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Cover-Two: Grading the coaching hires

Mike Pettine is the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Mike Pettine is the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns. (Bill Wippert/AP)

The 2014 coaching carousel is in full swing. Which teams are making the right decisions for their future? Chris Burke and Doug Farrar grade all the offseason coaching hires in the latest Cover-Two.

Mike Pettine, Cleveland Browns

Chris Burke: C-plus

You know, I really thought I would hate the Browns' eventual move far more than I do. Pettine has paid his dues in the NFL and his success at multiple stops made a head-coaching spot almost an inevitability. Pretty impressive rise for a guy who was coaching high school ball at the start of the 2000s.

The problems here are with how this was handled and the time it took. The former left the Browns reeling in terms of public perception -- not the end of the world, especially if the team wins, but a hit that a struggling franchise did not need; the latter means that the Browns now have less time to prep for the offseason and a smaller group of potential assistants from which to choose.

Pettine ought to get the most of a Browns defense that was reworked prior to 2013, and the pieces mostly fit what he likes to do. Offensively, he'll need a hand. And considering that side of the football has been such a struggle, one wonders if he'll be able to turn things around there.

Doug Farrar: D

Not that there's anything specifically wrong with Pettine per se -- there's no read on him as a potential NFL head coach outside of his time as a defensive coordinator for the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. He's been successful at that level, his players love him by all accounts and it's entirely possible that he could possess the necessary qualities to be a fine head coach in the NFL someday.

The problem is not with Pettine. The problem is with the Browns, who have chased several candidates following their decision to replace former head coach Rob Chudzinski after only one season. Several of those candidates rebuffed Cleveland's advances, perhaps due to the reported disconnect in communication between various members of the team's front office. Pettine clearly wanted a shot at a head coaching position, no matter the possible dysfunction, and who will be calling the shots when it comes to personnel moves remains to be seen.

Pettine is known for his aggressive, blitzing style on defense, which would make him a nice fit with defensive coordinator Ray Horton had the front office not chased Horton out after making the call on Chudzinski. Unless everyone is reading the Browns wrong, the best thing about this job for Pettine is that when it all goes sideways, he won't be blamed for it.


Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings

Chris Burke: B+.

Zimmer is going to have his work cut out for him in Minnesota, where there are massive issues at quarterback and a roster overall that was fourth-best in a shoddy NFC North this season. His background as a defensive guy means that he will need some help addressing the offensive issues, too.

That said, the Vikings also finished dead last in the league in points allowed, and Zimmer brings immediate credibility there. He has thrived as the Bengals' defensive coordinator since taking that job in 2008, and a head coaching job was the inevitable end of the line for him there. Giving Zimmer a chance ought to be looked at as a preferable decision by the Vikings over trying to recycle someone like Gary Kubiak or Mike Munchak. Zimmer will be hungry to prove his worth, and he has the expertise to really bolster the Minnesota defense.

Doug Farrar: A+.

Frankly, it's about damned time.

Mike Zimmer has been one of the NFL's most respected defensive minds since he became the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator in 2000. He filled that position with authority until 2006, gaining the total respect of Bill Parcells along the way, and that's no mean feat. He was unfortunate enough to be the defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, when Michael Vick's dogfighting and Bobby Petrino's outright cowardice turned that season into a nightmare for all involved. Undeterred, Zimmer signed on with the Bengals in time for the 2008 season, and his Cincinnati tenure has been the bow on a coaching career that goes back decades.

The Vikings are very wise to look past Zimmer's blunt personality and lack of P.R. polish to see the lifer of a coach he really is. Zimmer had been turned down for other head coaching opportunities in recent years because he tells it like it is -- even to front offices who don't want to hear it -- but that in no way diminishes his potential as a head coach.

The Vikings are dealing with roster attrition on both sides of the ball, and they desperately need a franchise quarterback. They play in a very tough division, and this probably isn't a one-year rebuild. But they had to start with Leslie Frazier's replacement, and in my humble opinion, they hit it right out of the park with this choice.

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Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions

Chris Burke: C-.

If there was any doubt that the Lions' ownership and front office believed Jim Schwartz's fiery personality was in large part to blame for the team's recent failures, this hire puts that thought to bed. Whether or not the Lions actually wanted Ken Whisenhunt, they've landed themselves a well-respected coach -- with Tony Dungy's support -- who has the head coaching experience so badly desired here.

Will that be enough? The roster in Detroit is talented enough to contend for a playoff spot again in 2014, but the issues with discipline, on and off the field, will stand as a massive challenge for the low-key Caldwell. The hope above all is that Caldwell can get Matthew Stafford back on track, and should he succeed, the Lions may wind up as one of the league's more dangerous teams. Right now, though, this gives the impression of being an uninspired hire -- one the Lions' brass perhaps scared itself into after the Schwartz gamble backfired.

