The questions are more plentiful than answers; answers that are much harder to come by with no wins, simmering in-house discomfort and no visible evidence of short- or long-term plans. In Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Cleveland, the second-guessing of new coaches Todd Haley, Raheem Morris and Eric Mangini has already begun -- and we're just three games into the season.
Mangini's situation seems the most tenuous. The team has looked awful; neither Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson appears to be the quarterback of the present, let alone future. Meanwhile, Mangini's hard-line ways have caused players to file grievances over what some perceive as petty fines. The situation in Cleveland has raised eyebrows of outside observers who've wondered what Mangini, once a hailed coaching upstart with the Jets, is actually trying to accomplish: Win games or napalm everything in his path?
Haley and Morris, both first-time coaches, are manning situations that are borderline rudderless, with some of their decisions prompting questions as to whether they're adding to the wayward starts of Kansas City and Tampa Bay, respectively. Both fired their offensive coordinators shortly before the seasons; Haley talked of replacing his quarterback while Morris already has -- after he said he wouldn't.
"It is a little bit of growing pains," Buccaneers first-year general manager Mark Dominik said of Morris' evolution this offseason from secondary coach to being interviewed as defensive coordinator to being named as the unsuspecting head coach in place of Jon Gruden in a matter of weeks. "He's learning how to deal with press conferences, things like that. When he said he wasn't going to bench Byron [Leftwich] it was right after a tough loss (24-0 to the Giants on Sunday) and it was emotional.
"It was a learning moment and what he learned from it was probably not to say anything until after he watched film, talks to the other coaches and proceeds from there, which he did and then decided to make the change (to Josh Johnson)."
While some of Morris' moves have seemed spontaneous, sporadic and questionably thought out, none were more dissected than his firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski two weeks before the season started. At the time, Morris said the team realized it was a bad fit, to which several long-time NFL personnel people asked, in a nutshell, "Why couldn't he have figured that out during the interview process?"
Now, just more than a month after letting Jagodzinski go, Morris has replaced Leftwich, not with first-round draft pick Josh Freeman, but with Johnson -- a mobile second-year player from the University of San Diego -- who is still developing. Freeman simply isn't ready, Leftwich isn't part of the future and the Buccaneers need to find out if Johnson is. The decision was organizational, not just Morris', Dominik said.
"A big part is trying to figure out what we have, in terms of young players, and so we're playing younger players to be able to answer that question," Dominik said. "We might not like the answers but we'll be able to build our roster for next Sunday, for 2010 and beyond."
The changing of quarterbacks won't be the only move, either. In other words, the rebuilding phase is in full swing.
Morris also has singled out players for public criticism, a no-no in a lot of circles in any realm of professional sports. He called out tight end Kellen Winslow, cornerback Aqib Talib and guard Jeremy Zuttah at a news conference for not doing what they needed to do in the blowout loss to the Giants. Professional athletes hate to be put in their place in front of teammates, let alone the public, but Morris has been consistent with this approach and, according to Dominik, players have always responded positively.
"No player is blind-sided by anything Raheem has said publicly," Dominik said. "Anything he says, he's already said to the player."
While Morris' candor has been controversial to some but appreciated by much of the team's fan base, Mangini's clandestine and tough-handed ways have done little to endear positive signs on the field or positive vibes off it. He arrived from the Jets, where he was fired after three seasons, with a reputation of being a micro-managing task master in every facet of football operations. He's only enhanced that image in Cleveland by re-tooling just about everything with an iron fist.
Reports of player unrest surfaced this summer when rookies rode a bus 10 hours to Hartford, Conn., for a "voluntary" camp for youths that Mangini oversees. Then came the preseason-long secrecy surrounding the starting quarterback, which turned out to be Quinn, but now could end up being Anderson since Quinn has yet to generate but one offensive touchdown in three games. Some players have also filed grievances with the NFLPA for fines Mangini has levied over non-payment of hotel incidentals, among other things.
Mangini was brought in to change the environment and culture of losing that has engulfed the Browns before and since a near-playoff run in (2007). The environment has changed for sure, but not much else has.
Haley, meanwhile, seems to be trying to figure out what to do with a team that has undergone heavy turnover, but doesn't appear to be on track for the radical turnaround we saw last season in Miami and Atlanta. Haley, a well-known hard-driver, has worked his team relentlessly, practicing in full pads much of the time and demoting players (Glenn Dorsey, Dwayne Bowe) who weren't in ideal shape.
Like Morris in Tampa Bay, he fired his offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, just before the season. It was no surprise since Haley called the plays in Arizona, where he built a strong rep as a creative offense coach and was on the fast track to getting a head-coaching job somewhere before landing with the Chiefs.
The problem is, the Chiefs have failed to establish any real sense of what they will be offensively. Quarterback Matt Cassel, who was signed to a $62-million contract ($28 million guaranteed) after being acquired in a trade from New England, missed the Week 1 loss because of a knee injury. Backup Brodie Croyle completed 16 of 24 for two touchdowns in a 38-24 loss to Baltimore. Cassel started in a 13-10 loss to the Raiders the following week and completed 24 of 39 for a touchdown and two interceptions. Haley said he would consider replacing Cassel if mistakes became a problem.
The short leash seemed odd since this was the player the Chiefs appear to be building around based on the money the team invested in him and because of Cassel's ties to new general manager Scott Pioli, who built his chops with the Patriots, where Cassel was groomed. Cassel played the entire 34-14 loss to Philadelphia, a game in which Haley opted to run the ball for the majority of the second half, despite his team trailing most of the time.
Not helping Mangini's, Haley's and Morris' forays into the 2009 season are the contrasting starts of two other new coaches.
Denver's Josh McDaniels could not have seemed more over his head during his first six months in Denver, trading away quarterback Jay Cutler and alienating wide receiver Brandon Marshall, among other things. Yet his players believe in what he was selling and the Broncos are unbeaten after three weeks.
Steve Spagnuolo inherited one of the most talent-bereft rosters in the NFL and the Rams' 0-3 record bears proof. But he's been consistently positive and hasn't changed course or threatened to, instilling trust with players, many of whom won't be around to see whether he can turn around one of the most inept franchises over the past few years.
Mangini, Haley and Morris didn't get the jobs they have because things were good to start with. Kansas City, Cleveland and Tampa Bay were a combined 15-33 last season (the Buccaneers contributed nine of those wins). Figuring out how to be competitive while laying a foundation for the future is a tricky balance -- one not made easier by raised expectations thanks to the immediate turnarounds in Atlanta and Miami last season. Both the Falcons and Dolphins made it to the playoffs last year after going a combined 5-27 in 2007.
Integrating their styles, schemes and personalities while navigating through so much that is new can be as combustible as it can be rewarding. Ironically, patience, understanding and tolerance, something these coaches haven't always shown with their decisions thus far, are going to be the determining factor as to whether their way was the right way.