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Coaching Candidates Conversation Lively
Responses to last week's article on head coaching candidates
by Joe Chenelly
December 2, 2003

Don’t be fooled by one decent performance against the New Jersey Giants. Where was that all season? I think the Bills just want to blow their draft possibilities. There is still a lot of work to do in the offseason. Thanks for the many e-mails last week. I tried to address many of the questions posed in the following text.

Coaches

Rumors are abound that Jim Haslett, the New Orleans Saints beleaguered head coach, is the leading candidate to replace Gregg Williams in Buffalo.

First off, I don’t think Haslett will leave the Saints this offseason. He is in the middle of a five-year deal worth about $15 million. Saints owner Tom Benson gave Haslett the contract in 2002. Benson would have to eat $3 million a year through ’06 if he presented Haslett with walking papers. The rumors are due to a reported “out clause” in his contract that would allow him to leave for another job. That job is believed to be Buffalo, where he played and where his wife, Beth, is a native.

Haslett’s connections to Buffalo are strong. He was an NFL linebacker for nine seasons (1979-1987), the first eight as a Bill. His first coaching job was with the University of Buffalo.

As a linebacker, he earned a spot on the 1980 first-team all-AFC squad. He was a hard-nosed player and has tried to bring that attitude to his coaching.

Haslett got off to a fast start as a rookie head coach. He surprised nearly everyone in 2000 when he led New Orleans to the NFC West title in his first season. He capped the season by leading the Saints to their first-ever playoff victory. He was awarded NFL Coach of the Year honors after his team had a six-game winning streak, defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Rams in St. Louis, and posted the club's best record (10-6) in eight years.

Everyone in the “Big Easy” was excited, much like Bills fans were after Week Two earlier this season. But the next two years saw a talent-laden Saints team fold in each December and fail to make the playoffs.

His team finished near the bottom of league in points-allowed every year since 2000. However, his offense has always been in the top half of the league in scoring and total yardage, and last year it was third best in the league. The bottom-line, though, after an 11-7 (including 1-1 in the playoffs) record in his first year, the Saints are 22-22 since (including a 6-6 record so far in 2003).

Another slide in December would likely bring out the Louisiana headhunters, but I don’t think that will happen. They will face the seriously struggling Buccaneers, Giants and Jaguars the next three weeks, and finish up against the Cowboys. They should win three out of four of those. That would put them at 9-7, which will probably afford them a chance to play in January again.

So, taking all that into account—don’t get excited. Haslett isn’t going anywhere. In Buffalo, he probably wouldn’t get the money or the extent of control he has now.

Just in case he bolts, here is a little more about the guy: His coaching background includes stints as an assistant with the Oakland Raiders (linebackers coach from 1993-94), Saints (linebackers coach and defensive coordinator 1995-96), and Pittsburgh Steelers (defensive coordinator from 1997-99). He also spent some time coaching in the World League.

Haslett’s situation in New Orleans is way too familiar for Bills fans. If you look at his team on paper, they should be solid contenders. But recently, they have looked very disorganized. They’ve had ample opportunities to win key games, but time and time again, the Saints gave their opponents even more chances. Penalties, mental mistakes and bad play calling have caused N.O.’s shortcomings this season. Sound familiar?

Much like Gregg Williams, Haslett describes himself as a "detail freak." Many of us, myself included, believed Williams, so understand while I remain a skeptic.

Lastly, it is always important to note that his players have rallied around him many times. He is tough yet still popular among his players. The ability to combine those two ingredients is a sure sign of a good coach.

Now, Haslett may not be the problem in New Orleans, but then-again, Williams may not be the problem in Buffalo. Really, I think Haslett could fit in well with the Bills, but I’d hate to see him ruin his career, which is what tanking in Buffalo would do. I hope he stays with the Saints.

I received several e-mails defending Jim Fassel. It is a given that he won't be back with the Giants in 2004, and I still don’t want him in Buffalo. It doesn’t really matter because I think he will take a pay cut and land in Arizona, where he was once an assistant.

Nothing against Fassel. He is a decent head coach, and should do well with the Cardinals. But the Bills need someone who will come in and grab the team by the scruff of its neck, yank it off the road to nowhere and firmly set it on the path to the postseason. Fassel is not the type of guy who grabs anything.

A lot of e-mails I received proclaimed a current college coach would come to the Bills. As a position coach? Fine. As a head coach? No, no, no. Steve Spurrier made that huge leap a few years back. He was widely considered “ready for the NFL.” Look at his team now. The Redskins, who forked over $25 million, are paying more for a coach than any other team, and they just can’t win. Spurrier will head back to the college ranks soon and never return to the NFL. That is what happens when people rush things in hopes of buying a championship.

The Bills’ general manager, Tom Donahoe, is going to be under intense pressure to bring in an experienced replacement. That pressure will be from Ralph Wilson Jr. and the fans. As one reader pointed out in an e-mail, the Bills are notorious for being outbid by other clubs for high priced talent. This was true until this past year. Wilson has recently opened his wallet like never before. Don’t forget how he allowed Donahoe to beat out impressive competition for Takeo Spikes and Lawyer Milloy. If Donahoe tells the owner that he needs a top-notch coach to win a championship, I am confident Wilson will write the check without hesitation.

Tom Coughlin, the ex-Jacksonville Jaguars coach, will be a head coach again next year. Insiders with the Giants are already talking loudly about Coughlin. As a former Giants assistant, he is an obvious option for the G-men. But the thought of the sometimes cranky and always blunt Coughlin dealing with the New York media has to be a concern. He didn't get along with the much smaller, nicer media community in Jacksonville. The media is hardly a concern in Buffalo.