Doug Farrar: D

Frankly, this makes the least sense of all the head coaching hires, and it might be the biggest mismatch for the coach in question. Caldwell was rightly praised for opening up Baltimore's offense late in the 2012 season when he was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator following the firing of Cam Cameron, and the Ravens' subsequent Super Bowl win took a lot of the sting out after Caldwell presided over the Indianapolis Colts' 2-14 Peyton Manning-less season. But what happened to the Ravens in 2013 really bears further investigation. In Caldwell's first full season in charge of the offense, the passing game regressed somewhat and the run game completely bottomed out. Injuries played a part, but the lack of cohesion must be laid at Caldwell's feet.

The Lions had Ken Whisenhunt in mind, but Caldwell was a recommendation from Tony Dungy to the Lions' brass, and Dungy was happy enough about the selection of his former assistant in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis that he predicted a playoff run for the Lions nest season.

Unquestionably, the Lions have all the talent to make that happen. But they're been struggling with cohesiveness as a franchise for years, and Caldwell has done nothing to date to give assurance that he's the right captain for a rough-riding ship full of alpha males. Caldwell may prove the naysayers wrong, but he looks a lot more like a placeholder and position coach, not someone the Lions should give this much control.

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Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans

Chris Burke: B.

How much of Whisenhunt's success in Arizona was attributable to Kurt Warner? That's the big mystery here as Whisenhunt embarks on another coaching gig. No doubt, he deserves a ton of credit for helping Warner enjoy one last hurrah before heading off into retirement, and both Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers thrived under Whisenhunt's tutelage. That background alone had the Titans (with Jake Locker), Lions (Matthew Stafford) and Browns (TBD) inquiring here.

But Whisenhunt was just 18-30 in the years after Warner left the desert, which led to him losing his job after 2012. Clearly, he earned enough respect in the locker room and around the league to warrant all the attention he picked up this season, but he will face some skeptics. The proven results outweigh the curiosities for now, and a Titans team that was right in the thick of the playoff race all season now has upgraded its staff.

Doug Farrar: B.

Whisenhunt did great work with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh when he was the Steelers' offensive coordinator from 2004 through 2006, and he was a big part of Kurt Warner's career rebirth when the Arizona Cardinals made him their head coach in 2007. Whisenhunt's subsequent "failure" to make chicken salad out of guys like Derek Anderson and Kevin Kolb should not be held against him, especially and specifically because he did such a great job with Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers' offense in 2013.

Now, Whisenhunt's primary task will be to discern whether his new team should go forward with Jake Locker, who was taken with the eighth pick in the 2010 draft. Locker has been hit-and-miss with his mechanics and production to date -- he's an amazingly athletic quarterback who still has a lot to learn, and one year left on his rookie contract to show that he can do it. There's also the matter of what to do with running back Chris Johnson, who has $8 million base salaries in each of his next two seasons and has expressed dissatisfaction with the way he was used in 2013. But Whisenhunt inherits a quality offensive line, a lot of great players on defense, and he'll be in a division that didn't exactly beat the world last season. If he can either fix Locker or get the right replacement in the draft, this hire should work. Chargers head coach Mike McCoy frequently praised Whisenhunt for the job he did as offensive coordinator, and recently said that he went above and beyond. Whisenhunt definitely deserves another shot.


Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins

Chris Burke: D+.

Jay Gruden probably will receive more of the blame than he should for the issues Cincinnati had on offense -- Andy Dalton's play at times, like in the playoffs against San Diego, hamstrung him some. Still, this does not feel like a groundbreaking move for the Washington franchise. Perhaps a huge chunk of that may be because defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will reportedly stick around on the new staff, despite the 2013 Redskins underperforming on that side of the football.

Gruden's background working with quarterbacks obviously carries to the nation's capital the hope that he can get Robert Griffin III back to being the dynamic player he was in 2012, as opposed to the banged-up, hesitant QB Washington dealt with this season. But Gruden's preference for a pass-first scheme may contrast with the best of Griffin's abilities at the NFL level.

True to form for this franchise, owner Daniel Snyder may have gone for name over substance here. Nothing really jumps off the page about Gruden's past work, particularly coming off the inglorious playoff exit.

Doug Farrar: B.

It's entirely possible that no head coach could be entirely successful with Dan Snyder as his team's owner, but Gruden will have a better chance than most. During his three years in Cincinnati he learned to deal with an owner in Mike Brown who knows far less than he thinks he does, and Gruden unquestionably developed Andy Dalton to the peak of his (rather obvious) limitations. Gruden simplified things for Dalton, and as the Bengals added more and better weapons, their offense chugged along as far as Dalton could take it.

