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Summarizing the Potential Fantasy Impact of NFL Coaching Changes
Bob Cunningham

When it comes right down to it, players are players. They're either good, or they aren't. Coaching has little to do with it...

... Yeah, right. And Archie Manning is planning a trip to SeaWorld.

The obvious truth is that coaching philosophies have a significant impact on the performance of players. A wide receiver might be able to run a 4.2 40-yard dash and have hands of pure silk, but if his coach only calls for him to do 5-yard outs as a possession receiver, he's unlikely to pile up the yards and touchdowns required for him to be considered a valuable fantasy commodity. Conversely, a guy with average skills can evolve into a fantasy dynamo if he makes enough big plays. Former Oakland Raiders wideout James Jett, a speedster, was a pretty cool fantasy guy during the early 1990s despite the fact that he was a pretty lousy pass-catcher. That's because Al Davis instructed the Raiders' coaches to try at least three downfield bombs to Jett per game. About once every other week, Jett would haul in a lengthy TD. Over a full season, it equated to 1,000-plus yards and eight scores -- very solid fantasy stats.

Or take the Denver Broncos for instance. Head coach Mike Shanahan's track record for producing quality rushing attacks is uncanny. Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Clinton Portis... it just doesn't seem to matter who actually totes the rock. The Broncos will probably be among the rushing leaders again this season, whether it's new acquisition Garrison Hearst as the featured back, or just some stiff in a hearst.

So it behooves us to examine the plethora of off-season coaching changes in the NFL, and we're not just talking the head honchos. Perhaps even more important in some situations are changes in offensive and/or defensive coordinators. To cover our bases, we'll look at the new head coaches and coordinators for '04

ARIZONA CARDINALS: New head coach -- Dennis Green; New offensive coordinator -- Alex Wood; New defensive coordinator -- Clancy Pendergast.

The rap on Green during his extensive coaching career has been an inability to win the big one. Twice he guided the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game, and three other times into the playoffs, but failed to lead them to the Super Bowl. Those credentials, a bit disappointing to the Vikes' faithful, are excellent for a new Cardinals coach, because this is a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs five time... period. Green's hiring can't help but benefit the key players on offense. The Cardinals seem determined to go with young Josh McCown as their QB, even though it would probably make more sense to opt for a veteran such as Jeff Blake when the receiving corps is loaded with talented kids. Green and Wood worked well together at Minnesota to develop the skills of Daunte Culpepper, so there's reason for optimism that McCown can eventually blossom. First-round draft pick Larry Fitzgerald and incumbent young stud receiver Anquan Boldin should also benefit from Wood's hiring. Woods is a former running back but he's been more involved in the passing game during his coaching stints with the Vikings and Cincinnati. Pendergast is taking on the title of defensive coordinator for the first time, but he sports a successful track record as a secondary coach. The Cardinals have been so bad defensively for so long, it will be impossible to determine Pendergast's immediate potential impact until the team actually gets some talent on that side of the ball.

ATLANTA FALCONS: New head coach -- Jim Mora, Jr.; New offensive coordinator -- Greg Knapp; New defensive coordinator -- Ed Donatell.

Mora has been touted as a cerebral defensive coach throughout his career with San Francisco, but this is his first shot as the head man. He'll leave the offense to Knapp, whom he brought with him from the 49ers. Knapp is accustomed to working with QBs who like to scramble, going from Jeff Garcia to Michael Vick. So we can expect the new coordinator to allow Vick plenty of freelancing, in order to best take advantage of his extraordinary skills. The Falcons can probably be expected to throw a little more, because they don't feature a dominating rusher (T.J. Duckett is decent, but not All-Pro caliber). Donatell was the defensive coordinator for Green Bay, and his reputation is ultra-aggressive. The Packers have more takeaways the last three years combined that any other team, and they set teams records for turnovers forced and sacks last season. A similar impact on the Falcons could yield a boost to the fantasy numbers... but more big plays allowed might also follow.

