NFC North: Brian Schottenheimer
Seven NFL teams named new head coaches after last season, tapping into a pool that included experienced coordinators and relatively unknown assistants alike. The class of 2011 featured longtime candidates (Leslie Frazier, Ron Rivera). It also included a trusted position coach in Mike Munchak (Tennessee Titans) and a couple of relative hotshots in Hue Jackson (Oakland Raiders) and Pat Shurmur (Cleveland Browns).
Who will comprise the NFL's next batch of head-coaching candidates? That was the question ESPN.com hoped to answer in this week's edition of the offseason Power Rankings. We established one ground rule by eliminating any assistant who has already had a permanent head-coaching job. The idea was to develop a list that focused on the "next wave" of coaching candidates.
No less than 24 NFL assistants received at least one vote, a reflection of both the variables involved in head-coaching searches and the relative lack of national name recognition for all but the most highly regarded assistants.
So in that vein, it was no surprise to see four well-known assistants at the top of our list, headed by New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell -- who placed first or second on six of the eight ballots. Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan finished second, followed by New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Arizona offensive line coach Russ Grimm.
Fewell is an ideal candidate in many ways, having spent time as the Buffalo Bills' interim coach in 2009 and leading a substantial turnaround of the Giants' defense last season. Fewell interviewed for four head-coaching jobs last winter, and NFC East blogger Dan Graziano suggested that experience, along with a high profile afforded to coaches in New York, make him "the most likely guy on the list to be a head coach soon."
Just don't bother forwarding his name to AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky, who couldn't find room for Fewell on his 10-man ballot. Kuharsky noted the Giants' poor performance in Week 2 last season against the Indianapolis Colts, during which quarterback Peyton Manning threw three touchdowns and cruised to an easy 38-14 victory.
"Certainly I'm letting one game overinfluence my ballot," Kuharsky muttered. "But Fewell's plan for the Giants against the Colts last season was so bad that I could not help but score him down for it. Was he not familiar with how Peyton Manning and Indianapolis operate?"
We can't cover every coach who received votes in this exercise, but let's hit some of the more interesting names that received attention.
Another Ryan? Deserved or not, Ryan has long been considered a loose cannon. There is little doubt about his schematic prowess, but hiring him would require a confident owner ready to make a leap of faith.
The success of twin brother Rex Ryan with the Jets might have softened the perception of that risk, and collectively we see Rob Ryan on the doorstep of a job.
"Similar to Rex, Rob Ryan is good with X's and O's and has the type of outgoing personality players want to be around," AFC North blogger James Walker said. "I think both are equally important in today's NFL. Both brothers say exactly what's on their mind, and before that scared off a lot of teams. But Rex broke the ice with his success in New York and that could help Rob in the future."
The next generation: Schottenheimer has turned down more opportunities to interview for head-coaching jobs than he has actually submitted to. He has nixed requests from the Miami Dolphins and Bills in recent years, but he did interview for the Jets' job that ultimately went to Ryan. I placed him atop my ballot (he finished No. 3 overall) because I think NFL people have made up their mind that he is the kind of young and innovative assistant who can turn around their franchise. (Think: Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.)
Schottenheimer's pedigree doesn't hurt -- he's the son of longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer -- and I'm not sure how closely teams will dissect the specifics of the Jets' offensive performance. Graziano, on the other hand, thinks Schottenheimer is close to coaching his way out of the golden-child image he cultivated and left him off his ballot.
"Having spent a good amount of time around that team the past couple of years, I just feel like defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is the more likely guy to end up a head coach," Graziano said. "Schottenheimer's under a ton of pressure as Ryan defers the offensive responsibilities to him. I feel like, if the offense has a bad year, he could end up in trouble or even out of a job. And given their youth at quarterback and running back and the uncertainty of their receiver situation, a bad year for the Jets' offense is possible.
"Now, he could be a genius, make chicken salad and be the next hot name eight months from now. But I think there's the potential that he may have already peaked as a hot coaching prospect and that he might not be set up to succeed in New York."
The big fella: Four years ago, Grimm thought he would be the next Pittsburgh Steelers coach. He moved to Arizona after the Steelers selected Mike Tomlin instead, and we view his status as a head-coaching candidate with wide disparity.
