The name of the game in the NFL when it comes to playcalling is unpredictability. If a coach leans heavily on the running game and everyone knows it, stopping that offense is usually not that difficult. The same can be done against a high-powered passing attack.
To be successful in the NFL, a coach must mix it up. Pass when they think you will run and run when they think you will pass. But with the exception of a very few head coaches, teams build reputations for the way they play offensive football.
In this piece, we attempt to break down the aggressive from the conservative and that may help the wise fantasy player gain insight when it comes to drafting his team or pickup a free agent.
Dick Jauron, Buffalo — A well-educated man who measures his words carefully, Jauron’s offensive philosophy is a reflection of his demeanor. He rarely does anything without study or careful analysis and as a result, Jauron is one of the most predictable coaches in the business. He will use the running game to set up the pass and rarely is able to get his opponents off balance. Even with a big-play weapon like Lee Evans on his side, his gameplanning and play-calling is one of fear. The risk of throwing downfield is overwhelmed by his fear of making a mistake.
Cam Cameron, Miami — This is his first NFL head coaching job, but Cameron is a known commodity around the league who turned the Chargers into one of the most powerful offensive teams in the league last year. Cynics may argue that any offensive coordinator with LaDainian Tomlinson on his team would be successful, but Cameron was saddled with an ordinary crew of wideouts and a stubborn boss in Marty Schottenheimer, and he had to nurture a new starting quarterback in Philip Rivers. San Diego was the No. 4 offensive team in the league and ranked fourth in red zone productivity. Cameron’s philosophy is to probe for his opponent’s weakness and attack it like a shark going after weakened prey.
Bill Belichick, New England — Belichick’s friendship with former mentor Bill Parcells may have waned over the years, but the two had similar offensive gameplans. Belichick is an old-school, no-nonsense type, but he does not favor a conservative gameplan. He is a counterpuncher who will pass when he thinks opponents are expecting the run and vice-versa. Belichick loves to probe the middle of the field with his tight end and then punish with the running game. Belichick also takes pride in his team’s ability to convert on fourth down because the Pats ranked first in the league in that category.
Eric Mangini — The Jets were hoping for a mini-Belichick when they hired Mangini, and he was able to exceed expectations by getting this team to the playoffs with a 10-6 regular-season record. The 36-year-old Mangini showed some of Belichick’s ability to get the most out of his players, and he is something of a gambler compared to his former boss. Mangini was not afraid to have quarterback Chad Pennington wing it downfield because wideouts Santana Moss and Jerricho Cotchery were big-play weapons. The addition of a solid running back in Thomas Jones could make Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer an unpredictable duo.
Brian Billick, Baltimore — Perhaps the most misunderstood coach in the NFL. It is Billick’s greatest desire to have a high-powered, go-for-the-throat offense that features the downfield pass on every other play. He was the architect of Minnesota’s record-setting offense in 1998, and even though he won a Super Bowl with an average quarterback (Trent Dilfer) and a superior defense, he longs to light up the scoreboard. He also knows that ultimately his job is to win games, and that perspective tempers his love of the big play. Billick knows that if his team can win the turnover battle — they were first in the league last year with a plus-17 ratio — the Ravens have a chance to dominate. He is clearly a man in conflict and more in need of the psychiatrist’s couch than Tony Soprano. He is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati — Lewis made his bones as a defensive coordinator, but he is not a conservative playcaller. Lewis looks at his offensive weapons in Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Rudi Johnson and he goes for the throat. The Bengals love to throw the ball, and they often have to get into scoring contests because the defense is so vulnerable. The Bengals ranked 30th in yards allowed and were tied for 31st in passing yard allowed per game. Lewis’ aggressive nature leads to quite a bit of risky play, but it’s the only way that Lewis knows.
Romeo Crennel, Cleveland — As a defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick during his days in New England, Crennel rarely shared his offensive philosophy. But the acquisition of Jamal Lewis during free agency probably explains more about his offensive attitude than any other move that the Browns have made in his tenure. Most scouts view Lewis as a pounding running back who has seen his best days. But Crennel thinks that Lewis can be a horse who carries the ball 30 times or more a game. They also picked up Joe Thomas with their initial first-round pick, so look for the Browns to keep the ball on the ground whenever possible, despite the presence of Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh — Truly an unknown commodity, but the Rooney family’s track record of hiring head coaches is spectacular. In an era when a three-year head coach is seen as a long-term veteran, the Steelers had two head coaches in Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher since the start of the 1969 season. Tomlin’s background is as a defensive coordinator, but he is a very sharp personality who should be able to fire his team up similar to Cowher. Offensively, Tomlin wants to control the clock after building a lead with the passing game in the first half.
