NFL

Six Key Coordinator Changes for Teams Looking to Make the Playoffs in 2011

No precedent exists to compare what teams will be going through as they get ready for this season on what is potentially very short preparation time from free agent signing to rookie signing through camp and preseason. In 1982, the strike began after a regular offseason and preseason, and after two games were played, costing two months in the middle of the year. In 1987, the player strike also began after the season was underway, as 3 games were played with replacement. There was a lockout resolved before the season in 1970, but free agency wasn’t what it is today and was far less of a factor (and the lockout came right before camp), and there were 6 preseason games to 14 regular season games then.

My guess is that continuity will matter, but that it will also be overvalued among the public and bettors. Most playoff teams in the past were not coming from teams with new quarterbacks and coaches anyway, and that will probably be true in 2011, lockout or not. Most teams replacing those two positions were bad and need time. However, coordinator changes could be a key area to look in 2011 to see what teams can successfully navigate changes on short preparation time.

Twelve teams have both coordinators and head coach returning: Atlanta, Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, New Orleans, New York Giants, New York Jets, Pittsburgh, and Washington (complete list of coordinators here). Seven of those teams made the playoffs last year. In contrast, before the 2010 season, 24 of the teams had the same coach and coordinator situation returning from the previous season.

Among the teams that either made the playoffs last year, or would be considered legitimate contenders for the playoffs, here are five key coordinator changes to watch.

1. Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator in Houston. Houston’s defense was dreadful, and whatever issues you may have with Wade the head coach, he has been an excellent defensive coordinator in this league. However, he will be switching an entire defensive philosophy to a 3/4 base defense, converting a top player like Mario Williams to a new position, trying to revamp a secondary, and integrate front seven high draft picks who may not be in camp right away with the shortened signing period. Houston will be better defensively (because they have to be, given how bad it was last year), but the question is how much better, and whether the delays in changing defenses with a new coordinator will prevent a huge turnaround.

2. Bill Muir (and Todd Haley) replacing Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Charlie Weis was quite successful in Kansas City last year, as the running game took off with Jamaal Charles, Matt Cassel improved dramatically from his first season in Kansas City, and Dwayne Bowe finally realized his potential. The playcalling was diverse and unpredictable. Now, with Weis’ sudden departure, the team promoted 68-year old offensive line coach Bill Muir, though the guess here is that Todd Haley will have a strong hand in the playcalling, if not take the duties outright. His first year, that didn’t work out as well with Cassel, so it will be interesting to see whether that was just the growing pains of a first year with new coach and quarterback, or if Cassel will regress without Weis.

3. Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator in Philadelphia. In a bold move, the Eagles elevated their offensive line coach, Juan Castillo, to the defensive coordinator position. It’s bold because teams rarely switch coaches on the sides of the ball after a certain period in the league, though Castillo has always wanted to coach defense. He’s an in-house move, and the defensive players will be familiar with him, but it’s still a new situation. The offense is playoff ready with Vick and his explosive receivers, and if Castillo can coax an improvement to a top 10 defense, the Eagles will be prime contenders in 2011.

4. Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator in Dallas. Dallas may have a new head coach, but Garrett will still retain his offensive coordinator role and so there should be continuity on that side of the ball, plus the return of Tony Romo. At least in Ryan’s case, he won’t be switching systems like Phillips in Houston. He will, however, be trying to upgrade the secondary on short notice in free agency and have to work the group into better play in a short period of time.

5. Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator in St. Louis. The Rams gave the look of a team about to contend in 2010, as they improved to 7 wins in Spagnuolo’s second season. However, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur took the Cleveland head coaching job after working well with rookie Sam Bradford. In comes McDaniels after his disastrous stint as head coach in Denver. McDaniels will try to continue the progress while trying to integrate receivers for Bradford to work with. How quickly McDaniels and Bradford hit it off after little contact will be a big factor in whether St. Louis becomes the favorite in the West.

6. Greg Manusky as defensive coordinator in San Diego. I’ve already detailed how I think San Diego is a prime candidate to emerge in 2011, after a frustrating season last year. A big IF, though, is how Greg Manusky will do stepping in for the highly regarded Ron Rivera, who finally got a head coaching job with Carolina in the offseason. Manusky may inherit a team that loses a stopper at the back end of the secondary in safety Eric Weddle, depending on how free agency shakes out. It’ll be tough to be as dominant as the 2010 team, but the defense needs to be pretty good, and then let the offense do the rest.

[photo via Getty]

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