BUFFALO BILLS: New head coach -- Mike Mularkey; New offensive coordinator -- Tom Clements.

Mularkey and Clements both were offensive coaches for Pittsburgh the last few years. Mularkey was the offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher the last three seasons, and the Steelers passing game flourished. Clements has a long track record as a QB coach, and with a Canadian Football League background could bring creativity to the offense that has been lacking. With veteran QB Drew Bledsoe and WR Eric Moulds at the core of the attack, the Bills new coaches can shift their focus to developing young talents such as first-round pick WR Lee Evans and emerging star RB Travis Henry, as well as 2003 pick Willis McGahee. The prediction is for the Buffalo passing attack to be more effective and consistent.

CHICAGO BEARS: New head coach - Lovie Smith; New offensive coordinator - Terry Shea; New defensive coordinator - Ron Rivera.

Smith has spent the last several years as defensive coordinator with the Rams, so we can dispense with something right now - Rivera's hiring is a comparative non-factor. This defense will be Smith's, meaning it will bend but not often break. It will go helter-skelter to get turnovers, and get beat for more big plays than a lot of units. It will throw a lot of pass rush schemes at teams, including corner and safety blitzes. Overall, Chicago's defense will keep the team in most games, with the star players like Brian Urlacher remaining stars. Shea has an impressive background, including the last three years as Kansas City's QB coach (the Chiefs offense has been outstanding during that time) and spent three years in the early 1990s as Bill Walsh's offensive coordinator at the University of Stanford. The consensus is that he's the right guy for young QB Rex Grossman, and if the Bears can manage a ground game the attack should develop rapidly.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: New offensive coordinator -- Terry Robiskie.

Robiskie is a veteran assistant coach and former running back for the Raiders. During his coaching stints with the Raiders, Washington and, for the last four years, the Browns, Robiskie has compiled a track record of spreading the wealth. Translated into a fantasy prospectus, it means that the Browns may be less likely to have individual standouts. RBs William Green and Lee Suggs may cancel each other out. And the Browns receiving corps has been balanced the last several seasons. Counting on a Browns individual offensive player to produce decent numbers, beyond QB Jeff Garcia, is a risky venture.

DETROIT LIONS: New defensive coordinator -- Dick Jauron.

Jauron was the head coach at Chicago the last five years. In 2002, his team was 13-3 and won the NFC North Division title. But in the other four years, the Bears were losers. To be fair, Chicago's troubles could be traced mostly to an impotent offense -- the defense has been fairly sturdy. With the Lions' D being so lousy in recent years, there's nowhere to go but up. And Jauron knows the offensive tendencies of the teams which Detroit will face twice per season.

GREEN BAY PACKERS: New defensive coordinator -- Bob Slowik.

Slowik has worked under departed DC Ed Donatell the last four years, so it's unlikely the Packers will go through a drastic change. It's likely, however, that the Pack will be less inclined to play the gambling type of schemes of the last few years that resulted in numerous forced turnovers... and big plays allowed. Slowik was the defensive coordinator for Chicago from 1993-98 and at Cleveland in '99, and the average rank of his units in yards allowed was 21st in the league, but in points allowed a respectable 14th.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: New defensive coordinator -- Gunther Cunningham.

In my opinion, this is one of the finest off-season hires in the league... and not just because of the new guy's brilliant surname. Cunningham didn't work out especially well as a head coach, and the accepted reason in NFL circles is because he simply didn't give a hoot about offense. He's a defensive-minded guy all the way, and his track record as a coordinator has been consistently superb. In fact, head coach Dick Vermeil is so confident in Cunningham's ability, he and the Chiefs brass made virtually no major personnel changes to a defensive unit that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in several categories last season. A mistake? Perhaps. But expect the Chiefs to be significantly improved under Cunningham's tutelage, and to continue to be among the best teams at takeaways.

MIAMI DOLPHINS: New offensive coordinator -- Chris Foerster.

Not sure, exactly, what it means that Foerster was head coach Dave Wannstedt's second choice. Joel Collier was promoted to offensive coordinator in January, but stepped down because of health reasons. Enter Foerster, whose background is tight ends and the offensive line -- he's coached the Indianapolis tight ends the last two years and prior to that spent six seasons as the O-line coach at Tampa Bay. All eight years were spent under head man Tony Dungy, so if Foerster has been influenced by Dungy, a conservative approach can be expected. That means plenty of Ricky Williams, not quite so much Chris Chambers and new acquisition David Boston. Bottom line -- this doesn't appear to be an "impact hiring."

MINNESOTA VIKINGS: New defensive coordinator -- Ted Cottrell.

This is a sound hire for the Vikes. Cottrell has a solid track record for the last three years in charge of the New York Jets' defense, and before that, three years with Buffalo. Cottrell units typically are effective at stopping the pass, something that has plagued Minnesota dating back to their playoff years in the late 1990s. The pass rush has been the key as Cottrell defenses have qualified for the playoffs six times in nine years. From 1997-99, his units were never ranked lower than sixth in total defense leaguewide, including No. 1 in 1998 at Buffalo. Cottrell was also the defensive coach who orchestrated the Jets' 41-0 blasting of Indianapolis in the 2002 AFC wild-card playoffs. The values of the Vikings' key defensive players tick up with Cottrell at the helm.

NEW YORK GIANTS: New head coach - Tom Coughlin; New offensive coordinator -- John Hufnagel; New defensive coordinator -- Tim Lewis.

Coughlin is a noteworthy change because of his disciplinarian tactics. His reputation is for grittiness, but his background is actually more affiliated with offense and creative gameplanning. As the head coach at Jacksonville, he guided the Jags to the playoffs twice including a berth in the 1996 AFC Title Game. Hufnagel was Coughlin's QB coach prior to last season, when he tutored Tom Brady and the champion New England Patriots quarterbacks. Expectations on the Giants offense should be tempered this season, with rookie Eli Manning or an aging veteran like free agent Kurt Warner possibly the starting QB from the get-go. That could mean a lot of carries for backs Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne. As the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh the last four seasons, Lewis' units twice paced the league in rushing defense. He is one of the more respected young coordinators in the game for his penchant to stop the run and create pressure on the quarterback. The Giants have maintained a solid defense the last several years. No reason to believe it won't remain effective under Lewis.

NEW YORK JETS: New defensive coordinator - Donnie Henderson.

The Jets will miss Ted Cottrell, who was hired by Minnesota, but in Henderson they acquire a coach who was integral in the success of the Baltimore Ravens secondary the last five years. With Henderson, the Jets' defensive emphasis may shift a little toward the secondary and away from the interior defenders. But the personnel in place is solid. The Jets' D, which played well down the stretch in 2003, is likely to remain a solid group. And the presence of head coach Herman Edwards will help assure the positive aspects of Cottrell's tenure will be maintained.

OAKLAND RAIDERS: New head coach - Norv Turner; New offensive coordinator - Jimmy Raye; New defensive coordinator - Rob Ryan.

Turner is an interesting choice by Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, because Turner is known for his somewhat intricate offensive innovations, and Davis just wants to throw deep, baby. But Davis knows that Turner is considered a brilliant football mind and he's had some success, primarily as the offensive coordinator for two Super Bowl champions at Dallas but also as the head man at Washington. The Raiders are coming off a poor season, but there is still talented personnel on offense and they got the best offensive linemen in the draft to build around up front. The offense will make a comeback, with Turner essentially serving as his own offensive coordinator even though veteran Jimmy Raye has also joined the staff. A more accurate job title for Raye would be "Rushing Coach." His primary duty will be getting the Silver-and-Black's ground game back in order after the departure of Charlie Garner. Turner will orchestrate the passing attack. Ryan has been the linebackers coach at New England the last four years, so he's been a part of two championship clubs. He's accustomed to an attacking style of defense with the Patriots, so it's likely he'll try to install a similar approach with the Raiders. With the Raiders, moreso than other franchise, it's about the attitude. That's why the acquisition of DT Warren Sapp is potentially huge.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: New offensive coordinator - Ken Whisenhunt; New defensive coordinator - Dick LeBeau.

