Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Best of NFL: NFC West coaches
By Mike Sando
As part of Best of the NFL Week on ESPN.com, here are five bests for the NFC West:
Best hair story, Ray Horton: Seventy-five of 76 coaches in the division sport shortly cropped hair or none at all in their most recently posted mug shots. Horton's braids make him a conspicuous exception. No big deal, right? Easy for us to say. Horton, a former NFL cornerback and longtime secondary coach, worried that his unconventional look might hurt his chances for advancement through the tradition-rich coaching ranks. He thought about cutting off his braids before interviewing with the Cardinals this offseason. But as Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic outlined in April, team president Michael Bidwill encouraged Horton to keep his locks the way they were.
Jim Tomsula is known for having a good relationship with his players.
Best players' coach, Jim Tomsula. There might not be a position coach in the division more beloved than the leader of the San Francisco 49ers' defensive line. Two head coaches, Mike Singletary and Jim Harbaugh, thought highly enough of Tomsula to keep him around. Ownership thought highly enough of Tomsula to name him interim coach for Week 17 last season. Players thought highly enough of Tomsula to win for him that week. Tomsula has brought together and usually gotten good results from a diverse group of linemen featuring Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga, Aubrayo Franklin and Ray McDonald, among others. Tomsula's everyman persona gives him a disarming presence. When the 49ers named him interim coach, Tomsula showed up for his introductory news conference wearing the short-sleeved shirt he had worn the previous day. He had been grinding away at the facility all night and hadn't gotten a chance to change. Tomsula apologized to ownership for his appearance, but it wasn't necessary. As Tomsula told reporters that day, "I'm Jim Nobody from Nowhere."
Best ambassador, Pete Carroll: The Seahawks' second-year head coach has led five coaching philosophy clinics over the past three months, meeting with coaches from various levels in Los Angeles, Seattle and at two universities, TCU and Stanford. "If we don't change you one bit, that's OK," Carroll told attendees in the first of two sessions in Los Angeles, "but if we make you think, if we challenge you to look at what you are doing and what your world is all about in your coaching, and if you decide to accept what we're all about, that's cool, too." Carroll speaks from experience, having questioned and ultimately reinvented his approach after the New England Patriots fired him in 2000. Carroll doesn't need whatever benefits flow his way from these clinics. His passion and eagerness to share is admirable.
Best cult following, John Lott: Cardinals players have sworn by -- and probably sworn at, from time to time -- their super-charged strength and conditioning coach. "He may have saved my career," Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald once said. Lott played a significant role in helping head coach Ken Whisenhunt change the Cardinals' culture a few years ago. He pushed ownership to upgrade weight-room facilities in a manner that showed players Lott had pull within the organization. He convinced Fitzgerald and others to cut weight in an effort to improve their quickness, speed and durability. He has held players accountable and gotten them to do the same with teammates. It was significant news in Arizona when the Cardinals re-signed Lott following the 2009 season. Whisenhunt knew the Cardinals couldn't afford to let Lott get away. I don't recall another strength coach in the league generating the same level of public support. Key players have bought in completely. Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson pointed to missed time with Lott as one of the costs of the lockout, suggesting rookies faced a difficult adjustment.
Best sideline stance, Steve Spagnuolo. There might not be a more intense stance in the game. Spagnuolo leans forward with hands on bent knees, his chin up and eyes focused on the action with palpable intensity. Every coach is tuned into every play of every game, of course, but Spagnuolo's sideline manner sets him apart. He looks like a guy who arrives for work at 3:30 or 4 in the morning (he does) and cannot prepare hard enough. But that forward-leaning stance also says something about Spagnuolo's mindset. The players I've spoken with over the past couple seasons have said Spagnuolo rarely, if ever, revisits something negative from the past. He turns the page faster and more completely than other coaches. I think that mindset helped the Rams get through their 1-15 season in 2009 without cracking. I think that mindset helps explain how they beat the Washington Redskins last season after two particularly tough defeats to open the season. I think it helps explain how they put together a mostly impressive performance in victory against San Diego after a dismal 44-6 defeat at Detroit that could have rocked them.