NFC West: Bill Cowher

Any ranking for the 20 greatest coaches in NFL history would leave off at least two of the 22 enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The ballot I submitted for our "Greatest Coaches" project left off eight of them: Guy Chamberlin, Jimmy Conzelman, Weeb Ewbank, Ray Flaherty, Sid Gillman, Bud Grant, Greasy Neale and Hank Stram.

That seems outrageous. However, there were only 20 spots available, and many coaches appeared interchangeable to me outside the top 10 or 12. Current or recently retired head coaches such as Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher and Marty Schottenheimer deserved consideration, in my view, but including them meant leaving out others. I also thought Chuck Knox should be in the discussion even though he's long retired and not a Hall of Famer.

Putting together a ballot was difficult. There's really no way to fully analyze the jobs head coaches have done. We must consider won-lost records over time, of course, but little separates some of the coaches further down the list. I figured most panelists would go with Lombardi in the No. 1 spot, but I'm not sure whether that was the case.

Herm Edwards revealed his ballot Insider previously. We agreed on George Halas at No. 1. He put Lombardi second. I went with Paul Brown and Curly Lambeau after Halas, followed by Lombardi, Tom Landry, Bill Walsh, Don Shula, Joe Gibbs, Belichick and Chuck Noll to round out the top 10. The choices got tougher from there.

Edwards had Bud Grant, Dick Vermeil and Marty Schottenheimer in his top 20. He did not have Steve Owen, Holmgren or Cowher. I easily could have justified swapping out some of the coaches toward the bottom of my ballot for others not listed. Edwards and I both had Coughlin at No. 15. Our rankings for Lombardi, Landry, Walsh, Shula, Gibbs, Belichick, Madden and George Allen were within three spots one way or the other. I had Brown and Lambeau quite a bit higher than Edwards had them.

I tried to balance factors such as winning percentage, longevity, championships, team-building and impact on the game. The coaches I listed near the top of my ballot were strong in all those areas. There was room lower on my ballot for coaches whose achievements in some areas offset deficiencies in others.

Halas was a straightforward choice at No. 1 for me. He coached the Chicago Bears for 40 seasons, won six championships and had only six losing seasons. The Hall of Fame credits him as the first coach to use game films for preparation.

"Along with Ralph Jones, his coach from 1930 through 1932, and consultant Clark Shaughnessy, Halas perfected the T-formation attack with the man in motion," Halas' Hall of Fame bio reads. "It was this destructive force that propelled the Bears to their stunning 73-0 NFL title win over Washington in the 1940 NFL Championship Game and sent every other league team scurrying to copy the Halas system."

Brown was my choice at No. 2 because he won seven titles, four of them before the Cleveland Browns joined the NFL in 1950, and he revolutionized strategy while planting a massive coaching tree. Lambeau edged Lombardi in the No. 3 spot on my ballot. He founded the franchise and won with a prolific passing game before it was popular. His teams won six titles during his 31 seasons as coach.

ESPN has revealed the coaches ranking 13th through 20th based on ballots submitted by Chris Berman, Jeffri Chadiha, John Clayton, Colin Cowherd, Mike Ditka, Gregg Easterbrook, Edwards, David Fleming, Ashley Fox, Greg Garber, Mike Golic, Suzy Kolber, Eric Mangini, Chris Mortensen, Sal Paolantonio, Bill Polian, Rick Reilly, Adam Schefter, Ed Werder, Seth Wickersham, Trey Wingo and me.

The eight coaches, beginning at No. 13: Jimmy Johnson, Coughlin, Grant, Stram, Levy, Gillman, Shanahan and Dungy.

Gillman was an interesting one. He spent 10 of his 18 seasons in the AFL and had a 1-5 record in postseason, but there is no denying his impact on the passing game. Like other coaches rounding out the top 20, his case for inclusion was strong, but open for debate.
CANTON, Ohio -- Ninety-degree heat and 57 percent humidity could not stop Seattle Seahawks fan Jeff Evert from taking his seat at Fawcett Stadium two-plus hours before the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony.

[+] EnlargeSeattle Seahawks
Mike Sando/ESPN.comJeff Evert of Richland, Wash., wearing a Cortez Kennedy jersey, sits alone in the heat awaiting the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies.
Evert, visiting from Richland, Wash., regretting missing Steve Largent's enshrinement in 1995. He wasn't going to miss Cortez Kennedy's enshrinement with the 2012 class. Evert, wearing a newly purchased "Vintage" series jersey with Kennedy's name and No. 96, sat nearly alone in the stands for hours.

