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Penn State Football: 10 NFL Tip-Offs for Hiring Bill O’Brien

by on January 25, 2013 7:30 AM

The No. 1 question I get about Penn State football these days is, “How long is Bill O’Brien going to stay?”

My answer: I don’t know. But I also add that he’s on record as saying three things:

1. He likes it at Penn State.

2. He will be coaching Penn State in 2013.

3. The pinnacle, as he sees it, is the NFL.

“My profession is coaching, and in my profession, the National Football League is the highest level of coaching,” O’Brien said on Jan. 7. “You don't get any higher in coaching than the National Football League.”

So, eventually, we can assume O’Brien – being the Type A, high-achiever that he is -- will head to the NFL. But O’Brien is only 43, so it could be awhile. He does, after all, have nine years left on his Penn State contract and a hefty buyout clauses.

O’Brien met with Cleveland and Philadelphia about their head coaching vacancies shortly after the NFL season ended. We do not know if they were actual job interviews, informational interviews or interviews designed to get Penn State off its brass – or a combination of all three.

In all, the NFL had eight head coaching vacancies this offseason. And O’Brien’s agent, Joe Linta – who also represents Baltimore’s Joe Flacco – no doubt had a profile of what each was looking for.

As it turns out, the two teams O’Brien met with were looking for O’Brien-like guys: young, big on offense. The Eagles hired Chip Kelly, a 49-year-old college head coach (albeit with only four years experience) who ran a wide-open offense at Oregon. And the Browns hired Rob Chudzinski, 44, who spent the previous two years as offensive coordinator for the Carolina Cam Newton Panthers, and had never been a head coach before.

O’Brien was an assistant with the NFL’s New England Patriots for five seasons – albeit just the final one as offensive coordinator – and has been a head coach for one extraordinary, incomparable season. Maybe, in dog years, the 2012 season is worth seven.

So, beyond the Eagles and Browns, does Bill fit the bill for being a head coach in the NFL? Unsure of what The League is looking for in its head coaching hires these days, I took a look at the 23 hires made by 19 teams over the past three offseasons. That is the only way to separate the wheat from the chaff -- a theory espoused by colleague Steve Sampsell.

And what I learned is this:

1. On average, the NFL has only eight job openings a year. Four offseasons ago, there were only three new hires at head coach – dropping the average openings to 6.5. While the turnover on Black Monday may seem high, the opportunities are actually quite low. So you can see that O’Brien felt a need to strike while the iron was hot.

2. Offense is in. Of the eight hires made in December and January, seven were of offensive-minded coaches. O’Brien, with his Brady-Belichick-Patriots pedigree and his success at Penn State, may have drawn more interest than usual. In the two years prior, hires of defensive-minded coaches prevailed, 8-6.

3. To be a NFL head coach, it’s good to have been a head coach. But not necessary. Only eight of the 23 hires were head coaches – three “repeaters” in the NFL, four college coaches and one Canadian Football League coach. The NFL does not churn and serve rewarmed head coaches like baseball or the NBA. Only Andy Reid, John Fox and Jeff Fisher – each of whom has been to a Super Bowl – got a second shot. Marc Trestman of the CFL is an outlier.

4. The four hires who came from the college ranks were all solid, and in one case so far spectacular, hires. All were in their mid- to late-40s and three of the four had prior NFL experience as a player or coach. O’Brien fits the bill here.

Jim Harbaugh, 47, is a former NFL quarterback who is taking San Francisco to the Super Bowl in only his second season in the NFL. He was a head college coach for seven years at San Diego State and Stanford, with a 58-27 record. Greg Schiano, 45, coached 11 seasons at Rutgers (six of the last seven with winning records), and spent time in the NFL as an assistant coach. His Bucs went 7-9 his rookie season, on the heels of a 4-12 mark.

