FANTASY FOOTBALL ARTICLES

Head Coach Changes and the Fantasy Football Impact
John Tuvey
July 11, 2012
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Fantasy football owners love the continuing rise of offensive production in the NFL, but actual NFL owners are singing a different tune; at least, that's the message they're sending with their hiring practices. Of the seven new head coaches in 2012, five of them have spent most or all of their coaching career on the defensive side of the chalkboard. But just because these coaching changes skew defensive doesn't mean there's nothing for fantasy owners to see here. Each new coach will have a voice in the offense his team runs, and each picked an offensive coordinator to help carry out that plan.

Here's a rundown of the seven new NFL head coaches for the upcoming season, along with their offensive coordinators and how these changes affect your fantasy football rankings heading into 2012.

Offensive Coordinator Impact »     Defensive Coordinator Impact »

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Chuck Pagano comes to the Colts with almost three decades of coaching experience—all of it on the defensive side of the ball. To this point his primary contribution to the offense is talking up Donald Brown; the very next day Indy brought in free agent running back Mewelde Moore, reuniting him with his former offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. That OC, Bruce Arians, is the more important person fantasy-wise in this regime change.

Arians was relieved of his duties in Pittsburgh following a season in which the Steelers ranked 12th in total yards and ninth in first downs but only 21st in points scored. Like Pagano, Arians is considered aggressive and eventually he’ll rebuild the finesse Colts into a more physical unit. In Year One, however, he doesn’t really have the backfield to do so, forcing him to make do with Brown and Moore and Delone Carter.

Arians also claims to prefer a balanced approach, but his track record suggests a slight favoritism for the passing game; the typical Arians offense throws the ball 500 times and runs in 400 times. He’s also tended to be a bit more vertical, or at least WR-reliant, than his colleagues, but again he lacks the personnel. The Colts did add a pair of tight ends in rookies Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, suggesting an offense that more closely resembles what the Patriots have been running than what Arians was doing with Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace in Pittsburgh.

Bottom line, Arians and Pagano will start from scratch to build an aggressive new personality for their Colts. There may not be much fantasy value here initially, but there’s a reason Roethlisberger was upset to see Arians depart; that bodes well for Andrew Luck’s development as an NFL quarterback.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Jacksonville’s offense last season was Maurice Jones-Drew and… well, that’s about it. The passing game, under the direction of rookie Blaine Gabbert, was downright pathetic. So rather than ditch their 2011 first-round draft pick the Jaguars brought in a pair of coaches with successful track records in quarterback development.

Mike Mularkey, whose resume includes a stint as the Bills’ head coach as well as offensive coordinator duties for the Steelers, Dolphins, and most recently Falcons, takes over for Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville. The expectation is that he’ll institute an offense similar to what he ran in Atlanta, as the Jaguars’ personnel fits the single-back, run-first, play-action scheme.

Mularkey’s offenses have historically been quite balanced; the issue in Atlanta was that his scheme wasn’t adjusting to make use of the Falcons’ changing personnel. But in Jacksonville Jones-Drew can shoulder the same workload Michael Turner was getting, with only Laurent Robinson—not Julio Jones and Roddy White, like in Atlanta—to worry about feeding in the passing game. Moreover, Mularkey receives at least some of the credit for helping Matt Ryan develop, and the hope in Jacksonville is that he can have a similar impact on Gabbert.

To that end Mularkey has enlisted a familiar face: Bob Bratkowski, whom Mularkey worked with in Pittsburgh as well as last season in Atlanta when Bratkowski was the Falcons’ quarterback coach. Bratkowski is expected to call the plays, as he did during his tenure as offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, and historically he’s been slightly more pass-happy than Mularkey. Specifically Bratkowski favors play-action and rolling his quarterback out of the pocket, which benefits the Jaguars two ways: first, it plays off of Jones-Drew, the team’s primary weapon; second, it gets Gabbert moving and helps him avoid the skittishness in the pocket that plagued his rookie campaign.

Bratkowski also has experience working with wide receivers; don’t expect Robinson to put up Chad Johnson numbers, but at least there’s reason for optimism. As for Jones-Drew, he’ll continue to be the driving force behind the Jacksonville offense; both Mularkey (with Turner in Atlanta) and Bratkowski (with Cedric Benson in Cincy) know how to feed their bell cow running back.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Romeo Crennel was the players’ choice in Kansas City, but save for a decade as the Giants’ special teams coach all of his 40-plus seasons of coaching experience have been spent on the defensive side of the ball. So Crennel will put the Chiefs’ offense in the hands of Brian Daboll, who has spent the past three seasons calling plays for the Browns (2009-2010) and Dolphins (2011).

