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McCarthy, Tomlin reinforce trend: Younger is better

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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DALLAS -- When the NFL goes looking for head coaches these days it doesn't go looking for candidates with head-coaching experience. Nope, it goes for rookies, and you can look it up. There were seven openings filled within the past month, and only one went to someone with a head coach's resume.

Mike McCarthy, a Pittsburgh native, was never a head coach until he took over the Pack in 2006. (US Presswire)  
Mike McCarthy, a Pittsburgh native, was never a head coach until he took over the Pack in 2006. (US Presswire)  
Blame it on the economy, or blame it on a youth-obsessed culture. Me? I'll blame it on guys like Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy. They're part of a movement that has the NFL's best coaching jobs going to newcomers and that keeps qualified candidates like Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden and Brian Billick -- all of whom have Super Bowl credentials -- on TV.

I'm not saying that Tomlin and McCarthy led the charge. That distinction goes to someone like Cowher, a virtual nobody who in 1992 became the youngest head coach of a franchise when the Steelers hired him. But it was Tomlin and McCarthy who helped give owners the confidence to hire head coaches without portfolios.

"No question about it because that's the mode we're in," said former Billick, now an analyst for Fox and the NFL Network. "Everybody's looking for that Mike McCarthy/Mike Tomlin/Mike Smith guy."

And why not? All had immediate success. Tomlin went to the playoffs in his first season and won the Super Bowl in his second. Now he's in his second Super Bowl in three years. McCarthy wasn't as successful, though the Packers won four more games his first season than they did in 2005 and went to the NFC championship game in his second -- losing in overtime. But he's been to the playoffs as many times (three) as Tomlin and now reaches his first Super Bowl.

McCarthy was hired in 2006 and Tomlin in 2007, and let's get something straight: I'm not here to argue that they changed the face of the sport because they didn't. But they helped to change it much like, frankly, someone like Billick, who took over the Baltimore Ravens after serving as Minnesota's offensive coordinator and who, within two years, was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

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George Bernard Shaw once said that youth is wasted on the young. Except not in the NFL, it's not. There, it's invested in head coaches.

Everywhere you look, it seems, someone is rolling the dice on the next Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin or Mike McCarthy. Sometimes it works, as it did with Smith in Atlanta, John Harbaugh in Baltimore and Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona, and sometimes it doesn't -- which is what happened with Josh McDaniels in Denver and Jim Zorn in Washington.

But nobody is afraid to take the leap anymore, and I say that's because of guys like Tomlin and McCarthy, who took over franchises with rich histories and made them richer.

"The NFL is a copy-cat league," said one NFC head coach, "and the more I deal with owners the more I realize they're just going to look at what other people are doing, and say, 'I want that.' But if they don't know whether or not they can take a chance, they're going to see whether it's successful somewhere else."

Well, it is. In New York, Eric Mangini in his first season turned a 4-12 Jets team into a 10-6 playoff club. In Oakland, Jon Gruden took a last-place team and had it in the conference championship game within three years. Carolina was 1-15 when John Fox took over in 2002, and within two seasons the Panthers were in the Super Bowl. Andy Reid had the Eagles in the playoffs within two years, Sean Payton had the New Orleans Saints in the conference championship game in his first year on the job and Rex Ryan's Jets have been in the AFC championship game in his first two seasons there.

I think you get the idea. The kids are alright. Younger may not be better, but it's worth a shot -- and virtually everyone's taking one.

Mike Tomlin, 38, became a head coach after only one season as the Vikings DC. (AP)  
Mike Tomlin, 38, became a head coach after only one season as the Vikings DC. (AP)  
One reason is that young coaches typically cost less. Do the math, people. If you're cutting back on your payroll do you hire, say, a Mike Shanahan at $7 million per or take a chance on a Hue Jackson or Leslie Frazier? I think you know the answer. If you find a keeper, great; if you don't, the cost of doing business isn't exorbitant.

Second, everyone is trying to identify the next Bill Belichick or Tony Dungy, which means you better get him young and lock him down while you can.

Third, no Super Bowl-winning coach ever won a Super Bowl in a second go-round with another franchise. Weeb Ewbank won separate titles with the Baltimore Colts and New York Jets, but only one was a Super Bowl.

Last, it's the gift that keeps on giving. The more first-time head coaches are successful the more league owners are willing to stamp their franchises with a young face. Call it a fad. Call it a trend. But if it works, call it the way to go.

"But it also has something to do with the typical young, hungry, eye-of-the-tiger mentality," said Billick. "So the key becomes: How do we identify these guys?

"I don't think Mike [Tomlin] gets the credit he deserves because he came into an organization that had stability and Super Bowls before him. He took over a team that had a Super Bowl quarterback, a Hall of Famer in Troy Polamalu and a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator.

"He took over a lot of assets and has done unbelievably well, but because he took over a team of that stature -- and a team with Bill Cowher -- I'm not sure he gets the credit he deserves, as opposed to taking over a team where you have to earn your stripes."

He gets the credit he deserves now. So does McCarthy. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and with Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy lapping the field it's a virtual certainty that NFL clubs continue to mine the few, the proud, the inexperienced for their next head coaches.

"And it will keep happening," said an AFC head coach, "because it's worked well enough to make a case for that formula."

Makes sense to me.

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