2011 Coaching and Philosophy Changes
By Jason Wood
June 27th, 2011

If there was ever a year not to bank on major coaching changes, it might be 2011. The NFL lockout has dramatically altered the landscape of this preseason, making it next to impossible for new coaches to implement their systems. In many cases, the new coaches haven't been able to share their playbooks, teach the basic terminology, or see any of their new players in person to figure out how all the pieces fit.

In spite of the looming lockout, NFL owners weren't shy about making sweeping changes to the coaching ranks. Including last year's interim promotions of Jason Garrett in Dallas and Leslie Frazier in Minnesota, eight teams have replaced their head coaches (25% of the league). As if that weren't enough, 25 of the league's 64 offensive & defensive coordinator positions are now in new hands. In prior years, we have had the advantage of OTAs and mini-camps to flesh out what we can expect from the new hires, but this year we've had to rely more on the coaches' history and what they've said in interviews. Will the teams without continuity suffer from the shortened offseason? We'll find out soon enough.

Arizona Cardinals

Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt
Offensive Coordinator: Mike Miller
Defensive Coordinator: Ray Horton (replaces Bill Davis)

What to expect on defense: Ken Whisenhunt hopes the third time is the charm as Ray Horton becomes the third defensive coordinator under his regime. Bill Davis' tenure was uninspiring, culminating in a woeful 30th place ranking in points allowed, and an equally disappointing 29th place in yards allowed. Horton, a 10-year NFL defensive back, has been coaching for nearly two decades, most recently serving as the defensive backs coach under Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh. Although this will be Horton's first stint as a defensive coordinator, he's got experience and a pedigree that should serve him well. The Cardinals will maintain their 3-4 defensive front, and Horton has promised to be aggressive at every turn. Expect persistent pressure and zone blitzing, with the question being whether the Cardinals have the personnel to handle such an attacking style.

Baltimore Ravens

Head Coach: John Harbaugh
Offensive Coordinator: Cam Cameron
Defensive Coordinator: Chuck Pagano (replaces Greg Mattison)

What to expect on defense: Chuck Pagano has been the Ravens secondary coach for the last three seasons, and was promoted quickly after Greg Mattison decided to accept the University of Michigan's defensive coordinator position. Pagano won't change the scheme in Baltimore - it will continue to feature multiple fronts. While Baltimore was again stout overall (3rd in points allowed), it was 10th in yards and blew a number of 4th quarter leads. The team ranked a shocking 27th in sacks, which was as much a function of poor secondary play and the inability to blitz consistently. If the Ravens find some help in the free agent ranks to improve the secondary, expect the Ravens to increase their blitz frequency.

Carolina Panthers

Head Coach: Ron Rivera (replaces John Fox)
Offensive Coordinator: Rob Chudzinski (replaces Jeff Davidson)
Defensive Coordinator: Sean McDermott (replaces Ron Meeks)

What to expect on offense: The Panthers had one of the worst offenses in recent memory, ranking a league-worst 32nd in points and yards, and with the lockout have been unable to add anything of significance yet outside of the QB position. With the 1st overall pick, the Panthers selected Cam Newton, as the foundation of a hefty rebuilding project. What Newton lacks in experience and mechanics the Panthers hope he makes up for with athleticism and leadership - time will tell. New head coach Ron Rivera tabbed Rob Chudzinski, who served on the Chargers staff with him coaching tight ends. Chudzinski is a disciple of the Norv Turner/Don Coryell offense, and will build around a vertical passing attack that relies on deep outside threats to stretch the field. A core tenet of the offense will involve the tight end position, something Panthers fans will welcome with open arms after years of ignoring the position. Personnel will dictate how quickly Chudzinski can implement an offense reminiscent of the Chargers. In the meantime, expect a commitment to a power, inside running attack and lots of downfield shots off play action.

