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2008 Head Coaching Changes and Their Fantasy Impact
John Tuvey
June 12, 2008
Offensive Coordinator Changes »
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Atlanta Falcons

Mike Smith - From Jacksonville DC to Atlanta HC
Mike Mullarky - From Miami TE Coach (ex-Pittsburgh OC and ex-Miami OC) to Atlanta OC

Smith brings a decidedly defensive pedigree to the Falcons, having picked up a Super Bowl ring as defensive line coach for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens’ and spent the last five years working with the highly-regarded Jaguars defense.  And while he hasn’t been a head coach at any level of his 26-year coaching career, the nearly universal sentiment amongst former players and colleagues is that he’s thorough, organized, and well-prepared for the task. Moreover, he seems ready to put his unique personal stamp on a team desperately searching for a new identity.

“As head coach my offensive philosophy is real simple,” Smith told the team’s official web site earlier this offseason. “We’re going to be a very physical football team. We’re going to control the line of scrimmage both offensively and defensively. I think when you control the line of scrimmage you have an opportunity to make the offense or the defense one-dimensional. In terms of us being able to run the football, that’s what we want to be able to do offensively. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to throw the football, but we want to establish the line of scrimmage and run the football first.”

Uh, doesn’t take much reading between the lines there to figure out the game plan.

The good news is, the Falcons seem to be stocking the cupboards with players who can carry out Smith’s plan. Michael Turner will play the Jerome Bettis role in Mularkey’s “Exotic Smashmouth” offense, a scheme the Steelers used with great success in 2001 and 2002 while Mularkey was their offensive coordinator. And, after beginning the transition last year the Falcons can potentially field an offensive line of all 300-plus pounders—including left tackle Sam Baker, the second of Atlanta’s two first-round picks in April’s draft. While still a work in progress, this unit should have time to develop while Chris Redman takes some lumps and be ready to protect top pick and new face of the franchise Matt Ryan when his time comes.

Smith has pointed out that he and Mularkey “share the same philosophies on the offensive side of the ball,” and that philosophy starts with a power running game. Under Mularkey’s tutelage, the Steelers led the NFL with 174 rushing yards per game in 2001, and though the Falcons lack the line to put up such a gaudy number you can bet Turner and the rushing attack will be the team’s offensive focal point. The Falcons’ addition of tight end Ben Hartsock via free agency is notable, though not necessarily from a fantasy perspective; the role Hartsock will fill is that of former Steelers tight end Mark Bruener, who was renown far more for his blocking than his receiving. With the offensive line still a work in progress you can expect plenty of two-tight end sets, with Hartsock and Martrez Milner or rookie Keith Zinger helping up front. Fullback Ovie Mughelli, underused by the departed Bobby Petrino last year, will also help Turner find daylight.

With multiple “skill” positions devoted to blocking, Atlanta’s passing game might be considered an afterthought. However, that same season the Steelers led the NFL in rushing they also produced two 1,000-yard receivers. Not that Roddy White and Laurent Robinson (or Michael Jenkins or rookie Harry Douglas) are in the same class as Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, but there is at least a modicum of potential here. Consider that under Mularky in 2001 and 2002 nearly three-quarters of their completions went to wide receivers; last year Falcons wideouts combined for slightly less than 60 percent of Atlanta’s completions. What chances Mularkey does take, he takes downfield—great news for White, coming off a 1,202-yard season last year, and Robinson, expected to supplant Joe Horn in the Falcons’ lineup.

Whither Alge Crumpler? Don’t fret for the Falcons, who signed Hartsock to replace the departed tight end. And while Mularkey is a former tight end himself he doesn’t necessarily favor throwing to the position; in 01 and 02 combined Steeler tight ends caught just 42 balls for 736 yards and six touchdowns. Hartsock and company will block for Turner first and catch only if the downfield options aren’t available.

Of course, Mularkey is well known for pulling out more than the occasional gimmick play— the halfback pass, the tight end reverse, etc.—from his bag of tricks. Falcons fans can expect to see at least a couple trick plays a game—just enough to keep defenses from loading up 11 defenders to stop Turner and the running game. As Redman pointed out during the Falcons’ first minicamp, “We’re going to really play smash-mouth football, and when the opportunity to pass presents itself, we’re going to take advantage of it.”

Added Milner, who will see time at H-back in Mularkey’s offense, “It’s going to be like playing backyard football.”

Baltimore Ravens

John Harbaugh - From Philadelphia DB and ST Coach to Baltimore HC
Cam Cameron - From Miami HC (ex-San Diego OC) to Baltimore OC

After cutting ties with Brian Billick, the Ravens attempted to woo one of the most highly regarded young offensive minds in the game; after Jason Garrett spurned them, Baltimore went a different direction and hired  John Harbaugh, who isn’t even the best-known footballer in his own family.

Not that Jim’s older brother doesn’t come with a pedigree beyond being the son of a long-time coach, brother of a former Bears quarterback, and Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean’s brother-in-law. John spent nine years coaching the Eagles’ special teams before switching to the defensive backfield last season and toiled in the collegiate ranks for 10 years prior to that, though he’s never been a head coach or even an offensive or defensive coordinator.