What was it about a Cleveland offense that ranked 29th and 31st in points under Daboll, or a Miami attack that ranked 20th in points last season, that made him the appealing hire? Hard to say. Daboll did oversee 1,000-yard seasons from Peyton Hillis in 2010 and Reggie Bush last year, and he’ll be reunited with Hillis in KC this season. With an almost 50/50 run/pass split during his three seasons as an offensive coordinator Daboll should be able to find touches for both Hillis and Jamaal Charles, much like he did last year when Bush (259) and Daniel Thomas (177) operated at roughly a 60/40 split.

In Dwayne Bowe, Jon Baldwin, and Steve Breaston the Chiefs certainly have more passing-game firepower than Daboll is accustomed to, and Matt Cassel is (in theory) a quarterback upgrade over Matt Moore, Chad Henne, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brady Quinn, and Derek Anderson—all of whom started at least two games for Daboll over the past three seasons. It’s tough to write off Daboll’s prowess in coordinating a passing game given those restrictions, but the initial expectations are for the Chiefs to remain a run-first attack. However, his familiarity with Hillis and the 60/40 split he used in Miami last season suggest that Charles owners are destined for yet another frustrating season when it comes to the touches their player receives.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Speaking of Miami, the Dolphins were one of just two teams (the Jaguars being the other) who opted to fill their coaching vacancy with an offensive-minded leader. Joe Philbin, who has spent the past nine years in Green Bay including the last five as their offensive coordinator, takes over an offense almost entirely devoid of firepower.

And while Philbin brings an impeccable track record with him—the Packers ranked in the top 10 in total yards and total points each of his five seasons at the helm—he’s not bringing Aaron Rodgers. Instead, the Dolphins will have Matt Moore, David Garrard, and rookie Ryan Tannehill competing for the starting gig with the expectation that Tannehill is the franchise quarterback of the future. To that end, Philbin added Tannehill’s college coach, Mike Sherman, as Miami’s offensive coordinator.

Sherman and Philbin have a long history together dating back to when Philbin was a student in Sherman’s prep school English class. Both have run variations of the West Coast offense, and that will be the base model for the Dolphins’ offensive scheme. Philbin cut his teeth as an offensive line coach, and he’ll use a zone blocking scheme that fits well with Reggie Bush’s speed and cutting ability. Sherman also has a track record of running the football, with an almost 50/50 split (nine more rushes than passes) at Texas A&M over the past three seasons.

Philbin also indicated that part of the reason the Dolphins were comfortable trading away Brandon Marshall is that his offense doesn’t have a WR1—all the receivers are interchangeable, and the offense isn’t predicated on force-feeding one primary target. That means Brian Hartline and Devon Bess will be seeing plenty of targets, through sheer volume quietly producing helpful fantasy numbers. And Philbin’s experience as a tight ends coach, coupled with the value the WCO typically puts on the position and what Jermichael Finley has produced the past few seasons in Green Bay, bodes well for the prospects of similarly athletic rookie Michael Egnew.

Ultimately, Philbin and Sherman will be judged by how Tannehill develops. Familiarity with the scheme and the coach gives him a leg up, but you have to believe that for at least the first season the Dolphins will rely more on Bush and the ground game while their quarterback situation comes into focus.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

The latest installment of Oakland’s seemingly annual coaching change puts Dennis Allen in the driver’s seat. All of Allen’s experience as a player and coach comes on the defensive side of the ball, so in a bit of déjà vu Allen has turned the offense over to Greg Knapp—formerly the Raiders’ OC in 2007 and 2008.

While Knapp comes from the West Coast offense coaching tree, having worked with the likes of Mike Shanahan and Steve Mariucci, it’s his time with Gary Kubiak and the run-heavy Texans that will most shape this edition of the Oakland attack. Knapp’s pedigree is decidedly run-heavy: his offenses have ranked in the top 10 in rushing in eight of his nine seasons at the helm, seven of them in the top six. He’ll employ a zone blocking scheme that should play to the strengths of both Darren McFadden and, when McFadden suffers the inevitable injury, speedy backup Taiwan Jones.

Knapp previously interviewed for the Raiders’ head coaching job and had an opportunity to discuss offensive philosophies with the late Al Davis; he’s well aware of the long-standing Oakland tradition of going deep. And while Knapp’s offenses will still take the occasional deep shot, those shots are more likely to come off of play action. The basis of the passing game will be shorter, which should favor the more versatile Darrius Heyward-Bey over deep threats like Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford—though there’s something to be said for what speedy receivers can do with a slant pattern and a head of steam.

