During my seven years in the NFL, I had nine coaches (Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Dave Campo, Bill Parcells, Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel and Joe Gibbs), so I know a thing or two about new head men striving to make a good first impression. Here, then, are my thoughts on the four hires from a player's perspective:
Pros: Although certainly not a prerequisite, the fact that Zorn played the game at a high level in the NFL gives him immediate credibility. Players are much more likely to cut a first-time head coach some slack when they know he has been there and done that. Zorn can honestly tell the players that he will not put them through anything he hasn't gone through himself. He will be well-served to treat the players honestly and fairly, the same way he wanted to be treated when he played.
Cons: Having never been a head coach, Zorn has been thrust immediately into the eye of the storm. The Redskins are well over the '08 salary cap at this point, and he has inherited a veteran-laden team with a win-now mentality. Zorn's resume will be less than impressive to the leaders on the team who yearned for the continuity and stability that Gregg Williams would have brought. If the Redskins do not get off to a quick start, things could get ugly in a hurry.
Selection process: To say the process was interesting would be putting it mildly. This hiring appears to have been the brainchild of Redskins Executive VP Vinny Cerrato. A more well-known or high-profile head coach may have usurped some of Cerrato's new-found power after his recent promotion.
Dan Snyder has been a Cerrato loyalist for quite some time, bringing him back in '02 after Cerrato was dismissed by Marty Schottenheimer prior to the '01 season. The most significant constant within the Redskins organization, from Spurrier to Gibbs and now Zorn, has been Cerrato. Redskins' players often wonder whether Snyder's allegiance to Cerrato has more to do with their professional or their personal relationship. It is no secret that the two are racquetball partners and close friends, in addition to being colleagues in the Redskins front office.
That said, even though Snyder has made his fair share of poor decisions, I've always respected him for the simple fact that he is willing to do whatever it takes to attempt to bring a championship to Washington. Though Snyder's attempts are at times misguided, the effort is appreciated by those within the locker room.
When you hear first-hand accounts as a player about how some other owners and organizations around the league run their respective franchises with both eyes on the financial bottom line, it becomes clear why Snyder is endearing to many members of the team. Players, after all, always respect great effort. Snyder has never faltered in that area; his marathon interview sessions are the latest example of that.
The question now, of course, is whether his latest effort will be a successful one.
Biggest obstacle to success: Fitting in with a coaching staff in which many of his assistants have more experience and better resumes. Coaches often have their own agendas and goals, so it will be interesting to see how Zorn co-exists with Joe Bugel, Greg Blache and Jerry Gray, among others. He needs to sell them on his vision before he attempts to have the guys on his roster buy in.
League consensus: Zorn is known in league circles as a rock-solid individual who has an outstanding track record as both an athlete and as a QB coach. The questions concern his ability to juggle the tasks of calling the plays for the first time, managing the game as a head coach and helping to call the personnel shots behind the scenes. That is a wealth of new responsibility to take on at one time.
Pros: Having worked for two of the best in Schottenheimer and Parcells, Sparano knows exactly what type of players he wants in order to achieve success. Though Jason Garrett stole some of his thunder this season, Sparano was still the guts of the Cowboys superb offense. His offensive linemen played at a high level all season long. Sparano has a positive structure in place because of his familiarity with both Parcells and new GM Jeff Ireland. Sparano was also able to hire his own staff and will have complete loyalty from his underlings.
Cons: Despite the success of the Dallas offense that Sparano helped lead the last couple of seasons, the Cowboys still did not win a playoff game during his tenure there as an assistant coach. Being a Parcells disciple does not necessarily enhance things either, as Parcells failed to get his last two organizations to a Super Bowl.
Selection process: The Dolphins were fortunate that the Cowboys lost to the Giants in the divisional round; otherwise they would have had to continue the interviewing charade for another week or two. It was no secret that Sparano was getting this job and beginning to put a staff together. The NFL rule that says assistant coaches cannot accept future jobs before the culmination of their season needs to be revisited.
Biggest obstacle to success: Other than the paltry roster, Sparano needs to change a culture of losing that has developed in South Florida the last two years. Parcells and Ireland are sure to improve the roster, but the Fins will not really start to win until Sparano can make them believe.
League consensus: Sparano is well-respected as a guy who worked his way up the ranks as a Division II head coach at the University of New Haven and a tight ends coach in his early days in the NFL. He has earned this position, but the perception that he is merely carrying out Parcells' behind-the-scenes orders may ultimately hurt his credibility.
Pros: Has always had the makings of a head coach because he is extremely articulate and well-organized. Eagles coach Andy Reid made Harbaugh the secondary coach last season after Harbaugh made the case for not being pigeon-holed as a special teams coach. His ability to understand the makeup of a roster and the importance of the fifth linebacker or ninth defensive back will serve him well.
Cons: Much like Zorn, Harbaugh inherits a team with a well-defined leadership structure and very high expectations. This is not the typical team that a first-year head coach takes over. He needs to get off to a fast start and prove that hiring a special teams coach for the head job is a smart move.
Selection process: It is never a good thing when someone else was offered the job first and turned down the opportunity. The players know that Jason Garrett was the Ravens' first choice and will therefore monitor Harbaugh even more closely.
Biggest obstacle to success: Friction on the staff. The infrastructure is already in place on the defensive side of the ball. Rex Ryan has his players and his defense set up the way he likes it and will likely not take too kindly to any input on Harbaugh's part. This league is filled with big egos and Ryan's is likely a little bruised as a result of getting passed over for another head job, this one on his home turf in Baltimore.
League consensus: It was a smart and long-overdue move to hire a guy with a special team's background for the top spot. Head coaches have to manage the players on both sides of the ball and nobody is in a better position to do that than the special team's coach. Harbaugh must ingratiate himself with Ray Lewis and get off to a fast start in order to eliminate any potential friction with the established core of Ravens leaders and defensive coaches.
Pros: Smith had a successful five-year tenure as the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars and parlayed that into his hiring by the Falcons. He knows what it is like to win football games and have success with a team that has some unknowns on offense (particularly at quarterback). That problem is magnified in Atlanta.
Cons: Smith's resume is about as non-descript as his name. He spent a majority of his coaching career working for Tennessee Tech before landing a job on the defensive coaching staff of brother-in-law Brian Billick's Ravens. He was not considered a candidate for any of the other openings. The Falcons went after several other coaches before settling on Smith.
Selection process: The hiring of both Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff leads many to presume that president Rich McKay was instrumental in the hirings, despite the fact that he has relinquished some of his duties. The Atlanta organization appears to be snake-bitten given what transpired over the past 16 months with Jim Mora, Bobby Petrino and, of course, Michael Vick. Atlanta needed to make a big-time hire of a guy who would command immediate respect in the locker room. The hope is that Smith's personality can overcome his relative anonymity.
Biggest obstacle to success: Where do you start? This is a job that many coaches simply had no interest in; Parcells felt that the organization was in such a hole that it would be difficult to claw its way out. Smith was able to hire his own staff, which is the first step in the right direction for the moribund franchise. Now all he has to do is change the entire culture of the organization. Good luck.
League consensus: Many league observers are mystified that Smith got the job. Many don't believe he has the credentials or the chops necessary to right this sinking ship. More than one source noted both Smith's family ties to Billick and the personal agenda of McKay as the potent combination that led to Smith's entrance into the NFL and eventual hiring as Falcons head coach.