AFC West blogger Bill Williamson put Grimm atop his ballot, and AFC East blogger Tim Graham had him No. 2. Kuharsky and I left him off.
Williamson thinks Grimm has moved to "the top of the food chain" largely because most of his "hot-name" contemporaries have already gotten jobs. As well, Graham suggested that it will soon be Grimm's turn because he is still well-regarded throughout the league.
Personally, I couldn't get past Grimm's well-publicized gaffe after interviewing with the Chicago Bears, after which he referred to the team owners as the "McClaskey" family. I also agree with NFC West blogger Mike Sando, who ranked Grimm No. 8 and wondered: "Is he still ascending? Grimm seems content coaching the line in Arizona. He has plateaued and doesn't seem to be losing any sleep over it."
Welcome back: Unless you're a college football fan, you might not have heard of Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. He spent six years as the head coach at Arizona State, but has drawn some quiet acclaim for his work with the Jaguars and made a strong impression while interviewing with the Denver Broncos last winter.
"In a setting where he won't have to deal with boosters and can shine for being a smart X's and O's guy with strong coaching DNA," Kuharsky said, "I think he'd do far better. He's smart and will interview quite well. He really impressed John Elway and the Broncos before losing out to John Fox's experience. St. Louis wanted him as coordinator, but Jacksonville wouldn't let him go. He's heading into the final year of his contract. How Blaine Gabbert develops early on will have a big bearing on Koetter's future."
Secret weapon: In two years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have developed quarterback Josh Freeman into one of the better starters in the league. The man largely responsible is offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who navigated a disastrous 2009 preseason -- coach Raheem Morris promoted him in the middle of training camp after firing Jeff Jagodzinski -- and NFL teams often seek out coaches with success developing young quarterbacks.
"I think Olson deserves a ton of credit for developing Freeman so quickly," said NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas. "Freeman threw for 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in his first full season as a starter and carried an incredibly young team to a 10-6 record. I also think people need to look at what Olson did last year with rookie running back LeGarrette Blount and rookie receiver Mike Williams. He helped make them into instant stars."
Super Bowl entitlement: The Green Bay Packers were the only team to place more than one name in the top 10, as would be expected from a championship team. Assistant head coach/inside linebackers Winston Moss is at No. 6, while safeties coach Darren Perry finished No. 10. I also voted for receivers coach Edgar Bennett, who has moved over from running backs coach and is clearly being groomed for bigger things.
I'll detail my ranking of the Packers' assistants, including why I think so highly of Perry, in a future post for NFC North readers. But we'll say this for now: Moss is a strong leader who has drawn interest from the Raiders, while Perry is a disciple of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his coveted 3-4 scheme.
If Chicago officials are looking for a blue-chip quarterback, they weren't likely to find it at the Senior Bowl this week, reports Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Two of the top quarterback prospects, Georgia's Matt Stafford and USC's Mark Sanchez, didn't attend and thus couldn't be evaluated. Mulligan suggests the Bears remain most likely to seek a mid-level veteran quarterback this offseason to back up Kyle Orton rather than draft a high-caliber rookie.
Free agents Chris Simms and Byron Leftwich are two likely targets, with Simms the "clear leader," Mulligan reports. The Bears are certain to allow Rex Grossman to depart via free agency.
Continuing around the NFC North on a Friday morning:
- Two ex-Bears, Jimbo Covert and Trace Armstrong, are among the finalists to replace the late Gene Upshaw as executive director of the NFL Players Association, notes Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
- Detroit seems unlikely to pry Brian Schottenheimer away from the New York Jets to be its offensive coordinator, reports John Niyo of the Detroit News. Might be a good thing. Lions coach Jim Schwartz said he is looking for someone to "execute his vision" of an offensive scheme rather than asking his next coordinator to implement his own.
- Former Utah State defensive backs coach John Rushing is joining Green Bay as an offensive quality control coach, reports Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. The Packers also have an interview scheduled with former Oakland coach Keith Millard, likely for their defensive line position.
- There has been no contact this offseason between Minnesota and the agent for center Matt Birk, whose contract expires next month. Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune updates the situation.
