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Coaching and Philosophy Changes

  Posted 7/5 by Jason Wood, Exclusive to Footballguys.com

The NFL Coaching Carousel is nothing if not cyclical. In 2006, 10 teams replaced their head coaches followed by another seven replacements last offseason. With so much change in those prior seasons, it's no surprise that this year only saw four teams make head coaching shifts: Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami, and Washington.

Two teams are, unfortunately, back on this list after just one season. The Dolphins won just one game a season ago and that prompted Cam Cameron's ouster as Bill Parcells took over football operations and brought in his guy, Tony Sparano. The Falcons lost their coach, Bobby Petrino, before the 2007 season was even over. The less said about that situation, the better.

Although the head coaching turnover is what grabs headlines, the changing landscape among assistant coaches remains vitally important to NFL fans and fantasy football owners. In that vein, this wasn't a quiet offseason. In all, 14 teams replaced at least one offensive or defensive coordinator. With so much change, there will be teams who reap early returns while others will be second-guessing their hires before the season finishes.

Atlanta Falcons

  • Head Coach: Mike Smith (replaces Bobby Petrino)
  • Offensive Coordinator: Mike Mularkey (replaces Hue Jackson)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Brian VanGorder (replaces Mike Zimmer)

What to expect on offense: A fresh start. 2008 is all about signaling to the world that the Falcons have begun anew, including a new franchise running back (Michael Turner), quarterback (Matt Ryan) and coaching staff. New head coach Mike Smith focuses on defense, which means new OC Mike Mularkey will run the offensive show. Mularkey is a veteran offensive play-caller nicknamed "Inspector Gadget" because of his propensity for trick plays and multiple formations. Despite his love of trickery, Mularkey believes games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage, and will assuredly implement a run heavy offensive attack built around Michael Turner. The Falcons will keep as many players in to block as necessary, with the idea that, over time, they will open up the attack once the line is solidified.

What to expect on defense: Mike Smith oversaw the Jaguars defense over the last five seasons and will bring that system with him to Atlanta. The Falcons will run a 4-3 defensive front and rely primarily on Cover-2 particularly given the lack of experience in the secondary. Brian VanGorder will serve as Defensive Coordinator after serving as the linebackers coach last season under Bobby Petrino. Don't expect an inordinate amount of blitzing this year, as Smith and VanGorder will rely on the front four to generate a consistent pass rush.

Baltimore Ravens

  • Head Coach: John Harbaugh (replaces Brian Billick)
  • Offensive Coordinator: Cam Cameron (replaces Rick Neuheisel)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Rex Ryan

What to expect on offense: Brian Billick finally ran out of scapegoats and was shown the door after nine seasons at the helm. After an exhaustive search, the Ravens settled on John Harbaugh; who cut his teeth coaching under Andy Reid in Philadelphia. Harbaugh won't have a heavy hand in the offense, instead allowing Cam Cameron the majority of control. Landing Cameron is quite a coup just one season after he had finally ascended to the NFL head coaching ranks. Cameron won't make any promises about the offensive philosophy, other than it will be predicated on strong line play and minimizing turnovers. His first order of business will be deciding on a quarterback; whether that be Kyle Boller, Troy Smith or Joe Flacco, a 1st round selection this year. Obviously Willis McGahee will be the focal point of the attack; and expect the team to use 2-WR, 2-TE sets primarily.

What to expect on defense: The decision to retain incumbent coordinator Rex Ryan was vital considering the high standing he maintains with the Ravens veteran defenders. Nothing will change on the defensive side, save for some personnel alterations.

Buffalo Bills

  • Head Coach: Dick Jauron
  • Offensive Coordinator: Turk Schonert (replaces Steve Fairchild)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Perry Fewell

What to expect on offense: Usually when a team promotes an assistant coach to the coordinator role, it's in order to maintain the status quo. But in this case, the Bills expect dramatic changes on offense from new OC Turk Schonert. Schonert, who served as the quarterbacks coach under former OC Steve Fairchild, will maintain the same terminology and blocking schemes, but plans a major overhaul in other areas. The Bills will be less formulaic on down and distance, for example they will throw more on 1st down with Schonert calling the plays. He's promised a "more aggressive" attack and wants to use more play-action. 2nd year Trent Edwards is going to be given a chance to audible at the line of scrimmage, something Steve Fairchild would never have allowed.

