Here in the NFL’s “dead time” between OTAs and mini-camp, not a lot is going on. It’s the same each and every year about this time while team rosters are set at inflated numbers before some young hopefuls either make the team, the practice squad, find a home with another team, or leave football entirely.
With that tidbit in mind, I thought I’d take things a little further and look at each head coach in the NFC South, give them a Tarot card-like nickname, and explain why each has the particular monicker I’ve bestowed upon them:
Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons: The Facilitator
DESCRIPTION: An aging man with white hair standing on a perfect field. He’s sporting a smug, knowing smile as his left forearm has a leather guard with a bird of prey resting there, talons gripping the leather, an intense look on the bird’s face as a large fish hangs lifeless from its beak.
MEANING: The Facilitator always seems two or three steps ahead with his plans, rarely being flustered with unexpected developments and always ready to strike at a moment’s notice…evidenced by the catch the Falcon has made, ready to drop the prey at the Facilitator’s feet and fly off for yet another target.
Smith is a coach you really don’t hear much from, especially considering the success his team has had over the past few seasons. You look at him and you see a man who somewhat resembles politician John McCain with his grey hair, small stature, and rounding facial features.
That’s where the similarities end, however, and coach Smith knows he has a team filled with big-name stars: Julio Jones. Roddy White. Tony Gonzalez. Matty Ice. And that’s just on offense.
Most people, however, don’t realize he’s a defensive-minded coach, having played linebacker in college and briefly in the CFL before retiring from playing and was the LB coach for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl winning season when they dominated the New York Giants and is actually a “disciple” of Brian Billick and Jack Del Rio.
Coach Smith has a .700 winning percentage in NFL head coaching duties, has never had a losing season, and goes about his business as unobtrusively as he can. A Rex Ryan extrovert, he is not, and rightly rides the star power of his players while making the fine-tune adjustments to the well-oiled machine that is that Falcons offense. Despite Drew Brees being in the division, the Falcons’ offensive starters overall are probably the most talented in the NFC South and Mike Smith seems to be the glue that holds it all together as he nurtures his still-maturing young QB while being the quiet mastermind behind a defense that, while not as talented as his offensive unit, gets the job done enough week in and week out to win ball games.
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers: The Mechanic
DESCRIPTION: A large, strong, bespectacled man with a determined visage, his sleeves rolled up, his clothes dotted with dirt and grime works on a classic 1970’s-era muscle car with the hood up; the Mechanic’s left arm raised, holding on to a glistening, shiny 8-cylinder motor suspended from a strong chain from above while his grimy right hand holds a wrench, ready to fit the motor into the housing under the open hood, anxious to get the parts together and go for a second test-drive after having made some major modifications.
MEANING: With most of the major parts now assembled, it’s up to the Mechanic to do his part to perfectly place the engine into a beautiful, classic muscle car with a little work yet left to complete before taking it out for a Jeff Gordon/scared car salesman PEPSI-MAX TV commercial shoot.
Ron Rivera’s first NFL head coaching job is indeed with the Carolina Panthers, having taken over a disaster of a franchise that went 2-14 the previous season before being hired for Head Coach in 2011.
The engine was shot, the interior old and fragile, and the suspension needed a major overhaul. At least the tires themselves look good, having proven their worth on the road and still with a good bit of tread remaining on them.
Interestingly, he left his early mark on the offense, taking Auburn’s ultra-athletically gifted but raw QB, Cam Newton, and in an abbreviated training camp due to the lockout, molded an offense that took advantage of the strengths he had in place – that being a hard running game and a veritable cannon-armed QB with the speed of a running back and the size of a middle linebacker.
When you’ve got a car that is so broken-down and with so many things wrong with it, you leave it at the shop and get updates along and along as to what they’re finding out that is wrong with the car and letting you know what needs to be done to fix it…and at what cost.
Rivera’s job is much like that, thus his “Mechanic” nickname. He has been working on repairing the franchise’s parts and making sure they are working well together, but anyone who has ever had a major issue with their automobile knows, the parts don’t all come in at once and the repair often takes time to complete.
Rivera ordered that QB first-up, Cam Newton, as we know. He’s added TE Greg Olson to pair with WR Steve Smith – an older, somewhat worn part but one that still works very smoothly and didn’t need replacing. Olson’s (and before that, Jeremy Shockey’s) presence gave Newton that chains-moving underneath threat. Check.
As a mechanic, Rivera has largely rebuilt the defense, too. Gone are familiar faces James Anderson and Chris Gamble while Rivera ordered up two huge parts for the motor in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Last season, he added the centerpiece in rookie MLB Luke Kuechly.
