NFC West: Greg Olson
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.
Also from Somers: a look at issues facing the Cardinals this offseason. The team will not be rushing to extend Darnell Dockett, who has two years remaining on his deal.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com expands on the idea that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll should have an advantage heading into the scouting combine after recruiting and coaching at the college level. Seattle holds the sixth and 14th choices in the 2010 draft. The team held the eighth overall choice in 1995, when Dennis Erickson was jumping to the NFL after a successful run at the college level. Seattle's draft class that year featured Joey Galloway, Christian Fauria, Jason Kyle, Henry McMillian, Eddie Goines and Keif Bryant.
Also from Farnsworth: a few thoughts on Ricky Foley's signing.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with general manager Billy Devaney and coach Steve Spagnuolo as the Rams head to the scouting combine. Thomas expects the Rams to choose between Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Sam Bradford and Jimmy Clausen with the first overall choice. Devaney says he has some interest in seeing a medical report on Colt McCoy. Devaney on the draft in general: "I think wide receiver is going to be pretty deep. There may not be those stud impact guys, but it's a real good group. The offensive line -- tackles again. The past few years, there's been a pretty good run of tackles."
Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com thinks Marc Bulger could wind up with the Bucs. Gordon: "He is not going to retire. Several teams would covet him as a back-up next season, including Tampa Bay -– where Greg Olson is offensive coordinator. You will recall that Olson worked with Bulger as Scott Linehan’s nominal offensive coordinator. Bulger could regroup from his beatings in St. Louis, help tutor (Josh) Freeman and offer insurance if the kid needs to sit for a spell."
Also from Thomas: a chat transcript featuring thoughts on the draft and free agency. Thomas: "If the Rams took Bradford at No. 1 overall, there's a lot of ways they could go in the second round. At DT, maybe (but not for certain) Dan Williams of Tennessee is still there. Or another DT, Jared Odrick of Penn State. The Rams could see if any of the edge rushers -- the best seem to be the 'tweeners this year -- are still on the board. The top of the second might be too high for RB Dexter McCluster. Then again, he might not be there at the top of the third."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says during a chat that the 49ers are almost certain to select an offensive lineman in the first round. Barrows: "I really don't see them bypassing an OL in the first round. Maybe if they felt confident a guy like Rodger Saffold (Indiana) could be had in the second, but that's risky. Nothing is a sure thing when it comes to the draft, but the 49ers taking an OL is as sure as it gets."
Also from Barrows: The 49ers visited with former Titans and Cardinals pass-rusher Travis LaBoy, who was forced out of football by injuries last season.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Aubrayo Franklin joins Julian Peterson, Terrell Owens and Steve Young as franchise players for the 49ers.
Also from Maiocco: He compares draft prospect Taylor Mays to Dana Hall, a first-round disappointment from the 49ers' past.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch implores Rams fans to continue buying tickets while majority owner Chip Rosenbloom tries to sell the team. Miklasz: "That way, no Rams owner will have an excuse to pull the team out of here because of a lack of support. And with sellout crowds filing into home games, perhaps this will rally the business community and motivate potential buyers from the St. Louis area." Miklasz defends Rosenbloom's decision to sell the team based on financial pressures wrought by estate taxes.
Also from Miklasz: a question-and-answer session covering key issues relating to a potential Rams sale. Miklasz: "Now that Rosenbloom and [sister Lucia] Rodriguez have enlisted Goldman Sachs to find a buyer, it's obvious they're serious about selling the team. But that realization should be helpful to the St. Louis cause. With the Rams on the block, I believe it will motivate a local buyer [or group] to mobilize and come forward to save the team."
Howard Balzer of insidestl.com checks in with Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, who longs for stability in the organization. Balzer: "It has been a whirlwind for Bulger since the 2005 season, when head coach Mike Martz became ill and Steve Fairchild took over as offensive coordinator. Since then, the coordinating and play-calling has gone from Scott Linehan to Greg Olson, back to Linehan, and then Al Saunders. For those counting, including this year, that's seven changes in five seasons."
Larry Weisman of USA Today takes a comprehensive look at the 49ers and concludes that they can contend for the NFC West title in 2009. Weisman: "The NFC West is hardly a powerhouse division, so the 49ers will look to make a rapid move upward, just as the Arizona Cardinals did a year ago. The 49ers need to settle on a quarterback, open up their passing game a bit with Crabtree and force more turnovers on defense."