Cincinnati Bengals

  • Head Coach: Marvin Lewis
  • Offensive Coordinator: Bob Bratkowski
  • Defensive Coordinator: Mike Zimmer (replaces Chuck Bresnahan)

What to expect on defense: Mike Zimmer is a talented, veteran coordinator but that won't matter if the Bengals don't get better production from the 11 guys on the field. The truth is, the Bengals personnel lacks impact playmakers and Zimmer will have to limit his aggressiveness at first; reestablishing the importance of maintaining assignments and finishing tackles. For most of his coaching career, Zimmer coached a 4-3 defensive front while mixing up coverage schemes. But he ran a 3-4 in Dallas at Bill Parcells' behest, and wants to use both fronts in Cincinnati. What's unclear is whether the team has the personnel to play a hybrid front. Either way, Zimmer's teams aren't known for aggressive blitzing; think "stay at home and make the play."

Cleveland Browns

  • Head Coach: Romeo Crennel
  • Offensive Coordinator: Rob Chudzinski
  • Defensive Coordinator: Mel Tucker (replaces Todd Grantham)

What to expect on defense: The Browns can only hope that Mel Tucker has as much impact on the defense as Rob Chudzinski had on the Browns offense a year ago. Tucker was promoted to defensive coordinator this year after three seasons as defensive backs coach. Just 36 years old, this will be Tucker's first go-around as an NFL play-caller. Terminology and the base 3-4 formation remain; but Tucker has promised to pare back the playbook. The Browns acquired Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers this offseason, giving the team major upgrades at end and nose tackle. Interestingly, Tucker's toughest challenge will be coaching up his former unit in the secondary; where few proven options exist.

Detroit Lions

  • Head Coach: Rod Marinelli
  • Offensive Coordinator: Jim Colletto & Kippy Brown (replace Mike Martz)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Joe Barry

What to expect on offense: Mike Martz wasn't a good fit with head coach Rod Marinelli. Regardless of whether you think Martz is an offensive genius, it's hard to argue that change was needed considering the punishment Detroit's QBs took (117 sacks in 2006-2007!). Marinelli promoted from within, hoping two heads are better than one. Jim Colletto was promoted to OC after one season as offensive line coach, while Kippy Brown was promoted from receivers coach to Passing Game Coordinator. Colletto will call the plays and, needless to say, his approach is going to be vastly different from Martz. Colletto believes in executing a small number of plays to perfection; and plans much less use of motion and spread formations. Keeping the quarterback upright will be first priority. Expect the Lions to strive for a 50/50 run/pass ratio; and they will make liberal use of short drops and play action. Does the team have the personnel to run the ball effectively? That remains to be seen but you can be sure they won't abandon the run without trying.

Houston Texans

  • Head Coach: Gary Kubiak
  • Offensive Coordinator: Kyle Shanahan (replaces Mike Sherman)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Richard Smith

What to expect on offense: For the second straight season, the Texans lost their incumbent offensive coordinator to the collegiate head coaching ranks. Troy Calhoun left for Air Force a season ago and Mike Sherman took over Texas A&M this offseason. The Texans once again promoted from within, naming 28-year old Kyle Shanahan to the coordinator post. Shanahan will call the plays; but HC Gary Kubiak will have veto power and will make suggestions during the course of the game. Schematically, very little will change as the Texans continue to run the Broncos offense that Kubiak helped formulate in Denver. Legendary line coach Alex Gibbs was coaxed out of retirement and he will help fully transition the Texans to a zone-blocking scheme. The Texans passing game showed marked improvement a season ago and now the task will turn to the ground game; where the team has yet to find a consistent threat.

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • Head Coach: Jack Del Rio
  • Offensive Coordinator: Dirk Koetter
  • Defensive Coordinator: Gregg Williams (replaces Mike Smith)

What to expect on defense: The Falcons' gain could've easily been the Jaguars loss when defensive coordinator Mike Smith accepted the Atlanta head coaching position. But, thanks to Joe Gibbs' retirement, the Jaguars were able to land one of the premier defensive minds in the game; Gregg Williams. Williams has enjoyed success wherever he's been, and this time comes aboard a defense that already ranks among the league's best. The Jaguars won't change too much schematically; they will continue to use a 4-3 front and Cover-2 coverage. Perhaps the biggest difference will be in Williams' approach toward blitzing. He's among the most aggressive defensive play-callers in the league. To help the cause, the Jaguars drafted pass rushers with their 1st and 2nd round picks; if Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves pan out, Williams will have the horses to unleash his frenzied attack.

