There is still one vacancy left unfilled but for the most part ever new NFL head coach is in place. Based on current outlooks, which of them can make it to the playoffs in 2014?
Bill O’Brien – Houston Texans – Playoffs: 50%
Looking at it from a simplified perspective, the Houston Texans don’t have a lot of roster holes that need filling for 2014. That is always great news for a rookie head coach like Bill O’Brien. Unfortunately, the one spot that badly needs a replacement is the hardest one to fill. Houston needs a quarterback. O’Brien is no stranger to that as an offensive coach, and the good news is he holds the rights to the #1 pick in the 2014 draft. That means if he wants a player either in the college class or via a trade then he should be able to get them. Naturally the issue at hand is once he has that player, can he get the most out of him? Such situations are typically hit or miss, which is why Houston could easily return to playoffs or fall apart for a second-straight year.
Lovie Smith – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Playoffs: 45%
One thing fans can rest assured about is Lovie Smith will get the most out of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense. However, the real judgment for his early tenure will be on how he handles things on offense. He seems to have stability with a good offensive line, receivers and running backs. Based on past history the real sticking point will be his handling of the quarterback position. During his first year in Chicago he started three different quarterbacks. He’s also the coach who believed firmly in Rex Grossman. His decisions regarding second-year starter Mike Glennon could have a drastic impact on the Bucs and their playoff hopes. At present, given that division with Carolina and New Orleans, they have a shot but will need to get off to strong start.
Jim Caldwell – Detroit Lions – Playoffs: 70%
If any team can be called a “favorite” to reach the playoffs with a new coach in 2014, it would be the Detroit Lions. Like Houston, they have a young, talented roster already in place. The difference for new head man Jim Caldwell is that he already has a proven quarterback in place with Matthew Stafford. There are some problems to work out, namely in regards to discipline and consistency but if Caldwell can reach his new players and get them all the same page, they’ve proven they can compete with the top teams in the league. What will be interesting is to see how he formulates his new coaching staff. Not all changes might be considered good ones. Caldwell needs to put together a strong group otherwise he might experience the same pitfalls as he did in Indianapolis.
Ken Whisenhunt – Tennessee Titans – Playoffs: 40%
His record of success during his early seasons in Arizona were reasons behind why the Tennessee Titans hired him. However, Ken Whisenhunt, in many ways, is somewhat of a wild card. There is no question he did some great things for the Cardinals including build one of the better defenses in the league and having the wherewithal to sign and then eventually start veteran quarterback Kurt Warner. At the same time he signed off on a trade for Kevin Kolb and let the offensive line become one of the worst in football. Whisenhunt is a good coach, but much of what he does for Tennessee will depend on his handling of the offense, specifically the quarterback position. If he sticks with Jake Locker, the chances are he won’t make the NFL playoffs.
Jay Gruden – Washington Redskins – Playoffs: 30%
Probably the biggest project for any head coach in 2014 is the one Jay Gruden has ahead of him with the Washington Redskins. He has some nice offensive pieces in place to work with, starting with Robert Griffin III. The big problem is what to do about their defense? It simply was not good all season and needs a vast overhaul for next year from the line to the secondary. Being an offensive coach much of this will depend on how he puts together his defensive staff. If he does well, the Redskins can rediscover that playoff magic. However, the task is daunting.
Mike Zimmer – Minnesota Vikings – Playoffs: 45%
Coming from the Bill Parcells camp, there is no question Mike Zimmer knows the job ahead of him. As a defensive specialist he should be able to revamp a Minnesota Vikings defense that was among the worst in the NFL. He will still have Adrian Peterson, which should give him offensive stability. In order to solidify his chances in a tough NFC North though he must unravel the tangle of problems going on at the quarterback position. Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel have had good moments but don’t seem like franchise players while Josh Freeman is a lost cause altogether. Zimmer needs to demonstrate decisiveness in sorting out that mess and giving the Vikings clear direction. If he pulls it off, they could turn right around and make it to January for the second time in three years. It’s still a long shot.