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News » No experience necessary

No experience necessary

No experience necessary
By Howard Fendrich

The Associated Press


By the looks of things in 2008, this whole NFL head-coaching thing is hardly as tough as it's made out to be.

The four men who began the season as first-time bosses, most without having held coordinator titles - Washington's Jim Zorn, Baltimore's John Harbaugh, Miami's Tony Sparano and Atlanta's Mike Smith - are on pace to be the winningest batch of debut coaches since the league went to a 16-game season in 1978.

No group of first-year coaches in place at the start of a season over that span has compiled a better winning percentage than this quartet's .614 so far, according to information provided by STATS.

"New blood, new ideas," said Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president for Football operations. "These guys have new ideas they probably picked up along the line and kind of put in their memory bank: 'If I ever become a head coach, I want to try this.'"

The best end-of-season collective winning percentage for one set of new hires in the past three decades was the .588 for Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren, Bobby Ross, Dennis Green and Dave Shula in 1992 -- a bunch that went on to win two Super Bowls and appear in four others.

Good company. On the other hand, Year 1 does not necessarily predict what's to come. Bill Walsh, remember, was 2-14 in 1979; Bill Parcells went 3-12-1 in 1983. At the other end of the spectrum, Rich Kotite went 10-6 as a rookie in 1991, then 30-50 the rest of his career.

Still, this year's sudden success is breeding optimism among the newcomers' teams. What's been the key?

"Part of it has to be that we've paid attention while we were assistants. We're enthusiastic. We pay attention to details," Zorn said. "I've been in the league as a player and a coach, and I didn't just sit around looking at my own deal. I sat around and said, 'What would I have done in this situation?' I'd already asked and answered a lot of questions."

Smith is the only one who had been an NFL coordinator - he ran Jacksonville's defense last season - though Sparano called plays as an assistant in Dallas, where he oversaw the offensive line. Harbaugh was Philadelphia's secondary coach in 2007 after earning his stripes coaching special teams. Zorn never held an NFL job higher than quarterbacks coach until arriving in Washington.

"I'm proud of the path I took," said Harbaugh, brother of former NFL quarterback and current Stanford Football coach Jim Harbaugh.

If there is a common thread among this group of four, Cerrato noted, it could be that all learned lessons from standout coaches along the way. Smith, for example, talks about gleaning organizational skills from Brian Billick -- his brother-in-law -- and learning about how to deal with players from Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio.

"Look at who their mentors are. Harbaugh's got Andy Reid. You've got Sparano, who was with Bill Parcells. You've got Jim, who was with Mike Holmgren and Bobby Ross. They learned from good people who have won," Cerrato said. "They all probably waited for the opportunity and were preparing for the opportunity while working for these guys who have been successful."

Two got the better of their mentors last Sunday: Harbaugh's Ravens beat Reid's Eagles 36-7, and Zorn's Redskins edged Holmgren's Seahawks 20-17.

Zorn originally was hired away from Holmgren's staff in January to be the Redskins' offensive coordinator. Then, about two weeks later, as the search for someone to succeed Hall of Fame member Gibbs dragged on, Zorn was given the whole team.

"All of us may have been a little surprised that it happened the way it happened," Holmgren said. "But he had worked very, very hard to position himself to at least get a chance."

Not surprisingly, some Redskins initially wondered how the transition from three-time Super Bowl winner Gibbs to the inexperienced Zorn would go.

"Everybody knows coach Gibbs and who he is. Everybody," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "With coach Zorn, everybody had to try to get to know him and work on the relationship."

He and Zorn quickly developed a mutual trust, one that has helped Campbell enjoy by far his best season as a pro, including 10 touchdown passes to three interceptions.

Zorn earned the respect of others, too, even right tackle Jon Jansen, a 10th-year veteran the new coach benched at the start of the season.

"The concern we had was: 'How is he going to handle being in control of everything, instead of just being in control of his position? He didn't get that step where he was just in control of the offense. Now he's got offense and defense and special teams. He's got to worry about 56 guys instead of just 22. How's that pressure going to work for him?'" Jansen said.

"And I think he's done a tremendous job so far of dealing with everything that happens as a Football coach."

Entering today's game against the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, Zorn is 7-4 as an NFL head coach, a mark matched by Harbaugh and Smith. Sparano is 6-5. All have a shot at making the playoffs.

After last weekend, five teams already had more victories than they did all of last season, and three are the Dolphins (1-15 in 2007), Falcons (4-12) and Ravens (5-11).

"It's hard for me to sort of judge myself. I haven't reached a ceiling yet, hopefully," Zorn said. "I think I'm still growing."

John Harbaugh Baltimore Ravens (7-4) Mike Smith

Atlanta Falcons (7-4) Tony Sparano

Miami Dolphins (6-5) Jim Zorn

Washington Redskins (7-4)

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: November 30, 2008

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