The NFL’s rookie head coaches are quickly making it clear that they belong at this level.
Of the eight new head coaches this season, four had never held the job, not even on an interim basis, in the NFL. The Raiders’ Dennis Allen, the Colts’ Chuck Pagano, the Dolphins’ Joe Philbin and the Buccaneers’ Greg Schiano — the only one of the four who had been a head coach at any level prior to this season (he held the top post at Rutgers University from 2001-11) — make up that exclusive club.
Membership in that group was not all they had in common entering the 2012 campaign, though.
They were also coaching teams widely expected to be bottom feeders in their respective divisions. This writer was one of the skeptics — my preseason predictions are available as proof. In fact, we as a staff at PFW projected each team to finish last in its division in our 2012 Preview magazine.
However, at the midway point of the season, three of the teams — the Colts (5-3), Dolphins (4-4) and Buccaneers (4-4) — have a record of .500 or better, and the Raiders (3-5) are only two games behind the AFC West-leading Broncos with a less-than-daunting second-half schedule in front of them.
None of them are in last place in their division.
Believe it or not, all four teams have playoff aspirations that are still legitimate, and it is looking like the four owners who hired these four men made excellent decisions.
Yes, there is still plenty of football to be played this season. None of the four head coaches has accomplished much of anything to this point — a decent first half, even when it exceeds expectations, is not going to matter if they don’t finish the season strong. The combined record of the four clubs is a perfectly average 16-16, so we are not getting too far ahead of ourselves.
The Colts are actually the only one of the four teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today. Indy would make it in as a wild card and is building a case each week for a split Coach of the Year award to be shared by Pagano, who stepped away from the team three games into the season after being diagnosed with leukemia, and interim head coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Pagano continues to be involved with and inspire the team, while Arians is making the decisions, and calling the plays, on game day.
Philbin’s Dolphins are very much alive in the AFC East and wild-card race. Schiano’s Bucs have won two games in a row and are in the thick of the battle for a wild-card spot in the NFC. Both clubs have yet to play the leaders in their divisions — the Patriots and Falcons — so two potentially revealing meetings with those clubs are still ahead.
If not for a few really costly interceptions in critical fourth-quarter situations by veteran Raiders QB Carson Palmer in losses to the Falcons and Bucs, Allen’s Raiders might be 5-3 instead of 3-5, which would put Oakland even with the Broncos atop the AFC West standings. Allen is a pup compared to his fellow rookie head coaches. He’s the league’s youngest head coach (he turned 40 in September) and was a coordinator for only one season before being hired by the Raiders, but he’s making progress toward his goal of restoring discipline to a team that has badly lacked it.
How are the four other “new” head coaches this season doing? Mike Mularkey (Jaguars), Romeo Crennel (Chiefs), Jeff Fisher (Rams) and Joe Vitt (Saints) all had head-coaching experience (Vitt as an interim), but the Chiefs and Jaguars are tied for the worst record in the league (1-7), all four clubs are at least two games below . 500 and three of the four teams are in last place in their respective divisions.
Much can change between now and the end of December, but for owners thinking about firing their head coach in this copycat league, don’t be surprised if some new blood, rather than the retreads, looks more appealing.