Here's a somewhat ominous sign if you're following the Minnesota Vikings' drive for a new stadium. Voters in the tiny town of Industry, Calif., approved $150 million in infrastructure improvements Tuesday to the site where a billionaire developer wants to build an $800 million privately-financed stadium.
The next step is for city officials to certify the plan. If they do, developer Ed Roski will have what he needs to begin building if and when a team agrees to move to the Los Angeles area. (The NFL is aware of the plan but has yet to endorse it.)
The Vikings are unlikely to get approval for a new stadium in Minnesota this year, leaving them with two years remaining on their lease at the Metrodome. Owner Zygi Wilf has pledged not to move, but his stadium point man suggested last month Wilf could "throw in the towel" and sell to someone who might move if a Minnesota stadium is not approved.
The big issue has always been whether the team will have legitimate leverage if it does eventually threaten to move. Tuesday's developments put them one step closer.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Green Bay cornerback Al Harris was named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday as an injury replacement for Philadelphia's Asante Samuel, notes the Green Bay Press-Gazette. It will be Harris' second consecutive Pro Bowl and means that three members of the Packers' starting secondary -- Harris, cornerback Charles Woodson and safety Nick Collins -- were all named to the team. Woodson pulled out earlier this month because of an injury.
- Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Gregg Williams and Jim Haslett were both offered the Packers' defensive coordinator job before Dom Capers, who eventually took the job. It is not clear if Mike Nolan, the first man interviewed, was ever made an offer.
- Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said he has "coordinators in mind, but not in place" as he conducts interviews at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. John Niyo of the Detroit News caught up with Schwartz during a whirlwind week. Gunther Cunningham (defense) and Brian Schottenheimer (offense) are possibilities.
- One coach the Lions have interviewed, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times: Former Bears linebackers coach Lloyd Lee.
- Bears coach Lovie Smith doesn't believe the economic recession will strap the team's efforts to add players in free agency, according to Mike Mulligan of the Sun-Times.
- Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner wants to add a playmaker in the offseason, according to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune. (Good idea!)
The only confirmed candidate for Detroit's offensive coordinator job appears set to join the University of Minnesota instead.
Former Denver receivers coach Jedd Fisch, who interviewed Monday with the Lions, was traveling Tuesday to the Twin Cities to meet with Gophers coach Tim Brewster. According to my colleague Bill Williamson of AFC West fame, Fisch is expected to accept the job in the next few days.
The Lions were believed to have been interested in former Denver assistant Jeremy Bates, but Bates is joining the college ranks and will coach at USC.
One remaining possibility for the Lions is New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, if he does not remain on the staff under new coach Rex Ryan.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
The idea of Brett Favre slinging footballs for the New York Jets elicited a very distinct reaction this afternoon throughout the AFC East.
Awwww. Please tell me you're kidding.
No, we're not.
As ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported today, the Green Bay Packers have given the Jets permission to speak with Favre. The Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers reportedly want the record-setting quarterback, and the Packers appear ready to trade him.
Suffice to say, the rest of the AFC East likes its chances against either of those two.
The dynamic would change radically with Favre in green and white.
As one AFC personnel man told me, it's too difficult to predict how Favre would benefit the Jets because his impact would rely on many moving parts. How fast does he learn the system? How quickly does he find chemistry with his receivers? How does he handle new surroundings -- and what certainly will be a relentless media -- after so many years in a homogenous setting?
But one thing opponents can be sure of: Favre's vertical ability would transform the Jets enough to make defensive coordinators squirm. No more touch-and-feel Pennington plays. No more safe calls because of Clemens' inexperience and questionable decisions.
Favre's presence would remove the handcuffs. The card offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer holds on Sunday would look a whole lot different.
But would trading for Favre be a wise choice for the Jets?
The Jets would be making a substantial commitment to a player who can help them win now but won't be a part of their future. They would be asking an awful lot of an aging player -- one who already has retired once, mind you -- and asking him to rally a group of teammates he has never played with.
That might be too much to ask on a team with so many question marks.
The trade might not work, but the mere possibility Favre could join the Jets has created plenty of dread within AFC East offices.
When was the last time a Jets quarterback did that?