Gary Kubiak, Houston — Kubiak’s strength is the same as Mike Shanahan’s in Denver: using superior offensive personnel to outflank and attack the opponent in a relentless manner. Kubiak may not be as ruthless as Shanahan, but the true test will come when he has the personnel to match his philosophy. Adding Matt Schaub and Ahman Green should make the Texans a better offensive team, but it could take half a season for this offense to come around. Once they do, Kubiak can outscheme his opponent and create mismatches.
Tony Dungy, Indianapolis — Dungy has proven to be a man for all seasons and not married to any single offensive philosophy. When he was the head coach of defensive-oriented Tampa Bay, he had to counterpunch on offense and try to make his opponent guess as well. Dungy has superior offensive talent in Indianapolis, and his team has featured a wide-open attack featuring the best quarterback in the game, Peyton Manning. Interestingly, his defense is centered on speed and creating turnovers rather than punishing opponents with larger and more powerful players. Dungy believes creating turnovers gives his offense more opportunities to light up the scoreboard. It’s a high risk that has proved to have great rewards.
Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville — Unfortunately for Jaguar fans, Del Rio has no clearly defined offensive personality. He also is a below-average judge of talent. By showing so much faith in limited backup quarterback David Garrard, Del Rio has told the rest of the NFL that he does not have the stomach to go for the throat. Del Rio has two creative weapons in Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor, but the Jaguars don’t get the most out of them, because Del Rio coaches out of fear and that translates to his players.
Jeff Fisher, Tennessee Titans — Owner Bud Adams had decided that the 2006 season was going to be Fisher’s last with the Titans, and the head coach knew it when he inserted rookie Vince Young into the starting lineup in Week 4, and he kept him there the rest of the season. Riding on Superman’s cape, the Titans were one of the most surprising teams in the league as Fisher abandoned his conservative nature and relied on his supertalented rookie’s athletic gifts. Look for more of the same all-out attack.
Mike Shanahan, Denver — He rubs quite a few players and coaches the wrong way, but Shanahan has a definitive idea on how the game should be played. Shanahan needs a potent running game as his main weapon, and he is perhaps the best evaluator of RB talent the game has seen in the last 50 years. Running backs like Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis and Tatum Bell are not products of the Broncos’ system. Shanahan knows talent when he sees it. If Jay Cutler is a first-rate quarterback, Shanahan will be well-equipped to expose favorable matchups and take advantage of them.
Herman Edwards, Kansas City — Edwards gets by on intensity and his abilities to lead the defense, but his dream is to run the ball two out of every three plays. With a horse like Larry Johnson on his side, don’t expect him to go away from that philosophy very often. Johnson didn’t hit his stride last year until quarterback Damon Huard gave the offense a lift, but Edwards will still let Johnson and the big offensive line pound away. Edwards is the paranoid type whose message more often than not is an us-against-the-world mindset.
Lane Kiffin, Oakland — As he enters his rookie season, the 31-year-old head coach has no discernible NFL philosophy. However, coaching with Pete Carroll is bound to be a major influence. That means that Kiffin will listen to his players’ wants and that he needs them to feel good about themselves, their team and their job. That was an impossibility under Art Shell, but Kiffin has been trying to establish a new atmosphere, and the decision to draft quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 pick indicates the Raiders will return to a downfield passing attack.
Norv Turner, San Diego — The Chargers were the No. 1 seed in the AFC a year ago before losing at home to the Patriots in the divisional playoffs. GM A.J. Smith and hard-headed Marty Schottenheimer could not work out their differences, and the head coach was replaced by the much easier-going Turner. While Turner is creative offensively, he is perhaps most interested in pleasing his bosses. That could lead to a problem in the locker room.
