Usually, head coaches are the fall guys for NFL teams that have disappointing seasons. This offseason, however, offensive coordinators have taken the fall.
Only three NFL clubs, it appears, will have new head coaches next season. The Miami Dolphins lured Nick Saban from the college ranks, at LSU, to replace Dave Wannstedt. The San Francisco 49ers hired Mike Nolan to take over for Dennis Erickson, and the Cleveland Browns seem intent on waiting for Romeo Crennel to be available to succeed Butch Davis. That probably will be it, and it's a modest turnover by recent league standards. Last winter, there were seven head-coaching changes.
But there could be as many as 13 offensive-coordinator switches, and that is the front on which teams currently are competing aggressively for the top candidates. Saban hired Scott Linehan, whose contract as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator was to expire at the end of this month, on Wednesday, just before Linehan was to meet with the Jacksonville Jaguars today. Hours after Paul Hackett resigned under pressure Wednesday, the New York Jets hired Mike Heimerdinger, the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator for the past five seasons who interviewed for the 49ers' head-coaching job last week.
Hackett became the second offensive coordinator league-wide to resign under pressure since the season ended, joining Baltimore's Matt Cavanaugh. Detroit's Sherman Lewis retired. New England's Charlie Weis accepted the head-coaching job at Notre Dame but is staying with the Patriots through the end of their season. The Dolphins' Chris Foerster was sent packing because of a head-coaching change, and the Browns' Terry Robiskie and the 49ers' Ted Tollner probably will meet the same fate. Arizona's Alex Wood, Chicago's Terry Shea and Jacksonville's Bill Musgrave were fired. The Titans have joined the group of teams looking for new offensive bosses and the New Orleans Saints might have to replace Mike McCarthy, who is a candidate in Detroit and Jacksonville.
Why have there been so many changes? The answer probably stems from last offseason's directive by the competition committee that opened up the passing game league-wide this season. The new rules interpretation gave offenses a huge advantage, making life nearly impossible for defensive backs by taking away their ability to impede receivers more than five yards downfield. Passing records fell by the wayside. But to whom much is given, much is expected, and those offensive coordinators whose clubs weren't lighting up the scoreboard like the Indianapolis Colts found themselves in the position of being convenient scapegoats.
Another league trend is teams handing starting jobs to young quarterbacks in which they've invested plenty of money and hope, whether they're ready or not. It doesn't always work out -- often to the detriment of the offensive coordinator. Cavanaugh was given no choice but to try to succeed with Kyle Boller in Baltimore. Just when Wood and the Cardinals were beginning to win with Josh McCown, Coach Dennis Green benched McCown and began a quarterback carousel. After the Bears passed on signing Kurt Warner last offseason and then Rex Grossman got hurt, Shea had to attempt to make an offense work with Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel or Chad Hutchinson in charge.
The Vikings today promoted offensive line coach Steve Loney to replace Linehan. That makes it six teams that have hired new offensive coordinators -- including the Dolphins with Linehan, the Jets with Heimerdinger, the Ravens with Jim Fassel, the Bears with Ron Turner and the Cardinals with Keith Rowen.
The competitive market has been good for some. Linehan signed a three-year contract with the Dolphins worth about $2.5 million, nearly tripling the $300,000 annual salary that he had in Minnesota. Linehan made himself, in effect, a coaching free agent by rejecting the Vikings' previous offers for a contract extension. Vikings owner Red McCombs, who has the league's lowest-paid coaching staff, was unwilling to offer Linehan an extension that went beyond next season, and refused to get into a bidding war for him. And Linehan didn't want a contract that was longer than that of Vikings Coach Mike Tice, who is signed only through next season. In Miami, Saban is beginning a five-year contract, so Linehan knows his boss will be around for a while.
Linehan was heavily scrutinized this season when he made the ill-fated call for a trick play -- a pass by wide receiver Randy Moss -- that resulted in a key end-zone interception and a loss to Seattle. But he is regarded as one of the league's brightest offensive minds and a prospective future NFL head coach. The Vikings ranked fourth in the NFL in total offense this season after finishing second in 2002 and first in 2003.
Heimerdinger became the league's latest $1 million-a-year coordinator with a three-year deal from the Jets worth more than $3 million. He was making about $400,000 per season in Tennessee, where his contract was expiring.
"Change is a constant in the NFL for both players and coaches alike," Coach Jeff Fisher said in a written statement released by the Titans. "Unfortunately, we are staring change in the face with Mike's departure. . . . We made every attempt to keep Mike from leaving, but this was a personal decision and he did what he felt was best for him and his family."
McCarthy perhaps will cash in with the Jaguars, who appeared ready to make Linehan a lucrative offer if he hadn't taken the Miami job. McCarthy is to interview with Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio on Friday after interviewing with Lions Coach Steve Mariucci on Wednesday. The Lions also are considering Tollner and several internal candidates. Lions running backs coach Tom Rathman, the former 49ers fullback, could be a candidate in San Francisco as well as Detroit.
Quarterbacks coaches Mike Sheppard of the Saints and Jason Verduzco of the Kansas City Chiefs are considered offensive-coordinator candidates league-wide. The San Diego Chargers are trying to complete a lucrative contract extension with their coveted offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, that would keep him from being a coaching free agent.
