Time is not on their side

Dead men walking; we know only this much about the newly hired NFL head coaches: time is not on their side

Mike Stokes

JOB SECURITY AMONG NFL head coaches is more tenuous than ever. New head coaches are faced with the daunting task of taking a roster they had no hand in shaping and turning it into a winning combination almost overnight. In some cases, only a championship will suffice.

Not too terribly long ago, the head coach was king, reigning over his team for an era, drafting soldiers to do battle in his 100 yards war. The coach would craft his team in his own image, on a solid foundation of character, tradition, and trust.

But in the current climate of corporate-style ownership, head coach is little more than a consultant stepping in to diagnose a problem that may take several years to correct.

The problem is, the guy who hired him needs it fixed right now so he can compete for the Super Bowl in January and pass the stadium referendum in November.

And if the coach fails? He’s replaced quicker than a kicker with vertigo. The following is a look at the newly hired coaches. (At presstime, mercurial Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis hadn’t hired a coach. It’s a safe bet, however, that his final choice won’t last long.)

Head coach: JOHN FOX Team: CAROLINA PANTHERS

Reason for hope: Carolina could have named Dustin “Screech” Diamond as its new head coach and, at worst, finished with only one fewer win than George Seifert was able to muster last season. In 2002, the Panthers play a last-place schedule, taking on patsies such as the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Cincinnati Bengals, and Arizona Cardinals. Ol’ Screech might have even won a game or two with that draw. Instead, it will be former New York Giants defensive coordinator John Fox trying to lead Carolina back to respectability. And you know what? With such a favorable schedule, Fox actually has an outside chance of turning the pathetic Panthers into postseason contenders in his first year as a head coach.

Reason to worry: The Panthers are a mess. Fox inherits the league’s worst defense, its second-worst offense, a 15-game losing streak, and a second-year quarterback old enough to have played for the original Cleveland Browns. Fox has so much work to do to turn this team around, frustration may get the best of him.

Odds of lasting more than two years: Excellent. Fox is the perfect man for a franchise in desperate need of a breath of fresh air. He’s a charismatic throw-back with an old-school approach to the game that players and fans will respond to. More importantly, unlike Carolina’s top two choices for the job, Steve Spurrier and Tony Dungy, Fox is not expected to turn this team around overnight. That will buy him some time to truly rebuild the Panthers rather than scramble to find a quick fix.

Head coach: JON GRUDEN Team: TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Reason for hope: Despite the trials and tribulations Tampa Bay endured in trying to land a new head coach, the offensive-minded Gruden may be just what the offensively stunted Buccaneers need to reach the next level. Gruden led the Oakland Raiders to the AFC Championship Game in 2000 and was a non-fumble away from the feat in 2001.

Reason to worry: Executive vice presidents Joel, Bryan, and Edward Glazer (a.k.a. the owner’s kids) have enough egg on their faces to make omelets for every Jimmy Buffett fan in Florida. After Bill Parcells told them to take a long walk off a short plank, the Glazer kids didn’t exactly instill confidence in anyone around them. In all, they are said to have talked with as many as eight different coaches before going back and getting their original second choice, Gruden. Along the way, they waffled on some candidates and were rejected by others, and they alienated respected Buccaneers general manager Rich McKay by vetoing his decision to hire former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to lead the team. When the dust settled, the aging Buccaneers had to sacrifice a slew of high-round draft picks over the next three years to land Gruden.

Odds of lasting more than two years: Excellent. With a 38-26 record in four seasons as a head coach, the 38-year-old Gruden is a prodigy who just wins, baby. After surviving for four seasons under meddlesome Oakland owner Al Davis, Moe, Larry, and Shemp Glazer should be a snap.

Head coach: TONY DUNGY Team: INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Reason for hope: Dungy must be waking up every morning and pinching himself to make sure this is isn’t just a wonderful dream. After six years on the Buccaneers spent agonizing over offensive schemes to complement his ferocious defense, Dungy suddenly finds himself presiding over the highest-scoring team in the AFC. If he can work his magic and revamp the Indianapolis defense to resemble the defensive juggernaut he built in Tampa, his Colts could win a Super Bowl while they’re young. Maybe a couple of them.

Reason to worry: The defensive juggernaut Dungy built is still in Tampa. The defensive jugheads he now leads are truly offensive, allowing a league-high 486 points last season. Since championship teams traditionally score more points than they allow, the electrifying Colts’ disappointing 6-10 record seems less like an aberration and more like a real problem.