Kansas City Chiefs

  • Head Coach: Herman Edwards
  • Offensive Coordinator: Chan Gailey (replaces Mike Solari)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Gunther Cunningham

What to expect on offense: Mike Solari has big shoes to fill last year and, frankly, wasn't up to the task. He's a very talented offensive line coach but, when it came to game planning and play-calling, the Chiefs were outmatched. That won't happen this year with Chan Gailey running the offense. Gailey is a seasoned coach, having called plays for the Steelers, Cowboys and Dolphins. Gailey's offenses may not rank high statistically; particularly the passing attack, but his conservative, ball control approach has led to 11 playoff appearances in 14 years as an NFL coach. He's exactly the kind of OC Herm Edwards wants. Gailey will put a priority on returning the running game to prominence and will protect young Brodie Croyle at all costs. This won't be a flashy offense, but it should help KC win some games.

Miami Dolphins

  • Head Coach: Tony Sparano (replaces Cam Cameron)
  • Offensive Coordinator: Dan Henning
  • Defensive Coordinator: Paul Pasqualoni (replaces Dom Capers)

What to expect on offense: Bill Parcells has implemented a franchise wide overhaul from top to bottom and, as a result, it's difficult to draw many conclusions about what we're going to see on the field in 2008. Head coach Tony Sparano was the Cowboys running game coordinator the last few years and clearly favors a power running attack. Meanwhile OC Dan Henning, 28 years in the league and counting, has been a coordinator in Buffalo, Washington (under Gibbs), New York Jets and Carolina. What Henning may lack in creativity, he makes up for in attention to the fundamentals. The Dolphins don't have the luxury of exotic play-calling at this point and, for now, Henning is the perfect fit as the Fins groom young talent while relying on the legs of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.

What to expect on defense: After toying with a hybrid 4-3/3-4 defensive front last season, the Dolphins plan on committing to the 3-4 under defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. The Dolphins don't appear to have a long-term answer at nose tackle but veteran Parcells' favorite Jason Ferguson will hold down the fort for a season. In the secondary, expect the team to use zone coverage the majority of the time. With so many new faces in free agency and via the draft, this will be a year of evaluating talent and implementing the system. Don't expect the Dolphins defense to rank among the league's best; but look for steady improvement as the season progresses.

San Francisco 49ers

  • Head Coach: Mike Nolan
  • Offensive Coordinator: Mike Martz (replaces Jim Hostler)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Greg Manusky

What to expect on offense: What is there to say about Mike Martz that hasn't already been said? He's an intelligent, aggressive play-caller who regularly produces prodigious passing attacks. He's turned a grocery boy into an NFL MVP, and made prolific passers out of Marc Bulger and Jon Kitna. But he's also a coach known for eschewing pass protection. Martz runs a complicated form of the Air Coryell offense, and relies on a lot of motion and stunts. You can be sure that the 49ers offense is going to look dramatically different than it did the last few seasons. Can Martz find another QB to turn into a big-time passer? While Alex Smith is considered the favorite, don't be surprised if Shaun Hill is given every chance to win the job in camp. In terms of the running game, Martz' teams always rank toward the bottom of the league in rushing attempts, yet he's produced quite a few solid fantasy RBs thanks to his willingness to throw the ball to his tailback. Frank Gore, unsurprisingly, will remain the focal point of the 49ers attack.

St. Louis Rams

  • Head Coach: Scott Linehan
  • Offensive Coordinator: Al Saunders (replaces Greg Olson)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Jim Haslett

What to expect on offense: In a word, Improvement. All kidding aside, the Rams benefit from Joe Gibbs' retirement because it freed up Al Saunders to join the Rams staff. Saunders is one of the most respected coordinators in the league, having served long stints under Marty Schottenheimer, Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs. Saunders is a disciple of Don "Air" Coryell and is a strict adherent to Coryell's aggressive, wide open passing philosophy. For his many talents as a play-caller, Saunders is also renowned for the size and complexity of his playbook. He once boasted that you could call 999 pass plays from a given formation; and when joining the Redskins a few years ago remarked that the playbook was "about 1,800 pages." The good news is the Rams key offensive players are all veterans and should have an easier time digesting the new system. The bad news is the Rams can't afford a slow start this year after such a disappointing 2007 season. Head coach Scott Linehan has confirmed that Saunders will call the plays, as well as take the lead on weekly game-planning.