Evert toured the Hall of Fame and overdosed on Pittsburgh Steelers stuff. By the time he encountered the giant mural showing Steelers players dousing then-coach Bill Cowher with Gatorade, he'd had enough.

"I know I shouldn't be that way," Evert said, "but Seahawk fans have always felt like they got screwed over in that one Super Bowl."

They don't have to worry about it Saturday night, although the Steelers do hold a 2-1 edge over the Seahawks in 2012 enshrinees. Dermontti Dawson and Jack Butler are joining Kennedy on the dais.

Update: As I'm looking down on Evert's seat, I notice two Steelers fans occupying the seats next to him.
Colleague Kevin Seifert showed some daring by sending TCU quarterback Andy Dalton to the Minnesota Vikings at No. 12 in a recent mock draft.

He wasn't arguing for Dalton's value so much as saying the Vikings' need for a quarterback might compel them to take one there.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonDid the Rams "reach" to get quarterback Sam Bradford in the first round last year?
"To me," Seifert later wrote with first-year Vikings coach Leslie Frazier in mind, "there is no better time to jump to the other side than in a coach's first year, giving him a building block for the rest of his program."

The key, of course, is not mistaking anchors for building blocks.

Steve Mariucci was the San Francisco 49ers' first-year coach when the team used a 1997 first-rounder for Jim Druckenmiller, a blunder softened only by Steve Young's presence on the roster. That experience should not directly influence the 49ers' thinking as they consider first-round quarterbacks for new coach Jim Harbaugh, but it's a reference point.

With Harbaugh and the 49ers in mind, I went through recent drafts to see which teams with first-year head coaches used first-round selections for quarterbacks. More precisely, I looked at all first-round quarterbacks since 2000 to see which ones had first-year head coaches.

Six of the last eight first-round quarterbacks -- Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and JaMarcus Russell -- joined teams with first-year head coaches. All but Russell remain franchise quarterbacks in their teams' eyes. All but Russell are still playing for their original head coaches. Four of the six had winning records in 2010.

For most of those franchises, value and need lined up pretty well, and first-year coaches benefited.

"If you don't have a quarterback, you're drafting maybe a different kind of running back, maybe a different kind of offensive lineman, than if you have somebody," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters at the scouting combine. "We had Calvin Johnson, but our ability to get Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson in free agency, to draft Brandon Pettigrew -- those pieces were because of the quarterback that we have."

We could also argue that the St. Louis Rams were better off building their offensive line and other areas of their roster before making Sam Bradford the first overall choice in 2010. They could have drafted Sanchez or Freeman instead of defensive end Chris Long in 2009, then spent subsequent selections on players to build around one of those quarterbacks.

Bradford and Denver's Tim Tebow were the "other" first-round quarterbacks in the eight-man group featuring Stafford, Sanchez, Freeman, Ryan, Flacco and Russell.

In general, getting the right quarterback for a first-year head coach puts a franchise in strong position for the long term. There's no sense forcing the issue, however, because the wrong quarterback can drag down any coach, regardless of tenure.

A coach such as the Vikings' Frazier might have a harder time waiting. His contract runs only three seasons and ownership expects quick results. Harbaugh has a five-year deal with the 49ers. Expectations are high, but there's less urgency for immediate results.

The first chart shows the 14 first-round quarterbacks since 2000 that landed with returning head coaches.

The second chart shows the 14 first-round quarterbacks since 2000 that landed with first-year head coaches.
Our Power Rankings for NFL head coaches are out and Tim Graham has the full breakdown on the AFC East blog.

General thoughts: These rankings were easier than the positional ones we've done. There are only 32 head coaches, for starters. Five have never coached an NFL game. Eight others have losing career records. Four with winning records have coached two or fewer seasons and only two of those, Rex Ryan and Jim Caldwell, have enjoyed postseason success. It became clear early that we were working from a relatively short list. Only 13 coaches received votes.

My top 10: Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Tom Coughlin, Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, Rex Ryan, Ken Whisenhunt, Lovie Smith and Mike Shanahan.

