Six rookie coaches have already been hired

For years, it seems, the NFL was the professional sports league of choice for dedicated and diligent conservationists around the country.

And why not? After all, the NFL was more into recycling than the tree-huggin' next door neighbor who tosses you the evil eye every time you haul out the garbage, and the plastic two-liter bottles aren't carefully separated from the week's worth of newspapers in their own, little appropriate trash compartments.

This could be the year, however, in which the league's honorary Sierra Club membership is permanently revoked. Given the ongoing trend during this current firing-and-hiring cycle, one that has infused plenty of fresh blood into the head coach mix, it's just possible the NFL might soon be known as a Good New Boys league.

OK, hyperbole, for sure. Yet teams have been hyperactive in moving new personalities into the head coach pipeline, while rebuffing many candidates regarded as retreads. It's got to be an uneasy time for recently dismissed veteran coaches such as Mike Sherman, Mike Martz, Jim Haslett, Mike Tice, Dom Capers and Mike Mularkey.

In the NFL game of head coach musical chairs, the tune is winding down, and the empty seats have dwindled to a precious few. That's because most of the seats were snatched up by rookie head coaches. Suffice it to say there are going to be some coaches with long résumés, but also long faces when the music stops.

"It's kind of exciting to see a lot of new faces as head coaches, and it's probably good for coaching to have turnover like that," Martz told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "But when you're one of those guys trying to get one of those jobs … it's not exciting."

Time was when coaches job-hopped from franchise to franchise, but that time certainly isn't right now.

We can probably assume the reports are true that Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is poised to become the Houston Texans' new boss (and unless you've been living in a cave for a week, you've got to buy into that likelihood, even if it means someone has trampled all over the NFL's allegedly hallowed anti-tampering rules). That means seven of the eight job vacancies created since the end of the '05 season have been filled by first-time head coaches.

The only recycled coach in the bunch is Herman Edwards, who went from the New York Jets to the Kansas City Chiefs, a relocation some conspiracy theorists have suggested was in the works since the start of the 2005 campaign. Only two jobs, with the Buffalo Bills and the Oakland Raiders, ostensibly remain open. Word is that the Bills will hire a coach with prior NFL experience and that the Raiders will hire, well, someone by the beginning of training camp. Oakland owner Al Davis conceded this week that "young guys take a long time," so he is likely looking for someone with experience.

But even if there are no more first-year coaches hired, that's still seven newbies out of the 10 openings, a ratio that once might have been deemed unthinkable.

Seven new coaches is the most since there were a half-dozen rookie sideline bosses for the start of the 2000 campaign and only one fewer than the total first-year coaches for the previous three seasons combined. The old recycling trend, it appears, has been cast off into the dumpster for now.

But not necessarily by design.

"I don't think there's anything here that screams, 'Hey, what's going on here?' I really don't," said New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis, whose club this week hired former Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Sean Payton as its rookie head coach. "It still comes down to hiring a guy with whom you're comfortable, who you think will win, and who is the best fit. It's a case-by-case thing. It's just coincidence or whatever that all but one of the guys hired so far are new guys."

The Saints interviewed five candidates, including former NFL head coaches Martz and Sherman, and Loomis said all were impressive. But the team opted to reinforce the new in New Orleans, because Payton made a compelling case for himself, not because he represented a candidate unmarked by the kind of failure that has plagued the Saints in the past.

There is no connection at all between the fresh start upon which the old Crescent City is embarking and the fresh-faced coach who will lead its football franchise. Payton could become symbolic of the city's rebuilding, but that is a potential quality ancillary to team officials' belief that he can resuscitate an underachieving offense and groom the new, young quarterback the Saints figure to select with their first-round draft choice.

His first job will be convincing Saints veterans of his head coaching viability.

"There's pluses and minuses to it," New Orleans tailback Deuce McAllister said. "It all depends on how well he can adapt. … Obviously, the coaches he surrounds himself with will have a lot to do with it."

Loomis is right, of course, in his assessment that the spate of fresh faces is nothing more than an unusual convergence of events, a friendly nexus comparable to having Jupiter aligned with Mars. It certainly isn't as if the owners of all the franchises seeking head coaching changes for 2006 huddled in some smoke-filled back room and colluded to orchestrate a greening of the head coach roster. The NFL can no more dictate that teams hire rookie head coaches than it can mandate they employ minorities, the latter reality now made painfully obvious over the past two weeks.

Still, it would be difficult to ignore altogether a movement in which the pendulum has swung of its own volition toward first-time head coaches. While league officials will never acknowledge it, they are probably pleased with the number of first-year head coaches, since the NFL often privately bristled at the notion the fraternity was a semi-closed shop, one with tough admissions standards.

