by Jeff West
September 5, 2004
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    Many fantasy owners spend hours analyzing and overanalyzing NFL players.  They dissect stats, search for trends, and consider variables like home and away production, split stats, and red zone targets.  I've even read articles explaining how the new pass interference enforcement will allow the WRs to post outrageous numbers in 2004.  However fantasy owners often overlook one crucial element to fantasy success: the coaches.  NFL head coaches have a more dramatic influence over fantasy football than one might think.  Some coaches institute fantasy-friendly systems while others are motivators who inspire their players to greater accomplishments or disciplinarians who demand greatness on every play.  Each coach will have a profound effect on the fantasy production of the players on his team.

    There were a number of coaching changes in the NFL during the off-season.  Dennis "Sheriff" Green brings his brand of law and justice to the desert southwest.  Joe Gibbs leaves the raceway to return to the Beltway.  Norv Turner is the latest to try to work under egomaniacal owner Al Davis.  Tom Coughlin will attempt to bring his no-nonsense, blue-collar attitude to the Big Apple.  Newcomers to the head-coaching ranks include Mike Mularkey in Buffalo, Lovie Smith in Chicago, and Jim Mora, Jr.  in Atlanta.  In this article I will examine each of the coaches and detail how their leadership will affect your fantasy players.  I'll look at their past performance to see if any of that information is applicable to their new teams.

  • Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
    Tom Coughlin seems to adjust his offensive system to the players he has.  In the Jaguars second year (1996), the team had the number-one ranked passing offense while the rushing offense was average at best.  Just three years later (1999), RBs James Stewart and Fred Taylor combined for 1600 rushing yards and 19 TDs in a RBBC.  By 2002, Fred Taylor was rushing for 1300 yards, but had less TDs than Stacey Mack.  That year the Jags passing game ranked 30th in the NFL.

    2004 Outlook: Since Coughlin tends to design his offense around his players, look for Tiki Barber to be used a bit less than he was in the past couple years (especially if he continues his fumbling ways) while Dayne picks up some more carries, especially those around the goal-line.  Coughlin will also look to exploit the talents of Amani Toomer, however the Giants' lack of a solid offensive line and uncertain QB play could mean that those attempts are not as fruitful initially.  Coughlin will install an efficient offense that focuses on minimization of mistakes.  Since the Giants have mediocre talent, I'd expect a mediocre year offensively.
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  • Joe Gibbs, Washington Redskins
    Like Coughlin, Joe Gibbs was famous for adapting his offensive philosophy to the talent of his teams.  In 1983 through 1985, Gibbs built his team around RB John Riggins and the Skins had one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL while the passing game was efficient, but not worthy of much fantasy merit (even with Joe Theismann and Art Monk).   From 1986 (with QB Jay Schroeder) through 1991 (with QB Mark Rypien), the Redskins were among the most proficient passing offenses in the NFL (including 1989 when they produced three 1000-yard receivers).

    2004 Outlook: The Redskins acquired one of the best RBs in the league in Clinton Portis during the off-season, so expect Gibbs to run more often than not.  He gave the ball to John Riggins 375 times in 1983, so he's not averse to running a man into the ground.   While Riggins was a grinder who averaged less than four yards a carry, Portis is explosive and could do much more damage.  However, the current Skins offensive line is not nearly as good as the Hogs of the mid-80s, and Portis might not be durable enough to handle the increased workload.  I'd anticipate that Laveranues Coles (health permitting) will have another decent year as, even in the run-heavy Riggins years, Monk still managed to get his yards.  Gibbs should also find a way to use Rod Gardner's and Darnerian McCants's height and athleticism to full advantage.  The QB issue is still unresolved, however I would expect Mark Brunell to get the nod over Patrick Ramsey because of his experience and his exorbitant salary.  Pay special attention to Washington's opponents.  Gibbs built much of his success by finding the opposing teams' weaknesses and exploiting them.
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  • Dennis Green, Arizona Cardinals
    The Sheriff is a gun-slinger, as evidenced by his Vikings having a top 10 passing offense in seven of his nine full years coaching.  Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, and Daunte Culpepper produced some of the best NFL seasons under him.  Randy Moss emerged as the best NFL WR and Cris Carter had eight straight 1000-yard seasons under Green.   Green has had moderate success with the running game, with Terry Allen and Robert Smith having good seasons during their careers under Green's tutelage.  Green's offense's consistently ranked amongst the best in yards and points.

    2004 Outlook: Much like the great Carter/Reed and Carter/Moss duos from Minnesota, Arizona has some very talented young WRs.  Anquan Boldin produced an outstanding rookie year and many experts believe that Larry Fitzgerald is the best rookie WR to enter the league since Randy Moss.  Add in 2003 first-rounder Bryant Johnson and an experienced pass-catching TE in Freddie Jones and there is potential for greatness in the near future.  If the WRs can stay healthy (something they are not currently doing) and QB Josh McCown can play like Green says he can, then watch out.  Green had a number of different QBs in Minnesota and was able to be successful with all of them, so it is possible that McCown could enjoy previously unexpected success in Green's offense.  The rushing game is a shambles right now and does not look to get better any time soon.  Unfortunately, this lack of a viable rusher will take some of the fire out of a potentially explosive passing game.
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  • Jim Mora, Jr., Atlanta Falcons
    This is Mora's first head coaching opportunity, although he has been in the NFL for 20 seasons as an assistant and coordinator.  He most recently served as a defensive coordinator for the Niners from 1999-2003.  Mora was brought in to revitalize the weak Falcons defense, so in order to accommodate the weapons on offense, he will be assisted by former Niners' offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.  Knapp is installing a version of the West Coast Offense for the Falcons.  Mora insists that he wants an offense that is up-tempo and aggressive (both running and passing).

