Standing on the sidelines
Of the four new head coaches in the NFL this year, no one is taking over a team that fell further in 2007 than
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
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
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'
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
"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:
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
Thus the return to Nashville of Heimerdinger, under whom ex-Titans quarterback
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.
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
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
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.