Oakland head coach Dennis Allen screams from the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins earlier this month.
By Gerry Dulac Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In many respects, Dennis Allen is a lot like the head coach he will face today when the Oakland Raiders team he has been entrusted to run faces the Steelers.
At 39, Allen is the youngest head coach in the NFL, much like Mike Tomlin was when he was hired at 34 to replace Bill Cowher in 2007.
And, like Tomlin, Allen was considered a rising star in his profession, an assistant coach on the fast path to success even though he had been a defensive coordinator for only one year -- just like Tomlin.
"He is one of the sharpest guys that I've been around," former Dallas Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt said. "He is really, really good and he is very active. I'm really impressed with him. I think the guy is a star in the making."
But there is one very significant difference between Allen, who is still waiting for his first NFL victory, and Tomlin, who has been to two Super Bowls with the Steelers, winning one:
Allen was hired to turn around a franchise that has been the model of instability, an organization that has had seven head coaches in the past 10 years, including three in the past four.
Tomlin, however, is maintaining the model of success for a franchise that has had just three head coaches in the past 43 years, an organization so stable the Raiders look like desert drifters by comparison.
"That's a system," said former Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, an ESPN analyst. "That's what so unique about Pittsburgh and New York and New England and Green Bay, even Houston, where they haven't changed coaches. They have a philosophy and they draft players that way. In the end, it's the same guy."
The Raiders are hoping to change their philosophy in the post-Al Davis era. And they're hoping to change it with a defensive-minded coach whose hiring just might be symptomatic of what's transpiring in the NFL.
A new philosophy
Allen is not just the youngest head coach in the league. He is also the first defensive-oriented coach the Raiders have hired since Hall of Famer John Madden.
In between, the Raiders have had 12 head coaches. All had offensive backgrounds.
The list includes Tom Flores, the only coach other than Madden to win a Super Bowl with the Raiders (1980, 1983); Art Shell, the only head coach to have two tenures with the team; and Jon Gruden. The most recent head coach to take the Raiders to the playoffs was Bill Callahan, who lost to Tampa Bay -- coached by Gruden -- in Super Bowl XXXVII in the 2002 season.
General manager Reggie McKenzie is trying a different approach with Allen, who was the defensive coordinator for only one season with the Denver Broncos. He has the daunting task of turning around a franchise that has had nine consecutive seasons without a winning record.
Facing former defensive coordinators who have become head coaches in the past four years is nothing new for the Steelers.
They opened the season in Denver against John Fox, who is in his second season with the Broncos, and beat the Jets and head coach Rex Ryan, the former defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, 27-10, a week ago.
"It's a great opportunity to get to work here in Oakland," Allen said the other day. "I think it's one of the top franchises in all of sports. I am excited about the opportunity, and we are going to continue to work to try to get the Raiders back to the type of team people were used to seeing in the 1960s, '70s, '80s and even into the '90s."
The reversal of philosophy by the Raiders to hire a defensive-oriented coach might be part of a trend by the rest of the league.
Of the seven new head coaches hired in 2012, five have backgrounds rooted in defense -- Allen, Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis, Romeo Crennel in Kansas City and Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay. The only offensive-oriented coaches hired as head coaches this year are Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville and Joe Philbin in Miami.
Compare that to 2011 when five of the eight head coaches hired were former offensive assistants -- Pat Shurmur in Cleveland, Mike Munchak in Tennessee, Jason Garrett in Dallas, Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco and Hue Jackson in Oakland.
Or 2010 when two of the three new hires were coaches whose signatures were developing quarterbacks and orchestrating offenses -- Mike Shanahan in Washington and Chan Gailey in Buffalo. Even the other head-coaching hire that year -- Pete Carroll in Seattle -- was made because of his reputation for having high-octane offenses in college at Southern California.
"You generally replace the guy opposite of what you had," said Edwards, who began his coaching career on the same staff with Cowher and Tony Dungy under Marty Schottenheimer with the Kansas City Chiefs. "You think you have to change your philosophy, so that's what you do. All of a sudden, it's a new philosophy, whether it's offense or defense, and then it all boils down to the players fitting the system. Can he get them to play what he likes for them to do?"