Tennessee Titans

  • Head Coach: Jeff Fisher
  • Offensive Coordinator: Mike Heimerdinger (replaces Norm Chow)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Jim Schwartz

What to expect on offense: Mike Heimerdinger is proof that you really can go home again; twice over. After spending a few years back in Denver (where he got his NFL start), he returns to Tennessee as Norm Chow's replacement. In case you forgot, Heimerdinger was the Titans offensive coordinator BEFORE Chow; but he left for supposedly greener pastures in New York. In any event, Jeff Fisher brought back his old OC with the intent of furthering Vince Young's development much in the way he developed Steve McNair. Heimerdinger gradually shifted the Titans offense from a conservative, ball control power attack to a more balanced attack where McNair regularly threw downfield. In that same vein, the Titans want to build the offense around Vince Young's talents, gradually adding complexity to the playbook as Young proves capable of handling more. Heimerdinger is a versatile offensive mind who is a firm believer in a committed running attack in conjunction with an aggressive downfield passing game that relies on play-action. To capitalize on Young's athleticism, expect the Titans to move the pocket around; while looking downfield at all times.

Washington Redskins

  • Head Coach: Jim Zorn (replaces Joe Gibbs)
  • Offensive Coordinator: Sherman Smith (replaces Al Saunders)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Greg Blache (replaces Gregg Williams)

What to expect on offense: Joe Gibbs' retirement sent shockwaves through the Redskins front office, and led to a spirited and extensive head coaching search that ultimately culminated in Jim Zorn. What's interesting is that before Zorn was named head coach, the Redskins had hired him as their new offensive coordinator. Yes, the Redskins decided that Zorn, the Seahawks quarterbacks coach for seven seasons under Mike Holmgren, was the right man to replace Gibbs and departed OC Al Saunders. Shortly thereafter, Zorn was bumped up to head coach and Sherman Smith was hired as offensive coordinator. Smith spent 13 seasons coaching RBs in Tennessee, and was Zorn's longtime teammate in Seattle back in the 70s. According to Zorn, his offense will be predicated on "balance and rhythm." Zorn will call the plays, with Smith having a hand in game planning. The team will implement a version of the classic West Coast offense, but expect the run/pass balance to be closer to 50/50 to take advantage of Clinton Portis' obvious talents. The main issue for Washington will be learning the new terminology that comes with the West Coast offense. It will be important for young QB Jason Campbell to be a quick study; as the passing playbook should be quite different from Al Saunders'.

What to expect on defense: For as much change occurring on the offensive side of the ball, expect very little to change on the defensive side of the ball. Greg Blache is a holdover from the Gibbs staff, having served as assistant head coach in charge of the defensive line. While Blache wasn't calling the defensive plays (DC Gregg Williams was), he was integral in the game-planning and, therefore, expects minimal alteration of Washington's playbook or base formations. Based on his prior experience as a defensive coordinator, it's possible the Redskins will blitz less under his stewardship, as he is wary of singling up his corners in most cases.

Other Notable Coaching Changes

  • Keith Armstrong (ST) for Atlanta
  • Hue Jackson (QBs) for Baltimore
  • Jerry Rosburg (ST) for Baltimore
  • Jim Hostler (WRs) for Baltimore
  • Todd Grantham (DL) for Dallas
  • Alex Gibbs (OL) for Houston
  • Donnie Henderson (DBs) for Jacksonville
  • John Bonamego (ST) for Miami
  • Karl Dorrell (WRs) for Miami
  • Dom Capers (DBs) for New England
  • Bill Callahan (Offense) for NY Jets
  • Kevin O'Dea (ST) for NY Jets
  • Sean McDermott (DBs) for Philadelphia
  • Mike Solari (OL) for Seattle
  • Greg Olson (QBs) for Tampa Bay