Wade Phillips, Dallas — From the vise-like grip of Bill Parcells to the easygoing Phillips. The new Dallas coach is well respected for his defensive acumen, but it’s hard to find a coach who runs a looser ship. The Cowboys may be the most relieved team in the league during the first half of the season and could be at their best. But Phillips’ good ol’ boy routine will come with a price. His players generally stop listening to him and do whatever they want. Look for the Cowboys to be more wide open than they have been in the past, but a second-half breakdown would not surprise.
Tom Coughlin, N.Y. Giants — The handwriting is on the wall for Coughlin, and it appears that only a division championship and a win in the first round of the playoffs will save him. Coughlin may be tough, demanding and difficult to live with, but he is not stupid. He will go with his best weapons, and now that Tiki Barber has sunk his teeth into television, the best weapon is inconsistent Eli Manning. Look for the desperate Coughlin to take his foot off his quarterback’s throat, pat him on the shoulders and then get the most out of him.
Andy Reid, Philadelphia — While Reid has lost control of his waistline and his ever-growing physique has become fodder for the mill on the Sunday morning pregame shows, he is one of the smartest and best-prepared coaches in the business. The drafting of Kevin Kolb may be just what Donovan McNabb needs to have his best season. If McNabb and multitalented running back Brian Westbrook can stay healthy, the Eagles will have one of the most diverse and unpredictable offenses in the NFC and have an excellent chance of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. Reid excels at exploiting an opponent’s weakness as well as top coaches like Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan.
Joe Gibbs, Washington — Even Gibbs’ staunchest supporters have had to admit that he looks nothing like the serene and sharp coach he was in the 1980s. Gibbs has not lost his playcalling or gameplanning expertise, but his talent evaluation and ability to reach today’s players may be causing him problems. The presence of meddlesome owner Daniel “I’m richer than you are” Snyder doesn’t help either. Most coaches try to emulate the philosophy that Gibbs had in his heyday. Take the lead with a high-powered passing attack and cement it with a power running game. Gibbs does not have those kind of weapons available on his current Redskins.
Lovie Smith, Chicago — Very few NFL head coaches fall simply into a one-word philosophical frame. Smith does. He is as conservative a head coach as there is in the league. In this particular case, Smith is Buckleyesque in his conservatism. He does not want the Bear offense to lose the game. He is more than happy to let the defense and special teams win it. Smith has stood by erratic quarterback Rex Grossman (20 interceptions in 2006) as if he was Johnny Unitas, but the presence of the quarterback has had to cause Smith much angst in his private moments. If the Bears’ decision to give the No. 1 running back job to Cedric Benson and the trade of Thomas Jones blows up, this team could be in trouble.
Rod Marinelli, Detroit — It’s hard to find a head coach who worked harder and paid his dues more earnestly than Marinelli before he was hired in 2006. Marinelli is a tough drill sergeant of a man who goes well beyond the cliché. He is also a thinker who can motivate. Unfortunately for him, he is saddled with a sadsack franchise that includes an inadequate front man in Matt Millen and a self-absorbed offensive coordinator in Mike Martz. As a defensive expert, Marinelli can spot an opponent’s weakness, but he does not have the personnel to exploit it. Perhaps rookie Calvin Johnson is the be-all and end-all, but the Lions struggle in every other aspect of the offense to take full advantage. Detroit was 32nd in running the ball last year, and that makes them a one-dimensional offensive team.
Mike McCarthy, Green Bay — The first year of the McCarthy regime showed some promise because he was able to exert some pressure on Brett Favre and get him to stay on board with the gameplan. Former head coach Mike Sherman was unable to do that and the team fell apart in 2005. While Favre was unhappy that the team was unable to secure wideout Randy Moss, the drafting of running back Marshawn Lynch should give the Packers some extra juice in the ground game. McCarthy has the innate ability to motivate his players, and it shows: The Packers had the ninth best offense in the league.
Brad Childress, Minnesota — Childress had earned a reputation as one of the sharpest and most prepared offensive coordinators in the league while working with Andy Reid in Philadelphia, but Childress appeared to be in way over his head during his rookie season in Philadelphia. After a decent start that saw the Vikings win four of their first six games, the Vikings lost 8-of-10 and Childress panicked. Childress can look at films and prepare a gameplan as well as anyone, but he is the NFL’s best example of the Peter Principle and could lose his job this season if he can’t regain control.
