No experience needed: Rookie NFL coaches winning Print
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Wednesday, 26 November 2008 14:20
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 ASHBURN, Va. (AP) -By the looks of things in 2008, this whole NFL head-coaching thing is hardly as tough as it's made out to be.
The four men who began the season as first-time bosses, most without even having held coordinator titles - Washington's Jim Zorn, Baltimore's John Harbaugh, Miami's Tony Sparano and Atlanta's Mike Smith - are on pace to be the winningest batch of debut coaches since the league went to a 16-game season in 1978.
No group of first-year coaches in place at the start of a season over that span has compiled a higher winning percentage than this quartet's .614 so far, according to information provided by STATS.
``New blood, new ideas,'' said Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president for football operations. ``These guys have new ideas they probably picked up along the line and kind of put in their memory bank: 'If I ever become a head coach, I want to try this.'''
n 1992 - a bunch that went on to win two Super Bowls and appear in four others.
Pretty good company. On the other hand, Year 1 does not necessarily predict what's to come. Bill Walsh, remember, was 2-14 in 1979; Bill Parcells went 3-12-1 in 1983. At the other end of the spectrum, Rich Kotite went 10-6 as a rookie in 1991, then 30-50 the rest of his career.
Still, this year's sudden success is breeding optimism among the newcomers' teams. What's been the key?
``Part of it has to be that we've paid attention while we were assistants. We're enthusiastic. We pay attention to details,'' Zorn said. ``I've been in the league as a player and a coach, and I didn't just sit around looking at my own deal. I sat around and said, 'What would I have done in this situation?' I'd already asked and answered a lot of questions.''
Smith is the only one who had been an NFL coordinator - he ran Jacksonville's defense last season - although Sparano did call plays as an assistant in Dallas, where he oversaw the offensive line. Harbaugh was Philadelphia's secondary coach in 2007 after earning his stripes coaching special teams. Zorn never held an NFL job higher than quarterbacks coach until arriving in Washington.
``I'm proud of the path I took,'' said Harbaugh, brother of former NFL quarterback and current Stanford football coach Jim Harbaugh.
oking for coaches in the upcoming offseason - there could be as many as 10 - to move beyond the usual casting call of past head coaches and current coordinators.
Some lower-level assistants might get their chances.
``I think they'll get more opportunities to interview,'' Cerrato said.
Asked about that possibility, Sparano said: ``I hope that's the case.''
While Sparano replaced the one-and-done Cam Cameron, and Smith was hired to resuscitate a franchise reeling from the Bobby Petrino debacle, Zorn (Joe Gibbs) and Harbaugh (Brian Billick) followed coaches who won the Super Bowl.
``We're all from different backgrounds,'' Smith said. ``It basically says there is no mold for what it takes to be a successful head coach in this league.''
If there is a common thread among the four, Cerrato noted, it could be that all learned lessons from standout coaches along the way. Smith, for example, talks about gleaning organizational skills from Billick - his brother-in-law - and learning about how to deal with players from Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio.
Two got the better of their mentors last Sunday: Harbaugh's Ravens beat Reid's Eagles 36-7, and Zorn's Redskins edged Holmgren's Seahawks 20-17.
Zorn originally was hired away from Holmgren's staff in January to be the Redskins' offensive coordinator. Then, about two weeks later, as the search for someone to succeed Hall of Fame member Gibbs dragged on, Zorn was told to forget about merely running the offense - he was given the whole team.
``All of us may have been a little surprised that it happened the way it happened,'' Holmgren said. ``But he had worked very, very hard to position himself to at least get a chance.''
Not surprisingly, some Redskins initially wondered how the transition from three-time Super Bowl winner Gibbs to the inexperienced Zorn would go.
``Everybody knows coach Gibbs and who he is. Everybody,'' quarterback Jason Campbell said. ``With coach Zorn, everybody had to try to get to know him and work on the relationship.''
He and Zorn quickly developed a mutual trust, one that has helped Campbell enjoy by far his best season as a pro, including 10 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.
Zorn earned the respect of others, too, even right tackle Jon Jansen, a 10th-year veteran the new coach benched at the start of the season.
l of his position? He didn't get that step where he was just in control of the offense. Now he's got offense and defense and special teams. He's got to worry about 56 guys instead of just 22. How's that pressure going to work for him?''' Jansen said.
``And I think he's done a tremendous job so far of dealing with everything that happens as a football coach.''
Records certainly do not lie. Entering Sunday's game against the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, Zorn is 7-4 as an NFL head coach, a mark matched by Harbaugh and Smith. Sparano is 6-5 working for Parcells. All have a shot at making the playoffs.
After last weekend, five teams already had more victories than they did all of last season, and three are the Dolphins (1-15 in 2007), Falcons (4-12) and Ravens (5-11).
``This team was starving from the year before and was really hungry and wanted a change,'' Dolphins nose tackle Jason Ferguson said. ``Tony has an air. He's his own guy. He doesn't sound like Bill. He sounds like Tony. ... There's direction behind his harsh language. And when you see something that works, we're all going to fall in.''
Consider, too, that Harbaugh (Joe Flacco) and Smith (Matt Ryan) are thriving with rookie quarterbacks, something rare for any NFL coach, no matter the bona fides.
n their locker rooms for seeking players' input. Sparano uses the Wildcat offense. Zorn will call for a pass on fourth down. Smith's own gutsy fourth-down call last Sunday helped deliver a 17-point upset of first-place Carolina.
Not that everything has come easily or naturally. There is on-the-job learning to be done, after all.
``There's some situations that come up during the course of games still that are first-time situations,'' Sparano said.
Nonetheless, he and his 2008 classmates are doing just fine week after week.
``I didn't know much about coach Harbaugh at all'' when he was hired, veteran Ravens center Jason Brown said. ``He's fitting in better than anyone could have ever imagined.''
And what about Zorn's self-evaluation?
The coach who talks about his quarterback improving from Point A to Point D in what both hope is a progression toward Point Z wouldn't assign a grade to his own performance.
``It's hard for me to sort of judge myself. I haven't reached a ceiling yet, hopefully,'' Zorn said. ``I think I'm still growing.''
AP Sports Writers David Ginsburg in Owings Mills, Md., Paul Newberry in Flowery Branch, Ga., and Steven Wine in Davie, Fla., contributed to this story.

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