Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we creep within 15 days of the NFL's regular-season opener in Green Bay....
• Rookie head coaches will be one of the stories of the year in the NFL, with seven of the league's eight new hires getting their first shot at running the whole show in 2011. That's a pendulum swing of sorts from 2010, when coaching retreads like Mike Shanahan, Pete Carroll and Chan Gailey were the new guys in the headset crowd. This year, only Denver's John Fox has made a previous NFL head coaching stop among the new crop, and 19 of 32 teams are led by coaches who have less than five years experience as the top guy in the league.
Within the subset of first-time head coaches is another sub-set: Coaches who were elevated to head coach from a position on the same staff. Four of the new head coaches, or half of this year's rookie class, fit that description: Leslie Frazier in Minnesota, Jason Garrett in Dallas (both of whom served as interim head coaches for part of last season), Hue Jackson in Oakland and Mike Munchak in Tennessee. Promoting an on-hand assistant to head coach has worked out a couple times recently with the likes of Jim Caldwell in Indy and Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay (both in 2009), but there have been far more swings and misses in that category (think Gunther Cunningham in Kansas City, Dave Campo in Dallas and Ray Handley with the Giants, to name just a few).
Minnesota's elevation of the soft-spoken but well-respected Frazier from defensive coordinator to head coach is the move that most intrigues me. After all, once upon a time, Tony Dungy was the Vikings defensive coordinator, and so too was Mike Tomlin. Both of those guys got away from Minnesota, landed their first NFL head coaching jobs, and made the Vikings regret not knowing they had Super Bowl-winning head coaches beneath their noses. When Brad Childress floundered and was eventually fired last season, Minnesota made sure not to let history repeat itself.
"I think it was a great move, because a couple years ago we missed out on a real good coach in Mike Tomlin, and we didn't want to let that happen again,'' said Minnesota veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, a Viking since 2004. "[Frazier] has been here four or five years, he knows the personnel, and I think he's well-prepared to take that next step. He's going to do a great job for us.''
Dungy-esque is a very apt description for Frazier in terms of his coaching style and his personal comportment. You're not going to see Frazier slamming a headset down on the sideline this season, a la Rex Ryan, or hear a string of sound bites come tripping from his tongue in the manner of the talkative Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay. Frazier and Dungy are close friends, with mirror personalities and the same calming approach to the role of coaching leadership at the NFL level.
"They have the same demeanor,'' Winfield said of Dungy and Frazier, who coached defensive backs on Dungy's staff in Indianapolis in 2005-2006, earning a Super Bowl ring. "He's very quiet, but we all know he's about his business. We respect that. When he walks into the room, it's quiet. There's no talking to the guy next to you. All eyes are on him, and you listen to every word he says. He deserves that respect.''
Suffice to say the sometimes dictatorial Childress didn't engender the same reaction in his own locker room, especially once last season started going down in flames. And if you think it doesn't matter how NFL players feel about their head coach, then you haven't been paying attention to the dynamic of loyalty Ryan has created with his Jets, or the vise grip that Bill Belichick has on his Patriots locker room. When players respect or admire a head coach, they want to play for him, and they want to win for him. Who couldn't use that edge?
"Oh, without a doubt it matters,'' said Winfield, after a recent training camp practice in Mankato, Minn. "When you respect a coach, you want to see him succeed, and that means you put in the extra time in the film room and the weight room. That's why you see me out here working with some of the young guys, trying to bring them along. You do the extra stuff like that when you want to help that coach win.''
It's pretty ironic that Brett Favre, Childress, and Randy Moss -- the three headline names if you were writing the disappointing story of the 2010 Vikings -- are all out of the NFL today. This is now Frazier's team, and while not a lot of high expectations have been placed on Minnesota this season, I do think the longtime defensive assistant and former Super Bowl-winning 1985 Bears defensive back will deftly handle the transition from coaching one side of the ball to leading an entire roster and organization. Kind of the same way we saw both Dungy and Tomlin take that biggest of steps and prosper not all that long ago.