What mattered to me: I favored coaches that had taken over losing teams, turned them around quickly and then enjoyed success over multiple seasons, including in the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
Icon SMIThe fact that Mike Tomlin works for a strong organization worked against him in this ranking.
Why Tomlin was only sixth: No one else ranked him lower. As I told Graham, Tomlin took over a healthy operation and kept it going. He deserves credit for that, but not as much credit as if he had produced similar results after taking over a struggling franchise. We should view the success Bill Cowher enjoyed in a similar context. Both worked for an outstanding organization.

Why Mike Shanahan was on the list: Shanahan hasn't produced a winning record since 2006. His teams own one postseason victory since his 1998 Broncos defended their Super Bowl title. The way he misread Donovan McNabb worked against him, too. In the end, Shanahan's 152-108 regular-season record, 8-5 postseason record, nine winning seasons and two Super Bowl titles commanded recognition, albeit in the 10th spot.

Toughest call: Leaving off the Atlanta Falcons' Mike Smith hurt. He walked into a brutal situation and helped revive a flagging franchise. The Falcons have won 68.8 percent of their games under him without posting a losing record in any of his three seasons. Had Smith made my top 10, however, he would have been the only one without a postseason victory. The Falcons are 0-2 in the playoffs under Smith, with both defeats coming against teams that had inferior records during the regular season. That opened the door for others.

A vote for Whisenhunt: Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt ranked eighth on my ballot, 10th on three others and 12th among the 13 coaches receiving votes. His regular-season record dipped to 32-32 after a rough 2010 season. Overall, though, Whisenhunt gets credit for producing an immediate turnaround for a historically inept franchise. Kurt Warner had a 3-12 starting record for the Cardinals before Whisenhunt arrived. His record was 24-18 in the regular season and 4-2 in the postseason with Whisenhunt. Taking the Cardinals to a Super Bowl gave Whisenhunt the edge over some other candidates, including the Falcons' Smith.

The rest of the NFC West: Seattle's Pete Carroll produced a division title and playoff victory during a rebuilding season. He's on the rise if Seattle continues to improve. ... St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo has a .250 overall winning percentage thanks to a 1-15 inaugural season with the Rams. He'll move into consideration if the Rams start winning division titles with Sam Bradford at quarterback. ... San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh inherits enough talent to compete in his first season as an NFL head coach, provided he finds even a serviceable quarterback.

Tracing Ray Horton's coaching roots

February, 9, 2011
The Arizona Cardinals hired Pittsburgh Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton as defensive coordinator because they wanted to model their defense after the one the Steelers ran under coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Horton has worked with LeBeau for 12 of the past 14 NFL seasons.

The chart traces Horton's coaching roots back to his first job, under Norv Turner in 1994.

Thoughts on Ray Horton's hiring

February, 9, 2011
Thoughts after the Arizona Cardinals announced Pittsburgh Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton's hiring as defensive coordinator:
  • Horton has paid his dues. He's been a secondary coach or assistant secondary coach for each of his 16 seasons on NFL coaching staffs. A natural question: Why didn't he advance more quickly? One potential reason: Horton's bosses kept leaving the game. He has worked for Bruce Coslet, Steve Mariucci and Bill Cowher over the years. Those guys haven't been in position to help him get better jobs elsewhere.
  • The Steelers allowed Horton to reach the final year of his contract. They made sure linebackers coach Keith Butler remained on staff, presumably as their future coordinator. The Cardinals also wanted Butler first. That may or may not reflect negatively on Horton. It might just mean these teams prefer Butler.
  • Horton gives the Cardinals the Pittsburgh flavor they've sought for their defense. That could give the team a more focused vision regarding the players Arizona seeks through the draft. Coach Ken Whisenhunt should be more comfortable with this defensive coordinator.
  • Horton spent seven seasons under Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh and four seasons under him in Cincinnati. Ron Lynn was the defensive coordinator when Horton broke into the NFL as an assistant with the Washington Redskins in 1994. Norv Turner was head coach. Kurt Schottenheimer was defensive coordinator when Horton was coaching the secondary for the Detroit Lions under head coaches Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci.
  • The Cardinals have invested substantial sums in their secondary. Adrian Wilson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are coming off disappointing seasons. Horton must get more from them. Horton coached Hall of Famer Darrell Green, who has worked with Rodgers-Cromartie during offseasons.
  • Arizona was among eight NFL teams that went into the 2010 season with an offensive-minded head coach and a defensive coordinator running a 3-4 scheme. Six of the eight defensive coordinators had backgrounds coaching linebackers. One traced his coaching roots to the defensive line. The Packers' Dom Capers was the only one with a background in the secondary. He had been a head coach twice before joining Green Bay.

