Paying top dollar to assistants becoming a top priority
Paying top dollar to assistants becoming a top priority
By Alex Marvez, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Nick Saban needed less than a month as Dolphins head coach to grasp a concept that the Chargers and Vikings decided to ignore this offseason.
"There's a salary cap on players, but there isn't a salary cap on coaches," Saban said.
Given a blank checkbook by Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga, Saban went about assembling the largest and highest-paid coaching staff in franchise history. That led to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and offensive line coach Hudson Houck receiving the significant raises they deserved.
But the money didn't come from the franchises where they worked magic in 2004.
For a few hundred thousand dollars more a season ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â a relative pittance by NFL standards ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â the Vikings and Chargers probably could have retained Linehan and Houck.
Despite a rash of injuries to key players, including wide receiver Randy Moss, Linehan formulated an offensive attack that ranked fourth in the NFL as Minnesota reached the second round of the playoffs. Linehan also was instrumental in the development of quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who blossomed in his sixth NFL season with an NFL-best 4,717 passing yards as well as 39 touchdown passes with just 11 interceptions.
The performance of Houck's unit was arguably even more impressive as the Chargers finished 12-4 and won the AFC West. Houck molded an offensive line with two rookies and three other new starters, none of whom were first-round picks, into one that allowed just 18 sacks of quarterback Drew Brees while also paving the way for 1,335 rushing yards by LaDainian Tomlinson.
But not even those achievements could prompt two of the NFL's cheapest franchises to open their wallets in January. Minnesota refused to offer contracts to any of its coaches beyond the 2005 season because of their uncertain ownership situation, while the Chargers simply refused to ante up.
So Linehan and Houck join the Dolphins with three-year contracts that average roughly $800,000 a season. Their lesser-paid replacements now face daunting tasks in trying to help Minnesota and San Diego return to the postseason.
New Vikings offensive coordinator Steve Loney is also keeping his position as Minnesota's offensive line coach. Loney juggled both responsibilities at the college level, but there is a dramatic difference in the NFL with the need for quicker adjustments and play calls.
Minnesota's current plan on game days is for Loney to handle play-calling from the sidelines with input from quarterbacks coach Rich Olson, who will be upstairs in the coaches' box, and presumably head coach Mike Tice. Tight ends and assistant offensive line coach John Tice would then assume some of Loney's duties with the line.
Sounds like there are so many chefs in Minnesota's kitchen that even Emeril Lagasse couldn't find room. Plus, Loney has to find a way to compensate for Minnesota's offseason trade of Moss to Oakland while hoping 2005 first-round draft pick Troy Williamson quickly develops into an effective complement to fellow receiver Nate Burleson. Williamson's position coach is Wes Chandler, who replaces Charlie Baggett, another well-compensated pickup by the Dolphins.
Carl Mauck inherits a much more stable situation in San Diego, as the Chargers are the NFL's only team returning all 22 starters from 2004. Mauck, though, has to earn the trust of linemen who flourished under Houck's coaching style. The even-keeled Houck is regarded as one of the game's great teachers, while Mauck has an in-your-face approach that could take some getting used to.
How Mauck and Loney fare in 2005 could impact how other franchises approach assistant coaching salaries in the future. If the Vikings and Chargers don't skip a beat, some teams will still view assistants as widgets who don't require big-money contracts.
It should be noted, though, that the NFL's top franchise already changed its philosophy.
Eric Mangini worked miracles last season as New England's secondary coach, helping the pass defense keep from getting shredded despite a rash of injuries at cornerback. Such work didn't go unnoticed by Saban and new Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel, each of whom tried to add Mangini to their staffs as defensive coordinator.
But the Patriots, who have resisted paying top dollar to assistants in the past, saw how the market was unfolding after Miami and Cleveland were willing to top their $500,000-a-year offer. That led to New England keeping Mangini with a three-year, $2.4 million contract and a promotion to replace Crennel as defensive coordinator.
Here are some other assistant coaches who will be in new positions with teams that finished .500 or better in 2004:
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢Lionel Washington/Joe Baker, Green Bay secondary coaches: While the Packer faithful are thrilled that quarterback Brett Favre has delayed retirement for at least one more season, Green Bay won't be able to make a serious playoff run without improving its secondary. Washington (cornerbacks and nickel packages) and Baker (safeties) have to shore up a secondary that allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a 101.5 rating, 37 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions.
Washington must get cornerback Ahmad Carroll away from the holding penalties that marred his rookie season. Baker has to compensate for standout free safety Darren Sharper's departure with what will most likely be a bargain-basement free agent (Arturo Freeman or Earl Little). Improved play from strong safety Mark Roman also is essential.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢Jeff Jagodzinski, Atlanta offensive line coach: Like Mauck, Jagodzinski is replacing an offensive line guru in Alex Gibbs, who decided to assume a consulting role after the 2004 season. While quarterback Michael Vick deserves plenty of credit for the Falcons leading the NFL in rushing last season with a franchise-record 2,672 yards, Gibbs played a significant role in formulating Atlanta's ground attack.
Jagodzinski has never served as an NFL offensive line coach, but he has produced two Pro Bowl players as a tight ends coach in Bubba Franks and Alge Crumpler. Jagodzinski will also be able to rely on advice from Gibbs.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢Mike Sheppard, New Orleans offensive coordinator: Promoted from quarterbacks coach following Mike McCarthy's departure to San Francisco, the Saints are hoping Sheppard has learned from unsuccessful stints as an offensive coordinator in San Diego (1997 and 1998) and Buffalo (2001). Sheppard has impressed his flock so far, earning praise from Saints players for simplifying the offense. New Orleans hopes to eliminate the pre-snap penalties and need for timeouts that happened too frequently in 2004.
"When a team is thinking too much and it needs to get out and play, then you've got to do something different," tailback Deuce McAllister told The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune.
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