UNEASY RESTS the head that wears the headset. In the last 36 months there have been 29 head coaching changes in the NFL, a number that could rise to 32—which would make an average of one per team—if Tony Dungy decides to retire from Indianapolis in the coming days and if on-the-fence owners in Oakland and Kansas City choose to fire their top men. Usually, the first instinct of an owner with a vacancy is to go for the charisma and look for Mr. Goodbar, which is why it has to be in the back of the minds of Jerry Jones in Dallas and Dan Snyder in Washington to stay any executions they may be contemplating. A starry bunch is expected to be on the market in 2010, when three of the NFL's top 20 winningest coaches ever—Mike Holmgren (10th), Bill Cowher (13th) and Mike Shanahan (17th)—should be ready and willing to take Gatorade showers again.
But is a flashy résumé an indispensable part of coaching success? Lately, no. Consider the case of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who a year ago was starstruck too—until he got rejected by all of the celebrities on his wish list. Cowher told him he wasn't interested in the job that Bobby Petrino had unceremoniously vacated with three games left in the 2007 season. Ditto USC coach Pete Carroll. Bill Parcells spurned Blank to work in Miami. Since he couldn't get the architect he wanted in Parcells, Blank wound up giving his G.M. job to 41-year-old New England scout Thomas Dimitroff, an obscure figure who had demonstrated his personnel savvy in six years with the Patriots. For a coach, Blank settled on 48-year-old Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mike Smith, a household name only in his own household. All these two virtual unknowns did was take over a team reeling from the Michael Vick dogfighting crisis and lead it to an 11--5 season and the playoffs.
Blank says that the experience taught—or rather reminded him—that a hungry leader is a good leader. As CEO of The Home Depot, a company he cofounded in 1978, Blank groomed several understudies to succeed him when he decided to leave. "But they made so much money over the years," Blank said, "that I thought they just didn't have the eye of the tiger anymore. So [ultimately] we went outside the company to hire someone. The thing I learned from that is that you have to turn over all the rocks and find people who are going to make it their life's work to make the team win."
Playing it safe by bringing in the old reliables turns out, if you look at the recent record, to be playing it risky; hires like Norv Turner, Dick Jauron, Herm Edwards and Jim Haslett have resulted in more misses than hits. As for the latest crop of college glamour guys (Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Petrino), they all showed their hearts weren't in the pro game and ran back to campus for the guaranteed money—and wins.
The 2008 coaching class should be the model for future hires, and not just because three of the four new bosses—Smith, Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Miami's Tony Sparano—led teams to the playoffs. Each came in with innovative ideas and fresh styles, and all were eager to take chances. Harbaugh altered the we're-all-about defense image of the Ray Lewis--led Ravens by shuffling locker assignments to discourage cliques and by creating a big-game atmosphere when the offense faced the defense in practice. Smith made fundamental changes in how the Falcons practiced, incorporating four 12-minute "concept periods," when players took off the pads and walked through the plays of the week. He also remade defensive end John Abraham by playing him on 60% of snaps instead of 85 or 90, theorizing that a speed rusher can't be at his best if he has to chase the ball 55 times a game. Sparano, after two discouraging losses to start the season, instituted what at first appeared to be a gimmicky direct-snap-to-the-running-back Wildcat formation. The imaginative (and now much imitated) scheme helped the Dolphins win 11 of their last 14 games. (Of course, vast improvements at quarterback also helped each team.)
The lessons of this season have not been lost on many of the league's owners and G.M.'s. Judging by the early days of the interviewing process, the five teams with openings as of Monday—Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis and the Jets—appeared to be going the hungry-young-assistant route. "I'm not worrying about who's the hot guy, who's the guru or who's the flavor-of-the-year," says St. Louis G.M. Billy Devaney. "What I'm seeing is there's lots of good meat-and-potato coaches out there."
The name mentioned most often after the first week of interviews is Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, 49, a former Eagles assistant who has turned the Giants into the NFC's most sack-happy team in his two New York seasons. Also among the most likely to be hired: Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, 42, who has an economics degree from Georgetown, works young players into his lineup more effectively than any current NFL assistant and uses Moneyball-type statistical research to analyze the game. Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, 46, who conjures the kind of unpredictable schemes that haven't been seen since his dad, the indomitable Buddy Ryan, created the 46 Defense. On the offensive side of the ball, New England coordinator Josh McDaniels, 32, deserves credit for taking college backup quarterback Matt Cassel and turning him into the most attractive potential free agent in the 2009 class.
No doubt about it, a track record means a lot. But what if the alternative is innovation, energy, a human-sized ego—and, oh, yeah, the willingness to work for several million less than Parcells or Cowher? Just as sure as teams will continue to change coaches, 2009 is going to be a big year for small names.
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The low-profile 2008 coaching class should be the MODEL FOR FUTURE HIRES.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER