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Assistants often mean $

Jul 20, 2004 4:24 AM

Football head coaches get all the glory, but top assistants can be extremely important in a team’s success or failure.

Offensive and defensive coordinators have great influence on game plans and a unit’s effectiveness. They are also often the NFL star head coaches of tomorrow. Two assistants from last season, Lovie Smith and Mike Mularkey, take over as NFL head coaches for the first time this fall in Chicago and Buffalo.

Assistants can be just as important as the head coach. Buddy Ryan was the principle architect of the Bears’ 46 defense that led the way to the 1986 Super Bowl. He left the team after that victory and Chicago never returned, despite a ton of talent at head coach Mike Ditka’s disposal. Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells’ longtime defensive coordinator, won two Super Bowls since parting ways with "The Tuna." Let’s look at some important changes in NFL offensive and defensive coordinators this offseason.

Kansas City: The Chiefs had it all last year. Through the first nine weeks of the schedule they sat 9-0 SU/8-1 ATS. After that, the weak link (a miserable defense) flashed its ugly head and the Chiefs fizzled faster than a Fresca doing the rhumba. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson resigned after KC finished 29th in total defense, allowing an NFL worst 5.2 yards per carry.

New coordinator Gunther Cunningham comes aboard as a proponent of aggressive, hard-hitting units, which Head Coach Dick Vermeil wants. Cunningham knows about tough defenses, having been the Tennessee Titans linebackers coach the last few years. He was also the Chiefs defensive coordinator from 1995-98. Cunningham went 16-16 as head coach from 1999-2000. In 1995 and 1997, the Chiefs allowed the fewest points in the NFL.

Green Bay: The Packers did just about everything right last season GB had a balanced offense, a powerful running game (3rd in the NFL) behind Ahman Green and a defense that was 10th against the run. The only weak spot was a pass defense that ranked 22nd and, boy, did that deficiency rear its ugly head in the playoffs when the Eagles completed that stunning fourth-and-26 pass late in the game.

So new defensive coordinator Bob Slowik steps up to try and mend the wounds. Slowik had been the defensive backs coach the last four years. Head Coach Mike Sherman promoted him because he didn’t want to start from scratch. Slowik has been a defensive coordinator in the NFL twice before — the Bears from 1993-98 and the expansion Browns in 1999.

Buffalo: The Bills went 14-2 "under" the total last season! A big reason was an anemic offense as Bills quarterbacks threw 11 TDs and 17 interceptions. This was too bad for Buffalo fans, because the problem in 2002 had been a terrible defense. Despite the bad 2003, the Bills were sensational on ”˜D’, finishing second in the NFL.

A new head coach takes over in Mike Mularkey and a new offensive coordinator in Tom Clements, the former Notre Dame quarterback hero. Mularkey was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and the Steelers’ offense ranked in the top five two of the last three seasons. In his first year, Pittsburgh went to the AFC Championship game with the No. 3 offense in the NFL. In 2002 they were fourth in the scoring in the AFC and Mularkey helped resurrect QB Tommy Maddox with a pass-happy attack that ranked fifth. He hopes to do the same with Drew Bledsoe.

NY Jets: Donnie Henderson takes over the Jets defense for Head Coach Herman Edwards. Why? The Jets defense has parted like the Red Sea the last few years. This may be tough to believe (NY did make the playoffs in 2001 and ’02) but the numbers don’t lie. In 2001 the Jets were 28th in the NFL against the run (4.5 yards per carry), 24th overall in ’02 (4.6 ypc), and last season 28th against the run.

Henderson has never been a coordinator but has experience rebuilding a defense. He had been the secondary coach for the Baltimore Ravens since 1999, getting a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens. The poor ”˜D’ is a big reason the Jets were 2-9 SU and 3-6-2 ATS as an underdog last year.

Minnesota: Ted Cottrell, fired by the Jets, takes over the defense for Mike Tice in Minnesota. Cottrell had philosophical differences with Edwards in failing to get the job done. Cottrell spent three years as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator, during which time the Bills had very strong defenses.

Now he takes over a Minnesota defense that couldn’t stop the run (4.9 yards per carry allowed) or the pass (ranked 26th). Vikings fans might not be patient, either. Minnesota collapsed down the stretch in 2003, blowing a playoff spot (going 3-7 SU, 2-8 ATS) after losing on the final play at Arizona, 18-17.