Thursday March 20th, 2008

Of the four new head coaches in the NFL this year, no one is taking over a team that fell further in 2007 than John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens, which nose-dived to 5-11 last season after their magic carpet ride of a 13-3 finish in 2006. Not even the woebegone one-win Miami Dolphins or the sad-sack Atlanta Falcons threw it in reverse last year to the tune of eight fewer victories.

That's the challenge facing Harbaugh, the longtime Eagles assistant who has been a breath of fresh air in a Ravens organization that had grown a bit stale -- and at times contentious -- in the latter stages of Brian Billick's always entertaining nine-year head coaching tenure. He's a rookie head coach taking over a veteran team whose window of Super Bowl contention can't afford to wait for the completion of a multi-year rebuilding program.

For the second consecutive offseason, the Ravens have largely taken a status quo approach to their personnel decision-making. At least thus far, it appears that the draft will again be the primary source of Baltimore's infusion of talent. Which only underlines that hiring Harbaugh was the Ravens' biggest offseason move, and that they are counting on him and his partially new coaching staff to be their difference-maker.

While the game of musical chairs that is free agency dominates the NFL's headlines at this time of year, and the draft's hotly anticipated pick-fest looms next month, the seeds of 2008's turnaround stories are being sown right now by new coaching faces who have re-located to new places. Having talented players always matters foremost, but more so than in any other major professional sport, coaching can be a decisive factor in the NFL.

Last year at this time, new hires like head coach Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with the Giants, and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett in Dallas were preparing to make major impacts on their teams in 2007. All four of those teams, the Steelers, Browns, Giants and Cowboys, won at least 10 games last year after being in single digits the year before.

Who will be the NFL's new impact coaches in 2008? Harbaugh tops my informal list, which also includes a coach from the Texans, Titans, Bills, Browns, Falcons and Jaguars -- but more on them later. Besides being a 45-year-old rookie head coach, Harbaugh's a bit of a novelty unto himself in other ways. Sixteen of the league's current head coaches built their reputation on the defensive side of the game, and 15 others come from an offensive background. Harbaugh is the lone exception. His NFL coaching experience has been almost completely on special teams, the position he coached with great success in Philadelphia for nine years before becoming the Eagles defensive backs coach in 2007.

At last month's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Harbaugh got a reminder of his coaching roots, and how many people will be watching Baltimore's coaching experiment to render a verdict on the wisdom of selecting a head coach whose experience lies in the still-underappreciated genre of special teams.

"There's a special teams [coaching] dinner that they have at the combine every year, and the Super Bowl champ's special teams coach has to pay,'' said Harbaugh, noting that the duty fell to the Giants' Tom Quinn this year. "So I went over there for that, and it was fun. I got a little ovation, and a lot of hard looks like, 'You better not mess this thing up.' That was the general consensus. That I can't mess it up for the other guys [who want to be head coaches some day]. There's a lot of good special teams coaches, and maybe this uncorks the bottle a little bit.''

Harbaugh, who I've known for a few years, has a reputation within the league for being an eminently honest, high-character individual who's personable, bright and as articulate as any owner could hope for in being the public face of the franchise. And in some ways, his special teams background gives him a different vantage point of leadership within a team, in that he routinely dealt with players on both sides of the ball and wasn't limited to just one perspective.

In this political year, it strikes me that Harbaugh in that way is a bit like the NFL's version of Barack Obama, a new face with a unique background who is aiming to serve as a unifying force for a Ravens team that was badly divided by a defense versus offense mentality in 2007. By the end of last season, that simmering feud within the locker room and the coaching staff more than just bubbled to the surface, becoming public knowledge in Baltimore. Re-instilling a sense of discipline to the Ravens is among Harbaugh's immediate goals.

"Discipline is kind of an elusive thing, but it shows up,'' Harbaugh said. "They (the Ravens) didn't do the things you need to do to win games in critical moments, and that's what we need to get our football team to do. But they did them two years ago. We've got to find that again.''

My instincts tell me Harbaugh is going to be a good bet in Baltimore, and if he can get some decent quarterbacking, he'll have the Ravens back in position to at least contend for the playoffs this season. The mirage that 2006's 13-3 record turned out to be may not be realistic for some time yet, but Baltimore, in the Harbaugh era, won't be confined to NFL irrelevance either.

"We've got a plan,'' Harbaugh said. "We know where we want to go, and these veteran players, they've pretty much got the same plan. Because they've been around, and they've gotten through some of the young-guy issues. So I feel we're going to be on the same page. We're going to be an aggressive football team. We're going to be an attacking football team, on offense and defense. We're going to get after people.''

Here are six other new coaches I see making a positive impact on their teams in 2008:

Alex Gibbs, Houston Texans assistant head coach -- The Texans lured Gibbs out of his one-year retirement and will have the well-respected longtime offensive line coach work closely with newly elevated offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Gibbs will design the Texans' running game, with the same ultra-successful zone-blocking schemes that Denver was known for during Gibbs' tenure on Mike Shanahan's staff. Kyle Shanahan, Mike's 28-year-old son, will design the passing game and call the plays on game day, with head coach Gary Kubiak having final say.