"I've learned just from watching other coaches I've worked with in the past, and seen how they've done it,'' Frazier told me. "I know for me it's important to see things globally, and not get locked in on one side of the ball, although my background is defensive. Tony [Dungy] is a great example of a guy who had a good feel for offense, defense and special teams, and I kind of like that model. I sit in the meetings with all three phases now, and our players know I'm a part of everything. Some coaches have a background on one side of the ball and that's what they are, even as a head coach. But for me, I like having a feel for the entire team.''
• He didn't come right out and say it, but in talking to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco this preseason, I know he's going to push to have Baltimore's too-cautious offensive coordinator Cam Cameron take more chances this year, especially in the bigger games like the Ravens' Sept. 11 opener at home against division nemesis Pittsburgh. The past six Steelers-Ravens regular season games have been decided by four points or less, and Flacco is clearly hopeful that the safe-but-sorry approach can be abandoned as he enters his fourth year as Baltimore's starting quarterback.
"For us to win those games, it takes getting out of your comfort level, compared to what you normally do,'' said Flacco, who only seems a few big wins over Pittsburgh away from being considered among the NFL's elite QBs. "Sometimes you have to take that risk and jump out there and say, 'We need to get some points on the board.' Sometimes that might get you beat. But if somebody told you that's the only way you're going to beat that team, then I think you're going to take that risk, because the reward is so much better than what you're going to get doing things the other way.''
You've convinced me, Joe. But is Cameron listening? I guess we'll find out in Week 1.
• Cincinnati and Tampa Bay are the two best recent examples of the rollercoaster routine in the NFL. The Bengals went from 4-11-1 in 2008, to 10-6 and an AFC North championship in 2009, back to 4-12 and last place in 2010. The Bucs kind of did the opposite in the NFC South: From 2008's 9-7 finish, to 2009's bottoming out at 3-13, to 2010's surprising 10-6 resurgence.
Swings of six or seven games, in either direction, aren't all that common in the NFL. The Bucs, Chiefs and St. Louis Rams were the only teams in the high-rent climber category last season, with Tampa Bay improving by seven games, Kansas City by six (from 4-12 to 10-6) and the Rams also by six (from 1-15 to 7-9). On the downside, the Bengals, Vikings and Panthers all saw their win total slide by six games in 2010, with the Cowboys and Cardinals right behind at minus-5.
Who's this year's most likely candidates to complete the three-year rollercoaster ride? Put me down for the Chiefs to head back down, although not by a dramatic five or six games, and the Cowboys to head back up after last season's 6-10 low point. And again, a five or six game jump for Dallas doesn't seem likely.
• Speaking of the Cowboys, last year at this time we were hearing plenty bold talk about their intention to become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl on their own home field. How'd that one work out for you, fellas? I'd make a point of asking Dallas head coach Wade Phillips, but he's in Houston, coordinating the Texans defense. Between the temporary seating debacle and the falling ice, Super Bowl XLV somehow just isn't the most popular topic in Dallas any more.
Funny, but you don't hear any chatter coming from the Colts this summer about ending that particular 45-year-old Super Bowl streak next February in Lucas Oil Stadium. For one, they're the Colts. They don't really do a lot of smack talk in Indy, unless you count Jim Irsay messing with people's heads on Twitter. And secondly, Indianapolis has actually been to the Super Bowl twice in the past five seasons, so it doesn't have to run its mouth as much as it has to run its offense. (Thirdly, there's that little matter of Peyton Manning's health to factor in).
One Colts source told me during my camp visit that the subject of Indy playing at home in the Super Bowl isn't likely to come up all season, because Colts players have been advised by their coaches that talking about it doesn't help make it come to pass. The Cowboys are just the latest example of actions speaking louder than words. But the Colts do know it's something that has never been done, and they covet the chance to take a crack at being the team to accomplish it. After all, Indy in 2010 saw nearby Butler University win the right to play at or close to home in the NCAA men's basketball title game.