The Cardinals have a news conference set to begin momentarily. Back with more in a bit.
FORT WORTH, Texas -- New head coaches sometimes "lay down the law" to take control of their teams.

Mike Singletary went this route upon taking over for Mike Nolan as the San Francisco 49ers' coach during the 2008 season. Singletary put players through grueling practices and a tough training camp early in his tenure, complete with "nutcracker" drills. He backed off some when he felt as though he had taken control of the team.

[+] EnlargeKhalif Mitchell and Bear Pascoe
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesThe 49ers endured physical training camps under former coach Mike Singletary.
Steve Spagnuolo ran a grueling camp in his first season with the St. Louis Rams. Those practices featured live tackling, even on Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson. Spagnuolo got the Rams' attention, but the team went 1-15 and broke down physically in the second half of the season. Spagnuolo backed off some this past season, and players said they responded.

In Seattle, Pete Carroll went the opposite direction this past season, giving key veterans rest and giving the entire team days off from practice during camp. The Seahawks started and finished strong under Carroll during his first season.

Coincidence? Probably not. It's logical to think teams benefit when their coaches strike the right balance.

The disparate approaches we've seen in the NFC West came to mind Monday when Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward was discussing what changed when Mike Tomlin replaced Bill Cowher has head coach following the 2006 season.
Ward: "Well it’s his team now. When he first inherited the team, a lot of those players were under Coach Cowher and did things Coach Cowher’s way. Mike Tomlin was very militant when he came here. He wanted to see who would challenge his authority and he got rid of some of the guys that questioned his authority a little bit. He kept the guys that followed what he wanted. Once he got a full year or two of the guys he knows and sees every day at practice, then he let up a little bit. He gave guys off time and stuff like that. I think guys love playing for him. He’s just a pro’s coach and he stands up for everybody."

Ward said the grueling start under Tomlin left the Steelers tired and beat up heading into the playoffs following the 2007 season. Pittsburgh lost at home to Jacksonville in the wild-card round that season.

These are things to keep in mind as the 49ers begin working under new coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh is intense, but he was also an NFL quarterback, not a middle linebacker. I'll be interested in seeing how his background influences his approach with players, particularly early in his tenure.

Gruden, big-name coaches and the 49ers

December, 29, 2010
Thanks to @rcurtis67 for asking how Jon Gruden could be out of the running in San Francisco, which precipitated some Googling, which led to this NBC Bay Area item about Peter King's comments Tuesday night:
"The 49ers have not been trendsetters in anything recently, except losing. But I do think what they’re going to do this year is going to set an example for a lot of teams in this league to follow. ‘In’ are going to be the young, hungry, affordable, mostly assistant coaches in the NFL. ‘Out’ are going to be the been-there, done-that, won-Super-Bowl guys -- Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden. A lot of people have said, ‘Hey, Gruden is a good candidate for this San Francisco job’. And I’m told flat-out he is not a candidate for the San Francisco job. Instead, a guy like Jim Harbaugh, the Stanford coach, who I’m told by several people around the league is going to be the hot guy this coming offseason. Harbaugh is a guy the 49ers are definitely interested in -- and I think he is going to have interest in them."

The 49ers have gone with first-time head coaches for their last two hires. Neither succeeded. Before hiring Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan, the 49ers went with Dennis Erickson, who did have experience as a head coach. That failed, too. We have no evidence the 49ers' current leadership knows how to identify, develop or support successful head coaches. That does not doom the 49ers to failure in the future, but if they do not hire strong, experienced leadership, it's especially important for them to find an exceptional head coach.

Hiring head coaches with previous experience in the role can carry risks, too. If the 49ers go that route, they need to make sure that coach remains hungry. They would want to make sure he could assemble an ascending, forward-thinking staff. Gruden is a grinder by nature. I would not question his hunger or drive. The 49ers' current leadership could view his strong personality as a threat, however. And if teams really are going to focus on hiring cheaper coaches from the pool of assistants, Gruden obviously would not fit that mold.

Chat wrap: Which coach would fit best?

