Which new coaching hires will lead teams to playoffs in their first year?
As the offseason enters its OTA phase, here's our assessment of the playoff chances of the seven teams that are attempting fresh starts with new head coaches in 2014, from the strongest to the slimmest. Unsurprisingly, five of the seven clubs are coming off last-place showings, with Detroit and Tennessee also making coaching changes after their underachieving 7-9 finishes of a year ago:
3. Tennessee, Ken Whisenhunt
• Reasons the Titans will make the playoffs: The Titans have been stuck in the grips of mediocrity for a while now, but last year's 7-9 club wasn't too far from legitimate playoff material. Tennessee opened 3-1, saw starting quarterback Jake Locker get hurt, and proceeded to lose eight of its next 10 games, seven of them to eventual playoff qualifiers or 10-win teams. And as we explained with Houston, don't underestimate the effect of the schedule turning much more manageable for the Titans this season, with the NFC East and AFC North replacing the NFC West and AFC West. Given that a two- or three-game improvement could earn Tennessee its first playoff trip since 2008, the Titans don't need to take a dramatic step up in weight class this season, they just need to take advantage of the league's second-easiest strength of schedule (.438).
Replacing Mike Munchak with the well-respected Whisenhunt was a net gain in Nashville. Whisenhunt had just two losing seasons in his six-year stay in Arizona, and though the quarterback position bedeviled his Cardinals in the post-Kurt Warner era, he has a fairly proven offensive system that helped reinvigorate quarterback Philip Rivers' faltering game in San Diego last year. The hiring of defensive coordinator Ray Horton was another quality get, and look for Tennessee's transition to his hybrid 3-4 formation to add an element of aggressiveness to the defense.
Tennessee did solid if unspectacular work in free agency, adding veterans Dexter McCluster, Wesley Woodyard and Michael Oher in March, with their key subtractions being cornerback Alterraun Verner and running back Chris Johnson. They didn't move the needle much in the draft either, but first-round offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and second-round running back Bishop Sankey should both be long-term building blocks, and the sixth-round flyer on LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was a low-risk hedge on Locker's future.
• Reasons the Titans will miss the playoffs: The Titans need Locker's make-or-break fourth season to end his pattern of being either injured or inconsistent, or a little bit of both. If he doesn't get it done, Tennessee won't be playoff-bound, even with the benefit of playing in the softest division in the league. With only Charlie Whitehurst, Mettenberger and Tyler Wilson to choose from in reserve, this is Locker's team and Locker's time to shine. At running back, the release of Johnson made financial sense, but the pressure is on the likes of Sankey, McCluster, and Shonn Greene to all contribute in their different roles behind an offensive line that's received some hefty recent investment (Lewan, veteran guard Andy Levitre, 2013 pick Chance Warmack, and Oher).
4. Cleveland, Mike Pettine
• Reasons the Browns will make the playoffs: Projecting perennially rebuilding Cleveland to make the playoffs any particular season appears fool-hardy, but I do think the Browns are closer today to reaching the postseason than they have been in many years due to the hiring of Pettine, the former Bills and Jets defensive coordinator. Cleveland's long and painful coaching search may have been reduced to punch-line status, but it ended well, because the no-nonsense Pettine is a coaching talent who knows how to motivate players and get a team ready for gameday. He'll lower the slapstick quotient in Cleveland dramatically and his presence will help elevate a young and talented Browns defense to upper tier standing.
Put me down for being an unabashed proponent of the team's Johnny Manziel investment. It's a gamble the Browns had to take, knowing they can't really do worse than their track record at quarterback since their 1999 expansion era began. The rehabilitating Brian Hoyer (knee) played very well, very briefly, for Cleveland last season. But logic and recent history says at some point in 2014, the offense will belong to Johnny Football, and he'll bring an injection of much-needed excitement and playmaking to a unit that has lacked for the kind of leadership that comes naturally to him. If the Browns' losing mojo doesn't drag Manziel down first, Pettine's team has pretty viable turnaround potential.
• Reasons the Browns will miss the playoffs: The Josh Gordon saga is a classic example of Cleveland misfortune, with the Browns perhaps losing to suspension their most potent offensive weapon, just as the All-Pro receiver has entered his playmaking prime. Gordon's situation bears watching as a potential omen for a season that seemingly held more promise than most in Cleveland. Without him in the lineup, the Browns offense will take a step back, even with improved play at quarterback. I also love what Cleveland is putting together on defense, but the Browns relying on the potential combination of a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach to end the franchise's 12-year playoff drought is probably a scenario that calls for tempered expectations.
5. Detroit, Jim Caldwell
• Reasons the Lions will make the playoffs: Because talent usually wins in the NFL and the Lions don't have to envy many teams on that front. They have 19 returning starters, Pro Bowl stars on both sides of the ball and enough depth to contend in a division that has presented playoff opportunities for all four teams in recent seasons. This isn't a team that lacks ability and requires a rebuild. The biggest problem in Motown during the Jim Schwartz era was a lack of discipline and a culture of underachievement, and in that respect, Detroit moved wisely in hiring Caldwell, who is working to instill a sense of accountability and attention to detail to the Lions.
Job No. 1 for Caldwell is fixing quarterback Matthew Stafford, whose game got sloppy and regressed the past two seasons after Detroit's 2011 playoff run. Entering his sixth NFL season, Stafford should benefit from Caldwell's calm and consistent personality and coaching style, and his strong track record and expertise with quarterbacks. As Stafford goes, so go the Lions.