What to expect on defense: Ron Rivera has experience coaching both the 3-4 and 4-3, but will focus on the 4-3 front in Carolina as evidenced by his decision to hire Sean McDermott as his defensive coordinator. McDermott and Rivera are both former Eagles defensive coaches, and were mentored under the late, great Jim Johnson. Rivera plans on calling the defensive plays at the outset, leaving McDermott to handle weekly installation. The decision to stick with the 4-3 bodes well for MLB Jon Beason, but is a bit curious considering how well Rivera did running the 3-4 in San Diego - the Chargers finished as the #1 ranked defense in 2010.

Cincinnati Bengals

Head Coach: Marvin Lewis
Offensive Coordinator: Jay Gruden (replaces Bob Bratkowski)
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Zimmer

What to expect on offense: Credit the Bengals with a bold hire as head coach Marvin Lewis tries to reinvigorate his struggling team. Jay - Jon Gruden's younger brother - is best known for his exploits as an Arena League quarterback and head coach, although he does have NFL coaching experience in Tampa Bay. It will be fascinating to see what Gruden has planned for a Bengals offense that is probably starting a rookie at quarterback, and will be replacing long-time stalwart Chad Ochocinco with top pick A.J. Green. Anyone that's ever seen an Arena Football game knows it's wild, wide open and built around quick timed, spread attacks. Presumably that will inform Gruden's plans in Cincinnati, although he's articulated plans to run a West Coast offense that focuses on "pounding the ball and not throwing 65 times a game."

Cleveland Browns

Head Coach: Pat Shurmur (replaces Eric Mangini)
Offensive Coordinator: Vacant (replaces Brian Daboll)
Defensive Coordinator: Dick Jauron (replaces Rob Ryan)

What to expect on offense: Mike Holmgren gave Eric Mangini a shot at winning him over, but ultimately the President of the Browns needed to bring on a head coach that better exemplified his principles. Pat Shurmur, a classic disciple of the West Coast offense, fits Holmgren's world view to a tee, and also should play well with the Browns QB Colt McCoy, who may not have the strongest arm in the world but is accurate. Shurmur spent the bulk of his NFL coaching career learning from Andy Reid in Philadelphia - and Reid was one of Holmgren's long-time assistants and close friends. Shurmur's uncle Fritz was also a long-time Holmgren associate. As with any new coach, the system is only part of the equation. The Browns have question marks and until we see how free agency unfolds, we can't be sure of much beyond the scheme. It's interesting to note that Shurmur opted against naming an offensive coordinator; he needs to be careful he's not taking on too much in his first stint at the helm of an NFL franchise.

What to expect on defense: The Browns have armed Shurmur, an inexperienced offensive-minded head coach, with a veteran laden defensive coaching staff. Dick Jauron has stints as an NFL head coach in Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo, and was defensive coordinator previously in Jacksonville and Detroit. He also coached with Andy Reid in Philadelphia and in Green Bay years ago. Jauron will have help from Ray Rhodes (two-time NFL head coach) and Bill Davis, the Cardinals 2010 coordinator. The biggest challenge for Cleveland will be transitioning from the 3-4 front to a 4-3 front under Jauron - particularly because the lockout has limited the coaches ability to install the new terminology and assignments. Even though Jauron - like all new defensive coaching hires - has termed his philosophy as "aggressive", keep in mind that his defenses are not traditionally blitz happy.

Dallas Cowboys

Head Coach: Jason Garrett (replaces Wade Phillips)
Offensive Coordinator: Jason Garrett
Defensive Coordinator: Rob Ryan (replaces Wade Phillips)

What to expect on offense: Taking a page from his predecessor, new head coach Jason Garrett has not hired a coordinator for his side of the ball. Garrett will continue to call the plays on offense just as he did as the OC under Wade Phillips. Unlike many of the coaching hires, we don't have to speculate on what Garrett plans to do, since he's been the architect of the Cowboys attack for years. The good news for Cowboys fans is how effective the offense executed once Garrett took over as interim head coach, and that was without the aid of Pro Bowl QB Tony Romo. Garrett will continue to emphasize balance, emphasizing a RB-by-committee married with a vertical passing attack that utilizes all parts of the field.

What to expect on defense: Rob Ryan will continue to use a base 3-4 front the Cowboys have been used to, but understand that his views on defense differ greatly from those of Wade Phillips. Ryan's defenses are complicated, and make use of multiple schemes and fronts, including aspects of his father's 46 defense (particularly in short yardage) and lots of pre-snap motion. Ryan brings pressure on the majority of snaps, but noted that his ability to "bring the house" is limited to whether his corners can handle man-to-man. In Dallas that may ultimately come down to whether the Cowboys target the CB position aggressively in free agency.

Denver Broncos

Head Coach: John Fox (replaces Josh McDaniels)
Offensive Coordinator: Mike McCoy
Defensive Coordinator: Dennis Allen (replaces Don Martindale)

What to expect on offense: The Broncos situation is among the most interesting of the offseason, because new head coach John Fox's conservatism was evident in Carolina regardless of who called the plays. Even though Fox is a defensive-minded coach, he has instilled a clear view that his offense should be focused on controlling the ball and not taking unnecessary risks - at times that conservatism has been viewed as a detriment. Where it gets interesting is that Broncos head man John Elway talked openly about how Fox needed to promise him an aggressive style of offense in order to secure the head coaching job. Ultimately Fox decided to retain Mike McCoy, who was the OC (but not the play-caller) under Josh McDaniels. McCoy was a long-time Panthers assistant under Fox, so the two know each other, and by retaining McCoy and the majority of the offensive staff, the Broncos don't have to worry about a major transition amidst a lockout. You can expect balance on offense, but whether the team is really able to meet Elway's "aggressive" mantra will come down to the quarterback play.

What to expect on defense: The Broncos are moving back to a 4-3 front under new head coach John Fox and new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who comes from the Saints where he coached the secondary. What makes the decision interesting is that the Broncos top two pass rushers look to be Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, who would both be undersized defensive ends in a 4-3. Either way, the Broncos will play more zone coverage than man-to-man, which is as much about the personnel as it is the coach's intentions.

Houston Texans

Head Coach: Gary Kubiak
Offensive Coordinator: Rick Dennison
Defensive Coordinator: Wade Phillips (replaces Frank Bush)

What to expect on defense: The Texans have been "on the verge" of the playoffs for seemingly the entire Gary Kubiak coaching era. This year is almost certainly make or break for Kubiak and his staff, which is why he made a big push to sign Wade Phillips to replace Frank Bush. Phillips, most recently head coach in Dallas, has been defensive coordinator for seven other NFL teams and head coach three times (not including interim stints). Phillips 3-4 defense is a bit different than what you see in other places, mainly because he plays a one-gap front. The plan is to move Mario Williams - all 290 pounds of him - into the weakside linebacker role with the hope he'll produce similarly to the way DeMarcus Ware did in Dallas. The Texans secondary needs massive help, to say the least, and they will need to get Phillips some free agents if his scheme is going to be effective. No amount of press coverage is going to mask the deficiencies and allow Phillips to blitz as aggressively as he prefers.

Kansas City Chiefs

Head Coach: Todd Haley
Offensive Coordinator: Bill Muir (replaces Charlie Weis)
Defensive Coordinator: Romeo Crennel

What to expect on offense: Charlie Weis' tenure in Kansas City was short lived, and you can bet the Chiefs are going to miss him. Although Weis was only with the Chiefs for a season, he gave the team legitimacy under head coach Todd Haley, and helped propel Jamaal Charles, Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe to career years. Reports of conflict between Weis and Haley notwithstanding, Chiefs fans need to wonder whether Bill Muir is up to the task of replicating what Weis managed last year. Muir is a veteran NFL coach, serving as the Buccaneers offensive coordinator from 2002-2008, and was the Chiefs offensive line coach last year. But at 68 years old, with a reputation for being a by-the-numbers conservative ball control coach is his approach capable of working in today's NFL? The other question is whether Muir's ascension means Todd Haley will re-take a more hands on role in the play-calling, something that he felt was difficult to do effectively while juggling the responsibilities of being head coach.