Doug Marrone, 48, is a good friend of O’Brien’s. Scratch the surface and you can see why the Bills liked him this off-season. As an offensive coordinator in 2006-2008 with the Saints, Marrone guided one of the NFL’s most potent offenses. And he followed that up with four solid seasons as head coach at Syracuse that culminated with an 8-5 record and a first-place showing in the Big East. Then there’s the aforementioned Kelly.

5. Being coordinated is very important. Fourteen the NFL’s hires over the past three seasons were of coordinators – eight offensive, six defensive. Absent head coaching experience, the NFL requires that its new head coaches know how to run a meeting, game plan and be responsible for a big chunk of the franchise's success. Penn State grad Mike Munchak, a longtime offensive line coach who was promoted at Tennessee, was the only new head coach hired over the past three years who has never been a HC or a coordinator.

6. The NFL likes its head coaches in their late 40s. The average age of the eight hires post-2012 was 49.75, with only two coaches over 50 – Bruce Arians (60) and Trestman (57). That trend is consistent; over the past three seasons, the average age has been 49.4, so O’Brien skews at the low end. Only Oakland’s Dennis Allen (hired at 39) and new San Diego hire Mike McCoy (40) are younger than O'Brien. OB turns 44 in October, the same age Chudzinski and Dallas’ Jason Garrett were when they got hired.

7. The Raiders almost always are in hiring mode. They’ve hired two head coaches in the past three years, and eight in the past 12. O’Brien is too smart to go there.

8. Cross these off...for now: Most likely, the eight teams that hired new head coaches in the past few weeks won’t be in the market for at least two years (although four franchises have had two head coaches over the past three seasons: Oakland, Kansas City, Jacksonville, Cleveland). So scratch these teams off of O’Brien’s list, at least on the short term: Arizona (Arians), Buffalo (Marrone), Chicago (Trestman), Cleveland (Chudzinski), Jacksonville (Gus Bradley), Kansas City (Reid), Philadelphia (Kelly) and San Diego (McCoy).

9. Take another 15 teams off the list of who will be hiring after the 2013 NFL season – and maybe longer. Their head coaching situation looks stable: Pittsburgh (Mike Tomlin), Seattle (Pete Carroll), Denver (Fox), Baltimore (John Harbaugh), San Francisco (Jim Harbaugh), New Orleans (Sean Peyton), Houston (Gary Kubiak), Green Bay (Mike McCarthy), Washington (Mike Shanahan), Atlanta (Mike Smith), Indianapolis (Chuck Pagano), Tampa Bay (Schiano), St. Louis (Fisher), New England (Bill Belichick) and the New York Giants (Tom Coughlin).

Possible wild cards: Coughlin, who will be 67 when the 2013 season starts, has won two Super Bowls, so he can probably stay as long as he wants. But of the aforementioned group, he is the most likely to retire of his own volition, although Pagano’s battle with cancer does make his future a bit tenuous. Belichick is 60 and OB Theorists have him taking Belichick’s job when the Pats’ boss leaves. But who knows when that is?

10. That leaves eight NFL teams -- close to the annual number of openings – that are most likely to need a new head coach after the 2013 season. Bill O’Brien, anyone?

That group includes Dallas, where Garrett is being emasculated on a daily basis by Jerry Jones; the New York Jets, where Rex Ryan has gone 14-18 the past two seasons; Detroit, where Jim Schwartz has been 22-42, including a desultory 4-12 in 2012; and Carolina, where Ron Rivera is 13-19 in two seasons. Rivera went 7-9 in 2012, with seven of the losses by seven points or less. That portends big changes in 2013, one way or another.

Other possible openings: Miami, where Joe Philbin was a 7-9 and most likely on solid footing for another year or two; Tennessee, where Munchak has been an unimpressive 15-17; Minnesota, where Leslie Frazier has been 16-22 and in the NFL playoffs only by the amazing graces of Adrian Peterson; and Oakland, the Motel 6 of the NFL – they’ll leave the light for you.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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