John Harbaugh, Mike Smith, Tony Sparano Flourishing as Rookie Head Coaches

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 27, 2008

At this time last year, John Harbaugh was a secondary coach with the Philadelphia Eagles more renowned for his years spent running the special teams. Mike Smith was a little-known Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator whose primary claim to coaching fame was being the brother-in-law of Brian Billick, the former Baltimore Ravens coach who won a Super Bowl. Tony Sparano was an obscure offensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys.

Now they might be the NFL's three leading coach of the year candidates, and they're poised to take their teams to the playoffs as rookie head coaches. Smith's Atlanta Falcons already are in. Harbaugh's Ravens and Sparano's Miami Dolphins can secure postseason spots with victories tomorrow on the final day of the regular season.

Come Monday, those three coaches could be readying for playoff games. But elsewhere in the league, coaches will be getting fired as owners of other franchises seek the same sort of quick turnarounds that Harbaugh, Smith and Sparano produced this season. The questions are: Will the immediate head coaching prosperity of the previously unheralded assistant coaches lead to even more firings than usual next week? And will owners who fire their coaches now be seeking their own versions of these coaching success stories?

"I don't know if it affects whether changes will be made," former NFL coach Dan Reeves said this week. "I do think it affects who you'll look for if changes are made. You've got those guys doing well. You've also got the model with the Bill Parcells thing in Miami, where he was brought in to run the whole thing and he hired the coach. I think people are looking at that."

Some in the league seem to be expecting a large number of coaching changes this offseason. Only four were made last offseason, that after a total of 17 coaching changes were made by NFL teams following the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

"Since there were only four last year, it's probably a pretty good guess that there could be a lot this year," Reeves said in a telephone interview. "We're in a business right now where if you don't get results right away, there are going to be changes. . . . I think it's been pretty consistent over time. I remember looking at it at one point during my career and it averaged about eight or 10 a year for about 10 years. Coaches get fired. That's the way the NFL works.

"The one thing that I do think is unique about right now is that you've got a whole lot of new owners who don't have the experience. They tend to not have very much patience. That plays into it."

Three teams already have fired their coaches during the season: the Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers appear intent upon retaining Mike Singletary, who has guided the club to a 4-4 record after its 2-5 start under Mike Nolan. But the Rams appear increasingly unlikely to retain Jim Haslett, who replaced Scott Linehan. It also appears unlikely that the Raiders will keep Tom Cable, who succeeded Lane Kiffin, but guessing what owner Al Davis will do is challenging.

Mike Holmgren is leaving the Seattle Seahawks after tomorrow's season finale, with secondary coach Jim Mora already having been named to replace him. Quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell has been named Tony Dungy's successor in Indianapolis whenever Dungy decides to retire as the Colts' coach, whether that happens after this season or sometime later.

Few in the league seem to expect the winless Detroit Lions to keep Rod Marinelli as their coach. The league-wide expectations are similarly pessimistic about Romeo Crennel's job security in Cleveland and Herman Edwards's in Kansas City. Questions have been raised about Dick Jauron in Buffalo, Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, Andy Reid in Philadelphia and Eric Mangini in New York with the Jets. Minnesota's Brad Childress could quiet speculation if he wins tomorrow and clinches a playoff spot. The bosses of Wade Phillips in Dallas and Norv Turner in San Diego have moved to quiet such speculation in their cities by saying their coaches will stay. There has been surprisingly little speculation about Jack Del Rio's job security in Jacksonville.

Already, the names of high-profile coaches have begun circulating in Cleveland as possible replacements for Crennel if he's fired on the heels of the Browns' highly disappointing season. Bill Cowher, a former Browns player and assistant coach who has done television work for two seasons since leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers' sideline, has been mentioned as the leading candidate. The name of former Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer also has surfaced.

"Bill Cowher is the wild card in everything," said former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly. "If a team can afford Bill Cowher and he's willing to coach, I don't think that team is going to go hire someone else just because of the success the new guys are having this season."

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