October, 7, 2010
NFC West chat attendees wanted to know which team I expected to win the division in 2010. The San Francisco 49ers are not looking very good, but we're only four games into the season and none of the other three teams has shown enough to make one a favorite. That explains why I will not yet change my preseason prediction. Let's see how the next couple of games go. Chat transcript here. Highlights below:
Jerry (Texas): Who would be a better fit for HC next yr for the Niners? Jim Harbaugh, Chucky, or Bill Cowher?

Mike Sando: Jon Gruden because he's an offensive-minded coach with a strong appreciation for the running game. His mentality would suit the 49ers' personnel. He has already lived in the Bay Area and he seems to stay very much in tune with rosters throughout the league. He could step in quickly and credibly, perhaps helping a talented team take the next step (as he did with the Bucs). I'm not convinced Bill Cowher would take that job or take a job on the West Coast. Update: The 49ers would be an appealing team to take over because they have good young talent at several positions on offense in particular. They opened the 2010 with the NFL's youngest offensive starters, but it's increasingly clear the team had no one to make that talent come together quickly.

Jake (Germany): Mike Williams appeared to be ready to break out after training camp and the first two games, however, he doesn't seem to figure strongly in the offense. During camp his route running appeared to be a strength, his size is obviously a strength. Those two combined should mean he is getting open. Have you charted his plays, if so, is it possible to identify when he is targeted and what the results are? Based on Seattle's trouble moving the ball, he would be a natural target at the yard stick/end zone. Any ideas Sando?

Mike Sando: Williams has made his biggest plays from conventional personnel groupings (35-yarder from 12 personnel, 22-yarder from 21 personnel). He had the 17-yarder against St. Louis on third-and-14 from a less common grouping. I don't see any clear patterns along those lines. I do not see down-and-distance patterns. Seems to me the Seahawks just need to throw his way more often. He used his size very well against the Rams on that 17-yard reception. One thing that has hurt: The Seahawks have been experimenting with various combinations at receiver. The offense is still finding its identity.

Bruce (at work): Its been an interesting season so far..... Rams look like they are on the way up, Cardinals and 49ers on the way down and who knows what is happening with Seattle? With four games complete, who is your pick to win the NFC west?

Mike Sando: I will not change my preseason prediction this early in the season. The factors that made me favor the 49ers before the season have not changed. The Seahawks still have to answer questions on their offensive line. The Cardinals have quarterback concerns. The Rams are still in the formative stages. I really think the 49ers have suffered from a perfect storm here. Three of the first four on the road, with the only home game against the defending Super Bowl champs, two last-second defeats, two road games against teams that were better than expected (Seahawks, Chiefs). Now, I do question whether Mike Singletary can hold the 49ers together. An all-out implosion could be under way. The next two games will tell us plenty.

terry (st. louis): How does the rams o-line stack up against the lions d-line? what will be the biggest keys to the game on both sides of the ball?

Mike Sando: The Lions' defense ranks fourth in sacks per pass play and seventh in interception percentage, but only 30th in yards allowed per play. Ndamukong Suh looks very good and he'll test the Rams' interior offensive line. Rams left tackle Rodger Saffold has looked good most of the time this season, but the Rams' tackles had some problems in the team's only previous road game. That could be an issue again.

Al (Wausau, WI): Mike, do you agree with the Cardinals' decision to start Max Hall over Derek Anderson? Do you feel he gives the Cardinals the best chance to succeed?

Mike Sando: If not now, when? What have we seen from Derek Anderson to make us think the offense is suddenly going to hit stride? Ken Whisenhunt has protected Anderson to a degree this season, but he always acknowledged that Anderson needed to show improvement. The Cardinals have not seen the improvement. By making this move, they are questioning whether Anderson has the capacity to improve. This move makes sense if the Cardinals are right in thinking Hall is mentally tough enough to handle this situation.

It's easy to say the 49ers aren't going to win the NFC West. It's implausible to declare another team the clear favorite.
Omar Kelly of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel says the Dolphins could have interest in Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who could become a free agent next week. Kelly: "Unless the Dolphins sign Rams free agent O.J. Atogwe when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on June 1 -- which is a possibility considering the front office had interest in him in 2009 -- youth will likely be served at the position." It's rare to find a young, starting-caliber player available this time of year. Can the Rams re-sign Atogwe to a deal that makes all parties happy, at least in the short term? Atogwe was linked to Miami only in passing, so it's tough to know whether the Dolphins would be serious enough to outbid the team that knows Atogwe best and valued him enough to pay him more than $6.3 million last season.

Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman says the Rams should start Sam Bradford at quarterback beginning in Week 1. Tramel: "Physically, Bradford is ready. He’ll turn 23 in November. He’s 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds. Mentally, no rookie quarterback is ready for the NFL, but Bradford is as ready to deal with the madness as any rookie could be. He’s smart and he’s calculated. I’m not saying Bradford will be a star, but NFL defenses won’t befuddle him." I'll offer some thoughts on this front in a bit.

Rod Mar of offers photos from organized team activities Thursday. Check out the shot of J.P. Losman in midair after releasing the ball. I have no idea whether he threw accurately on this play, but even if the pass were wayward, Losman looked like an athlete.

Ben Malcolmson of says the Seahawks will take 10 days off to recharge. Coach Pete Carroll warned players to avoid trouble. Carroll: "The actions you make represent who we are. As always, rule No. 1 is in effect."

Clare Farnsworth of says Lawyer Milloy was working with the first-team defense in practices this week. The team is considering its options at strong safety. Rookie Earl Thomas will start at free safety. Milloy fits the Seahawks' defense for several reasons. He played for Carroll and secondary coach Jerry Gray previously. He's a hard hitter and strong tackler, and the Seahawks could use a veteran next to Thomas. Carroll: "Lawyer’s a fantastic pro. He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached anywhere and he brings that. Plus, he's got a sense of the game that can help our guys."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks have released free-agent defensive tackle DeMarcus Granger.

Also from O'Neil: an item quoting Chris Clemons as saying, "I felt comfortable when coach [Andy] Reid told me they were trading me out here because I knew looking at the situation in Seattle, they didn't have the pass-rushing pressure they wanted last year. I knew I still had that skill set. And that was something that I wanted to still prove to myself first of all that I could still do it. I never doubted myself, but you wonder what everybody else is thinking because they're not allowing you to do what they brought you in to do."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune mentions during an item on Justin Forsett that he remains "bullish" on Julius Jones as an effective runner for Seattle. Williams: "Forsett, 24, looks even quicker and more explosive than he did last season. And although he’s only 5-8, 195 pounds, Forsett is a good runner in between the tackles. The humble RB out of Cal believes he could be an every down runner in the league."

John Morgan of Field Gulls projects which college players could fit as the "Leo" pass-rusher in Seattle beginning in 2011.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt plans to continue calling the team's offensive plays. Somers: "Whisenhunt's long-term plan is to hand the play-calling job to an assistant, probably (Mike) Miller, because Whisenhunt views it as repaying a debt. Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher gave Whisenhunt a chance to call plays by naming him offensive coordinator, and it gave Whisenhunt a big boost in becoming a head coach. (Todd) Haley became a head coach after calling plays in the Cardinals' Super Bowl season."

Also from Somers: "All four quarterbacks were inconsistent Thursday, but Whisenhunt cautioned not to read too much into that. With new offensive schemes being introduced, receivers weren't always in the right places. (Matt) Leinart threw a nice long TD pass to Early Doucet in the third-down session. Leinart appears to be throwing with more power than in past years. Again, it's early to make any firm determinations."

Matt Maiocco of checks in with 49ers president Jed York, who continues to express confidence in quarterback Alex Smith. York: "We're very excited about Alex [Smith] this year. We know have some stability at the quarterback position, at the offensive coordinator position. When you turn over your offensive coordinator five years, six years in a row, it's very, very difficult on your offense. You need continuity."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reports from a strategy session with 49ers coaches. Barrows: "It was like a trigonometry lesson taught in Greek. At one point today the offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, showed a chart of the formations, shifts and protections the 49ers had installed on the fourth day of OTAs last week. There were almost 70 different esoteric terms with names like 'Wolf Bob' to 'Cobra Stat.' I'm not going to give away any trade secrets in writing this -- Lord, I'm not sure I could if I wanted to -- but it definitely reminded me of learning a new language, one that uses hieroglyphics as much as words."

Phil Barber of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat offered this information from the session with 49ers coaches: "Manusky made a similar presentation for the defense, though it wasn't as nuanced. He said the three basic tasks on every play are 1) alignment, 2) angle of departure and 3) vision progression. That last one translates to 'watch the quarterback,' and it can narrow a play to half the field."
The 2010 NFL draft helped coaches define their teams to their liking.