Odds of lasting more than two years: Above average. Dungy is a class act not prone to public meltdowns. He also has a five-year contract and a track record of success. With his close friend and professional mentor, Tom Moore, already coordinating the Indianapolis offense, Dungy can concentrate his efforts on the defense and seize the opportunity to improve on his 2-4 postseason record. He may even be able to lure some of his former defensive players away from the Land of Early Bird Dinners to help fill the gaping holes.

Head coach: MARTY SCHOTTENHEIMER Team: SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Reason for hope: Schottenheimer has got to be smiling. Dumped by Washington after one year on the job for refusing to give up control over player personnel decisions, Schottenheimer will continue to collect a paycheck from the Redskins for the next three seasons while he coaches in sunny San Diego. Schottenheimer, whose .619 winning percentage ranks second among active coaches with any measurable NFL tenure, is also returning to the division where he had his most successful years, as coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. And while he has traditionally looked like a lame duck in the playoffs with a 5-11 record, the Chargers haven’t seen the postseason as anything other than spectators since 1995. Right now, they’d be thrilled if the wily old coach could just get them there.

Reason to worry: Schottenheimer is walking into a quarterback controversy, with veteran fan favorite Doug Flutie and talented youngster Drew Brees competing for snaps. The present Chargers are also a far cry from the past Chiefs, going 23-57 over the past five years. If San Diego continues to fizzle, Schottenheimer may be tempted to stuff his trunk full of Daniel Snyder’s money and drive south to Tijuana.

Odds of lasting more than two years: Average. There are worse things to have than two good quarterbacks. Schottenheimer also has a solid running back in LaDainian Tomlinson, a respected general manager in John Butler, and the mild climate of San Diego to give him reason to stay. He’s also one heckuva coach.

Head coach: STEVE SPURRIER Team: WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Reason for hope: He is the guy everyone wanted to hire. Heralded as one of the most imaginative offensive minds in the game, Spurrier has opted to take the reins of one of the most sluggish teams in the NFL. Although Washington averaged only 16 points per game last season, the team still managed to win eight times thanks largely to a stingy defense that will only get stronger now that it’s being directed by former Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. If Spurrier can bring to this team the innovation and inspiration that defined his illustrious collegiate career, the Redskins should be a lock to make their first postseason appearance since 1999.

Reason to worry: Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is like that annoying neighbor who brags about the price tag of his new car, pesters you to take a ride with him to see how great it handles, and then skids into a fire hydrant and hits you up for cab fare to get back to where you started. Instead of cars, however, Snyder collects players and coaches. He spares no expense in hiring the biggest names to lead his Redskins, watches them sputter out of control by midseason, and then raises ticket prices to cover the cost of his new acquisitions. Making Spurrier the highest-paid coach in the league will cost general admission fans an extra four dollars per ticket. Snyder is also a notorious control-freak, and while Spurrier says that doesn’t bother him, the transition from a Gainesville god to a SnyderCorp employee will be bumpy.

Odds of lasting more than two years: Slim. Just ask Marty Schottenheimer, who was fired after only one year on the job. Snyder has already hedged his bet by hiring Lewis, another top headcoaching candidate, who could step in if Spurrier stumbles. Spurrier worked wonders at Duke and Florida, but college success doesn’t always translate into wins in the NFL ranks, and the impatient Snyder wants a Lombardi trophy, like, yesterday.

Head coach: MIKE TICE Team: MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Reason for hope: There were more puzzled looks in Minnesota when Mike Tice was named head coach of the Vikings than when Jesse Ventura was elected governor of the state. Unlike professional wrestlers, offensive line coaches aren’t typically household names, which should explain some of the mystery surrounding Tice. A company man, Tice has spent the past six seasons as an assistant in Minnesota. Popular among the players, he is an emotional guy who is expected to light a fire under a team loaded with offensive weaponry but mired in controversy and lethargy. Among his first steps as the new sheriff in town was firing the offensive, defensive, and special teams coordinators. Tice seems to be taking charge right out of the gate.

Reason to worry: Minnesota is a team in disarray. Fans got a preview of Tice last year when he replaced longtime Vikings head coach Dennis Green, who was abruptly fired with one game left in the season. The Vikings need a larger-than-life coach along the lines of a Bill Parcells or a Jimmy Johnson to combat the larger-than-life egos that seem to be running rampant in Minnesota. Time will tell if Tice is the man who can keep Randy Moss from taking on-field coffee breaks, but until Minnesota gets a defense and a running game, no one else really wants the job.

Odds of lasting more than two years: Slim to none. While the Vikings as an organization have a reputation for keeping head coaches, it seemed like the inmates were running the asylum last season. And, remember, Tice was part of that meltdown as an assistant coach. Don’t be surprised if Tice turns out to be a short-term sacrificial lamb while Minnesota’s front office formulates a long-term plan.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group