Analysis  

 

Bill O'Brien will make biggest 2014 impact among new coaches

Fan bases become energized when a new head coach is hired. It's fresh blood after a year -- or years -- of frustration and futility.

But will that fresh blood get results?

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Some new hires spark instant returns, like Andy Reid and Chip Kelly, who led their respective franchises back to the playoffs in Year 1. Some are so bad and ill-fated from the beginning that they actually make a rough situation worse, like Rob Chudzinski, who lasted just one season in Cleveland.

I thought most of the hires made during this year's coaching cycle ranged from solid to superb. When callers asked me this December on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," to name the top head-coaching candidates, I always listed Bill O'Brien, Ken Whisenhunt, Lovie Smith, Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden. They all found jobs.

Which new coaches are going to come in and immediately set the football world on fire? Who will make the biggest impact right off the bat in 2014? Here are my rankings:

1) Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans

O'Brien takes over what was the worst team in the NFL -- 2-14 in 2013 -- though it certainly was not the least talented. This situation is akin to Reid landing in Kansas City one year ago, when the Chiefs needed a change to bring some credibility to their head-coaching post. Gary Kubiak ran Houston into the ground. Savvy owner Bob McNair was cognizant of this early, swiftly firing Kubiak before the season ended to get a jump on the opposition in the coaching carousel. Consequently, he hired the single best candidate.

O'Brien adroitly guided Penn State through unparalleled adversity in the wake of a horrid scandal. He's a great coach, motivator and mind. O'Brien's not a college coach trying to make a jump; he's an NFL coach who was successful in college. He could've easily landed an NFL head-coaching job last offseason. In fact, he could've done so even if he'd stayed on Bill Belichick's New England Patriots staff and didn't make the jump to Penn State.

O'Brien, who definitely didn't lack interest from potential employers, smartly picked a talented (albeit underachieving) team with a great owner and direction. And the Texans will only get better this offseason through free agency and the 2014 NFL Draft. Having the No. 1 overall selection, which could deliver an impact player or multiple draft picks (via trade), certainly helps matters.

This is the team to monitor. O'Brien's deft touch should lead Houston from the cellar back to the playoffs.

2) Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Often, when a coach fizzles in any sport, management looks for a replacement in the opposite mold. In football, that routinely means shifting from offense to defense, or vice versa. While the Buccaneers stayed on the defensive side after firing Greg Schiano, they went with the complete opposite in personality, popularity and perception by hiring Smith.

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I actually liked Schiano and former general manager Mark Dominik; I thought they deserved one more year to try to turn the corner. That, of course, didn't happen. Still, there is no question the Bucs significantly upgraded with Lovie, who brings instant credibility to that locker room and to the fan base in Tampa. And after the drama-filled season the franchise just endured, the importance of this cannot be understated.

Tampa has solid pieces in place. I like Mike Glennon at quarterback and expect the Bucs to add a vet at the position for support. A clean slate at the top will provide a better vibe.

Smith built a sustained winner in Chicago. He will do the same in Tampa.

3) Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins

Gruden was a tremendous hire. He is intense, intelligent and excellent with young players. Also, this wasn't a Daniel Snyder splash play -- that's a very important detail.

The Redskins posted the second-worst record in the league last season (3-13), but there are plenty of reasons for hope. Gruden will reboot Robert Griffin III, who is in desperate need of an improved relationship with his head coach and play-caller. The 'Skins have a lot of work to do on personnel, but Gruden's stamp will be all over this team, which won't be a chaotic laughingstock like it was last year.

4) Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings

I don't think this move received enough positive publicity. Finally, Zimmer got a head-coaching job. And the Vikes got themselves a perfect fit.

Perception of Zimmer as a cursing lunatic from "Hard Knocks" unfortunately became a bizarro-world reality as he tried to get a head-coaching gig. This was shortsighted thinking. Did you notice how he consistently got the Cincinnati Bengals' defense to overachieve? Did you notice how, in Cincy, he was able to regularly rescue careers and get players to maximize their potential?

Zimmer is going to kick some rear end in Minnesota. His standing as a defensive guru is well-established, and with Adrian Peterson at running back, that's a good start on the other side of the ball. The Vikings will add at least one quarterback to the roster after going through that miserable situation last year.

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Zimmer is a true coach and a leader.

5) Mike Pettine, Cleveland Browns

Forget about all the haters buzzing around this organization these days. I love this hire. In fact, I wrote an entire column last week explaining why Cleveland is truly headed in the right direction after this coach/front office overhaul that drew snickers from the national public. With plenty of cap space, draft picks and existing talent already on the roster, the Browns are primed to mount an abrupt turnaround behind capable new leadership.

6) Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans

Whisenhunt can coach. He came painfully close to winning a Lombardi Trophy with the Arizona Cardinals, after all. Still, it might take him a minute in Tennessee. The Titans have talent, but they have questions to answer at a number of key positions this offseason. Is Jake Locker a quarterback you can build around? What's the plan at running back, with Chris Johnson looming as a probable cap casualty? And how will the team proceed with free-agent cornerback Alterraun Verner?

Make no mistake, though: This is a great hire, one that another team (more on that in a minute) will regret not making. Whisenhunt's tenure ended badly in Arizona, but don't minimize what he accomplished in changing the feel and perception of the Cardinals franchise. Whisenhunt is a good game-day coach, sets the tone in practice and is very well-respected and liked around the league. He did a great job rejuvenating Philip Rivers' career in San Diego as the Chargers' offensive coordinator last season, and of course, developing Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh years ago. Now the challenge will be to fix Locker -- and/or another quarterback.


With the offseason underway, Around The League explores what's next for all 32 teams.

AFC East
» Bills | Dolphins | Jets | Patriots
AFC North
» Bengals | Browns | Ravens | Steelers
AFC South
» Colts | Jaguars | Texans | Titans
AFC West
» Broncos | Chargers | Chiefs | Raiders
NFC East
» Cowboys | Eagles | Giants | Redskins
NFC North
» Bears | Lions | Packers | Vikings
NFC South
» Buccaneers | Falcons | Panthers | Saints
NFC West
» Cardinals | 49ers | Rams | Seahawks

7) Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions

Like Tampa Bay, Detroit wisely went the polar-opposite route. Jim Schwartz ranted and raved and was undisciplined as a head coach -- it was no coincidence that his team consistently shot itself in the foot with mistakes. Caldwell is even-keeled. At any given point in a game, you never know if his team is winning or losing -- exactly what the out-of-control Lions need.

However, Caldwell is a curious case.

Is he a good coach? Here's an honest answer: I don't know.

Caldwell won a lot of games with Peyton Manning in Indy. But did he ever dazzle with in-game decisions? Remember the playoff loss to the New York Jets when NBC cameras caught Manning rightly shaking his head at a questionable Caldwell timeout? And when Manning couldn't play in 2011, Caldwell's Colts completely fell apart.

Caldwell was a savior as a substitute offensive coordinator in Baltimore's magical Super Bowl run. In 2013, however, the Ravens' offense never got started, finishing 29th in yardage and 25th in scoring.

The shift in personality from Schwartz to Caldwell made perfect sense. But I thought Whisenhunt would've been ideal to change the identity and focus in Detroit and take Matthew Stafford (and the rest of the talented roster) to the next level.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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