By Don Banks
February 12, 2008

Now that Washington's bizarrely conducted coaching search has concluded with perhaps the fastest promotion in the history of the NFL -- Jim Zorn went from newly hired Redskins offensive coordinator to head coach in a couple weeks -- the theme behind this year's crop of coaching hires is: The cleaner the better.

As in blank canvases are better canvases, because there are no previous pock marks or mistakes that require covering up. Not only did the four teams looking for a head coach this offseason shy away from candidates with past head coaching experience (Hello, Jim Fassel), they wound up largely avoiding the tried and true practice of identifying and landing the promising coordinators around the NFL. Consider the final results:

• Miami hired Dallas assistant Tony Sparano, who has never coordinated in the NFL, and whose only head coaching experience came at NCAA Division II New Haven from 1994-98.

• Baltimore hired Philadelphia assistant John Harbaugh, who has never coordinated in the NFL and made his name leading the Eagles special teams units from '98-2006.

• Washington hired Seattle assistant Jim Zorn, who has never been a head coach, coordinator or play-caller in the NFL, and whose only experience as an offensive coordinator came at Utah State from '92-94.

• Atlanta hired Jacksonville assistant Mike Smith, whose five-season stint as the Jaguars' defensive coordinator ('03-07) bucked this year's trend, but never resulted in him being widely recognized as anything other than the executor of head coach Jack Del Rio's defensive blueprint.

Juxtapose those additions with the following facts about what many consider the world's most exclusive 32-member club: In the five previous NFL offseasons ('03-07), 31 of the 32 head coaching vacancies were filled by candidates who previously had been either a head coach or a coordinator in the NFL or in a major college program. The lone exception to that was Detroit's hiring of longtime Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli in '06.

True, that five-year sampling includes some lightly experienced and trend-setting hires such as then 31-year-old Lane Kiffin in Oakland, the youthful Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, and Eric Mangini of the Jets. But Tomlin and Mangini at least had one season of NFL coordinating under their belts when their promotions came, and Kiffin had served as Pete Carroll's offensive coordinator at Southern Cal, which is, in essence, the NFL's 33rd franchise.

What in the name of Ray Handley is going on here? In the 17 NFL coaching jobs that were filled the previous two offseasons, hot coordinator hires or ex-head coaches were plentiful. The former coordinators in that group included Ken Whisenhunt (Arizona), Cam Cameron (Miami), Tomlin, Kiffin, Gary Kubiak (Houston), Mike McCarthy (Green Bay), Brad Childress (Minnesota), Sean Payton (New Orleans), Scott Linehan (St. Louis) and Mangini. The ex-head coach factor included the likes of Wade Phillips (Dallas), Norv Turner (San Diego), Bobby Petrino (Atlanta), Dick Jauron (Buffalo), Herm Edwards (Kansas City) and Art Shell (Oakland).

But teams were clearly looking for something a bit different this year. I talked to one head coaching candidate within the league who ripped an analogy of this year's hirings straight from the coverage of this year's presidential campaigns.

"To me, the whole run on these head coaches this year is a little like Barack Obama's candidacy,'' the coach said. "The experience factor may be light, but these guys who don't even have any coordinating experience, they're squeaky clean. They don't have any negatives that you can attack. The interesting thing is that their lack of a track record is actually seen as a positive.

"I can't help but think that if a guy is that clean, he sells better. If you have no blemishes, you can mold them and spin them to your fans and the media any way you want. Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War because she was in the Senate at the time, and if she hadn't, she probably would have been labeled a traitor. But it's still being held against her, while Obama didn't have to cast a vote, so he can say he was against the war from the very start.''

Digging even a little deeper, you can see that each of the four openings this year were unique in their own way. The Dolphins, Falcons, Ravens and Redskins were all looking for something a little different, befitting their own particular circumstances.

Plain and simple, Miami's new football czar, Bill Parcells, was seeking someone who could come in and execute his well-established program, which his handprints will be all over, even if the newly hired general manager Jeff Ireland and Sparano are in place. As everyone quickly realized, in Sparano, Parcells hired a younger version of himself.

In Atlanta, where decision by committee rules, the Falcons were seeking someone who first and foremost meshed well with newly hired general manager Thomas Dimitroff. That's why, according to a league source, the Falcons administered a personality test to all coaching candidates who returned for a second interview, seeking the best possible match with Dimitroff. Smith is said to have tested as the closest match with Dimitroff.

In Baltimore, where the Ravens have a strong, successful and well-entrenched general manager in Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome, finding someone who could bring new energy to the organization was important. But so too was the ability to work in concert with Newsome and build on the Ravens' well-established way of doing things. They weren't trying to throw out the baby with the bath water in Baltimore, just pump some new blood into the program.

And in Washington, well, who knows exactly what they're doing in Washington? Certainly not Redskins owner Daniel Snyder or his right-hand man, Vinny Cerrato. Zorn might very well wind up being an inspired choice, but the convoluted way they got around to naming him as Joe Gibbs' successor certainly doesn't inspire confidence. In Washington, as most around the NFL realize, you're climbing into a coaching situation where the owner is his own general manager, and Cerrato's role in personnel decision-making is usually to echo his owner's conclusions.