The Cardinals now have 32 of their own draft choices on their roster, counting unsigned restricted free agent Deuce Lutui. Three-fourths of those players entered the NFL under current coach Ken Whisenhunt.

The chart lists Cardinals draft choices still with the team, broken down by drafted round. The team now has as many draft choices who entered the league under former coach Dave McGinnis -- three -- as entered the league under Whisenhunt's Pittsburgh mentor, Bill Cowher.

This is definitely Whisenhunt's team, in other words. Matt Leinart, Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett, Gabe Watson and Lutui are the only remaining Cardinals drafted under Green. Two others -- Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle -- recently left in free agency.

Adrian Wilson, Gerald Hayes and Reggie Wells are remaining draft choices from the McGinnis era. One other -- receiver Anquan Boldin -- recently left via trade.

Considering landing places for Cowher

December, 27, 2009
When Mike Holmgren left the Green Bay Packers, successor Ray Rhodes lasted only one season. The team fired him after the Packers lost three of their final four games to finish 8-8.


The expectations Holmgren established in Green Bay had raised the bar for whichever coach followed him. Rhodes' successor, Mike Sherman, enjoyed five consecutive winning seasons. The Packers fired him when the streak ended with a 4-12 record in 2005.

Is current Seahawks coach Jim Mora the next Ray Rhodes? Firing Rhodes after one season wasn't fair. But the Packers felt as though the team wasn't heading in the right direction under Rhodes. Firing Mora after one season would not be fair. The Seahawks shouldn't make a move unless they can find someone demonstrably better.

Bill Cowher comes to mind. He would be better than just about anyone the Seahawks could hope to hire. The early speculation says Carolina and Tampa Bay are the most likely suitors for Cowher if the former Steelers coach returns to the NFL in 2010, as expected. But if the Seahawks could land Holmgren a decade ago -- and the feeling around team headquarters was surreal when it happened -- why not Cowher?


Jeremy asks via Facebook: "Any truth to this or just speculation?"

Mike Sando: This is not a report. It's me asking, 'Why not?' I do not know whether Cowher would be interested, or if the Seahawks will even seriously consider a change. But if Seattle could land Holmgren a decade ago, why not aim high?

Mailbag: What to do with Bulger

November, 24, 2009
Gabe from St. Louis writes: Regarding to bringing QB Marc Bulger back for the 2010 season, I have a question which to me would be key to whether or not he should come back. Is there a strong possibility that Bulger will be released to save money and then re-signed for a much less contract? Personally, if that happens, I would be all for it because the biggest issue with Bulger is his contract. His play is less than average, don't get me wrong, but at this point we have no other options. If that isn't even possible, then why?

Mike Sando: Yeah, there's no way at this point he'll return for his $8.5 million salary. The team might have even made a change last offseason if Bulger's contract hadn't called for so much of his 2009 money to be guaranteed. I question whether Bulger would take that kind of cut to come back. He might be better off getting a fresh start someplace else. The issue for the Rams is whether they could find another quarterback just as good for, say, half the money.

Tjh1328 from Tamarac, Fla., writes: You fellow Rams fans need to understand football. You like to blame Marc Bulger for all our problems. The offensive line is horrible and has been bad and/or injured over the past five years. The defesive front stinks and has for a long time. DO NOT BLAME BULGER. This orginization has no clue on how to manage the salary cap. Look around the league at all the ex-Rams on other rosters. Teams like New England, Pittsburg, Indianapolis, the Giants, etc., are always competetive, because they know how to use the salary cap. So please blame the correct people.

Mike Sando: There's plenty of blame to go around, but much of it goes to people no longer with the organization. The new cap manager, Kevin Demoff, had quite a mess to clean up. I think he is doing that. The question would be whether the Rams pared back too far. In retrospect, they might have, but let's say they had found a way to keep a few more players and it got them, say, two or three more victories. Would you be happy?

As for the offensive line, it has improved quite a bit. One thing Bulger doesn't always have is a great feel for moving within the pocket. I noticed that Sunday when Kurt Warner moved around and bought time despite being 38 years old and not very fast. If I were to defend Bulger, I would point to learning a new system, dropped passes and a poor situation at wide receiver.

