In the months since the end of the 2015 NFL season, fans of the Minnesota Vikings and the other three teams in the NFC North have been marking down the days until they can reshape the landscape of the division.
Retirements? Check. Re-signings? Check. Free agency? Check. The draft? Check.
One area that has been largely ignored is the differences on the coaching staffs. Those who move the human chess pieces across the board in many ways are just as important as the players who execute the plays they call.
For the coaching staffs in the NFC North, there has been a lot more stability this offseason than there is in the other seven divisions. No head coaches were fired in the NFC North. No coaching staffs underwent an overhaul. But there were subtle changes made to each coaching staff within the division.
The Vikings made very few changes to their coaching staff, but the coaches they added bring along a wealth of experience with them. To coach the offensive line, the Vikings brought in 16-year coaching veteran Tony Sparano. Sparano is likely best remembered as the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, but he also has experience coaching with the Browns, Redskins, Jaguars, Cowboys, Jets, Raiders and 49ers. This isn’t his first rodeo.
The same can be said for new tight ends coach Pat Shurmur. He also began his pro coaching career in 1999 and spent two years as the head coach of the Browns, along with stints in Philadelphia and St. Louis. Between Shurmur and Sparano, the Vikings have added a wealth of coaching experience to the team without a shakeup of the remainder of the staff.
Like the Vikings, Green Bay made a pair of outside coaching hires – both on the offensive side of the ball. Of the three new coaches in new positions, all of them are at offensive skill positions – the hiring of former Rams running backs coach Ben Sirmans and tight ends coach Brian Angelichio, formerly from Cleveland. Coming off a year when the Packers had their share of offensive struggles following the loss of wide receiver Jordy Nelson, change came quickly to the supporting staff, which also includes the internal promotion of wide receivers coach Luke Getsy.
In Chicago, the Bears lost offensive coordinator Adam Gase to the Miami head coaching job, which led to the promotion of quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains to the position of offensive coordinator. To fill the coaching void, Chicago hired former Tennessee and Washington assistant Dave Ragone to coach the quarterbacks and dipped into the college ranks to land Curtis Johnson, who spent the last four years as the head coach at Tulane.
Detroit, too, made coaching changes just to the offensive side of the ball as Jim Caldwell was able to avoid being fired, but needed to overhaul the offensive staff. Former Broncos assistant quarterbacks coach Brian Callahan was brought in to work with Matthew Stafford and the other QBs. Caldwell reunited with new running backs coach David Walker, who held the same position with the Colts when Caldwell was the head man. Like the Bears, the Lions also reached into the college coaching pool. The new tight ends coach is Ted Golden, who spent the last five years as the head coach at the University of Miami.
At a time 25 percent of the league is getting to know new head coaches, that wasn’t the case in the NFC North. McCarthy is entering his 10th season as the head coach of the Packers, Zimmer and Caldwell are both entering their third season in Minnesota and Detroit, respectively, and John Fox is in his second season with the Bears.
Whether the shuffling of coaching spots for all four teams will greatly impact the product on the field will only be known over time, but it would seem clear that all four teams have made a concerted effort to tweak their offenses heading into the 2016 season and are hoping that putting a new set of eyes on their product will have positive results.