What's next after Shurmur?

BY JIM THOMAS
Friday, January 14, 2011 12:25 am

At the most basic level, Steve Spagnuolo was just happy for Pat Shurmur. After all, two years ago, Spagnuolo went through the same thing: going from first-time NFL coordinator to first-time NFL head coach.

"When you have an opportunity like that, hey, God bless him," Spagnuolo said Thursday after Shurmur was named head coach of the Cleveland Browns. "It's a wonderful, wonderful time and he should just enjoy it. I want to say it's a once-in-a-lifetime (experience), but you never know how this business goes. But it's a real special time for him and his family."

Undoubtedly, Spagnuolo had hoped to have Shurmur longer, to help with the offense and the development of quarterback Sam Bradford. So was Spagnuolo surprised that it happened so quickly for Shurmur, after just two years with the Rams?

"Yes and no," Spagnuolo said. "I can go back on my own experience and say that I only spent two years in New York" as the Giants' defensive coordinator. "So you could've said the same thing. I know I'm a little bit older than Pat. But it happens when it's supposed to happen. And when the natural fit is there, I think it's a good thing."

At face value, the fit is a good one for Shurmur in Cleveland.

"Tom Heckert and him had worked together for a long time in Philadelphia," Spagnuolo said, referring to the Browns' general manager. "And Coach (Mike) Holmgren — we all know the Coach Holmgren tree through Andy Reid right on down."

Holmgren is the Browns' president, and a long-time proponent of the West Coast offense in guiding Green Bay and Seattle to a combined three Super Bowl appearances as a head coach.

"I think Pat is really a natural fit with the offense that Coach Holmgren is used to," Spagnuolo said. "I think their philosophies will all mesh. I would imagine that's true because otherwise they wouldn't be doing this."

Spagnuolo and Shurmur cut their teeth as NFL coaches with Reid as part of Reid's initial Eagles staff in 1999. Spagnuolo left after the 2006 season to become Giants defensive coordinator. Shurmur left Philly after the '08 season to be part of Spagnuolo's inaugural staff in St. Louis.

"Pat was perfect for me," Spagnuolo said. "He had the demeanor that really fit for me. He was very helpful, very patient. I thought he did a great job with our guys. I thought he did a great job with the staff.

"We know that the job we had, like any of these jobs, was tough. You come in the first year and all the change, personnel change — I thought Pat handled that really, really well. It was not easy and I thought he did a great job handling it."

The Rams made a big leap in the second year under Spagnuolo from 1-15 to 7-9 and a near-miss at an NFC West title. Over the course of the 2010 season, Shurmur and the offense came under criticism for being too conservative, for sitting on leads in the second half, for not throwing the ball downfield enough, and in the disappointing season finale against Seattle for giving the team's lone Pro Bowler, Steven Jackson, only 11 carries in a 16-6 loss.

But by season's end the Rams had improved their scoring by 114 points over '09, the second-biggest improvement by any team in the NFL. That was a touchdown-a-game improvement, and it was done without a single return touchdown via special teams or defense.

Shurmur did it with a rookie quarterback (albeit a No. 1 overall pick), a rookie left tackle (Rodger Saffold), an inexperienced right tackle (Jason Smith), and limited talent in the wide receiver corps.

"We feel good about (the improvement)," Spagnuolo said. "We certainly want to do a lot better, and we know it's going to take a lot better going forward. But no question that Pat had a hand in that.

"It was good to have somebody that I had known from years before. Especially when we went through our ups and downs. And to a man, I think all the guys on the offensive staff would tell you that as hard as it was during certain portions of this, Pat really handled it well."

The challenge now for Spagnuolo is finding a new coordinator that can continue the offensive progress and the development of Bradford as a franchise quarterback.

When asked about finding Shurmur's replacement, Spagnuolo said, "I want to do the right thing, obviously, moving forward. I'm not going to rush to do anything yet. But we'd like to get things in place as soon as possible."

The two names most commonly mentioned as possible replacements are former Denver head coach Josh McDaniels and former Minnesota head coach Brad Childress. Both were fired in the 2010 regular season, and both have backgrounds in offense.

McDaniels already has been interviewed by Minnesota for the offensive coordinator job there; Childress is headed to Miami to interview for the same position there, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Childress is one of Spagnuolo's best friends in the business; they worked together for several years on Reid's staff in Philadelphia. Childress would run a version of the West Coast scheme.

McDaniels' background is different. The former Bill Belichick protégé in New England favors a more wide-open passing game with more downfield throws. Spagnuolo didn't talk specifics about candidates Thursday.

"I haven't done a lot of work with that right now," he said. "I'm certainly somewhat in the middle of it."

No matter who replaces Shurmur, or what system they run, Spagnuolo is confident that Bradford can adjust to the change and continue to grow as an NFL quarterback.

"We've got to get the right person, whoever that is," Spagnuolo said. "Whether it's within (the organization). Or it's outside. There's more than one guy with any offense. But if you're talking about the quarterback, Sam's pretty flexible to anything. And the one thing about the offense that we did have, it was very flexible. It asked the quarterback to do a lot of different things.

"So we'll go through the normal (hiring) process here, talk with some people, and do the best thing for the team obviously."

Bradford could not be reached for comment Thursday. In a statement released by the Rams, he said: "This is a great opportunity for Coach Shurmur. I really enjoyed working with him last season and he truly helped my transition from college to the NFL game. I think he will be a really good head coach."