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News recognizes former 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross for his service through Ronald McDonald House at Stanford. Cross: "I've met 10-year-old patients at the house that are more mature than a lot of NFL players. They have had to deal with real severe, serious life-and-death situations. It makes you smile and tears your heart out at the same time. And that's the reason I have stayed involved."
Doug Farrar of Smarter Stats on washingtonpost.com sizes up first-round choices in the NFC West, concluding that the Cardinals' Chris Wells fits the profile of a physical back. Farrar: "The problem is the amount of time Wells spent in the trainer's room, especially in his last two seasons, due to a variety of ankle, hamstring, foot, and thumb injuries."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic expects the Cardinals to reach agreement on a contract extension for Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson. Somers: "He's attending the voluntary workouts and says and does all the right things in the organization's view. The Cardinals would send a strong message to other players by re-signing Wilson soon. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that the guy is pretty good and in his prime."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with new Seahawks fullback Justin Griffith. Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp: "Justin has a good feel for the fullback position in our offense, especially in the run game." Griffith says he has recovered from the knee injury he suffered with the Raiders. Griffith sees himself as a mentor for second-year fullback Owen Schmitt and others who are new to Knapp's offense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times says the Bucs prevented quarterbacks coach Greg Olson from pursuing the Cardinals' job as offensive coordinator. Biggs, via a source: "Olson, who is under contract to the Bucs through 2009 and was originally hired by ousted coach Jon Gruden, had an opportunity to go to Arizona and fill the vacancy created by [Todd] Haley's departure for Kansas City." The Bucs are known for blocking such interviews.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals' inability to re-sign Warner to this point is all about the money, as usual.
Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe analyzes Jason Licht's departure from the Cardinals' front office to take a job with the Patriots. Reiss: "The Patriots did not have a director of pro personnel last season. Brian Smith served as a pro scout, and Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli and director of player personnel Nick Caserio presumably had their hand in pro scouting as well."
Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind sizes up the Cardinals' tight ends. He expects the team to hold a roster spot for Stephen Spach even if the tight end rehabs his knee injury into the regular season. I think that probably depends upon what moves the team makes this offseason. The Cardinals will almost certainly try to upgrade the position.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat provides a rundown of the 49ers' players scheduled to become free agents. The 49ers appear unconcerned about losing former Cardinals receiver Bryant Johnson.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer does not expect the Seahawks to pursue former Seattle receivers Joey Galloway and D.J. Hackett now that both have been released.
John Morgan of Field Gulls renews his pleas to unseat Brian Russell as the Seahawks' free safety, calling him easily one of the worst in the league. The Seahawks obviously think he's better than that.
VanRam of Turf Show Times says the Rams' decision to release Drew Bennett probably has no bearing on Torry Holt's situation. I would agree. VanRam: "All reports indicate that Holt is unwilling to restructure his contract, a must if the Rams are going to hang onto him. On top of that, Holt hasn't been real excited about the prospects of remaining in St. Louis, and, understandably, doesn't want his career to wind down with a team in the rebuilding process."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The potential hiring of Scott Linehan as the 49ers' offensive coordinator raises questions such as the one posed in the headline of this blog entry.
While the 49ers did speak with quarterbacks coaches associated with coordinating candidates Rob Chudzinski and Rick Dennison, they have not interviewed people associated with Linehan. That might suggest the 49ers would be less likely to consider Linehan's former Rams assistants.
Terry Shea was with Linehan in St. Louis most recently. Shea was with the Dolphins in 2007. The Rams hired Shea after forcing Linehan to shake up his offensive staff heading into this season. I would not consider Shea to be a "Linehan guy" for the purposes of this exercise.
Some other former offensive assistants under Linehan have jobs elsewhere. Doug Nussmeier coached the Rams' quarterbacks in 2006 and 2007. He is the new offensive coordinator for Steve Sarkisian at the University of Washington.
Greg Olson was offensive coordinator under Linehan in 2006 and 2007. He spent the 2008 season coaching quarterbacks for the Bucs.
We should note that Linehan has not yet agreed to a deal with the 49ers.