Losing previous defensive coordinator Tim Lewis is a big blow, but having offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey take off at the same time could mean some trouble for the Steelers. Offensively, Tommy Maddox wasn't very good a year ago and now there's rookie Ben Roethlisberger waiting in the wings. Whisenhunt was the tight ends coach prior to the promotion. He's unproven as the man in charge of the offense. LeBeau, the former head coach at Cincinnati, is respected within the NFL, and is probably smart enough not to attempt drastic changes, but the Steelers will have a hard time duplicating the success they enjoyed under Lewis. If the Steelers were a stock on the exchange, the advice would be to sell.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: New defensive coordinator - Wade Phillips.

The question with the Chargers will be whether they have the players to be effective. The coaching won't be an issue. Phillips is a longtime sidelines veteran who has four seasons of head coaching experience, spending the last three as defensive coordinator under Dan Reeves at Atlanta. Phillips is partial to varied blitzing packages, but it's unclear if he plans to alter that strategy based on his personnel. The Falcons' defense wasn't particularly good during Phillips' stint, but it was young and mostly without impact players... much like the Chargers' D figures to be. With Phillips and head coach Marty Schottenheimer doing the yelling, the Chargers certainly won't be held back by coaching.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ers: New offensive coordinator - Ted Tollner; New defensive coordinator - Willy Robinson.

This franchise located on the West Coast and known for an offense of the same name... won't be. Tollner is not a West Coast Offense guru. What he is, however, is a coach with a long list of achievements when it comes to his teams effectively throwing the ball downfield. A former college head coach, he's long been noted for an even temperment that mixes with a cerebral approach to throwing the ball. With the 49ers likely to count on youngster Tim Rattay, Tollner would seem a good fit... as long as RB Kevan Barlow gets 25 touches a game, that is. Robinson has been coaching the Pittsburgh defensive backs the last four years, and prior to that worked with head coach Dennis Erickson at many of his previous stops including at Oregon State, where Robinson presided over the Pac-10's top-ranked defense in 1999. Robinson preaches aggressive play from the secondary. Ronnie Lott would like playing for him.

ST. LOUIS RAMS: New defensive coordinator - Larry Marmie.

Marmie is one of those coaches who's held several jobs over a long period of time, but hasn't really distinguished himself. Most recently, he was the defensive coordinator for Arizona for three years, coached the secondary the five seasons before that, and prior to joining the Cardinals was the head coach at Arizona State. With the Cardinals, Arizona's defense was considered very vanilla... scattered blitzes, mostly zone coverages, and a lot of points allowed. The personnel Marmie has to work with at St. Louis is far superior to what he had with the Cardinals, but it's unclear if that will translate into better performance.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS: New head coach - Joe Gibbs; New assistant head coach in charge of offense - Joe Bugel; New assistant head coach in charge of defense - Gregg Williams.

Although bringing back Gibbs is a brilliant move, trying to decipher just who will be responsible for what is tricky. Bugel and Williams are not the coordinators, in title. That would be Don Breaux on offense, Greg Blache on defense. They also have Ernie Zampese listed as an "offensive consultant" and Bill Lazor as an "offensive assistant." And get this... there's also a man in charge of "quality control - offense." And all of this is in addition to the individual position coaches. Say what? Sounds more like a pit crew than a coaching staff. Bottom line, though, is that everything about the Redskins can be expected to be better. The acquisition of RB Clinton Portis boosts the ground game, the trade for QB Mark Brunell helps the passing attack and gives promising Patrick Ramsey a little more time get a mental grasp of the game. Defensively, it is more of a crapshoot, because Williams has to check his ego at the door after being the head coach at Buffalo. The Redskins have a bunch of young talent, so someone among all these coaches should be able to step up and guide them to improvement. Redskins fans as well as owners of their players in fantasy leagues better hope it's not a case of too many chiefs...