There's always something to be said for stability. But the league also embraces any and all opportunities to dodge the label of being stodgy or rutted. No one can accuse teams this month of living in the past or hiring strictly on track record.

Counting the eight vacancies filled in the last two weeks, 18 of the last 30 openings dating back to 2002 have been filled by men with no previous NFL head coach stripes. Since 2000, rookie head coaches have filled 28 of 45 vacancies. In all but one of those seven seasons, there were at least three first-time head coaches. Last year, the league was 3-for-3 on new head coaches, with Mike Nolan (San Francisco), Nick Saban (Miami), and Romeo Crennel (Cleveland) all pledging the exclusive fraternity.

The other unusual element to this year's hires is that five of the seven rookie coaches were offensive coordinators with their most recent teams, a switch from the recent hiring pattern. The trend had definitely been toward defense, as evidenced in 2005, when all three first-year coaches had very strong résumés on that side of the ball.

"But I don't think the 'rookie' angle or the 'side of the ball' angle is anything more than coincidence," emphasized Cleveland owner Randy Lerner. "You start with a blank slate, with no preconceived ideas, and let the candidate paint his own picture."

For some candidates, obviously, the process is more like finger painting. But just as obvious is that over the last few hiring cycles, including the current one, first-year coaches have been able to present intriguing portraits of themselves. That should have been clear, for instance, to anyone who watched the Thursday morning introductory news conference of new Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli.

Whether one agrees or not with Matt Millen's latest selection -- and given the track record of a general manager whose résumé includes just 21 victories and three different coaches in five seasons, a healthy dose of skepticism is understandable -- he passion of Marinelli for the game and the task ahead of him was palpable.

In 10 seasons in Tampa Bay, the fiery and motivational Marinelli never ascended to the post of coordinator, although he was blocked four times for interviewing for coordinator jobs with other franchises, because Bucs officials held him to his contract. Marinelli was apparently such a good interview that Millen never got around to the follow-up sessions allegedly arranged with other candidates. For a guy under pressure, and with two strikes against him given the failures of Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci, Millen didn't seem like a man concerned with Marinelli's lack of experience.

"To me, it's less about what they've done, and more about who they are," Millen said.

Who the new class or rookie head coaches are, and what they are about, will be defined soon enough. Over the past five seasons, rookie head coaches have compiled a combined record of 104-136 in their debut campaigns. Five of them -- Edwards (Jets, 2001), Bill Callahan (Oakland, 2002), Mularkey (Buffalo, 2004), Jim Mora (Atlanta, 2004) and Saban (Miami, 2005) -- posted winning records in their NFL debut campaigns. Edwards shepherded his team to a wild-card berth, Callahan and Mora each claimed division titles and Callahan advanced his team to the Super Bowl as rookies.

But for the most part, rookie coaches spend the first season trying to negotiate the NFL's difficult learning curve. Whether the rookie head coaching class of 2006 surpasses its predecessors remains to be seen.

For now, they are a relatively young group, with Marinelli, 56, the eldest. The average age of the NFL's 32 head coaches at the outset of the 2005 season was 51.6 years. The average age of the seven rookie coaches for 2006, including Kubiak, is 44.6 years. Four of the seven are 42 years or younger, and Eric Mangini, the first-year Jets coach, turned 35 on Thursday.

There will be, and in fact, already are some skeptics. One former head coach who has been out of the NFL for a few seasons, but who keeps a very keen eye on events as they unfold in the league, suggested Thursday night that the youth movement is "at least in part a reaction" to mounting salaries in the profession. Martz told the Post-Dispatch that he felt the salary levels he and Sherman had achieved were a "primary reason" neither man landed the Saints job.

And, indeed, it's doubtful that any of the rookie coaches merited a contract worth $3 million annually, which seems to have become the new standard. Most contracts, though, carry so-called "offset clauses," which actually allow a new team hiring a coach who had time left on his former deal to reduce the first-year salary.

So it's doubtful -- even with the Packers owing Sherman $6.4 million over the next two seasons if he opts to just collect paychecks, the Saints and Rams each on the hook for over $3 million if Haslett and Martz don't find work, and Mariucci still due a whopping $11.5 million from the Lions -- that finances played a major role in any of the decisions on the rookie head coaches.

And just as doubtful that a trend that has skewed toward new faces in new places, and toward youth as well, is anything more than coincidence.

"Nobody says to you, 'Well, you've got to hire a new guy,' or 'You've got to hire a minority,'" Loomis said. "There's no [collective] league agenda. What's happened this year, with so many first-year coaches is, well, just something that happened, that's all. There are a lot of qualified people out there and some of them happened to be coaches who made the most of their opportunities to interview for these openings."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.