Plenty of fanfare accompanied the hiring of NFL head coaches such as Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis, Dennis Allen in Oakland, Jeff Fisher in St. Louis and a handful of others since the conclusion of the regular season.
In the modern-day NFL, newly hired coaches come complete with a ready-made cult of personality. Their potential influence on the team is dissected, ad infinitum, by fans, pundits, fantasy sports enthusiasts and, of course, gamblers.
I have always been more intrigued, however, by football handicappers who delve beneath the surface and focus their analysis on changes to the lineup of NFL offensive and defensive coordinators.
In a typical offseason, including this one, there are many more moves involving offensive and defensive coordinators than hirings and firings of head coaches. Yet the shuffling of the coordinators receives much less attention.
Regardless of the talent on the roster, without a coordinator who has command of the game plan, an ability to adjust on the fly and a strong relationship with the players, production will suffer.
A football adage states that a top coordinator can outwit a weak opposing coordinator in the first half, switch teams at halftime and then dominate the second half with the other team’s personnel. The maxim contains some hyperbole but a valuable message.
File this one under the art, rather than the science, of handicapping. It might not occupy a “cell” in your spreadsheet or statistical model, but it certainly can affect the point spread.
Following is not a comprehensive listing of new additions for the coming NFL season, but a “big five” of coordinators who bear watching for handicappers:
Todd Haley, offensive coordinator (OC), Pittsburgh Steelers: Former major leaguer Tito Fuentes secured his place in baseball history when he responded to a beanball attempt with this quote, which has become a classic: “They shouldn’t throw at me. I’m the father of five or six kids.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be channeling Fuentes when he was quoted recently in the Sporting News. Attempting to quell speculation that a lack of communication had caused his relationship with Haley to get off to a bad start, Roethlisberger said: “He’s got to move. He’s got five or six kids. … There is no ill feeling or hard feelings or anything between us.”
Perhaps the man doth protest too much? Roethlisberger had an excellent relationship with former OC Bruce Arians, who was fired amid criticism of the team’s rushing game. If there’s tension between the QB and the OC, it could mean trouble in the City of Bridges.
Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator (DC), Denver Broncos: The hiring of Del Rio, a veteran defensive virtuoso who once lifted the Carolina Panthers’ defense from No. 31 to No. 2 in the NFL in one year, is attracting raves in Denver. Incidentally, the Broncos host the Steelers in Week 1 as a 2-point favorite. The total in the game stands at 45 points in Las Vegas.
Mike Nolan, DC, Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons, 10-6 straight up and 7-8-1 against the spread last season, improved their defense to No. 12 in the NFL from No. 16 the previous year. I’m quite bullish on the prospect of the Atlanta defense showing continued improvement under Nolan.
A particular weak spot for the Falcons last season was their opponents’ ability to convert third downs. Former DC Brian Van Gorder drew criticism for his lack of imagination in that spot.
Nolan figures to bring a more creative, aggressive and ultimately successful approach. That could be one of those small things that make a big difference.
The Falcons, who are developing an unfortunate reputation for one-and-done performances in the playoffs, are a 25-1 shot to win the 2013 Super Bowl at the LVH sports book in Vegas.
Bob Bratkowski, OC, Jacksonville Jaguars: The longtime former OC for Cincinnati, Bratkowski had mixed results at best during his tenure with the Bengals. He’s expected to bring a pass-happy approach to Jacksonville.
I’m far from convinced it’s a good fit for quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who struggled throughout his rookie season. Watch for Gabbert to throw plenty of passes … and plenty of interceptions. Only four of the Jags’ 16 games went “over” the betting total last season, tied for fewest in the NFL.
If nothing else, that number figures to rise this coming season.
Mike Tice, OC, Chicago Bears: All indications are Tice, promoted from offensive line coach, will rejuvenate a squad that had fallen into a rut under departed OC Mike Martz. Although he officially left due to (1, 2, 3, all together now) “philosophical differences,” it’s more likely Martz was let go for keeping quarterback Jay Cutler handcuffed to the ol’ seven-step drop for way too long.
Tice promises to employ an innovative game plan that could feature a renewed emphasis on a no-huddle set. Tice’s new wrinkles could give the Bears the edge they need in a tough NFC North.
Connect with Jeff Haney at on Twitter @yoryboy.