New coaches making their mark in playoffs
Tomlin, Harbaugh, Whisenhunt prove you don't need experience to win
by Rich Cimini, NBCSports.com contributor
The NFL's version of The Final Four includes one grizzled coach still searching for that elusive Super Bowl championship - hang in there, Andy Reid - and three newbies that represent a developing trend in the league.
John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin and Ken Whisenhunt have a combined total of five years head-coaching experience - five. In the world of coaching, "new" is the new "old."
Former champions Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan are done, out of the league, and current stalwarts such as Bill Belichick, Jeff Fisher and Tom Coughlin are home, waiting ‘till next year. There are four job openings, and don't you find it interesting that former head coaches Marty Schottenheimer, Brian Billick and Jim Fassel - all winners in their previous positions - are barely blips on the radar screen?
For a change, owners and general managers are hiring people, not resumes. The trick, of course, is hiring the right person. The Ravens, Steelers and Cardinals have done that with Harbaugh, Tomlin and Whisenhunt, respectively.
Tomlin and Harbaugh weren't on the so-called "hot" list when they interviewed, but their superiors were able to look past public perception, focusing on the things that should really matter: leadership, smarts and football philosophy.
The essence of coaching is best captured by former Oilers coach Bum Phillips, who once said of the legendary Bear Bryant, "He can take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n." (Wonder if he feels that way about his son, Wade?) In Harbaugh, Tomlin and Whisenhunt, we see three coaches that demonstrate special qualities.
To borrow a Bill Parcells-ism, let's not put them in Canton just yet. But there's much to like with these three, each of whom overcame a different set of challenges.
Whisenhunt, who made his bones as the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl-champion Steelers in 2005, walked into a losing culture and changed it in two years. Actually, "losing" might be too kind; the Cardinals hadn't won anything in, like, forever. When the team finished 8-8 in 2007, a team official told me, "The fans want to have a parade." This season, Whisenhunt led them to the NFC West title and two playoff victories - their first at home in 61 years. If they win two more games, there will be a real parade in the desert.
When the team slumped badly late in the season, and they started resembling the Cards of old, Whisenhunt was strong enough to prevent that mentality - that virus - from infecting his team. From the outset, he made tough decisions, benching former No. 1 pick Matt Leinart in favor of Kurt Warner and putting big-money back Edgerrin James into mothballs late in the season because he wasn't getting it done. James whined, said he wanted out, but now he's back, giving the Cards a respectable running game.
Harbaugh and Tomlin walked into successful programs, but that, too, creates challenges.
Football is everything in Pittsburgh, where travelers are greeted in the airport by a Franco Harris "Immaculate Reception" statue, and the locals don't take kindly to mediocrity. That Tomlin replaced a Pittsburgh icon, Bill Cowher, only added to the pressure. Cowher was part of the city's culture, just like the old steel mills, the Terrible Towels and Iron City Beer.
Tomlin, previously a relatively anonymous defensive coordinator with the Vikings, brought his own style, confidently straddling the line between player's coach and disciplinarian. His first positive statement was retaining revered defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Tomlin and LeBeau couldn't be further apart in terms of defensive philosophy, but instead of forcing his system on the team, Tomlin adhered to the "if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it" credo. That might not sound like much, but you'd be surprised how many coaches, perhaps out of insecurity, feel compelled to start over with their own people.
Harbaugh faced a similar situation in Baltimore, where defense was - and is - the name of the game. With a background in special teams, he was smart enough to retain coordinator Rex Ryan, who is beloved by his players. Harbaugh ran a tough training camp, tougher than Brian Billick ever ran, but he earned the respect of team leader Ray Lewis. Once that happened, Harbaugh was a made man.
Because the NFL is a copy-cat league, you're seeing teams hire up-and-coming assistants with no head-coaching experience. The Broncos hired former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, 32, who looks like a ball boy. The Jets are mulling Ryan and Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who also is drawing interest from the Rams and Lions.
The Browns bucked the trend, opting for Eric Mangini, who was fired by the Jets after three seasons. Truth be told, he really was a ball boy. Fittingly, it was for the Browns, only 14 years ago. He's still only 38.
These days, old school is old news.
Rich Cimini writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the New York Jets for the N.Y. Daily News.