Miami Dolphins

Head Coach: Tony Sparano
Offensive Coordinator: Brian Daboll (replaces Dan Henning)
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Nolan

What to expect on offense: Tony Sparano ended up keeping his job after an embarrassing offseason where the Dolphins ownership openly courted other coaches before having to settle for the incumbent. Sparano has to win this year, and has tabbed Brian Daboll to help him turn around an offense that sputtered under Dan Henning last year. The issue is whether or not Henning, a proven veteran coordinator, was really the problem and whether Daboll is the solution. Daboll broke into the NFL as an assistant under Bill Belichick in New England, and was then brought to New York by Eric Mangini before being tapped for his first offensive coordinator job (with Mangini) in Cleveland. It would be hard to effectively articulate what Daboll plans to do, because he has a hard time doing so in his own right. To hear him tell it, he's going to use multiple formations, lots of motion, and do whatever makes sense to exploit the defense they're playing against. While that sounds good in theory, very few coaches are smart enough to run such a free form scheme, even if the team's personnel was experienced and disciplined enough.

Minnesota Vikings

Head Coach: Leslie Frazier (replaces Brad Childress)
Offensive Coordinator: Bill Musgrave (replaces Darrell Bevell)
Defensive Coordinator: Fred Pagac (replaces Leslie Frazier)

What to expect on offense: Leslie Frazier took over for Brad Childress last year and showed enough to keep the job heading into 2011. Frazier is a defensive-minded head coach and so his choice as offensive coordinator is vital to whether the Vikings regain competitiveness. Frazier chose Bill Musgrave as his offensive play-caller, luring him away from the Atlanta Falcons where he was credited with Matt Ryan's development into one of the better young NFL signal callers. Musgrave is from the Ron Erhardt coaching tree, and is predicated on a commitment to the run, lots of play-action passing, and multiple formations.

What to expect on defense: The Vikings aren't going to change much on defense, as Frazier was the team's defensive coordinator. Fred Pagac, who was promoted to DC on an interim basis when Frazier was promoted, has been retained as the full-time coordinator. The team will continue to use a Tampa-2 coverage scheme with a 4-3 front that tries to create pressure mainly from the defensive line, with blitzes being opportunistic versus standard operating procedure.

New England Patriots

Head Coach: Bill Belichick
Offensive Coordinator: Bill O'Brien (formerly vacant)
Defensive Coordinator: Vacant

What to expect on offense: Perhaps Bill Belichick realized that he can't do it all. Last year Belichick ran the Patriots without coordinators, although it would be misleading to imply he didn't rely on his assistant coaches. This year Belichick promoted Bill O'Brien to the OC role, after going without a nominal OC for three seasons. O'Brien has had a heavy role in the play-calling and has been Tom Brady's position coach for the last two seasons. No matter what O'Brien brings to the equation, the offense will maintain the hallmark versatility that has become Belichick's calling card.

Oakland Raiders

Head Coach: Hue Jackson (replaces Tom Cable)
Offensive Coordinator: Al Saunders (replaces Hue Jackson)
Defensive Coordinator: Chuck Bresnahan (replaces John Marshall)

What to expect on offense: Hue Jackson was promoted from OC to head coach and will call the plays, but Jackson has astutely hired an experienced veteran coordinator in Al Saunders to help steer the ship. Saunders has been a consultant with the Ravens the last two seasons but prior to that was an offensive coordinator for a number of teams, most notably the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins. Saunders is known for two things: an adherence to the Air Coryell system and a massive (700+ page) playbook. With Jackson calling the plays, and already installing his base terminology, expect Saunders playbook to be less of an issue than it was in Washington. Jackson proved last year that he's up to snuff, taking a unit that most thought would underachieve and building a top 10 offense that was 2nd in the league in rushing.

