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COLUMN

Ranking the NFL hires from best to Browns

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For more sports commentary, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Out with the old, in with the new (or recycled)

Thursday, January 23, 2014 - 1:27 am

While researching NFL coaching changes, I came across an online article with a simple list of the new coaches. No editorial comments. Just a list.

At the bottom of the page was a link entitled “5 Signs of Dementia.” I was surprised. It turns out the No.1 sign is not “You accept the head coaching job of the Cleveland Browns.”

Except for the Browns, who are apparently close to hiring their future former coach, the NFL openings are all filled. It's out with the old, in with the new. Or at least it's out with the old, in with the recycled.

You can't fire a whole football team when things go lousy, so you ditch the coach. Sometimes it makes sense, as in Jim Schwartz's running-in-place tenure with the Detroit Lions. Sometimes it doesn't, as in Rob Chudzinski's one season with the Browns.

New coaches offer a clean slate and optimism. Let's just hope Lions fans don't expect to catch emotional adrenaline from Jim Caldwell's news conferences.

At any rate, here's how I would rank the offseason NFL coaching hires, from best to worst (or least-best, if you prefer a softer approach):

1. Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs have had a strong defense and a questionable offense, so they turned to defensive guru Smith. That makes no sense on the surface.

The good news is that Smith is more than adept at handling a mix of veteran and younger players, promoting accountability and professional behavior, and churning out competitive teams.

Smith went to one Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears, and if that seems less than impressive, you should remember his quarterback that season was Rex Grossman. So Smith knows how to work with what he has. Fired coach Greg Schiano was fiery and polarizing. Smith is calmer, safer. He was underrated by many when he was with the Bears.

2. Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans: Gary Kubiak has one lousy season, although it was epic in its awfulness, and loses his job. That's the NFL.

O'Brien comes in from his reclamation project at Penn State, but the more important piece on his resume is his work as an offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots. He knows what it takes for an offense to succeed in the NFL, and it's a safe bet to believe the Texans' fortunes ride on their offense. What to do about a quarterback? Huge decision. Make the right call and you are a perennial playoff contender. Make the wrong call and you're back to enjoying a coordinator's job.

O'Brien's age (44), energy level and the lifting of stress over the Penn State job make him a great hire. The recent success of some coaches moving over from college (Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll) could bode well for O'Brien.

3. Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans: Whisenhunt was apparently the first choice for this job and the first choice for the Lions' job. He chose the Titans.

That was telling, since most people would say the Titans have less talent and more areas to build. On the other hand, competing in the AFC South might be an easier route to the playoffs.

Whisenhunt had moments of soaring (NFC West titles) and bombing (nine straight losses in 2012) when he was coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Again, he's a savvy coach, and many seem to do better in their second time at the controls.

4. Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions: Caldwell won't make any headlines with his low-key media personality. But he has plenty of assets to work with in the Lions' ample talent pool. His job is to end the Lions' habit of underachieving.

The question is whether Caldwell's in-game decision-making has improved since his days coaching the Indianapolis Colts after Tony Dungy retired. Players love him, but games can hinge on quick, strong decision-making under pressure. Caldwell needs to prove he has that without the safety net of Peyton Manning running the offense.

Caldwell's biggest asset is his preparation. He is meticulous, a trait that could bring some needed focus and discipline to the Lions. He has hired New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, grandson of Vince Lombardi, as his offensive coordinator. Caldwell coached Manning. Lombardi coached Drew Brees. This should be good for Matthew Stafford.

5. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings: Zimmer has been around the NFL for two decades. He has 14 years of experience as a defensive coordinator. It's too bad he doesn't know how to magically make a quarterback appear for the Vikings.

Minnesota has Adrian Peterson, yes, but the offense needs better production everywhere else. Can a lifelong defensive coach make it happen? It's possible. Dungy was a defensive coach when he took over the Colts and his team became offensive heavy to the extreme. Of course, he had Manning, and Zimmer does not.

The best precedent for Zimmer succeeding in his first head coaching job at age 57 was Bruce Arians taking over in Arizona last year. Sometimes the overlooked guys bring an extra chip on their shoulders.

6. Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins: Things are kind of a mess in Washington, where it's safe to say the honeymoon is over for quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Whatever rift existed with fired coach Mike Shanahan has been excised. Those two proved they couldn't coexist.

I have no idea how good Gruden will be as the new coach. He's best known as Jon's brother, and he's fresh off an embarrassing no-show by the Cincinnati Bengals' offense he was running. Not sure this is the answer.

Gruden says he wants to emphasize Griffin's talents and not try to turn him into a pocket passer. But it kind of seems like Griffin wants to be a pocket passer. Could be continued interesting internal viewpoints before this offense straightens out.

Incidentally, I'm still confused how two coordinators from the Bengals playoff underachievers earned head coaching jobs.

7. Anonymous, Cleveland Browns: Who knows? Maybe having no coach is just as effective as having the wrong one. Actually, several outlets were reporting that the Browns are down to two candidates. They'll put both names in a hat. The first name drawn is the winner. The other guy gets the Browns job.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.