Smith, Mora and Mularkey excited by new jobs

Lovie Smith, Jim Mora and Mike Mularkey are ready to jump into their first jobs as head coaches.

Updated: April 1, 2004, 5:02 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

For Norv Turner, Joe Gibbs and Dennis Green, the annual NFL meeting breakfast with the media was old hat. They've attended them so many times as experienced head coaches.

The morning one-hour sessions were a chance to refresh their contacts with those who cover them along with updating everyone on their experiences in returning to their roles in charge of organizations. But for Jim Mora of the Falcons, Mike Mularkey of the Bills and Lovie Smith of the Bears, this was all new.

Their ideas were fresh. Their energy was noticeable. Though they don't have the experience and success stories of their new peers, the three assistants promoted to head coaching positions had chances to discuss their new ventures.

Smith was just coming from his first Bears minicamp. The adjustment for Bears players was positive but, in some ways, shocking to their bodies. Like most new coaches, Smith wanted to make an instant impression.

Players could feel it in their legs. Smith made them run. Bringing the Bucs Cover 2 defense to Chicago and turning a defense built on bulk and power into a defense built on speed, Smith stressed conditioning drills.

"I (told) them that we don't want to be a fat team," Smith said. "We need to lose weight. We need to lose weight so we can get lighter."

One young Bear played right into Smith's hands during the first day of practices. Smith wanted the players to run a series of conditioning drills in a certain period of time. One young Bear missed his mark, forcing another run and players gave him a hard time. The next day, the entire squad made their times without incident.

The point was made.

Smith even had players test their body fat in a contraption known as a "Bod Pod," a water chamber that accurately analyzes body fat. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and cornerback Charles Tillman received glowing reviews from the Bod Pod even though Urlacher might be asked to lose a few extra pounds to add even more quickness and range.

One major change will occur along the defensive line, which once lined up with 360-plus pound Ted Washington and Keith Traylor in the middle. Under Smith, the Bears won't have many Monsters of the Midsection.

"Looking in the past, we haven't had a lot of guys over 300 pounds on our defenses," Smith said. "It's hard to have that type of size and have them run the way we want them to run during the course of a game."

What is interesting is that even though Smith is a defensive coach, all of the offseason acquisitions in Chicago have been on offense. Halfback Thomas Jones and fullback Bryan Johnson have been added in the backfield. John Tait and Ruben Brown joined the offensive line. Jonathan Quinn replaces Kordell Stewart and Chris Chandler at backup quarterback.

"I thought on the defensive side of the ball, I can't say it was complete but I thought we had more players on the defensive side," Smith said. "I thought the offense is what we had to address right away. That's what we've done. Also, it was an area in free agency we thought we could get the right players."

Smith feels as though the back seven on defense -- the secondary and linebacking corps -- fit the type of players that he needs.

"We still need to make a few more moves, but up front, we have to redo our defensive line," Smith said. "It has to do with the kind of athletes we are playing with."

Smith needs a double-digit sack specialist at defensive end. He needs a disruptive force at defensive tackle. Right now, he can't expect more than 5½ sacks from his best defensive end. He needs at least 11.

Jim Mora, the former 49ers defensive coordinator, has taken over the league's worst defense, but he has focused more on the offense as well. A year ago, he would have been screaming about the NFL directive to call more illegal contact and interference penalties.

But being the Falcons head coach has changed him for the moment.

"It's difficult for me having a defensive background, but we've got the ability offensively to be pretty good, so these rules sound a little better to me this year than they might've last year," Mora said laughing slightly. "I called (offensive coordinator) Greg Knapp and said, 'Hey, this is great. They're really going to enforce the 5-yard rule.' And last year I was saying, 'Push it to the limit. If you can hit them eight yards down the field, and they're not going to call it, do it.' I like this rule a little better than I thought."

Mora is bright and understands NFL trends. He made a huge move by picking up offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and gave him the freedom to revamp the running game and pass blocking. Gibbs came to him with a couple names to add the roster -- former Broncos guard Steve Herndon and former Lions guard Eric Beverly.

"Really, what he'll do is identify his type of guy," Mora said. "A lot of times, his type of guy is one you don't necessarily draft with your first- or second-round pick. Now, if there's a guy who's really special, and he's sitting there, you're not going to say don't draft him. But Alex has a certain type of player he likes, a certain mental makeup and presence that he likes to coach. He's unique in that most coaches just fight for players. They want volume. Alex is not like that. There's a certain type of player he wants, and he goes after that type of player."

Gibbs only likes to dress seven linemen instead of eight. He's willing to go with unknown Kevin Shaffer at left tackle instead of longtime stud Bob Whitfield. In the meantime, Mora has Knapp working on making quarterback Michael Vick a 60-percent passer in the West Coast offense.

"The West Coast offense is perfect for Mike," Mora said. "The version that we run requires a mobile quarterback who has accuracy on the run. Mike has great mobility and tremendous accuracy on the run. You look at the quarterbacks who thrived in that system, starting with Joe Montana and then Steve Young and Jeff Garcia, the one characteristic they all had was accuracy on the run. Then, they had to be good decision makers, which is part of the process of maturation Mike is going through right now."

Mularkey, meanwhile, is doing his own work at quarterback. He's been hired to revitalize the career of quarterback Drew Bledsoe. It's becoming clear this is a make or break year for Bledsoe, who is due a $7 million option bonus at the end of the season.

If Bledsoe doesn't get it done this year, Mularkey may be grooming another quarterback for the future. The Bills could take Philip Rivers in the first round but they believe he will be drafted before they pick at No. 13. If that's the case, they might take a quarterback in the second round.

Mularkey met with Bledsoe two weeks after he was hired and talked about his role with the Bills.

"The old saying is you can't teach an old dog new tricks," Mularkey said. "You can teach a guy with his experience something that will make him more effective. If there's anybody who can do it I think Sam Wyche is the guy. He is very detail oriented. He has coached some great quarterbacks. Everything from the huddle to the snap to the whistle, he is talking these guys through everything."

Bledsoe tends to sit in the pocket and get creamed. To adapt, Mularkey wants Bledsoe to release the ball on his fifth step.

"Some of that is in the design of the play," Mularkey said. "On his fifth step, he's got to let it go. Some of the scheme will almost force him to get the ball out of his hands quicker. I'm not going to say anything about the system or last year. I have a different philosophy on how to attack, and I think (offensive coordinator) Tom Clements has the same one, which is why I feel comfortable with Tom calling the plays. He has seen it be effective. I think it improved Kordell Stewart's play. It improved Tommy Maddox's play. I think it will help Drew."

Even though Mora, Smith and Mularkey have been career assistants, they sounded like experienced coaches at the meeting this week.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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