• The Bears feed off their reputation as a club that seems to begin every season under the radar of the national media, but to a certain degree it's not a slight. It's just a reflection of reality. In a league that's more and more ruled by offense, Chicago last year finished 30th overall on that side of the ball (289.4 ypg), and 21st in points scored (334). Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz knows that makes people skeptical about Chicago's chances of repeating as NFC North champion, and somewhat willing to overlook last season's trip to the NFC title game.
"There's no question we're under the radar, especially offensively,'' Martz said. "But until we get going and put this thing together, which we haven't done yet, that's who we really are. And that's deserved, because really that's what we are. But you like the competitive part, with our ability to stay in the game until the end and make some plays to win. That's very encouraging.''
• I wonder what Matt Cassel thinks of rookie receiver Jonathan Baldwin now? During my camp visit with Kansas City, I sat with the Chiefs quarterback at lunch, and he told me about having the team's first-round draft pick as a house guest for part of the summer, during the NFL lockout.
I know this much: Baldwin won't be scheduling a sleepover at the home of Chiefs running back Thomas Jones any time this year. The two reportedly got into a fistfight last week in the locker room, with Baldwin hurting his hand, sidelining himself and reprising the diva reputation he had at the University of Pittsburgh.
"He came out and stayed with me a week or so,'' Cassel told me. "It was great. For the most part he kept his room clean and made his bed. It was just about making that general introduction and starting to build a relationship with him. It was a different kind of offseason, and usually a first-rounder comes in and gets acclimated. I felt it was very important for him to come out and spend some time with me on the playbook and do some on-field work, just to get a jump-start.''
So much for a significant jump-start on Baldwin's NFL career. At the moment, he looks like the next in a long line of low-impact or no-impact rookie receivers.
• Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was the Chiefs quarterbacks coach under Marty Schottenheimer from 1995 to '98, and during that tenure he learned a valuable lesson on what not to do the year after a franchise enjoys an ultra-successful season. Don't ever stand pat on the personnel front and try to keep the old gang together. Maybe that's why the defending Super Bowl champion Packers bid farewell to their share of veterans last month, including defensive end Cullen Jenkins, offensive tackle Mark Tauscher and linebackers Nick Barnett, Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga.
The Chiefs in 1995 went 13-3 and earned the AFC's top seed, only to lose their playoff opener at home in the divisional round by three points to the upstart fifth-seeded Indianapolis Colts (who happened to be quarterbacked by new 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh). Schottenheimer opted to keep the roster together the next year, and concentrate on playing better in the postseason. But K.C. went 9-7 and missed the playoffs in 1996. The cycle was repeated in 1997-98, when the Chiefs again went 13-3 and earned the top seed in '97, lost narrowly in their playoff opener at home, then missed the postseason altogether in '98.
"It's a new team every year,'' McCarthy said, repeating his mantra for 2011 in Green Bay. "I've had that happen to me twice, where you've had a successful season and said, 'You know something, we're going to bring everybody back. We've just got to do it better next time.' And we got our ass kicked both times. That's why it doesn't work that way. We're going to look a little different this year than people probably anticipate. But that's not a bad thing.''
• Quotable: From Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, on the now trendy look of NFL linebackers with long flowing hair. Hawk has worn his hair long in tribute to Pat Tillman since his college days at Ohio State, but Houston Texans rookie Brooks Reed is just the latest linebacker to go long:
"It's weird. Everywhere you look now it seems like everybody has long hair," said Hawk. "I'm thinking about cutting my hair now just because that's the norm. It's like we're back in the '70s or something. It's funny to look at the culture now and how you're viewed with long hair. Even when I started growing my hair seven years ago, I had multiple people tell me I was going to look like a thug and NFL teams weren't going to draft me and all this stuff if I grew my hair out. Now it's the norm. Now teams, no one would even think twice about it.''