Yesterday we took one final look at the NFL’s rookie head coaches from the 2013 season, and now it’s time to look at all of the new head coach hires for the 2014 season. Obviously, a few of these guys have been head coaches in the NFL before, but none were NFL head coaches in 2013. Let’s attempt to rank how each of the seven teams that hired a new head coach did in their coaching search.
7. Cleveland, Mike Pettine – It certainly took the Browns long enough to find a new coach after firing Rob Chudzinski after just one season. Cleveland was never going to find the most impressive candidate to be their head coach, but Pettine isn’t a bad choice. He spent four seasons as the right hand man to Rex Ryan while working as the defensive coordinator for the Jets, which could be seen as both a positive and negative attribute, depending on your feelings about Ryan. In 2013, he orchestrated a solid defense in Buffalo, despite some obvious personnel weaknesses at a few spots. The name won’t blow people away, but considering Cleveland’s situation, Pettine was about the best person they could get to fill their coaching vacancy.
6. Houston, Bill O’Brien – This could be the biggest risk-reward hire this offseason. O’Brien is a branch on the Bill Belichick coaching tree, so there should be some skepticism, but at the same time O’Brien is a terrific offensive coach. O’Brien has also spent a lot more time in college than in the NFL, which could be a concern, but at the same time, the work he did at Penn State the last two seasons was nothing short of extraordinary. O’Brien has a lot of potential as a head coach in the NFL, but he also has plenty of drawbacks, so this is coaching hire could go either way.
5. Minnesota, Mike Zimmer – Year after year Zimmer has put together top-10 defenses in Cincinnati, and he’s been one of the top assistant coaches in the NFL for the last several years, so there’s no denying that he’s qualified to become a head coach in the NFL. However, the NFL is all about offense these days, and without previous head coaching experience or experience on the offensive side of the ball puts Zimmer at a disadvantage compared to some of the other new coaches in the league, especially since the Vikings have some things to figure out on offense, specifically at the quarterback position.
4. Detroit, Jim Caldwell – Caldwell is a tough guy to figure out with just three years of experience as a head coach in the NFL. Obviously, things went well for him in Indianapolis when Peyton Manning was playing, as the Colts went to the Super Bowl in Caldwell’s first season at the helm. But when Manning didn’t play in 2011, the wheels completely fell off. Caldwell also won a Super Bowl as the offensive coordinator of the Ravens last year, but this past season his offense struggled for long stretches of the season. For now, Caldwell will get the benefit of the doubt, because he inherits a talented roster in Detroit, but there are reasons to be skeptical about Caldwell’s ability to do more with all the talent the Lions have than Jim Schwartz did.
3. Washington, Jay Gruden – Gruden was a highly sought candidate, and he does have a lot of head coaching experience and success in the Arena Football League, which obviously isn’t the same as being an NFL head coach, but it’s better than having no head coaching experience. His last name gives him some credibility, and so does the fact that he’s put together good offenses in Cincinnati the last few years, even without an elite level quarterback. Washington wants to win behind Robert Griffin III at quarterback, and hiring one of the top offensive coordinators in the game was a great choice to help make that happen, as Gruden was arguably the best available candidate that didn’t have NFL head coaching experience.
2. Tennessee, Ken Whisenhunt – Despite reaching a Super Bowl and winning two division titles, Whisenhunt had a rather uneven six-year tenure as the head coach in Arizona. However, he’s always had success as an offensive coordinator, and after San Diego ranked 5th in total offense this past season, Whisenhunt was deserving of another chance to become a head coach. Obviously, the Titans wanted to move in a new direction after firing Mike Munchak, and with his previous coaching experience and success as a coordinator, Whisenhunt is definitely an upgrade over Munchak.
1. Tampa Bay, Lovie Smith – The Bucs moved fast after firing Greg Schiano, and when all was said and done they have the best coach out of all seven teams that made a coaching change this year. Smith was 18 games above .500 during his nine seasons in Chicago, which means he averaged a 9-7 record in what is usually one of the toughest divisions in football, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He has a long history of being one of the best defensive coaches in the NFL, and with the talent in Tampa on that side of the ball, he has a chance to put together something special defensively next year, which could make the Bucs a respectable and competitive team right away. On top of all that, having served under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay for five seasons makes Smith a perfect fit for the Bucs and the best new coach hire heading into 2014.