This offense also needs a tight end to step up; Brandon Myers sits atop the depth chart, but the player to watch might be David Ausberry, an athletic converted wideout.

But the best news about this offense might be that it doesn’t necessarily require McFadden to stay healthy. When you consider that the average Knapp offense produces nearly 500 rushing attempts per season, and that Run DMC has topped 113 rushes just once in four NFL seasons, it’s a given that there will be at least one other Raider back relied upon for productivity this season. Optimistically give McFadden 250 carries and there’s an opportunity for Jones or Mike Goodson—or maybe both—to have a Ben Tate-like fantasy impact. After all, the one thing Knapp offenses have done consistently is run the ball effectively.

SAINT LOUIS RAMS

The Rams went big in their coaching search, wooing Jeff Fisher out of his one-year retirement to take over in St. Louis. Fisher is a defensive guy by trade, and he freely admitted in his opening press conference in St. Louis that his offense would be conservative—as if 17 run-first seasons in Tennessee wasn’t proof enough.

Fortunately for Fisher he found a kindred spirit in Brian Schottenheimer, who was recently relieved of his duties in New York after six seasons as the Jets’ offensive coordinator. Schottenheimer’s run/pass ratio is actually even more run-heavy than Fisher’s, though both run very close to a 50/50 split. More evidence of this duo’s preference for the ground game: in a combined 23 years of work (Fisher’s 17 as a head coach plus Schottenheimer’s six as the Jets’ OC), their teams ranked in the top 10 in rushing yardage 11 times and in the top five six times, with an average rank of 11th; over that same span their teams ranked in the top 10 in passing yardage just thrice, with an average rank of 19th.

Obviously, Steven Jackson will remain the workhorse in this offense but the addition of rookie Isaiah Pead gives Schottenheimer another back to handle the almost 500 rushing attempts his teams average. More than just a dynasty pick as the heir to Jackson, Pead should see significant touches in his first NFL season.

Fisher also noted in his initial presser that his offense would be Sam Bradford-friendly, something a quarterback facing his third OC in as many seasons has to appreciate. Schottenheimer is a West Coast disciple, but something closer to the Air Coryell version that takes vertical shots off of play action rather than the Bill Walsh dink-and-dunk. Bradford put up decent numbers in the WCO as a rookie before struggling with Josh McDaniels’ system last year, so he won’t be starting completely from scratch. And wide receiver Danny Amendola reported after OTAs that Schottenheimer’s version of the WCO is more aggressive. Now the Rams have to find receivers (Brian Quick? Brandon Gibson? Danario Alexander?) to get down the field for those occasional shots.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Greg Schiano comes to the Buccaneers from the college ranks, and like most of this year’s class of new coaches the bulk of his experience has been on the defensive side of the ball. However, after a decade running the show at Rutgers he’s at least aware of the bigger picture and early on he indicated he would have his fingerprints on the offensive game plan. Specifically, Schiano’s Bucs will bust out of the WCO mode that has ruled Tampa Bay for a decade to be a conservative, run-first team that takes the occasional shot down the field.

The personnel Schiano acquired this offseason speak directly to the stylistic change. Free agent wide receiver Vincent Jackson gives the team a deep threat that has been missing, while rookie running back Doug Martin will augment if not replace LeGarrette Blount in the ground game. The Bucs also spent free agent money on guard Carl Nicks, one of the league’s top run blockers, to give further proof as to the team’s commitment to the run.

In addition to the style change dictated by Schiano, the Bucs also found themselves a quarterback mentor for Josh Freeman in new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. Sullivan spent the last two seasons developing Eli Manning, and the hope is he can induce in Freeman the same 25 percent across-the-board jump in productivity he squeezed out of Eli in just two seasons of work. Sullivan has no track record as a play-caller, but he talked about the influences of Giants OC Kevin Gilbride and head coach Tom Coughlin so use the Giants as the model—and more likely the 2010 version that ranked sixth in the league in rushing with 2,200 yards as opposed to last year’s unit that ranked 32nd with just 1,427 rushing yards.

Another sign the WCO is a thing of the past in Tampa Bay: the departure of tight end Kellen Winslow, who didn’t even make it to OTAs before being traded to Seattle. While a pass-catching tight end is a staple of the WCO, Sullivan’s new offense didn’t need Winslow, his creaky knees, or the excess attitude that came with the package. On the bright side, the team-leading 75 catches and 783 yards Winslow produced last year is now up for grabs.


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