Analysis  

 

Hue Jackson, Jim Caldwell merit attention over Josh McDaniels

On the first day of 2014, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a page out of the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs' Quick-Fix Playbook, choosing Lovie Smith as the next coach of their talented but underachieving team.

Just as the Chiefs did one year ago in hiring Andy Reid, who subsequently followed up their league-worst 2-14 season in 2012 with an 11-5 playoff campaign, the Bucs went out and got an experienced NFL coach with a strong, Super Bowl-enhanced résumé. Smith, fired by the Chicago Bears after a 10-6 season in 2012, is a true pro who gives Tampa Bay the best chance to reverse the damage of the two-year Greg Schiano nightmare.

When I said Monday that the 2014 Bucs have a great opportunity to be the 2013 Chiefs, I was banking on the Glazer family making such a move. While I'm always in favor of a team finding a future star when filling a coaching opening -- a Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin or John Harbaugh -- there are times when hiring a so-called retread is understandable, perhaps even preferable.

One such retread, Bill Belichick, has been a revelation the second time around, leading the New England Patriots to five Super Bowls and collecting three rings. Others have enjoyed success in their second (or third) head-coaching gig, and I would expect Smith to join that group. Given the Chiefs' nine-victory improvement this season, I can see why men with prior NFL head-coaching experience are in demand.

Not all retreads, however, are created equal. And when I read reports that former Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels might be the leading candidate to fill the Cleveland Browns' opening, I feel like someone has just taken a tire iron to my skull.

McDaniels? Really? This is the guy who, hired at 32 as the Denver Broncos' coach and given de facto control over all football-related decisions, proceeded to embark upon a reign of error that can only be described as a fiasco.

First, McDaniels clashed with Jay Cutler, trading his franchise quarterback and beginning a feud with Brandon Marshall that ultimately led to the star receiver's departure. After winning his first six games, McDaniels lost 17 of his next 22, making a string of dubious personnel decisions along the way. He was fired with four games remaining in his second season, in the wake of a cheating scandal that underscored his abrasive and alienating interpersonal style.

The following season, McDaniels landed in St. Louis, where he managed to make 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Sam Bradford regress mightily while coordinating the league's second-worst attack. Fired by the Rams, he immediately got his old job back in New England, where, as offensive coordinator, he had the luxury of working under one of the league's most brilliant strategists (Belichick) and calling plays for one of its all-time greatest quarterbacks (Tom Brady). Hey, it's nice work if you can get it. Predictably, the Patriots have been highly prolific during McDaniels' second stint, just as they were during his first stint, and in the years between. (The guy who coordinated the Pats' offense while McDaniels was in Denver and St. Louis, Bill O'Brien, parlayed that sweet gig into the Penn State coaching job and, on Tuesday, a deal to become the head coach of the Houston Texans.)

So if the Browns decide McDaniels is the man to bring stability and continuity to their long-suffering organization, pardon me if I don't drink the Kool-Aid the way so many other football fans and media members seem to when it comes to such matters.

I could spend some time talking about how coaches from the Belichick tree (Eric Mangini, McDaniels, Romeo Crennel) have failed after taking over NFL teams, and why I think autocrats who lack people skills and have yet to establish a legitimate aura of authority (the way Belichick and his mentor, Bill Parcells, already have) are perpetually set up for failure.

Instead, I'll simply say this: If we're going to extend second chances to previously fired NFL head coaches, there are a whole lot of others I'd put above McDaniels on the list. Some of those men, like ex-Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, likely will draw some interest from the teams still searching for coaches. As the Chargers' current offensive coordinator, Whisenhunt -- who took the Cardinals to the brink of a Super Bowl championship five years ago -- can't be interviewed at least until after San Diego's first-round playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

As for the others -- well, I just hope the second-chance spirit extends to minorities such as Jim Caldwell and Hue Jackson, two qualified candidates whose names are often scoffed at by outsiders but who, like Smith, could do wonders for a team in search of stability.

Caldwell, who coached the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl appearance four years ago and earned a ring with the Baltimore Ravens last February (after helping to pump life into the team's stagnant attack as a late-season replacement for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron), reportedly is drawing interest from the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions. I sincerely hope that Caldwell is not being courted simply as a means of satisfying the Rooney Rule, and that he will receive serious consideration for these jobs. The arguments I hear from outsiders questioning his credentials -- that his success in Indy was merely the product of Peyton Manning's brilliance, that the Colts' subsequent collapse (2-14 in 2011) with Manning shelved all season by a neck injury exposed his inadequacies, that his low-key personality isn't conducive to running a team -- are superficial and silly.

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If Brady's praise of McDaniels as a great offensive coach can boost his credibility, shouldn't Manning's strong endorsement of Caldwell, his quarterbacks coach in Indy from 2002-08 and head coach from 2009-11, carry similar weight?

Then there is Jackson, who went 8-8 in 2011, his lone season as the Oakland Raiders' coach, before getting fired by owner Mark Davis. In retrospect, Jackson's performance in taking the Raiders to the brink of their first AFC West title (and playoff berth) since 2002 -- despite challenges such as owner Al Davis' death and season-ending injuries to quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Darren McFadden -- looks downright brilliant. His replacement, Dennis Allen, has won eight games in two seasons, losing 24, and reportedly will meet with Mark Davis on Monday to determine whether he returns for a third campaign.

Yet Jackson, the Bengals' running backs coach and special assistant to head coach Marvin Lewis, is routinely lampooned as a possible coaching candidate by fans and media members, as if his prowess as an offensive strategist was not well-documented, or his perceived coaching missteps were anywhere approaching those of McDaniels or Jackson's predecessor in Oakland, Tom Cable (whose name still gets thrown out liberally). Cable did manage to finish 8-8 in his final season -- after Jackson, brought in by Al Davis to run the offense, took the Raiders from 31st to 10th in the league rankings and more than doubled their point total from the previous year.

When Davis fired Cable, the owner cited the embarrassment the coach had caused the franchise via his "accidental" breaking of ex-Oakland assistant Randy Hanson's jaw and subsequent allegations of domestic abuse. Now compare those blights on Cable's record to the oft-cited complaints about Jackson, and tell me which man is more worthy of a second look.

First, though Jackson is routinely blamed for the Raiders' much-maligned trade for quarterback Carson Palmer, I've argued that the move wasn't nearly as ruinous as is commonly perceived, and that even if it were, it would merely reflect Jackson's shortcomings as a general manager candidate, not as a head coach.

Secondly, that Jackson came off as brash and power-hungry in several press conferences late in the 2011 season -- something he has since said he regretted -- was hardly a cataclysmic act. Compared to, say, Rex Ryan at his boldest, Jackson's words were relatively tame. The man was frustrated in the midst of a late-season slump that would surprisingly cost him his job; hey, at least we know he cared.

If Jackson's supposed failings are somehow perceived by NFL owners and general managers as more significant than those displayed by McDaniels in Denver, I can't help but wonder if race is playing a role. When I write and speak about the challenges faced by minority coaching candidates -- and this is an issue I've been harping upon for a long, long time -- I'm not trying to launch some bleeding-hearted social crusade in the name of affirmative action. Rather, I'm expressing an undercurrent of frustration rampant in NFL circles among African-American coaches and, yes, many of their white counterparts, a sense that, while progress obviously has been made, a different set of rules tends to apply to otherwise comparable candidates.

That the Bucs seemingly regarded Smith the way the Chiefs viewed Reid a year ago is a highly promising sign. In the coming weeks, if Caldwell and Jackson can get at least a level playing field when being judged against checkered candidates like McDaniels, we can hail that as further progress, not to mention a win for rational thought.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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