When they were together in Denver, Kubiak was the offensive coordinator who learned from and was mentored by Gibbs, the team's veteran offensive line coach. Now Gibbs, 66, will be serving in the same capacity for the younger Shanahan. This much we know: Somebody in Houston's backfield this season is going to gain a bunch of yards, because great rushing totals follow Gibbs everywhere. During his recent three-year stint on Jim Mora's staff in Atlanta, Gibbs watched the Falcons lead the league in rushing each season.

Mike Heimerdinger, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator -- First off, I don't happen to think it was Norm Chow's fault that Titans quarterback Vince Young regressed in 2007, throwing only nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions in his second NFL season. But clearly Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher believed something wasn't clicking between his offensive coordinator and franchise quarterback.

Thus the return to Nashville of Heimerdinger, under whom ex-Titans quarterback Steve McNair did some of his best work with from 2000 to 2004, when the man they call "Dinger'' was Tennessee's offensive coordinator the first time under Fisher. The challenge of coaching Young remains how to transform him into more of a traditional pocket passing threat, without stifling his gifted athleticism and ability to make plays with his legs and his arm. While Chow was still in essence learning the ropes of NFL coaching during his three years in Tennessee, Heimerdinger walks in the door with vast experience running and teaching NFL offenses.

• Turk Schonert, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator -- Schonert replaces Steve Fairchild, who left the Bills to take the head coaching job at his alma mater, Colorado State. Schonert coached Buffalo quarterbacks for head coach Dick Jauron the past two seasons, and he was one of the leading proponents of drafting current Bills starter Trent Edwards in the third round out of Stanford last year. "I think he was the steal of the draft,'' Schonert told me early last fall, just after Edwards replaced J.P. Losman in the starting lineup.

Schonert is entering his 13th season as an NFL assistant, but this is his first shot at being a coordinator. He takes over an offense that has finished 30th overall two years in a row, and he's not the type to play it safe and sorry. Buffalo will take more chances with Schonert calling the shots, and among his changes will be the return to a two-back offense that features a fullback, and allowing Edwards more freedom to audible and change plays at the line. Bills fans are going to like his aggressive approach.

Mel Tucker, Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator -- The Browns promoted Tucker from defensive backs coach, allowing for some continuity in the wake of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's firing. Despite the Browns' 10-win renaissance season last year, all was not well on the defense. Players and even some assistant coaches complained about Grantham to head coach Romeo Crennel, and the erosion of support for him within the organization overcame the reality that Cleveland had given him a two-year contract extension through 2009 just last June.

Fairly or not, Grantham was seen by some players as not being loyal enough to Crennel, who didn't know Grantham until he hired him in 2005. Tucker, a Cleveland native, is popular with Browns defenders and is known for getting his players well-prepared. He won't be making wide-scale changes, but he does have some work to do on a unit that finished 30th overall in 2007, after ranking 16th in 2005 and 27th in 2006. The defensive line has been the weak link, but Cleveland strengthened itself this offseason by trading for veteran defensive tackles Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers.

Mike Mularkey, Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator -- Don't judge Mularkey solely by his just completed two-year stint in Miami, where he served as offensive coordinator on Nick Saban's staff in 2006, and coached tight ends for Cam Cameron in 2007. Everything about the Dolphins' past two seasons has been a disaster, and Mularkey had the misfortune of having to rely on the hobbled Daunte Culpepper as quarterback in 2006. The Mularkey as a play-caller that I remember is the innovative mind who loved to design effective gadget or trick plays as the Steelers offensive coordinator in 2001-03, when Pittsburgh averaged more than 10 wins per year.

Those Steelers also loved to beat opponents with their punishing power running game, and that's the style of game Mularkey promises to bring to Atlanta, which looks like a particularly wise move in light of the Falcons' ongoing miniseries at quarterback. With ex-Chargers running back Michael Turner signed and ready to handle the No. 1 rushing load, the Falcons might just return to the dominating running game that helped them lead the league in that department every season from 2004 to '06.

Gregg Williams, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator -- After his four-year stint running the Redskins defense did not result in him succeeding head coach Joe Gibbs as was widely anticipated, Williams re-located to Jacksonville. He takes over a Jaguars defense that last season wasn't quite as effective under defensive coordinator Mike Smith as it had been in recent years. The defense remains talented, however, and Williams will again have them playing in the attacking and physical style that he prefers.

All I know is that wherever Williams coaches, the defense uniformly improves. He got results in Tennessee as defensive coordinator, where his unit was ranked first overall in 2000, his Bills defense improved from 21st to third overall in his three years as Buffalo's head coach (2001-03), and the Redskins, despite some inconsistency from year to year, ranked sixth in the NFL during his Washington tenure.

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