And so it is with the Raiders.
Not since 2009, when six of the 11 new head coaches had defensive backgrounds, has the league seen so many defensive-oriented coaches entrusted with turning around a franchise. Curiously, though, only two coaches from that class remain -- Rex Ryan with the New York Jets and Jim Schwartz of the Detroit Lions. Both were former defensive coordinators. One of those who were fired: Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley by the Chiefs.
In a league where offenses are putting up record passing numbers, are teams now looking to hire coaches who have the background to stop them?
"I think that's a theory," said Brandt, who does a radio show for Sirius Satellite Radio and is an NFL.com contributor. "I don't think we're ever going to slow down the offenses. We're too good at throwing the ball."
Brandt pointed out that in 1956, none of the four quarterbacks who would eventually go into the Hall of Fame -- Bobby Layne, Y.A. Tittle, Norm Van Brocklin and Johnny Unitas -- completed more than 60 percent of their passes or threw more touchdowns than interceptions.
Last year, 18 of the top-rated 33 passers completed more than 60 percent of their passes and 25 of the 33 had more touchdowns than interceptions.
"I don't think it's a trend," Brandt said about hiring more defensive-minded head coaches. "I think it just happens that way. Some years there are more defensive guys and some years there are more offensive guys.
"Today, it's so much different than it used to be. They got 21 coaches on some teams today."
'Hire the best guy'
The Steelers, of course, are the template for coaching stability, having hired just three head coaches since 1969 -- Chuck Noll, Cowher and Tomlin. And it might not be a coincidence that all three had backgrounds as defensive assistants.
The Rooney family did not look for a change of philosophy when hiring a coach, as some teams do to change their fortune. They found the person who fit their philosophy.
Nobody understands that better than Haley, who was hired this year after being let go as head coach in Kansas City.
Haley was hired by the Chiefs in 2009 to replace Edwards, who had won just two of his final 25 games. Edwards was a defensive-minded coach who was also considered a player-friendly coach. Haley was the opposite -- an offensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals who was known to have sideline confrontations with his top players.
When Haley was fired, the Chiefs went back the other way. They promoted Crennel, a defensive-minded coach who, like Edwards, is considered player-friendly.
"Those teams are the ones who are searching a lot," Haley said. "You hire the best guy for your organization, like they did here. The Steelers generally do it right. They hire the best possible fit for their team, who you think will be the best leader for your team. It ain't happening by accident."
The Steelers went outside their organization to hire Tomlin, who had been the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings for one season. They did the same with Cowher, who was the defensive coordinator in Kansas City; and Noll, who was a secondary coach with the San Diego Chargers.
Like a lot of defensive coordinators-turned-head coach, Tomlin did not come in and call the plays for the Steelers defense. In his case, he didn't have to because the team already had defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in place.
Some, like Ryan, have done that. Lovie Smith did it for a brief period in Chicago. But Marvin Lewis, who ran one of the best defenses in NFL history with the Ravens, has never done it in 10 seasons as the head coach with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Allen will not do it, either. He leaves the defensive signals to his coordinator, Jason Tarver. The other new head coaches who were defensive coordinators are doing the same.
The situation is a little different in St. Louis where Fisher's coordinator, Gregg Williams, is serving an indefinite suspension for his role in Bountygate when he was with the New Orleans Saints. Blake Williams, Gregg's son, is calling the plays with input from Fisher, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis, and secondary coach Chuck Cecil.
And, in Tampa Bay, Schiano leaves the play-calling to defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, though he has a say when the team blitzes and, of course, made the call to go after Eli Manning on the kneel-down play.
"I have to be careful here, but he reminds me a lot of Landy," said Brandt, referring to former Cowboys coach Tom Landry, with whom he worked for 29 seasons. "He has a really good grasp of everything. It doesn't matter if it's offense, defense or special teams. These days, a lot of coaches know offense well or defense very well, but not a lot know a lot of the nuances about offense, defense and special teams. I think this guy is going to be a very, very good coach."