall would return around Week 4, and said he liked the Steelers' youth and depth at the position.

Sure enough, Mendenhall made his 2012 debut in Week 5, leading the Steelers to a needed win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

"He's a very talented runner," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin explained to us on SiriusXM NFL Blitz on Monday. "He can go inside and outside. He can catch it. He's a veteran player now. He has a great feel for the system. I wasn't surprised with how he played."

That's what makes the Steelers the Steelers.

8. Seattle Seahawks draft Bruce Irvin

Eyebrows were raised when the Seahawks took the troubled pass rusher with the 15th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. I was critical, but Seattle general manager John Schneider told us he thought Irvin was the best pure pass rusher and the third-best defender in the entire draft, behind seventh overall pick Mark Barron and ninth overall pick Luke Kuechly.

So far this season, Irvin has 4.5 sacks for the nasty Seattle defense. Schneider was right on.

9. Minnesota Vikings name Alan Williams defensive coordinator

I thought Vikings coach Leslie Frazier needed to hire an experienced defensive coordinator -- preferably one with head-coaching experience -- after Minnesota's awful 2011 season. Instead, he hired Williams, and I scratched my head. Well, the Vikings' young defense has become a playmaking force for the 4-1 squad.

Frazier became the Vikings head coach because of his defensive acumen. After the failed 2011 campaign, he wanted to put his stamp on the D and looked for a partner who would allow him to simultaneously manage the team.

As Frazier revealed to us on the SiriusXM NFL Blitz on Monday, "We worked together in Indy under Tony Dungy and I had a lot of respect for him. I wanted to be more involved with the defense after last year and that wouldn't work with everyone."

The appointment of Williams changed everything in Minnesota.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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