Now, in Washington, Gruden will work with a general manager in Bruce Allen who he worked with in Tampa Bay from 2002 through '08. As long as Gruden and Allen are on the same page, it could solve at least some of the dysfunction that's been going on with this team since Snyder bought it. The disconnect between Mike Shanahan and Robert Griffin III was clear, and Griffin's talents far outstrip Dalton's, so Gruden comes in with a headstart. We don't yet know if Gruden has the ability to oversee everything, an important attribute in his new position, but given the circumstances, the Redskins could have done a lot worse.

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Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans

Chris Burke: B+. 

Bill O'Brien landed on several franchise wish lists, mainly because he checks off a number of the boxes ownership usually looks for in their head man: NFL experience, head coaching experience, positive reputation, success at multiple levels. Also working in O'Brien's favor -- something that had to have been a factor in this hire -- is his past time spent working with successful quarterbacks. O'Brien helped coach Tom Brady in New England, then gave Matt McGloin a boost in his final Penn State season and quickly turned freshman QB Christian Hackenberg into a Big Ten-ready signal-caller.

It is anyone's guess who will be under center for Houston come the start of the regular season, though the team's spot at No. 1 overall in the upcoming draft certainly leaves the door open for Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles to inherit the job. O'Brien will be expected to bring whoever claims that job along rapidly, because this is a team with playoff aspirations despite a 2-14 finish.

O'Brien paid his dues to get here, as he worked his way up through the college ranks to the NFL and then back to college for a head-coaching gig. He does, however, have just two years as a head coach under his belt, so the Texans are taking a leap of faith in his abilities.

Doug Farrar: B-. 

It's clear the Texans needed a new influx of offensive juice after a season in which they lost their last 14 games and were outscored by 152 points. But is O'Brien that guy? Everyone admires the job he did in two seasons at Penn State, and for good reason -- it's tough to imagine a more difficult situation to inherit, and O'Brien created a new culture while managing to win at the same time. No small feat.

Still, we've been burned by enough Bill Belichick assistants and associates to wonder if O'Brien is truly the guy who can buck that trend. From Eric Mangini to Scott Poili to Josh McDaniels, former Patriots staffers have hit the NFL with far more ego than actual franchise-building ability. Given Belichick's complete control over everything that happens in Foxboro, it's always worth noting that current Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is the only one to leave Belichick's employ and go on to unqualified success -- and even his resume has taken more than a few hits of late.

That's not to say that O'Brien isn't different. He may very well be. He certainly seems capable, and he's inheriting a solid core upon which to rebuild. The Texans have a fundamentally great defense, several high-quality skill-position players and the first overall pick in the draft -- meaning that O'Brien can get his kind of quarterback. But when your quarterback isn't Tom Brady -- O'Brien worked with him from 2007 through '11 -- how many dings are revealed?


Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Chris Burke: A. 

The Buccaneers occasionally appeared to be in disarray under Greg Schiano's guidance. Now, just a short time after letting him go, they may have one of the strongest and most stable coaching staffs in all of football. Lovie Smith may have struggled to get Chicago into the playoffs in recent seasons -- just one trip over his final six years there -- but he also was canned after a 10-6 mark and left with an 81-63 record overall. He brings a steady hand to the role, along with the proven ability to deliver a strong defensive performance on the field.

Add in the arrivals of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and former Cal coach Jeff Tedford as offensive coordinator, and the Buccaneers have a chance to create tactical advantages each week.

Smith was a no-brainer candidate for several jobs this offseason, even before some of them became available. After sitting out the 2013 season, Smith appeared set to have his choice of landing spots. By picking Tampa Bay, he instantly restored credibility to the Buccaneers' staff, following a rocky couple of years, and he could have this team ready to compete in short order.

Doug Farrar: A. 

Smith was fired by the Chicago Bears after a 10-6 season in 2012, and the fact that he didn't get another head coaching job in 2013 was a mystery to a lot of people. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman told me last season that no matter how well things went with Marc Trestman, Smith's replacement, a lot of players were confused and hurt by the way Smith was treated. That's a testimonial to Smith's ability to motivate and connect with his players, traits that will be in high demand as Smith goes to Tampa to clean up all the little messes left in the wake of Greg Schiano's two-year reign. Schiano operated in an environment of suspicion and mistrust, while Smith looks to build bridges and bring people together.

Of course, none of this happy stuff would matter if Smith couldn't coach, and he's one of the finest defensive minds of his generation. The Bears consistently terrorized their opponents on defense when Smith was their head coach, and as Smith's preferred Cover- and Tampa-2 schemes became easier to diagnose in the last few years, he adapted to more diverse fronts and coverage concepts.

Given the mixture of coaching and personnel, the Bucs should have an absolutely unholy defense with Smith in charge. Any doubts about Smith's ability to get the right offensive coaches on staff -- and this was a constant issue in the Windy City -- can be mitigated to a degree by the fact that his offensive coordinator, ex-Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, will put his players in better positions to win matchups than did former offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. That particular question is the only thing preventing me from giving the Smith hire an enthusiastic A+.

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