It's that time of year again, and I'm not talking about returning Christmas gifts. I'm talking about returning head coaches, with three sent to the unemployment lines on Monday.
|Tom Coughlin will probably have a find a replacement for Steve Spagnuolo. (AP)|
Yeah, I know, Bill Cowher is at the top of everyone's list, but he's not my concern here. Assistants working with today's clubs are, and these are some you should ... and will ... hear about soon:
Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, Tennessee
He's an early favorite to make most short lists because he's young, he's smart, he's personable and he knows what he's doing. I want to see the NFL owner who can walk away from those qualifications. Schwartz was an intriguing candidate several years ago, but then he was considered too young, too inexperienced. Not anymore. When you think of the Titans what comes to mind first? Uh-huh, defense.
The Titans ranked seventh overall this season, second in points allowed and third in takeaways. What's more, they allowed more than 17 points only two times in their last 20 starts, including last season's playoffs. Impressive. Oh, yeah, they also have one of the league's top defensive players in tackle Albert Haynesworth, who could be this year's Defensive Player of the Year. Anyway, that's a long way of saying that Schwartz is responsible for building a marvelous defense that ranked in the top seven the past two years.
Schwartz will have his choice of jobs, and I have a feeling he's ready to jump. If I'm Tennessee I do whatever I can to keep him ... because, yes, he's that good.
Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, N.Y. Giants
A year ago he was the hot young assistant who couldn't make a move because the Giants were locked in a playoff run to the Super Bowl. It was only after they beat New England in Super Bowl XLII that Spagnuolo was interviewed, and then it was by Washington, the last team left with an opening. But before the Redskins could budge, the Giants did the smart thing and stepped in with an extension and a bump in pay. So he stayed.
Spagnuolo is young, bright and a product of the Jim Johnson school of coaching. If you know anything about Philadelphia's Johnson it's that he is an exceptional assistant who brings the heat from all directions, produces sacks, forces turnovers and, in general, rattles opponents -- with Sunday's performance against Dallas the latest example. Spagnuolo does the same thing with the Giants, hammering Tom Brady and the New England Patriots into submission in Super Bowl XLII. It was that game that put Spagnuolo on the radar with clubs wondering how he could do what no one else in the NFL could? He will be hired, and he will be successful. Somewhere. The choice will be his.
Leslie Frazier, assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings
|Leslie Frazier has been a winner at every level. (AP)|
Interviewed by Miami for an opening later filled by Tony Sparano, Frazier assumed more administrative duties this season in anticipation of his next move -- which is a head-coaching position. Trust me, someone will give it to him.
Players respect and admire him, and they play hard for him. He was successful as a player, serving as a starting cornerback on the 1985 Chicago Bears; he was successful as a collegiate head coach, winning conference titles at little Trinity College; and he has been successful as a coordinator. That should open doors. The rest is up to Frazier.
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, New England Patriots
It seems as if every third year or so someone's trying to hire a high-profile assistant away from the Patriots, which means this is the year people start profiling McDaniels. The knock on him is that he's young ... maybe too young ... but, hey, Eric Mangini took the Jets to the playoffs when he was 35, so why can't McDaniels get a sniff at 32? He can, but it will have to be the right situation.
Potential suitors will look at what he did with Matt Cassel this year and Tom Brady last season and figure there must be something right with the coaching they're getting. And they would be accurate. Brady and Cassel were 27-5 under McDaniels' tutelage during the regular season, with Brady setting the single-season touchdown record and Cassel demonstrating he can and should be trusted as a starter. It was Cassel who brought more attention to McDaniels, with potential suitors concluding that it's not necessarily the players that make New England tick as much as it is the system. So hire the system. Here's your chance.
Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator, Atlanta
|Mike Mularkey was coach the last time the Bills had a winning record. (Getty Images)|
Now he's back on the map because of the remarkable recovery of the Atlanta Falcons. They were supposed to be dead in the water, losing before half-empty houses at home, but they defied the odds and returned to the playoffs overnight. Unbelievable. Rookie Matt Ryan is a legitimate quarterback, Michael Turner is a premier running back and Roddy White exceeded expectations as a wide receiver. So what ties these guys together? Meet Mularkey, who was a hot candidate when he was an assistant in Pittsburgh and lost his juice when he abruptly left the Bills.
I don't know that he gets another opportunity because there seems to be a push now for young assistants with no previous head-coaching experience. If that's the case, he's out of luck. But Mularkey should get an interview. He knows what it's like to be a head coach ... and to win as a head coach. Remember, he was the last one to turn a winning season in Buffalo.
Jim Caldwell, associate head coach, Indianapolis
When Tony Dungy decided a year ago to return to the Indianapolis Colts the club designated Caldwell as its head-coach-in-waiting for a couple of reasons: 1) They wanted to take him off the free-agent market, and 2) they wanted a safety net when Dungy decided he's had enough. Caldwell was the team's quarterbacks coach before being named the assistant head coach in 2005. Then he moved up to associate head coach a year ago, the perfect springboard for him to succeed Dungy. There are several things that make Caldwell appealing: 1) He was a head coach in college; 2) he works closely with MVP candidate Peyton Manning and 3) he has the trust of Dungy, one of the game's finest coaches and ambassadors. It's that last qualification that sells me; if I can't get Tony Dungy to coach my team I want his one of his best assistants, and you're looking at him. "I like what he did at Wake Forest, and that was a tough job," one GM said of Caldwell. "They were competitive teams, and Jim made them better for the guy who followed." I'm not sure he's available, but if I'm a club looking for my next head coach, I find out.
Rex Ryan, assistant head coach/defensive coordinator, Baltimore
Someone at some point will take a flyer on Ryan, and they won't be disappointed. The Ravens love the guy, one of the reasons they brought him back after firing coach Brian Billick, and their heart is in the right place. Under Ryan, the Ravens are a rough, tough, intimidating brick wall of a defense that doesn't shut down opponents as much as it sucks the wind out of them. They sack quarterbacks. They force fumbles. They make timely interceptions. They produce touchdowns. In short, they're a load. Two years ago they ranked first in the league. This season they ranked second.
Ray Lewis. Ed Reed. Terrell Suggs. Bart Scott. You know those names because they're the backbone of the Ravens, a team that is a nightmare waiting to happen for the next opponent. Now it's Miami, a team it knocked off earlier this season. Under Ryan the Ravens' defense never wavered, and it's a reason he will gain attention. It's also a reason he should get hired. Is he too nice a guy to oversee a locker room? I don't know, but give him a chance and see.
All I know is he gets the best from his players, and isn't that what coaches are supposed to do?
Jason Garrett, assistant head coach/offensive coordinator, Dallas
A year ago, nobody was more coveted, with Baltimore and Atlanta hot to trot for the guy. But he returned to Dallas when the Cowboys made him an offer ($3 million per year) he couldn't refuse, and now, suddenly, he no longer appears to be Jerry Jones' choice to succeed Wade Phillips. If he were, Jones would have gone to him after the Cowboys self-immolation down the stretch.
But Garrett lost some momentum along the line, with Jones turning lukewarm on the guy, and quarterback Tony Romo and Terrell Owens questioning his play-calling after a disgraceful exit in Philadelphia. Oh, well. You win some, and you lose seven. Garrett didn't get stupid overnight, so expect more teams to come knocking at his door. He is not the hot commodity he was a year ago, but he will gain interest. People will want to know what happened this year in Big D, and he has a ready answer: Nothing.
Now he has a chance to explain how, as a head coach, he would avoid the mistakes that sank the Cowboys in a year when a late-season fizzle cost them the playoffs.