Given his familiarity with the other two-thirds of the game, Harbaugh is largely expected to leave the offense to Cameron, who was the head coach at Indiana when Harbaugh was on the staff there in 1997. To date Harbaugh’s comments about the offense have been predictably motivational and vague: “We’re going to be tough, we’re going to be physical. We’re going to be disciplined, and we’re going to play really hard.” All he left out is the part about where they want to score more points than the other team.

With Cameron, on the other hand, we have plenty of past performance to examine. His reputation as an offensive guru, and specifically a developer of quarterbacks, landed him the Dolphins’ head coaching job last season. However, he wasn’t working with LaDainian Tomlinson or Antonio Gates or even Philip Rivers, and 15 losses later he was looking for a new gig. Strangely enough, Cameron’s only win as a head coach came against the Ravens.

Maybe John Harbaugh remembers how Cameron developed his brother Jim at the University of Michigan, one of many Pro Bowl and/or All-Americans Cameron has tutored—a list that includes Elvis Grbac and Todd Collins at Michigan, Antwan Randle El at Indiana, Gus Frerotte with the Redskins, and Drew Brees and Rivers in San Diego. With the Ravens investing a first-round selection in Joe Flacco, Cameron’s presence will be invaluable in ensuring Flacco doesn’t go the route of Kyle Boller; that has to be reassuring to keeper leaguers looking to invest in Flacco’s future as well.

“You want to help a young quarterback? A running game helps tremendously,” Cameron said in a published report during the team’s minicamp in early June. “Sometimes you say, ‘I want to throw to set up the run.’ Well, we’re going to run to set up the passing game. That’s our starting point. That’s kind of my history. It just gives you a foundation to build from.”

But Cameron is more than just Flacco’s babysitter. The Ravens are hoping that after years of offensive futility Cameron can bring some of the mojo that helped lead the Chargers to three straight 400-plus-point seasons from 2004 through 2006, Cam’s final three campaigns as Bolts’ offensive coordinator. And while Baltimore doesn’t have nearly the firepower the Chargers had during that run, they do have some of the same key components—none more important than Willis McGahee.

By all accounts, the Ravens’ offense will run through McGahee this season. “But you can’t just figure you’re going to hand it to [the running backs] all the time,” Cameron said in a published report. “You want to get them the ball in a variety of ways.” And while McGahee’s 43 receptions last season marked a career best by a significant margin, it wouldn’t be out of line to expect even more in 2008. After all, it was Cameron’s offense that sparked LT to 100 receptions in 2003 and an average of 68 catches per season during Cam’s tenure there.

While McGahee will unquestionably be the focal point of the Baltimore attack, he isn’t the only component. Cameron took advantage of a talented tight end in San Diego, and the Ravens have a similarly skilled player at the position in Todd Heap. Moreover, young quarterbacks find a friend in the tight end as an easy checkdown when the pressure comes, so assuming he finds a way to stay healthy Heap’s numbers could be in for a boost as well. And Cameron hinted during minicamp that the Ravens may use significantly more three-wide receiver alignments than in past years.

But let’s not get carried away here. This is still Baltimore, where defense is king and the Ravens are perfectly content to win 16-9 slugfests. They’re shuffling their offensive line and breaking in a young quarterback, so the focus will be on ball protection (the Ravens ranked last in the NFL in turnover ratio last season) and game management. That said, LT averaged 2,271 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns per year for a team that went 12-20 during Cameron’s first two seasons calling the plays. So for McGahee, at least, there’s definitely some upside. For Flacco… well, given that Brees averaged 200 yards and one touchdown per game in his first two years as a starter, both under Cameron’s tutelage, that upside may be a bit further down the road.

Miami Dolphins

Tony Sporano - From Dallas OL Coach/Assistant HC to Miami HC
Dan Henning - From Carolina OC to Miami OC

Bill Parcell’s fingerprints are all over the Dolphins, and that includes the offensive side of the ball as well as Big Tuna’s pet, the defense. Sporano coached the tight ends under Parcells in Dallas, and in 2006 was elevated to assistant head coach/offensive line coach/running game coordinator. Despite not having “coordinator” anywhere in that title he was responsible for calling the plays for an offense that generated 26.6 points and 360 yards per game—both top-five NFL numbers. The last nine of his 24 years in coaching have been spent at the pro level, and the entire quarter-century has focused on the offensive side of the ball. His work with offensive lines (nine years) and more recent tenure as running game coordinator suggests the Dolphins will focus on running the football, and the hiring of Henning as offensive coordinator supports that theory.

Henning’s reputation is that of an old-school run-first coordinator, but in a dozen years as OC his teams have finished in the top 10 in rushing just four times. Two of those came with the Redskins back in the 80s (you remember the 80s, don’t you… parachute pants, heavy metal bands with big hair, the decade in which most current NFL players were born), and in Henning’s most recent gig in Carolina the Panthers finished 19th or lower in rushing four of his five seasons.

