When the NFL kicks off in April, 7 teams will have a new head coach at the helm. The press conferences are long gone and the brief honeymoon is quickly becoming a distant memory. The new hires have been saying all the right things and telling anyone who will listen they are one or two tweaks away from the playoffs. But fans and owners alike know the truth (right J-E-T-S fans?), only one thing matters when the players hit the field; winning. Will the predictions and coach speak translate to victories or will these same hires feel their newly earned office seats uncomfortably warming up at an alarming rate?
Much can dictate a successful season. Avoiding an injury to a pivotal player, signing one of many potential and current free agents or perhaps a rookie making a dramatic impact can all help these new hires be successful. Recent history has shown (see the Harbaugh brothers) 1st year coaches can dramatically shift the direction of a franchise in one season. Of the 7 new hires, with the right mix of luck and talent, maybe one will reach the playoffs. However, given the circumstance of their hire, certainly all 7 face an uphill battle most take more than one season to win. Below is a ranking of the top 3 hires and their subsequent potential to radically transform their teams.
3. Oakland Raiders: Dennis Allen - Following week 12, the Oakland Raiders sat at 7-4 and atop the AFC West. 1st year head coach Hue Jackson seemed to be on his way to returning the once proud franchise back to the playoffs despite the death of beloved owner Al Davis, the then mysterious foot injury ailing star running back Darren McFadden and leading the league in penalties. In the NFL, however, much can and always does, dramatically shift and change from week to week. The Raiders, like all teams, were not above that and within 3 weeks they would slip from 3 games above .500 to .500 and fighting for their lives. By the time the dust settled following the collapse, Oakland missed the playoffs despite the fast start, their young upstart coach had been fired by incoming GM Reggie McKenzie and for the first time since a young John Madden was hired by Al Davis, the attention had shifted towards a defensive-minded leadership. Dennis Allen was brought in after serving one season as the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos and asked to transform one of the league's worst defenses. So what makes Dennis Allen a top 3 candidate to have the biggest impact in his first stint as a head coach? Allen excels where his team struggles, the defensive side of the ball. With young stars like Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford , Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore, the offense was often the solution to the problems caused by the defense and downright stupefying penalties week in and week out. Certainly inserting Carson Palmer mid-season merely weeks after acquiring him via trade had its pitfalls too; though as the Houston Texans proved, as long as a team does not beat itself, winning with a question mark at quarterback was far from impossible. The Raiders retained offensive coordinator Al Saunders, but moved him to an offensive consultant position and hired the Texans' Greg Knapp to run the offense. On the defensive side of the ball the Raiders have some pieces in place and given the right leadership can become a strength. Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and Kamerion Wimbley showed flashes of what could be a daunting defensive line, which could greatly impact the Raider's back seven despite releasing Stanford Routt in the off-season. The Raiders also play in the weakest division in the AFC, giving their front office transition more leeway. 2011 was a roller coaster ride for Raider fans everywhere; while there are still many hurdles for Dennis Allen to overcome, the potential for a successful 2012 is there. The pieces are in place, especially on offense and if Dennis Allen can instill a new sense of discipline (perhaps the biggest hurdle for anyone wearing the silver and black) while revamping a potentially dominant defense the Oakland Raiders could be a force in the AFC West. Certainly no easy task for any coach, especially one traversing the path of the NFL as a head coach for the first time, but Dennis Allen's impact could be immense in 2012.
2. St. Louis Rams: Jeff Fisher - Perhaps the biggest, most important victory for the St. Louis Rams in 2011 was winning the battle for Jeff Fisher's coaching services with the Miami Dolphins. Once the longest tenured coach in the NFL (and the only head coach in the Titans franchise history), Fisher and the Titans parted ways after the 2010 season. It appeared both Fisher and the Titans needed a fresh start elsewhere. No one, including the Titans ownership, questioned Fisher's abilities to lead a franchise, but the time had come to move on. The locker room needed a new voice and Fisher needed a break. Sporting an above .500 winning percentage, a Super Bowl appearance and many playoff appearances, Fisher was going to be a catch for whichever team landed his services in the near future. Enter the St. Louis Rams. Fisher may not have the plethora of talent Dennis Allen has in Oakland, but his abundance of coaching experience trumps Allen's obvious shortcomings in that arena. Fisher's cupboards are not completely bare, however, as he has a young, budding star at quarterback and an All-Pro at running back. On the defensive side of the ball, Chris Long is young and loaded with talent; a true cornerstone to build a defense around. Like Allen, Fisher is now coaching is what has been the worst division in the NFL in the past decade, further strengthening the potential for Fisher and the St. Louis Rams. There is no doubting Fisher's coaching abilities, but there is some doubt surrounding the Rams' roster. Short on star power at the skill positions, including a tremendously talented but aging Steven Jackson , a young QB with shattered confidence after a physical and mental beat-down in 2011 and a defense doing their best wet paper-bag impression; there is little room for error for Fisher and the Rams in their first season together. Fisher certainly has his work cut out for him, but history has shown he exhibits the ability to build and sustain a winner. 2012 could be a special year for the Rams, but what does not come in 2012 could very well come shortly thereafter.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Romeo Crennel - Both Dennis Allen's coaching shortcomings and Jeff Fisher's lack of talent may prevent the dramatic turnaround fans of the 49ers experienced in 2011. However, where those two appear to have potential faults, Kansas City Chief's head coach Romeo Crennel seems to have both those bases covered. No team experienced the extent of injuries to such important stars so early in the season as the Chiefs in 2011. By the end of week 2 Kansas City had lost their offensive superstar in Jamaal Charles and defensive standout Eric Berry for the season. Starting QB Matt Cassel would be lost for the season by week 11 and rising young star Tony Moeaki never set foot on the field in 2011. Despite all the injuries, the Chiefs still found themselves one game short of back-to-back AFC West championships. The Green Bay Packers lone loss was in Arrowhead in week 15. Coaching the Chiefs in week 15 was interim coach Romeo Crennel and the players did not wait long to display their support for the beloved defensive coordinator. Crennel, whose previous experience was a 3 year stint in Cleveland, not only has considerably more talent in Kansas City, but a more polished front office headed by Scott Pioli. The Chiefs also have a solid core of starters on both sides of the ball, fully healthy and even added Oakland castoff Stanford Routt to an already strong defensive backfield. A healthy Kansas City team won the division in 2010, proving the talent is there, when healthy, to excel. Where both Allen and Fisher have questions, Crennel has answers in Kansas City, driving the expectations for an immense and immediate impact in 2012 for Crennel and the Chiefs. Crennel is not having to reinvent the wheel in 2012, but instead to get the winning wheel back on track as they roll through the AFC West.