There was nothing splashy about Detroit's offseason, but the Lions met needs with the signing of receiver Golden Tate and safety James Ihedigbo in free agency (both recent Super Bowl ring winners), and the drafting of versatile second-round linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Now it's about building better chemistry in Detroit and fielding a mentally tough team that won't beat itself and give away winnable games.
• Reasons the Lions will miss the playoffs: The Lions secondary has been its defensive weak link of late and it might have been an opportunity missed to pass on one of the top-rated cornerbacks in the first round of the draft in favor of North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. We know the Lions offense can score enough to keep up with Green Bay and Chicago in the NFC North, but being able to minimize some of the damage that Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler can inflict remains Detroit's defensive challenge.
The pressure to win now, which Caldwell has acknowledged and tried to embrace, can consume some teams rather than motivate them, and the Lions in the past have not responded well to high expectations. This is no longer the young, ascendant team of 2011, this a club whose window to accomplish something special with the likes of Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is starting to close. If Detroit doesn't get off to a fast start this season, there's a chance last year's late-season collapse (six losses in the last seven games) and squandered playoff berth will continue to linger over the organization and do even further damage in 2014.
6. Minnesota, Mike Zimmer
• Reasons the Vikings will make the playoffs: Zimmer was more than ready to be somebody's head coach, and as he did for so many years as an NFL defensive coordinator, look for him to squeeze the maximum production out of the resources he has on hand. He'll field a Vikings team that mirrors his tough, no-excuses style, and he'll have his players battling opponents for all four quarters, even if they're more talented squads. Zimmer's decision to hire veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner is another positive, and it lends experience and expertise to the side of the ball that obviously isn't Zimmer's strong suit.
At 5-10-1, Minnesota sank to last place in the NFC North last season, but it's not as if the Vikings were without hope. They went a very competitive 4-3-1 in the season's second half, posting a better record over that span than the Packers, Bears or Lions. Adding Zimmer's touch to a defense that picked up underrated talents such as defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn in free agency, and outside linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Scott Crichton in the draft, raises Minnesota's defensive playmaking quotient considerably.
If Turner can get a solid season from veteran quarterback Matt Cassel (who was wisely re-signed and is now the bridge quarterback to first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater), Minnesota has a variety of ways to challenge a defense and consistently move the chains. Look for big-play receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings to have strong seasons in Turner's offense. The Vikings also have an intriguing situation at running back with All-World talent Adrian Peterson now being joined by third-round pick Jerick McKinnon (who is expected to play a Darren Sproles-like role in the offense).
• Reasons the Vikings will miss the playoffs: Zimmer's work on defense might not come together overnight, with the potential of four or five new starters needing time to mesh with the holdovers, while everyone learns a new system. But there's little wiggle room for a long learning curve, with Minnesota facing the Patriots, Saints and Packers -- three superstar quarterback-driven playoff teams from 2013 -- in the opening five weeks.
The transition to being an outdoor team that plays its games at the University of Minnesota for the next two seasons could also prove a complicating challenge for a club that often benefitted from its domefield advantage. The NFL did the Vikings no favors in the acclimation process to a cold-weather setting, giving Minnesota five of its eight home games in November and December, including four from Nov. 23 to Dec. 28.
7. Washington, Jay Gruden
• Reasons the Redskins will make the playoffs: Let's see what Robert Griffin III is capable of now that he has a sense of trust in his head coach and the belief that he's playing in a quarterback-friendly offense. Gruden, the former collegiate and Arena League quarterback, does see the game through the same prism as Griffin and that has quickly given the two men a bond that ex-Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan never formed with his QB.
Griffin also clearly will be healthier this year after 2013's knee rehabilitation, and the fresh start in Washington has brought the bounce back into his step. If Griffin can recapture some of the playmaking magic that dazzled the league in his rookie season -- while staying healthy in the process -- a Redskins' resurgence would feature roughly the same cast of characters who came out of nowhere to win the NFC East in 2012.
Griffin has plenty to prove this season, and the Redskins will feed off his desire to show that last year's 3-13 debacle was the fluke and not his breakthrough 2012. He'll have company on the highly motivated front, because newly signed Washington receiver DeSean Jackson went through his own fire this offseason, and can't wait to highlight the mistake he believes Philadelphia made in March when it released him after his career-year of 2013. If Griffin and Jackson click, Gruden's vibe-changing touch works as advertised in Ashburn, and the Redskins pass rush gets a boost from free agent defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and second-round outside linebacker Trent Murphy, the best news is that the NFC East is no one's idea of murderer's row.
• Reasons the Redskins will miss the playoffs: My sense is Griffin will rebound nicely compared to the gimpy and demoralized quarterback we watched for most of last season, but not to the heights of his breathtaking 2012 game. And let's be realistic, it took every bit of Griffin's dazzling rookie performance (plus some superb relief work from fellow rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins) to lift Washington to a playoff level that season, with the Redskins winning seven in a row after a dismal 3-6 start.
Washington went 0-6 in the division last season, but should be able to compete with the likes of a weakened Dallas roster and possibly a retooled Giants team in the midst of changing its identify on offense under new coordinator Ben McAdoo. But Philadelphia looks like the obvious class of the East and might not even need to mount a 7-1 rush in the second half to pull away from the rest of the division this year. A lot of things have to go right for 2014 to break Washington's way, but perhaps just turning the page on last year's meltdown and getting Griffin back on track should suffice for success this season.