What to expect on defense: Chuck Bresnahan was initially hired as a defensive coach without a title, but was named the defensive coordinator after a few notable options apparently turned down the opportunity to interview. Bresnahan is a familiar name to Raiders faithful, as he ran the defense during the best years under Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan before a major collapse led to his ouster. Bresnahan has an equally up and down stint in Cincinnati (where he coached with Hue Jackson), and has most recently been coaching the defense for the UFL Tuskers. Bresnahan appears set to maintain the system already in place, which is a base 4-3 that some would label "vanilla" since it eschews aggressive blitzing and relies on man coverage most of the time.

Philadelphia Eagles

Head Coach: Andy Reid
Offensive Coordinator: Marty Mornhinweg
Defensive Coordinator: Juan Castillo (replaces Sean McDermott)

What to expect on defense: The decision to fire Sean McDermott wasn't shocking, but his replacement certainly was. McDermott, forced into the DC role earlier than planned due to the passing of Jim Johnson, appeared outmatched at times as the Eagles allowed 377 points (21st in the NFL), it's worst showing in decades. The Eagles moved quickly to add veteran Jim Washburn as the new defensive line coach, and then promoted Juan Castillo to the coordinator position. The "shocking" part is that Castillo was the Eagles OFFENSIVE line coach, and is now being asked to oversee a turnaround of the other side of the ball. While the experiment is not without precedent, it will like be one of the defining choices made in the Andy Reid era. Castillo is going to rely heavily on his defensive assistants, and will try to recapture the aggressive, blitz-heavy 4-3 attack that Jim Johnson executed so well.

San Diego Chargers

Head Coach: Norv Turner
Offensive Coordinator: Clarence Shelmon
Defensive Coordinator: Greg Manusky (replaces Ron Rivera)

What to expect on defense: Greg Manusky coached under Wade Phillips as an assistant in San Diego before heading to the 49ers as the coordinator. He returns and implement the same aggressive, one gap 3-4 scheme that Phillips used in his tenure. Manusky doesn't use a lot of pre-snap misdirection, and favors constant pressure. The key, as with anything, is whether he has the horses in the secondary to play single coverage against the outside receivers.

San Francisco 49ers

Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (replaces Mike Singletary)
Offensive Coordinator: Greg Roman (replaces Jimmy Raye)
Defensive Coordinator: Vic Fangio (replaces Greg Manusky)

What to expect on offense: The 49ers won the Jim Harbaugh sweepstakes in a year when he was clearly the most coveted head coaching candidate. Harbaugh became a hot commodity by turning the Stanford Cardinal into a national powerhouse, kind of like another former 49ers coach of some renown. Harbaugh immediately promised a return to the traditional West Coast offense at his initial press conference, which bodes well for long-time fans, but only if he has the field general to execute the system. For now, Alex Smith appears the favorite to start, which likely means we won't see Harbaugh's true vision for the offense until 2012 when he gets a young franchise-caliber QB into the fold. Greg Roman was Harbaugh's top assistant at Stanford, and joins him on the 49ers staff. He will be up in the booth on Sundays, but it's not yet clear whether he or Harbaugh will be calling the plays.

What to expect on defense: Vic Fangio was an NFL lifer (24 years) including three stints as defensive coordinator, until he joined Jim Harbaugh at Stanford last season. Fangio turned the Cardinals into a 3-4 defense and the rest is history. Fangio now returns to familiar territory and will likely maintain the 3-4 scheme already in place in San Francisco, while layering in his own wrinkles. The best proxy for what we should expect is the attacking style of Dom Capers - Fangio was Capers DC in both Carolina and Houston.

St. Louis Rams

Head Coach: Steve Spagnuolo
Offensive Coordinator: Josh McDaniels (replaces Pat Shurmur)
Defensive Coordinator: Ken Flajole

What to expect on offense: The Rams enjoyed a dream resurgence last year thanks to rookie QB Sam Bradford. The team barely missed the playoffs and Bradford had one of the best rookie seasons in the modern era. The stage was set for big things in 2011 that is until Pat Shurmur accepted the head coaching position in Cleveland. The Rams decided to hire Josh McDaniels, fresh from his stint as the Broncos head coach, to replace Shurmur. Although McDaniels is a young (34), well respected offensive mind, it's a risky proposition because his system is markedly different from the West Coast offense Bradford flourished with as a rookie. McDaniels has the chance to prove he's able to build an offensive around his assets, versus trying to make his players fit his system.

