The First-Year Leap

The good, the bad, and the ugly of first-time head coaches.

Decades from now, there will be a college on the hill churning out graduates of some new degree in football executive sabermetrics. The science behind building an NFL franchise will be compartmentalized into multi-layered spreadsheet form and some bored Ph.D. candidate will no doubt have a laugh when studying the numbers of just what the Cleveland Browns were up to in the years following their return to the NFL.

In terms of hiring head coaches, the Browns have basically written a thesis devoted to the practice of rebooting. A quick review of the team's coaching past presents a wide variety of empirical evidence instructing future users on the various options available in jump-starting an NFL franchise.

Over the past decade, the Browns have been led by two coordinators without previous head coaching experience, a successful college coach and another coach fresh off the NFL unemployment line. Or, in terms of coaching "splits", the Browns' hiring pattern has resulted in a cycle of "nice guys" being replaced by disciplinarians – at least until the combined messes of all involved become too overwhelming for even the team's eternally detached owner, Randy Lerner.

On a more optimistic note, the current incarnation of Browns' management may actually reflect just that. For the first time in the team's expansion era, clearly defined roles are present within the organization. The hiring of the team's newest head coach, Pat Shurmur, could be considered a seminal expansion moment if only for the fact that a true football executive in Mike Holmgren made the final decision.

As for what Shurmur will eventually bring to the team, much is unknown. Shurmur has an offensive background and possesses some ties to Holmgren. Both factors could be considered significant, as Shurmur will assume responsibility for the team's long-suffering offense and in a sense, become a bridge to both Holmgren's NFL past and future.

However, the idea of sabermetrics tends to remove such romantic or idealistic bonds and focus solely on the concrete reality of a performer. In this case, Shurmur's success will be dictated by how quickly he can turn the Browns into an on-field playoff contender. Obviously, this is asking a lot of a rookie head coach – especially one whose roster is nearly as inexperienced.

Yet, if we take a look back at some other recent first-year head coaches, stranger things have happened.

First, here's a sample of some of the league's champion coaches.

Bill Belichick - 5-11 - 2000

We all are painfully aware of Belichick's Cleveland tenure in the early 1990's. Although much of the narrative regarding Belichick revolves around his sour demeanor and ill-timed mid-season release of Bernie Kosar, Belichick managed to produce a playoff winner before the team was jettisoned to Baltimore. However, for this particular exercise, it's more interesting to take a look at Belichick's first season as coach of the Patriots – the team he eventually led to three Super Bowl championships.

It's hard to fathom now considering Belichick's Hall of Fame resume, but the wheels fell off his first Patriots' squad. The 2000 Patriots fell to 5-11 and suffered a steep decline defensively. In most respects, Belichick's still heavy-handed coaching approach was quite the departure from the more free-wheeling Pete Carroll and the effects were seen as the team struggled to transition. However, all things being equal, the 2000 season was merely a preamble for what was to follow in New England over the next decade.

Mike Shanahan - 7-9 - 1988

Much like Belichick, Shanahan had to struggle before turning the Broncos into two-time champions. Inconsistent quarterback play, a leaky defense and meddling owner reflected Shanahan's rookie campaign in Oakland which generated a 7-9 record in 1988. However, Shanahan's first season in Denver produced an 8-8 record and helped to revitalize what had become a moribund offense. The momentum carried over into the next three seasons, as Shanahan's Broncos won a combined 39 regular season games and two championships.

Mike Holmgren - 9-7 - 1992

In some respects, Holmgren is the model for Shurmur – at least in terms of immediate familiarity. It's entirely possible to suggest that Holmgren saw visions of himself in Shurmur when making his first Cleveland coaching hire. If so, history could see a similar leap in progression – at least based on Holmgren's first season in Green Bay. Holmgren introduced his Bill Walsh-influenced offense, led by a young Brett Favre. Holmgren's first season produced a 9-7 record, but more importantly gave the Packers a new offensive identity.

Bill Cowher – 11-5 - 1992

Much in the way that Holmgren redefined the Packers for the contemporary era, Cowher formed a bridge to Chuck Noll's Steel Curtain teams of the 1970's by reintroducing classic, physical football to Pittsburgh. Cowher's first season in Pittsburgh was a jolt to the rest of the AFC, as the coach deemed "too young" to take over the Browns by Art Modell a year before, led the Steelers to a division title in 1992. Three years later, the Steelers were playing in a Super Bowl and once again became an elite NFL team.

Mike Tomlin – 10-6 - 2007

Sticking with the Steeler theme, Tomlin – just the team's third head coach in the past 40 years – fell into perhaps the most ideal of situations. Tomlin inherited a Super-Bowl caliber team and delivered another championship to Pittsburgh in 2008. In Tomlin's first season, the novice head coach relied on Cowher's blueprint of physical defense and a churning ground game to channel the team's lost swagger and return them to the playoffs.

Sean Payton – 10-6 - 2006

Payton's one-year turnaround of the Saints could be considered one of the more remarkable coaching feats of the past couple decades. Payton improved a 3-13 team to a 10-6 divisional winner thanks largely to some innovative play calling and the addition of quarterback Drew Brees. In a hopeful nod to Shurmur, Payton handled both coaching and offensive play calling duties and catapulted the Saints into one of the league's most dynamic teams.