Henning’s offenses also recorded five top-10 passing finishes (again, three with the 80s Redskins and one each with the Jets and Panthers this millennium), so that run-first reputation may be a bit misleading. What Panther fans seemed to have a problem with was the predictability of his play calling—a sentiment echoed by Bills fans in the late 90s when Henning was in Buffalo.

What Sparano plans to do, at least initially, is make the best hand possible with the cards he’s been dealt. “I believe it’s important that the system fits the players, not the players fit the system,” he said in a published report shortly after being hired. “You’ve got to look at what we have here right now and when we get our coaching staff together and we sit down… we’ll get some of those questions ironed out.”

Given what Sparano and Henning have to work with—three undistinguished quarterbacks, two banged-up running backs, and a stable of secondary receivers—it would be folly to expect miracles right away. The selection of Jake Long helps solidify one of the team’s gray areas, and Sparano’s previous experience with offensive lines should come in handy as well. There is certainly plenty of experience to draw from amongst the Big Tuna brain trust, but at the end of the day Miami will need the players to do the work. Expecting Ronnie Brown (or Ricky Williams) to step into the Stephen Davis circa 2003 role (incidentally, the last year a Henning offense produced a 1,000-yard rusher) or Ted Ginn to put up Steve Smith numbers assumes the supporting casts are equal—and with Miami coming off a one-win season that’s optimistic at best.

At 65 Henning isn’t likely to be Miami’s long-term solution at offensive coordinator, so it wouldn’t be prudent to skew your dynasty rankings based on what you think he’ll accomplish in South Beach, either. Best case for the Dolphins this season is they find a quarterback to build on and start putting the pieces back together; fantasy-wise, that doesn’t provide much to get giddy about.

Washington Redskins

Jim Zorn - From Seattle QB Coach to Washington HC
Sherman Smith - From Tennessee RB Coach to Washington OC

Of all the head coaching hires this offseason, the Redskins may be the easiest to peg; Zorn comes from the Mike Holmgren branch of the Bill Walsh coaching tree, so the Nation’s Capital will be getting a dose of the West Coast offense. Zorn was initially hired to be the offensive coordinator, but after two weeks Dan Snyder elevated Zorn to the head gig.

During the fortnight in which he was “just” the OC, Zorn revealed his unsurprising plans to run the WCO in DC as well as oversee the development of Jason Campbell. This is Campbell’s seventh offensive system in the past eight years, but the good news is that Campbell ran a similar WCO-style offense during his ultra-productive senior season at Auburn. Zorn has been extremely hands-on with his young quarterback since taking over in February and plans to continue that through the minicamps and OTAs; however, he has admitted that as the season draws closer he’ll have other duties to attend to as head coach and won’t be able to spend as much time with the quarterbacks. That’s unfortunate, given Zorn’s track record with QB development; under his guidance, Matt Hasselbeck blossomed from a guy bumped from the Scouting Combine to a three-time Pro Bowler.

At least the Redskins have loaded Campbell’s supporting cast with weaponry. Chris Cooley’s productivity should only improve in the always-tight end-friendly WCO, and second-round pick Fred Davis (assuming he doesn’t miss the wake-up call) offers depth and potential. Undersized wideouts Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El should benefit from the array of quick slants and skinny posts inherent in the WCO; both should be able to put their open-field quickness to good use in compiling YAC. At the opposite end of the scale are bigger rookie wideouts Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, who can use their size to bust arm tackles and turn short throws into longer gains.

Zorn’s offense will also use the backs as pass catchers, something he didn’t do as much of in Seattle because Shaun Alexander wasn’t a good receiver. Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts are and will be used in that vein; also, don’t underestimate how valuable Portis’ skills in pass protection are in this scheme, as it means the Redskins will have no qualms about keeping him on the field in passing situations.

Portis played in Mike Shanahan’s version of the WCO in Denver, but what fantasy folks would truly love to see is Portis fill the same role Alexander played in Mike Holmgren’s offense. While 1,880 rushing yards—Alexander’s total during his MVP campaign of 2005—might be optimistic, 1,500 wouldn’t surprise at all. Factor in a few more opportunities in the passing game and it’s no surprise Portis is creeping into the middle to upper portion of fantasy first rounds. However, don’t be surprised if Mike Sellers steals a handful of touchdowns; the fullback and tight end positions, both of which Sellers can play, are red zone favorites in the WCO.

Smith, the new offensive coordinator, also bring a wealth of running game knowledge to the table, having spent the past 13 years as the Titans’ running backs coach. While he spent the past two seasons as an assistant head coach in Tennessee, his real “in” for this job came due to the relationship he and Zorn forged as teammates back in Seattle.

The offensive scheme Zorn brings with him to Washington fits the Redskins personnel like a glove—maybe even well enough to compensate for the fact that neither Zorn, who has indicated he’ll call the plays, or Smith have any previous NFL experience in that capacity. Of course, Zorn does have a decade-plus of quarterbacking experience in the NFL to draw from. And fantasy folks can draw from numerous other WCO systems around the NFL to help them assess the prospects for Portis, Cooley, and the rest of the Skins this season.

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