Coughlin built his own reputation of being hard-nosed. He once benched his starting running back for four games after fumbling in a key situation. Of course with that philosophy, Travis Henry would have played maybe two games last year, but that is the type of attitude I want in Buffalo. Hold the players and coaches accountable. If they don’t perform, they don’t play. Bledsoe would be on the bench, half the o-line would be on another team and Gilbride would be unemployed. I could live with all that.

As you’ll see later in this column, I think Bill Parcells turns his assistant coaches into great football minds. Take Bill Belichick as an example. Coughlin worked under Parcells with the Giants and was offered to take over in 1993. He turned it down because he wanted greater control than he would be allowed. He got it in Jacksonville and did a great job. He has since said total control is no longer a criteria of his.

Rumors have it that Coughlin may take his old quarterback, Mark Brunell, with him when he coaches again. The two didn’t get along that well before, but now they figure to be more valuable as a package for a team like Miami or Arizona. This would only work in the Bills favor if Brunell is interested in being a backup or if the Bills would consider dumping Bledsoe. Neither is likely.

The Bills could always opt to hire an up and coming coordinator who hasn’t had a shot at head coaching yet. I’m not necessarily opposed to this route, but it is far more risky. It can also be very rewarding.

My first choice is Cowboys offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon. Years ago, Bill Parcells told confidants he really wanted to groom Carthon, Parcells’ former fullback, to become an NFL head coach. Carthon is a tell-it-like-it-is type of guy who can relate to a locker room as well as anybody. Plus, learning from Parcells for all of these years has to be worth something.

My second choice is Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Sorry Dallas, but as I said before, picking through Parcells assistant coaching staff is like gold mining. Zimmer may very well be the next Belichick. He currently leads the NFL's top-rated defense—Number 1 run defense, No. 1 pass defense and No. 1 in total yards allowed. How’s that for performance?

Dallas assistant head coach Sean Payton. Okay this is the last Cowboy coach I’ll mention today. Kerry Collins was considered a has-been when he fell under Payton’s command. Payton worked his magic with Collins and helped guide the Giants’ offense to a Super Bowl. Anyone else think Drew Bledsoe could use just such a coach? Payton answered an invite by the Tuna and has propped up another quarterback thought to be a goner. Payton's work with Quincy Carter cannot be overlooked in the team's ascent to legitimate NFC power. Payton provides all the intangibles a team would like if it were looking to inject a young, offensive-minded presence. Yeah, the Bills could use that.

Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Nolan first shined as a defensive coordinator in 1993 with the Giants. He then worked wonders in Washington. Then he returned to New Jersey as defensive coordinator with the Jets. He actually improved the Jets defense (as far as statistics go) from Belichick’s unit the previous year. His latest achievement came the last two years in Baltimore as he led one of the NFL’s most physical defenses.

Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Weis was the talk of the NFL after the 2001 Super Bowl, but a disastrous gastric bypass procedure postponed his inevitable climb to the head coaching level. Weis is a great coach who has started from ground zero in the NFL and learned on several different levels. Carolina wanted to hire him as coordinator but Weis promised his family at the time he wouldn't move unless it was for a head coach job. With Bledsoe under center, I think Weis would be willing to pack up. Weis called Bledsoe’s contribution to the Super Bowl run “invaluable.” He said without Bledsoe, “None of this would have been possible.”

By the way, I hope no one is feeling sorry for Gregg Williams. Once he is set free, he will be very popular among teams seeking a new defensive coordinator.

The O-Line

I was thumbing through my new Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary the other day when I came across a familiar face. It was Ruben Brown’s mug—right next to the word “overrated.” He makes the Pro Bowl every year, gets a very hefty paycheck every autumn and lets one pass rusher through after another every Sunday, when he isn’t being called for false start or holding. Actually, I think he is the weakest link on the Bills.

Word is the front office is starting to notice this too. It is about time. I’ve been saying Brown needs to go since he blamed Jim Kelly’s mobility (or lack there of) for a rash of sacks back in the mid-1990s. Five quarterbacks later, that rash is still out of control.

As long as I’m tossing daggers at the oh-so deserving offensive line, what is going on with the Bills’ 2002 first round draft choice? Mike Williams was picked fourth overall. It was widely believed he would be the best right tackle in football by now. From my vantage point, he hasn’t progressed much in his second year, and I don’t see any sign of him becoming a dominant player. Hey, he’s getting paid, so who cares—right, Mike? Go learn how to drive!

Glad You’re Gone

Anyone else not missing Bruce Smith? The co-holder of the “all-time” career sack record went straight to Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder when he wanted more playing time to pursue the record for sacks, bypassing coach Steve Spurrier. At the Redskins game last Sunday afternoon, the fans weren’t calling out the usual “Bruuuuu” when Smith took the field. They were actually booing. I would be very happy to see Spurrier end Smith’s career today. He represents a lot of what is wrong with professional sports. All he is worried about is himself. He was the same way in Buffalo. I am just thankful he didn’t get a sack against the Bills earlier this season.

Correction

In my column last week, “Head Coaching Candidates,” I identified Ted Cottrel as the assistant coach who coached the Bills to a 1-2 record when Marv Levy was out a few years back. That honor goes to the late Elijah Pitts. Thank you, Mr. Matt Stewart, for bringing that obvious mistake to my attention.




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