Reeves Gives Nolan Thumbs-Up
As Nolan was being formally introduced by the 49ers Wednesday, former NFL coach Dan Reeves was saying it didn't surprise him to see his former pupil ascend to the head-coaching ranks.
"You knew he'd end up having success in coaching, if only because he chose to coach after seeing all that his dad had been through, being fired a couple times," Reeves said by telephone. "He still wanted to do it, and you knew it was only a matter of time before he ended up being a head coach. You could just see he was one of those guys who had it, with the way he went about things. He met every challenge."
Nolan's father, Dick, is the former head coach of the 49ers and Saints. The younger Nolan worked for Reeves as an assistant coach with the Denver Broncos and New York Giants after being cut by Reeves as a rookie defensive back in the Broncos' training camp in 1981. That pained Reeves, in part because Dick Nolan, as a Dallas assistant coach, helped Reeves to make the Cowboys' roster as a rookie in 1965.
"He almost made our football team," Reeves said Wednesday. "He was one of the last cuts. He was one of those kids you hate to cut, one of those kids where it hurts you probably more than it hurts them. It's like when your parents would whip you and say, 'This hurts me more than it hurts you.' You don't believe it, but it's true. I asked him what he was going to do, and he said he was going to coach. I said, 'Mike, you're way too good-looking for that. You should go to Hollywood and make 20 percent of the gross.' That's when Burt Reynolds was making like 20 percent, and I told Mike that's what he should be aiming for." . . . Reeves, who turned 61 Wednesday, has been out of football this season after being fired by the Atlanta Falcons late in the 2003 season. He said he would be willing to return to the NFL if presented with the right offer.
"I don't think you ever get it out of your blood," Reeves said. "If the right opportunity came along, I'd certainly be interested. And it wouldn't only have to be coaching. If it could be as an advisor or something like that, I still think I have something to offer that could help somebody."
Reeves still lives in Atlanta and speaks occasionally to his successor, Jim Mora Jr., who has taken the Falcons to Sunday's NFC championship game with many of Reeves's coaches and players. Reeves said he has found himself this season missing some, but not all, of the elements of coaching in the NFL.
"There are some things you don't miss," he said. "I coached for 11 years with free agency, and you don't miss some of those aspects of the job. But the coaching and the relationships, I definitely missed those things."
No Glove For Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn't planning to wear a glove on his throwing hand for Sunday's AFC title game against New England. The rookie had gloves on both hands during last weekend's triumph over the Jets at frigid Heinz Field, and had trouble gripping the ball in his shaky, two-interception performance. . . .
Defensive end Richard Seymour participated only minimally in the Patriots' practice Wednesday and probably will miss the Steelers game because of his knee injury, apparently a sprained medial collateral ligament. Seymour sat out the regular-season finale and the playoff victory over the Colts, but likely would be able to participate in the Super Bowl if New England advances. . . .
Philadelphia right tackle Jon Runyan might practice today after sitting out Wednesday's practice because of the injury to his right knee that he suffered in last weekend's win over the Vikings. Coach Andy Reid said Monday that Runyan has a sprained MCL but should be able to start against the Falcons. Linebacker Mark Simoneau practiced Wednesday after missing the Minnesota game because of an ankle injury.
Clarett, Williams Officially In Draft
Tailback Maurice Clarett and wide receiver Mike Williams were among the 49 players granted early entry into this year's NFL draft by the league Wednesday. Players had to file their paperwork with the league by Saturday, and had until Wednesday to withdraw.
Clarett and Williams are eligible for this year's draft under the league's requirement that a player be at least three years removed from high school. A federal judge struck down that rule last year, temporarily opening the draft to college freshmen and sophomores and high school players, in Clarett's lawsuit against the NFL, and Williams joined Clarett in entering the draft. But the league managed to overturn that ruling on appeal and kept Clarett and Williams out of the draft, and the NCAA denied Williams's application to have his college-football eligibility restored at USC. Williams sat out the season. Clarett hasn't played in two seasons since leading Ohio State to a national championship as a freshman.
The most prominent underclassmen to enter the draft who actually played this season were quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of Cal and Alex Smith of Utah. . . .
The Dolphins hired George Edwards, the former Washington Redskins defensive coordinator who spent this season as the Browns' linebackers coach. Edwards probably will be Saban's linebackers coach, although the team did not publicly clarify his duties yet.
Saban appears to be waiting for the Patriots' season to end so that he can pursue their linebackers coach, Dean Pees, for his defensive-coordinator job. Pees formerly was Saban's defensive coordinator at Michigan State. It's unclear if Pees would be a candidate, along with fellow Patriots defensive assistants Eric Mangini and Pepper Johnson, to replace Crennel in New England if Crennel gets the Browns' head-coaching position, as expected. Mangini is considered the likely successor to Crennel if Crennel departs.
Cleveland's lack of activity this week with Jim Bates, the former Dolphins interim coach who is thought to be second on the Browns' wish list, reinforces the notion that the club is waiting on Crennel. NFL rules prohibit the Browns from hiring Crennel, or even having a second interview with him, before the Patriots' season concludes.