Thursday, February 1, 2007
By Nick Wagoner
After a wild postseason a year ago that saw a battle over the NFLís collective bargaining agreement, 10 coaching changes, and big names moving around the league, itís no wonder that this offseason has been quiet by comparison.
Of course, free agency and the draft could bring a lot more change to the landscape of the league. But the coaching carousel, which appeared would slow considerably this season after so much change last season has been spinning wildly, perhaps a clue that this postseason might bring about more change than originally thought.
Here in St. Louis, the Ramsí offseason has been oh, so quiet compared to the wild time they had a year ago. At this point in 2006, the Rams had hired a new head coach, most of a new staff and were working toward filling out the staff while trying to build a roster plan.
This year, the team has made just two changes. They parted ways with Bib Ligashesky as special teams coach and defensive quality control coach Joe Baker took the linebackers coach job with the Denver Broncos.
In the past week, the Rams have filled out the coaching staff with Al Roberts as the new special teams coach and Mike Cox as the defensive quality control coach. Now, they have their full attention on filling in the holes that could help them improve on their 8-8 season and three-game winning streak to end the year.
After so many changes were made last year, this season figured to see few organizations making changes at the top. But soon after the season, a number of organizations chose to go in a different direction and some of the coaches themselves did likewise.
One day after the season, the changes around the league began. The Falcons were the first to make a move, parting ways with Jim Mora, Jr. The Cardinals followed suit by letting go of Denny Green. A few days later, Oakland and Art Shell ended their one-year partnership. Those moves were obvious.
Next came the wave of moves that left a few organizations searching for coaches when maybe they didnít expect to. Pittsburgh had an inkling that coach Bill Cowher was ready to move on and after a disappointing follow to a Super Bowl season. Cowher did just that.
Soon after a devastating loss to Seattle in the playoffs, Dallasí Bill Parcells made the same move.
In a league that has been known for recycling head coaches, the trend began last season of hiring young, talented coordinators and position coaches to take over the lead jobs. The Rams hired Scott Linehan, Rod Marinelli went to Detroit, and Eric Mangini to the Jets.
So far, no retreads have been put in place. Atlanta went the college route by bringing in Louisvilleís Bobby Petrino and Arizona got hot offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt from Pittsburgh. As usual, Oakland went even more unconventional. After failing to land USC quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian, the Raiders hired USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, son of Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Pittsburgh, an organization that has redefined stability in the NFL, went against the grain by passing on clear choice of assistant head coach Russ Grimm and going young with Minnesota defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin. Itís no surprise, though, considering Tomlinís combination of youth (heís 34) and toughness.
Dallas is the only team yet to hire a coach. It seems the team is on the verge of adding Norv Turner, who was most recently with Oakland in that capacity. Of course, the Cowboys could make that move with an eye toward the future. They also hired Jason Garrett as offensive coordinator before adding a head coach and essentially declared Garrett as head coach in training. Dallas has interviewed eight candidates for the job, but it appears Turner is the frontrunner. Mike Singletary is part of that group and considered to be one of the finalists.
For now, it appears those coaching changes will be the only ones this season, but there could be plenty more to come in 2008 as the seats in San Diego, Baltimore, New York (Giants) and Cleveland already are warm.
Speaking of coaches, there is a popular storyline developing for Sundayís Super Bowl based on the skin color of the two coaches involved. This weekís game marks the first time in Super Bowl history that the coaches have been African-American.
Overlooked in that, though, is the fact that Chicagoís Lovie Smith and Indianapolisí Tony Dungy are two excellent football coaches and even better people. You would be hard pressed to find two classier coaches in any sport and itís no coincidence that the pair has a strong friendship.
Interestingly, this game is one that many might have been able to see coming based on the first five or so weeks of the season. Chicago and Indianapolis came out of the gates firing on all cylinders as the teams went undefeated to start the season.
Both fell back to Earth a bit as the season went on, though. Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman has been the picture of inconsistency and the Coltsí run defense was the football equivalent of Swiss cheese.
Still, both teams managed to keep it together into the playoffs to position themselves for a run at the ring. Credit for that should go to the head coaches in charge. Dungy and Smith cut their teeth as parts of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for most of the late 90ís. Smith was the linebackers coach while Dungy handled the head coaching duties. Smith was the Ramsí defensive coordinator from 2001-2003.
The duo is credited in Tampa with forming the foundation of the Cover 2 defense, which has become one of the most popular base defenses in the NFL.
With their extensive knowledge of each other and their systems, donít expect this Super Bowl to be a blowout. There will be plenty of intriguing storylines to watch in this one.
How much pressure can the Bears get on Peyton Manning and his many weapons? How will Chicago slow tight end Dallas Clark? Can Grossman find the rhythm to beat a fairly vulnerable Coltsí pass defense? Which Indianapolis run defense will show up, the one that was sliced and diced in the regular season or the one that has been nearly impenetrable in the postseason?
While the AFC might have been the tougher and difficult conference, the Bears dominated the NFC essentially from start to finish and have an X factor in returner Devin Hester.
With all of that said, it should be a close, hard-fought game. StillÖ
PREDICTION: Indianapolis 27, Chicago 21
The week after the Super Bowl is meant as a time for the players and coaches to get away and recharge the batteries. Some will head to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl and others will just go home to be with family and friends.
But the NFL offseason has little room for downtime these days. Within a few weeks after the Super Bowl, the league will convene in Indianapolis for the scouting combine (be sure to check stlouisrams.com for complete coverage) before jumping right into free agency.
Free agency kicks off in March and the draft is in April. In other words, no rest for the weary as the league becomes year-round more and more. The Rams enter the offseason with a fairly clear list of needs.
Heading into free agency and the draft, a nose tackle, a pass rusher, depth at linebacker and the secondary, a backup running back, size at receiver, and offensive line depth are among the items on the teamís shopping list.
Donít look now, but it wonít be long before mini camps and training camp are right around the corner.