To put it another way, none of these four teams were necessarily in the market for a head coach who would walk in the door with a strong, definitive plan of his own, ready to execute his vision for that organization. The teams that hired head coaches this year were largely looking for someone to carry out the organization's plan, and its vision of the future, rather than be the defining face of the franchise.

"I'm not sure any of those teams were looking for a Tom Coughlin or a Bill Belichick this year, the two guys who were actually in the Super Bowl,'' the coach said. "The irony is that they really wouldn't have fit the hiring pattern this year, being guys who have been fired before and who have a strong vision of their own. I'm not sure that either one of those guys would have been what Miami, Atlanta, Baltimore or Washington were looking for this year.''

Sparano, Harbaugh, Smith and Zorn might all end up winning games and proving themselves solid choices. But in their own way, they were all surprising choices based on how NFL teams historically hire head coaches. But in this case, their relative lack of history was on their side.

• Speaking of Belichick, I love how for weeks he evaded questions about the Patriots' perfect season and their place in history by saying that at some point there would be a time to reflect on it all, but that time wasn't now.

And then, in the wake of New England's upset loss in the Super Bowl, he refused to reflect on much of anything in a conference call last Tuesday, saying it was "already time to move on'' and that he wasn't going to "sit here and dwell on anything good or bad.''

Apparently the Monday after the Super Bowl was that long-awaited window for reflection, but we missed it. What a shock.

• For the NFL fan, there's nothing quite like Pro Bowl Sunday. Thank God.

No matter how they dress it up, the NFL's all-star game has all the intensity of a Saturday walk-through practice. All you need to know is that Fox televised it, but didn't even bother to send its top announcing team to Hawaii. I watched some of the game while exercising Sunday, and all I could think of was as long as players like Randy Moss pull out of the game with phantom injuries -- his ankle seemed fine in the Super Bowl -- the Pro Bowl will continue to be a joke.

To his credit, Moss did tell us years ago that he plays when he wants to play. He wanted to play every regular season game and in the playoffs this season, and he did. He didn't want any part in playing in the exhibition-game setting that the Pro Bowl has become, and he didn't.

• This just in: The Patriots didn't go 19-0, and my oft-cited Theory of Unfinished Business fell apart at the very end this year. The Super Bowl blew up my near season-long prediction of perfection for New England, but you still have to be glad that sports can surprise us to the level that the Giants' ascension surprised us. It'd be pretty boring if we really could see everything coming.

• Thinking back on the '07 season -- I'll reflect even if Belichick won't -- I realized that I started my training camp travels last summer with a stop at the Patriots in nearby Foxboro, and a drive to the Giants camp in Albany, N.Y. I should have headed home right then and there, given that I had already visited the two eventual Super Bowl participants. What more was there to see?

As for that stop in Albany, if you would have told me on that Sunday in late July that I was watching the next Super Bowl champions, I would have accused you of ingesting hallucinatory drugs. The day I was in Giants camp there was nothing but non-stop talk of Michael Strahan's camp holdout/retirement threat, and continued speculation of how long it would take for Coughlin to coach himself back onto the hot seat in '07?

• My hunch could be wrong, but I don't think Spygate goes much further unless a smoking-gun tape of that Rams Super Bowl walk-through practice is unearthed at some point. If somebody produces that, and can prove it once was property of the Patriots, I'd say a year-long league suspension of Belichick would be in the offing from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Otherwise, I'm not sure what's going to come of tapes from the Matt Walsh-era that show the Patriots practicing their video espionage during the '02 or '03 regular seasons? Would the league consider that a retroactive violation of their '07 investigation into the Patriots' taping? It's murky.

• Love the Jim Mora call in Seattle. I'm putting my money on the notion that he'll learn a lot from his roller coaster three-year Atlanta experience and be a much better head coach the second time around. I know this: He won't do as much talk radio.

• I saw Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips at Leigh Steinberg's annual Super Bowl party the day before the game, and I couldn't help but think he'll be a coordinator again next year at this time.

It's not just that Dallas lost in its playoff opener. It's how the Cowboys lost, who they lost to, and how tone deaf Phillips sounded in the final weeks of the regular season and after the playoff defeat. It's two playoff wins or bust for Phillips in '08.

• Nobody in New York's front office has called to ask me, but I actually think it makes sense for the Giants to trade Jeremy Shockey while his value still remains high. He has been hurt pretty often in his pro career, and moving a player one year too early is always better than one year too late in the NFL. If somebody dangles a second-round pick, I'd gamble on Kevin Boss and make that deal.

• Plenty of talking heads on radio have asked me if Eli Manning is among the game's elite quarterbacks now that he has won a Super Bowl. I say no, because I think he might very well still prove capable of giving us those forehead-slapping moments that he was known for prior to Week 17 of this season.

But I do contend Manning will never again have the debate about his career framed the same way after this season's playoff success, and that will help him in ways both great and small. He's pretty much done with having to take the roller coaster ride of public opinion that he was on in New York for most of the past four years. But having now proven himself worthy of his No. 1 overall draft status, the bar of expectation is firmly set a bit higher.

As Manning knows all too well, the NFL is a "what have you done for me lately" league, and it will always be so.

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