It's November and the NFL is hotter than ever, buzzing with playoff chatter and the inevitable turning of the coaching carousel.
The Bucs are back. Tampa Bay has scored 28 points or more in five consecutive games for the first time in franchise history. The Buccaneers punished the San Diego Chargers last Sunday on offense, defense and special teams en route to their fifth win of the season. The 5-4 Bucs are dangerous and very much in the mix for an NFC wild-card berth.
Schiano's fingerprints are all over the turnaround.
Last year, the Bucs quit on Raheem Morris in embarrassing fashion, and the overwhelmed former "coach" couldn't stop the bleeding. The 2012 version of the Bucs, meanwhile, is the NFL's most improved squad on offense (the team's points-per-game average jumped from 17.9 in 2011 to a whopping 28.9) and defense (opponents averaged an unacceptable 30.9 per game in 2011; that number is now down to 23.2, or about a touchdown's worth).
Things didn't look so rosy at the beginning of the season. The Buccaneers started 1-3, and the critics were out for blood. They complained about Schiano's drill-sergeant ways with the players, coaches, staffers and media. After a Week 2 loss to the New York Giants, Schiano was blasted by opposing coaches, players and, again, the media (including me, as I told him weeks later) for "playing to the whistle" and having his defense go hard while Big Blue took a knee. Schiano apparently couldn't have cared less, because he did it again the following week in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Schiano believes what he believes and won't waver.
I appreciated the detail-oriented approach Schiano used to completely turn around the football program at Rutgers, and I loved the hire for Tampa Bay. Schiano demands accountability, and accountability gives the Bucs their best chance to win. Accountability is what Morris' ill-fated "buddy-buddy" style lacked -- along with, frankly, fear. Schiano came in, led with an iron first and insisted the Bucs work hard. It's paying off.
Some weren't wowed by the coaching staff Schiano assembled, but he did well. His most impressive move was plucking quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan from the Giants to be his offensive coordinator. Since then, Josh Freeman has reclaimed his status as the Bucs' answer at the quarterback position; he's rocked to the tune of an impressive 13:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past five weeks.
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Schiano specifically targeted Mark Barron and Doug Martin in April's draft. The day after he picked Barron seventh overall and Martin 31st, Schiano told me on SiriusXM Blitz that he wanted them for their talent and leadership abilities. Both currently are in the mix to be named the defensive and offensive rookies of the year, respectively. Barron is a smart, hard-hitting, play-making safety. Martin is a star running back on an incredible ride.
And the NFL is taking notice.
The college coach is back en vogue. Or, more specifically, the right college coach.
One general manager told me that in all the talk about Schiano's success, people often overlook the former Chicago Bears assistant's experience with and knowledge of the NFL.
"I think knowing the league is very helpful. There aren't many Jimmy Johnsons," the general manager said. He also credited Schiano, who works incredibly well with Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik, for his sharpness when it comes to personnel matters.
However, regarding Kelly, the general manager I spoke with said: "I'd be scared of Kelly. Does he understand the pro game? (Former Washington Redskins coach Steve) Spurrier had no idea. He (Kelly) would not be my first choice, but I'd interview him."
On the flip side, another established general manager said that "Schiano has changed the perception. Kelly is innovative enough to do it. He's a bright guy. I think he would understand the hierarchy in the NFL."
Another NFL decision maker, who most certainly is not in the market for a head coach, said that "Schiano has opened it up. If I needed a head coach, I would have Chip Kelly, (Penn State's) Bill O'Brien and (Iowa's) Kirk Ferentz on the top of my list. I like (Washington's) Steve Sarkisian and (Oklahoma's) Bob Stoops, too. I'd also want to find a way to talk to (Alabama's) Nick Saban." Stoops was also mentioned by another top executive, one who has taken fliers on head coaches. "I have always thought Bob Stoops would be a good pro coach," he stressed.
The five executives I polled for this story all had O'Brien listed first or second when I asked for people in the college ranks who would make strong NFL head coaches. O'Brien, who was an excellent and respected assistant for the New England Patriots, has done a superb job navigating Penn State through rough and unprecedented waters.
The executives said they would also want to interview Stanford's David Shaw, Connecticut's Paul Pasqualoni and Syracuse's Doug Marrone, because of those coaches' NFL experience. One respected executive told me he would want to sit down with Wisconsin's Bret Bielema. Before you scoff, remember that the Bucs' decision to hire Schiano was initially greeted with a relative shrug and a yawn nationally.
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The pickings are likely to be slim when it comes to head-coaching candidates who are currently or have recently been in the pros. Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid needs a fresh start. Former NFL coach Jon Gruden can get any job, and will choose it if he wants back in. Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, meanwhile, seems happy in broadcasting. And outgoing Cleveland Browns executive Mike Holmgren? As a coach? What year is this? As far as NFL assistants go, are there any truly hot, can't-miss prospects?
Who would have ever imagined that 365 days ago?