Seattle Seahawks

Head Coach: Pete Carroll
Offensive Coordinator: Darrell Bevell (replaces Jeremy Bates)
Defensive Coordinator: Gus Bradley

What to expect on offense: Pete Carroll fought hard to bring Jeremy Bates with him from USC to Seattle, but that love affair was short lived as Carroll fired Bates citing "philosophical differences." It's widely believed Carroll was frustrated with the pass/run imbalance (544 passes to 385 rushes) and the lack of downfield passing. Enter Darrell Bevell, who spent the last few years as Minnesota's OC where he helped Brad Childress implement a run heavy attack with elements of the classic West Coast approach. With an uncertain quarterback situation, the only thing we can be sure of is that Seattle wants to run the ball more this year. Whether they have the personnel to do that, particularly a defense that will allow them to play with a lead, remains to be seen.

Tennessee Titans

Head Coach: Mike Munchak (replaces Jeff Fisher)
Offensive Coordinator: Chris Palmer (replaces Mike Heimerdinger)
Defensive Coordinator: Jerry Gray (replaces Chuck Cecil)

What to expect on offense: Titans fans could understand why Mike Munchak wanted to go in a new direction when he fired Mike Heimerdinger. After all, Heimerdinger was a long-time Jeff Fisher assistant and had aspirations to head coach. But the decision to hire Chris Palmer as his replacement was a curious one. Palmer once had the reputation as a "QB guru", particularly for his work with Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell, but his time in Houston (with David Carr), and Cleveland (Tim Couch) largely erased any "guru" label. He's back in the NFL after a stint in the UFL, and will have to get Jake Locker ready for the NFL huddle. Any hope the Titans have of success in 2011 will revolve around a healthy and motivated Chris Johnson. Anything the new coaching staff gets from the passing game should be considered a bonus.

What to expect on defense: Jerry Gray is a seasoned NFL coach that will likely keep the Titans 4-3 front intact, but will bring more pressure from the linebacking corps than the Titans were known for under Fisher. Another key difference between Gray's 4-3 base and Fisher's is where the ends will line up. Fisher's ends traditionally lined up wide and tried collapsing the pocket, whereas Gray's DEs will likely line up over the tackles and focus more on being stout at the point of attack.

Other Notable Coaching Hires

  • Rich Bisaccia (Special Teams) - San Diego
  • Bob Bratkowski (Quarterbacks) - Atlanta Falcons
  • Tom Cable (Offensive Line) - Seattle
  • Jeff Davidson (Offensive Line) - Minnesota
  • Bill Davis (Linebackers) - Cleveland
  • Karl Dorrell (Quarterbacks) -- Miami
  • Craig Johnson (Quarterbacks) - Minnesota
  • Carnell Lake (Defensive Backs) - Pittsburgh
  • Pat Morris (Offensive Line) - Tampa Bay
  • Bruce Matthews (Offensive Line) - Tennessee
  • Howard Mudd (Offensive Line) - Philadelphia
  • Brian Murphy (Special Teams) - Carolina
  • Mike Priefer (Special Teams) - Minnesota
  • Darren Rizzi (Special Teams) - Miami
  • Jeff Rodgers (Special Teams) - Denver
  • Brad Seely (Special Teams) - San Francisco
  • Mike Sheppard (Quarterbacks) - Jacksonville
  • Mike Singletary (Linebackers) - Minnesota
  • Chris Tabor (Special Teams) - Cleveland
  • Dave Wannstedt (Linebackers) - Buffalo
  • Jim Washburn (Defensive Line) - Philadelphia
  • Jim Zorn (Quarterbacks) - Kansas City
  • Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to wood@footballguys.com.

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