    2004 Outlook: Mora has some offensive weapons in Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn, TJ Duckett, Alge Crumpler, and Peerless Price.  Many of those players should thrive in the WCO.  While it is unrealistic to expect miracles the first year under a new offensive system, the Falcons should be able to move the ball and put points on the board.  I'd expect Crumpler and Price to have much better years in the new offense than they did in 2003.  Warrick Dunn will also be a more important weapon as a safety valve in the passing game.  Vick won't be scrambling quite as much as he has in the past as he will be expected to get rid of the ball more quickly using shorter passing routes, but an increased completion percentage and more passing yards will compensate nicely.  The RBs will get plenty of opportunities as well, as Knapp is a proponent of a balanced run/pass offense.  The addition of former Broncos' offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, will no doubt make the Falcons a better unit as well.
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  • Mike Mularkey, Buffalo Bills
    Mularkey joins the Bills as a head coach after serving as the Steelers' offensive coordinator for the past three years.  It is difficult to read Mularkey's past work in order to predict the future as he worked with a fairly conservative head coach in Cowher.  He also had QB, RB, and O-line issues that did not lend themselves to success.  In 2001 he oversaw the top rushing team in the NFL.  However, that statistic is misleading and must be looked at with a critical eye.  While Jerome Bettis did produce a 1000 yard season, and Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala combined for another 900, the Steelers had a running QB in Stewart and an outstanding defense that allowed the Steelers to focus on running out the clock once they grabbed a lead.  The following two years saw a heavy reliance on the passing game to move the offense.

    2004 Outlook: Mularkey plans to use the weapons he has in Buffalo and design a balanced offense that accounts for the team's strengths.  Buffalo has thrown the ball more than it should have over the past two years, especially considering the presence of Travis Henry (and now Willis McGahee).  The Bills O-line is sub par as pass blockers (as evidenced by the 51 sacks they gave up in 2003), but Mularkey recognizes this and is developing a passing game that will allow Drew Bledsoe to get rid of the ball more quickly through shorter routes and outlets to the backs.  Look for Bledsoe to have much better numbers than 2003 and for the receivers (Eric Moulds, Josh Reed, and Lee Evans/Bobby Shaw) to be utilized more effectively.
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  • Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears
    Lovie Smith was most recently the defensive coordinator who was responsible for turning a horrendous Rams' defense into a respectable one.  While his expertise is on the defensive side of the ball, he intends to implement an offense similar to that of the Rams/Chiefs.  To that end, Smith brought in a new offensive coordinator in Terry Shea, who most recently was the QB coach for the Chiefs under Vermeil.  Interestingly, Shea learned offense initially under Bill Walsh, the innovator who developed the West Coast Offense in the 1980s.

    2004 Outlook: Rex Grossman is excited to be a QB in the new system.  The previous system employed by the Jauron regime was very conservative, while this one will be an aggressive, attacking system.  Grossman, however, may not be the ideal QB for the new system.  Shea's system will look to get the ball downfield and Grossman is reputed to lack the arm strength to get the ball there consistently and accurately.  The Bears also have some issues at WR.  Having traded away their best WR (Marty Booker) for defensive help, they are left with perennial underachiever David Terrell as the main focus of the passing game.  Lovie Smith should be able to motivate Terrell enough to produce.  Unheralded Bobby Wade, Justin Gage, and rookie Bernard Berrian will look to fill in the rest of the WR spots.  The only bright spot for Chicago is that, under the same system, Kansas City had an outstanding passing game with less than outstanding receivers.  The running game is also a question mark.  The Bears brought in Thomas Jones in the off-season, who they plan to turn into the next Marshall Faulk or Priest Holmes.  Jones certainly has the physical skills to get the job done, but in four NFL seasons has never lived up to the hype.  If he fails again, the Bears have a viable number-two RB in Anthony Thomas.
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  • Norv Turner, Oakland Raiders
    Norv Turner has an extensive coaching resume, including a head coaching stint in Washington.  Most recently he served as the offensive coordinator in Miami.   Two things we know about Norv are his love of the smash-mouth running game and the downfield passing attack.  RBs like Emmitt Smith, Terry Allen, Stephen Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Ricky Williams all have had monstrous years under his watch.  His WRs are consistently amongst the league leaders in yards per catch.  Over the years, his offenses have tended the throw the ball more than they ran the ball, despite the presence of some big-time RBs.  However, despite this tendency, Norv has only seen his teams throw for more than 4000 yards in a season once between 1991 and 2003.  In many cases, Norv has joined a team that already had established stars, so his moniker as an offensive guru could be deceptive.

    2004 Outlook: With an improving offensive line, Norv should be able to run the ball efficiently with Tyrone Wheatley and Justin Fargas.  Of the two, Wheatley seems to fit the Turner running style a bit better.  The Raiders also have the weapons necessary to establish the downfield passing game.  Jerry Porter could really benefit from this philosophy as he is the type of WR who can go long.  However, it appears that Rich Gannon is still the starting QB heading into the regular season and his skills are better suited for a shorter, more accuracy-dependent passing game.  Kerry Collins, who is still riding shotgun at this point, is an ideal fit for the Turner offense and should supplant Gannon at some point.  If Gannon cannot get the job done and Collins does get the call, the offense could become a true juggernaut.
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    Paying attention to the histories and tendencies of head coaches can really help fantasy owners make better decisions.  Don't rely solely on past statistics without considering the current personnel.  Conversely, don't assume that a good player would enjoy the same success under different coaches.  Would you be interested in Trent Green as a fantasy QB if he played for Marty Schottenheimer instead of Dick Vermeil?  

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