Tony Dungy – 6-10 - 1996

Dungy's first season in Tampa Bay produced a team with a marginal record, but laid the groundwork for one of the league's most prolific defenses in recent memory. The Bucs' defense finished among the league's top ten units and despite playing with some horrid offensive talent, including quarterback Trent Dilfer, Dungy's rookie effort saw his team win five of their last seven games.

Jon Gruden – 8-8 - 1998

Statistic-wise, Gruden's first season as Oakland's coach could be characterized as ugly. Using a mélange of quarterbacks that included Donald Hollas, the Raiders clawed their way to an 8-8 mark, which was a four-game improvement over the 1997 season. However, the installation of Gruden's specific brand of West Coast football would have to wait to come to fruition. Two years of veteran additions including Rich Gannon helped Gruden eventually deliver the Raiders a divisional title in 2000.

Brian Billick – 8-8 - 1999

The term "genius" is usually a bit of a reach when it comes to NFL coaches. In the case of Billick, the former Vikings' coordinator was often referred to as an offensive genius, despite the Ravens' decade-long struggles to score points. However, Billick's first season in Baltimore saw a progressive rise in the team's offensive production. A year later, Billick was smart enough to get out of the way of one of the league's best historical defensive units.

Mike McCarthy – 8-8 - 2006

Considering McCarthy's recent elevation into the pantheon of NFL head coaches, it's easy to forget that the former San Francisco offensive coordinator was not a popular hire in Green Bay back in 2006. However, McCarthy managed to return the Packers to respectability in his first season and then slowly re-tooled an aging roster.

While a future Super Bowl may appear out of the realm of the Browns' future, it's worth also taking a look at coaches who eventually experienced moments of playoff success.

Wade Phillips – 9-7 – 1993

Marvin Lewis – 8-8 – 2003

John Fox – 7-9 – 2002

Brad Childress – 6-10 – 2006

Andy Reid – 5-11 – 1999

Two of the above coaches, Reid and Fox, have taken a team to the Super Bowl, while the others have at least visited the playoffs. However, what's more intriguing about this set of coaches is that with the exception of Childress, all improved their teams in their first seasons. Phillips' Denver squad improved by one game, while Reid's Eagles jumped ahead two wins. Most significantly, Lewis and Fox turned around their respective teams in dramatic fashion, as both the Bengals and Panthers won six more games than they had during the previous season.

Pete Carroll – 6-10 – 1994, 10-6 – 1997, 7-9 – 2010

Tony Sparano – 11-5 – 2008

Whisenhunt – 8-8 – 2007

Harbaugh – 11-5 – 2008

Gailey – 10-6 – 1998

There must be something otherworldly about Carroll's personality, as he keeps getting NFL jobs. However, his first-year record as a head coach speaks to the kind of positive energy he has brought to the pre-Belichick Patriots and the playoff-bound Seahawks last season. On a similar note, Whisenhunt managed to change the culture of the perennially suffering Cardinals – a tall task for one of the league's historically bleak franchises. The other coaches in this set enjoyed the comforts of either strong management or solid rosters, as Sparano spearheaded a dramatic Dolphin turnaround, while Harbaugh and Gailey simply managed the status quo in their first seasons.

Gary Kubiak – 6-10 – 2006

Todd Haley – 4-12 – 2009

Raheem Morris – 3-13 – 2009

Jim Schwartz – 2-14 – 2009

Steve Spagnuolo – 1-15 – 2009

But then again, with first-year head coaches, not everything can be good. Of these five names, all suffered in their first seasons, but made modest to tremendous progress in their Sophomore campaigns. Similarly, all of the above tried to install a system far different than the one that preceded them. So far, Haley and Morris have attained the most success, while Schwartz and Spagnuolo have made significant progress. Of course, those first seasons could be considered as a classic NFL example of growing pains.

Speaking of which…

Chris Palmer – 2-14 – 1999

Butch Davis – 7-9 – 2001

Romeo Crennel – 6-10 – 2005

Eric Mangini – 5-11 - 2009

Naturally, all roads lead back to the Browns' expansion malaise. Or, in Shurmur's particular case, he is either escaping from or joining a first-year lineage that in retrospect has been horrifying. However, if we return to the origin of each of the Browns' expansion-age coaches' first seasons, the trend has been surprisingly positive.

For example, Palmer could have been considered for Coach of the Year honors after somehow producing two wins from one of the worst rosters ever put together in league history. Likewise, Davis had the Browns competing until late in his first season, while Crennel's 2005 team proved oddly respectable given their circumstances. In Mangini's case, he suffered from some Belichickian media slings, but his first Browns' squad showed some amazing late-season progress.

And now it's Shurmur's turn.

If the above catalog of first-year head coaches has shown us anything, it is that talent still dictates eventual success. While new systems and changes in culture have affected the success of first-time head coaches, these developments can only take a team so far. The most successful of NFL head coaches enjoyed solid first seasons thanks to players with names such as Brady, Elway, Favre, Brees, Roethlisberger, Warner and Flacco. Cast in the framework of football-saavy front offices, these rookie campaigns can create a winning identity for a franchise down on its luck.

While a first-year leap could be asking a lot of Shurmur – especially given the current labor landscape and roster reconstruction currently unfolding – perhaps some genuine hope appears for the coming seasons. If anything, Shurmur has attached himself to the Browns during a period that has been generally considered as the most positive in terms of team management in some time. Signs are evident of a turnaround at least based on 2010's draft class and the emergence of some key core players in recent years.

In time, the numbers just may favor Shurmur and the Browns.


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