Bobby Petrino, Atlanta — The Falcons should be one of the more volatile teams in the league this year. Jim Mora could not get this team to play consistently and had a propensity for sticking his foot in his mouth. But why did they go with Petrino, who did a solid job at Louisville during his four-year stint? During his three years with the Jaguars from 1999-2001, he gained a reputation as an offensive innovator. Tom Coughlin, the Jags’ head coach at the time, called him “the best playcaller I’ve ever been around.” Petrino is tough and demanding, and he will not play favorites. If quarterback Michael Vick struggles, Petrino will find himself a new quarterback. Petrino likes to spread out the offense and attack through the air. A big, strong straight-ahead runner would also fill his list of desires.
John Fox, Carolina — The Panthers got to the Super Bowl and NFC championship game in consecutive years because Fox has built a nasty defense and an aggressive offense. The Panthers can do quite a bit of damage when they go downfield and attack, but they struggle when they try to counterpunch. The offense lacks the sophistication to fool opponents with any kind of regularity. Quarterback Jake Delhomme’s inconsistency has irritated Fox, and neither he nor former offensive coordinator Dan Henning could get him on track. The Panthers are hoping that new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson might have an impact that allows Delhomme to throw the short- and medium-range passes with consistency.
Sean Payton, New Orleans — It wasn’t luck. All the elements came together for the Saints’ offense because the nucleus of the attack — quarterback Drew Brees, running back Deuce McAllister and wide receiver Marques Colston — are very talented, but it was Payton’s playcalling strength and forward thinking that allowed this team to grow so dramatically. Payton comes from the Bill Parcells tree, and that means he’s a counterpuncher. He excelled at it in his first year, and much is expected in his second year as well.
Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay — Probably the most aggressive coach in the game, and he has held that title for at least five years. If Gruden were as smart as he thinks he is, he would go to a power running attack and shy away from the pass, because every opponent the Bucs play come out playing pass defense first. Gruden is reluctant to shy away from the passing game because it worked for him in Oakland with Rich Gannon and it brought a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay with Brad Johnson at the helm. Gruden’s go-for-the-throat demeanor translates to his quarterbacks. They take chances even when they shouldn’t. That was never more the case than it was last year when Bruce Gradkowski had to step in for the injured Chris Simms and was not ready for prime time.
Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona — After waiting for his first head coaching opportunity, Whisenhunt has been blessed (or cursed) with the Cardinals. The skill position talent with Matt Leinart, Edgerrin James, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin give him the ability to create a monster, but Denny Green was unable to do much with the same group. Whisenhunt developed a reputation for playcalling and finding advantageous matchups while serving as Bill Cowher’s offensive coordinator, and if he can find a way to mold the Arizona offensive line into a cohesive unit, the Cardinals will write a dramatic story this year.
Scott Linehan, St. Louis — It turned out that Linehan was a natural fit for the Rams, just as team president John Shaw thought he would be during the hiring process. The Rams had a high-powered passing attack under former coach Mike Martz, and Linehan was able to sustain that attack and put together a solid running game as well. The Rams were a streaky team in 2006, winning four of six at the start and the finish while losing the four games in the middle. However, the offense picked up steam and was sixth overall and fourth in passing. If Linehan can put together a decent defense, the Rams could surprise.
Mike Nolan, San Francisco — Nolan is gaining a reputation for developing talent. Alex Smith struggled quite a bit as a rookie but got on track in 2006. Frank Gore became one of the best backs in the league. Nolan has a strong hand but does not have to threaten his players. That’s usually a formula that leads to long-term success. If the Niners make a bit of progress on the defensive end and Nolan can do a better job of finding advantageous matchups, the Niners should be ready to roll.
Mike Holmgren, Seattle — Here’s an open secret around the NFL: Holmgren is not the most well-liked coach among his peers because they believe he comes across as smug and a bit too self-assured. Holmgren is a very confident coach who believes that if he has the weapons on his side, he will win schematic battle and find the better matchups because he is smarter than the guy on the opposite sidelines. However, it may just happen to be the truth. He won a Super Bowl with the Packers and got there again with that team. He also led the Seahawks to Super Bowl XL and might have had a good chance of getting back had the team not been done in by injuries to Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck. At his best, Holmgren is as good a gameplanner as there is in the game and is up there when it comes to talent evaluation as well.