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Posted by's Mike Sando

K.C. from Wenatchee, Wash., writes: Hi Mike. I have a research question for you =)

With everything that went on with Jay Cutler in Denver it got me thinking … Bill Belicheck's former assistants haven't been faring too well out there.

Romeo Crennel was fired from Cleveland. Eric Mangini was fired from the Jets (and picked up by Cleveland). Charlie Weiss has been on the hot seat at Notre Dame since he got there. And now Josh McDaniels is losing his star QB because he was too eager to get his former star QB.

So what I'm wondering: Is there a Head Coaching family tree out there somewhere that would show us which coaches came from which coaches? Which of the current Head coaches has had the most success in developing other head coaches?

I'm measuring success by longevity in job, W-L record, and playoff experience, but feel free to throw in anything else that makes sense. Thanks in advance as always!

Oh, and Corey Redding's new deal only means one thing to me. The Hawks are playing to win this year and are looking to rebuild next year. New QB, new LT, new RB, new DL, and new DBs.

Mike Sando: This will come as a great shock to the regulars here, but my roster database does include 30 columns of information for each head coach. I added the 30th column under the heading "coaching tree" in response to your question. Thanks for the idea.

In some cases it's hard to tell which branches lead to which trees. It's not like every head coach owes his advancement to a single mentor. Some coaches spent one or more seasons under multiple head coaches early in their NFL careers.

That said, I went through and assigned mentors to every head coach, based on my judgment.

In keeping with the tree analogy, Bill Parcells leads the way with five branches: Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, Tony Sparano, Todd Haley and Tom Coughlin.

Brian Billick has four: Jack Del Rio, Mike Smith, Mike Singletary and Rex Ryan.

Tony Dungy has three: Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin and Jim Caldwell.

Mike Holmgren has three: Andy Reid, Dick Jauron and Jim Zorn (although Jauron worked with both of Holmgren's predecessors in Green Bay, and he was with Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville).

Reid has three: Brad Childress, John Harbaugh and Steve Spagnuolo.

Bill Cowher has two: Marvin Lewis and Ken Whisenhunt (although Whisenhunt spent four years as an NFL assistant to three head coaches before joining Cowher's staff).

Belichick has two: Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels.

The Parcells tree is holding up quite well. Six current coaches led their current teams to a combined nine Super Bowls. Belichick went to four of them. Coughlin went to a fifth. That gives the Parcells tree five of the nine Super Bowl appearances by coaches with their current teams. Belichick and Coughlin are the only current coaches to have led their current teams to Super Bowl victories.

As for your thought about the Seahawks rebuilding in 2010, that might happen, but the deal with Cory Redding wouldn't necessarily be an indication, in my view. The Seahawks saved only $1.55 million on the new deal. Redding's salary in 2010 would have been manageable.

Note: I'll be responding to mailbag submissions throughout the weekend. Thanks much for getting in touch through the comments, the mailbag, our Facebook profile and Twitter account.

Posted by's Mike Sando

INDIANAPOLIS -- Fired 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz isn't the only one who thinks Mike Martz should be coaching in the NFL. 


Patriots coach Bill Belichick, speaking at the combine, also stood up for Martz in lamenting the employment status of several high-profile former coaches. Belichick said it "doesn't seem right" and it "just seems odd" for Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick and Steve Mariucci to be on the outside.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch then followed up with a question about Martz and former Rams head coach Jim Haslett also being out of work.

Belichick: "I feel the same way about that as I do about the head coaches. Mike Martz, there's another Super Bowl winner and Jim Haslett, I have tremendous respect for Jim Haslett and what he has done. I can't really speak for what other teams are doing or not doing. Believe me, I have my hands full trying to just coach the team that I'm on. But it's ... You know, as a coach it's just sort of a little bit of an empty feeling to see people like that not in the game.

Coaches rely upon ties to other coaches in landing jobs. Martz has worked for five head coaches in the NFL. Three are out of the NFL (Chuck Knox, Rich Brooks and Dick Vermeil). The other two -- Rod Marinelli and Mike Nolan -- are no longer head coaches. And one of them -- Marinelli -- fired Martz after two seasons.

Haslett has worked for four head coaches (plus former Saints interim coach Rick Venturi). Three of them -- Art Shell, the elder Jim Mora and Bill Cowher -- are out of the game. The fourth, Scott Linehan, lost his job after four games last season.