Commentary

Mystery Men: New head coaches share unheralded backgrounds

The new coaching hires in Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta and Miami share one trait: Each is a greenhorn running an NFL team. Patrick Yasinskas analyzes their prospects for success and failure.

Originally Published: February 12, 2008
By Pat Yasinskas | ESPN.com

Soon after firing Brian Billick, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said he was beginning a search for the next Hall of Fame coach.

Bisciotti interviewed just about all the "hot" coordinators and gave at least some thought to veteran Marty Schottenheimer before taking what, until recently, was the most unconventional of routes. Bisciotti hired John Harbaugh, who never had been a head coach on any level. Harbaugh hadn't even been a coordinator, most recently working as a defensive backs coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Harbaugh's biggest claim to fame was that he did a nice job coaching Philadelphia's special teams for nine years before switching to the secondary last season. Maybe that doesn't sound like the résumé of a coach bound for Canton, Ohio. But if there's a potential Hall of Famer among the NFL's four new hires this year, it will be Harbaugh or somebody with a similar unheralded background.

The Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons each hired first-time NFL head coaches. Only new Atlanta coach Mike Smith came straight out of a coordinator's job last season, and his name probably was less known to the average fan than Washington's Jim Zorn and Miami's Tony Sparano.

Experience might not be their strong point, but they all have chances to succeed:

Jim Zorn, Redskins

Jim Zorn

Zorn

Why he might succeed: Zorn's the best bet to have immediate success and the reason for that has nothing to do with his abilities. Zorn is inheriting a playoff team that got hot in the second half of last season. Joe Gibbs did a nice job of assembling a talented roster and the Redskins were smart to keep most of his coaching staff in place. Zorn also is expected to work well with Vinny Cerrato, who runs the front office. Lot of the parts of a contender are already in place.

Why he might fail: There's a school of thought that Zorn was hired because he'll be a puppet for owner Dan Snyder and Cerrato and that's a legitimate concern. At times, Snyder has looked like a fantasy football player, signing big names to big contracts without worrying about chemistry or consequences. Zorn, who was first hired as Washington's offensive coordinator a few weeks ago, had never been a coordinator before. He didn't even get to choose most of his staff because Snyder took care of that before hiring a head coach. Zorn, a former NFL quarterback, is going to have to step into this huddle forcibly and win over his roster and his staff.

John Harbaugh, Ravens

John Harbaugh

Harbaugh

Why he might succeed: Bisciotti isn't as hands-on as Snyder or Atlanta owner Arthur Blank. This is not a situation like Miami's, where Bill Parcells will be running the front office and looking over Sparano's shoulder. Harbaugh will have the most autonomy of any of the new coaches. But he's got some valuable assets in place with general manager Ozzie Newsome and a talented defense led by coordinator Rex Ryan, who was passed over for the head coaching job.

Why he might fail: Billick was fired because he lost the locker room, but his biggest shortcoming in Baltimore was that he never developed a balanced and consistent offense. The Ravens struggled with Steve McNair and Kyle Boller at quarterback last season. Harbaugh doesn't have an offensive background, but his first move should be finding a franchise quarterback. There already have been rumblings about the Ravens trading for Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb. Maybe that happens and maybe it doesn't, but Harbaugh needs to quickly develop an offense with some identity or else these will be the same old Ravens. In addition, Harbaugh has to be on the same page with Ryan to unite the defense.

Tony Sparano, Dolphins

Tony Sparano

Sparano

Why he might succeed: The biggest thing Sparano has going for him is that expectations are incredibly low after Cam Cameron coached the Dolphins to a 1-15 record. That will help because it's going to take time to overhaul a roster like Miami's. Sparano's a disciple of Parcells and he's going to try to win with good defense and a running game. If the Dolphins can get running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams healthy, there's hope. Sparano showed in Dallas he can work wonders with an offensive line and new offensive coordinator Dan Henning helped the Carolina Panthers reach the Super Bowl with an aging Stephen Davis running behind mediocre talent up front.

Why he might fail: The Dolphins don't have a quarterback and there's no guarantee that Brown or Williams can stay healthy enough to carry this offense. Parcells will be very aggressive and the Dolphins will make lots of changes. But it's going to take more than one offseason to bring this roster up to Parcells' standards. The problem with that is Parcells never has been known for having a lot of patience.

Mike Smith, Falcons

Mike Smith

Smith

Why he might succeed: He's not Bobby Petrino and that's a great start. A former Jacksonville defensive coordinator, Smith already has scored points in the locker room because, unlike Petrino, he at least talks to his players. There is some individual talent on the defensive side and, if Smith can unite the defense, the Falcons at least can be competitive. Smith's best move so far has been assembling a staff that includes Mike Mularkey, Terry Robiskie and Emmitt Thomas.

Why he might fail: The front office also is untested (new general manager Thomas Dimitroff was as obscure as Smith) and Blank has a tendency to be a little meddlesome. With Michael Vick in a federal penitentiary and Warrick Dunn near the end of his career, the offense needs something to hang its hat on.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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