He’s not quite finished, but the engine started when he arrived, at least. It wasn’t hitting on all cylinders and didn’t for a while as the diagnostic tests still showed areas of concern until mid-season last year, when the team as a whole began to hum a lot more smoothly. The big defensive additions this year should really make that engine purr and make the team one of those physical teams that nobody will want to play, no matter what the Panthers’ record turns out to be.
A very tough, young defense up the middle along with a QB as big, strong and fast as Newton is means sleepless nights for other coaches facing Carolina on the schedule that week. Newton has just enough weapons to field a versatile offense to keep 8 defenders out of the box and a physical team overall that has the horses to dominate the line of scrimmage on any given Sunday.
If all turns out as planned, the Carolina Panthers will be the 1970’s Thunderbird of the NFL…a throwback team with a punishing running game that is now difficult to run against, if those new parts work out like they are supposed to…and that, if the engine is humming well, should be able to keep on going and burst past some of those other vehicles that may not have the horses under the hood to keep up over the long, 17-week cross-country journey. It may not corner well, but in its element, can be unstoppable.
October 1st 2013 should let the Mechanic, and all of us, know how well he’s done his job. Given the schedule the Panthers have, if any of the valves are stuck or the new parts not installed properly, it will be quite difficult to make up the ground lost at the start of the race.
However, if the parts are all good and installed correctly, this muscle car will get off to a fast start and will be quite difficult to catch especially when you take into account the talent of the driver, now entering his third season at the controls.
Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints: The Orchestrator
DESCRIPTION: A boyish-faced, intense-looking man is standing on stage with hundreds of tuxedo-clad musicians around him. The man is not wearing a tuxedo, however, but a leisurely look with an Izod shirt and khakis with brown loafers and sporting a poker-style hat. His arms are outstretched above his head, his right hand sporting a large, gold ring with diamonds while holding a conductor’s baton, his face and body tense, as if ready to get the show started with a violent downward thrust of his arms while the stagehands look onward from the background behind the curtains with great anticipation.
MEANING: Having arrived to the show late, the Conductor hasn’t had time to dress properly, but having previously demonstrated mastery of his craft, many people are expecting great things to quickly follow.
Last year’s 7-9 Saints would have been more like an 11-5 team had Head Coach Sean Payton not been in the NFL Gulag over the Bountygate scandal. The offense is there with Drew Brees & co., but they’re missing some pieces on defense, still, and a few key cogs on offense. They now have an unproven LT as they let Jermon Bushrod go in free agency to DAAA Bearssss, RB Chris Ivory is a Jet, and the team has a lot of unproven youth at WR beyond stalwart Marques Colston.
Even with all of that, Payton and Brees have a special, rather intimate relationship regarding the offense and it’s almost as if the team has two head coaches – much like Denver, with “coach-on-the-field” Peyton Manning. The Saints are GOING TO SCORE POINTS, and with those two around they probably always will. Few things in the NFL can be counted on year in and year out, but that the Saints’ offense directed by Brees and coached by Sean Payton is going to be exciting to watch and dangerous to face on the field is one of those few constants in the game today.
It’s the defense that could let the team down, but they’re not going down without a fight. The team might give up 35 points, but they’ll score 31 and if you make a mistake on defense yourself or leave too much time on the clock at the end of a close ball game, “The Orchestrator” will make you pay.
With the 2012 defense being the worst statistically in NFL history, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was sent packing and the team should have hit rock-bottom on that side of the ball last year. They’ll improve in 2013 but won’t be able to make great strides until they get younger and more athletic – especially in the secondary without a great pass rush – and the Saints’ offense will be what keeps them in most games.
Much like a baseball team might “manufacture” runs, the “Orchestrator” will find ways to score.
Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Apprentice
DESCRIPTION: A handsome, relatively young man stands smiling in the center of the spotlight, his white teeth glistening in the light as a small bead of sweat forms at his hairline on his forehead. Right beside him, a man with thinning hair and a scowl has his left hand around the Apprentice, resting on his left shoulder in reassurance but looking to the future. In the background stand a number of balding, slightly overweight athletes in a line leaving the scene in sorrow while a group of younger, stronger men surround the Apprentice and his Taskmaster as the sun rises in the distance behind the entire scene.
MEANING: The older man supports his choice to lead his team forward as the younger man begins to feel the “heat” of the spotlight that goes with the position. Having had a small taste of early success, the Apprentice isn’t so concerned with letting go of the old as he is ushering in the new, very much the same way his own Taskmaster is focused upon his Apprentice. The sunrise represents the “rebirth” of the franchise.
The handsome head coach, Greg Schiano, is a college coach who got his first NFL coaching job last season with the Tampa Bay Bucs after spending a decade as the Head Coach at Rutgers University.
While he may not have Donald Trump’s hair (thank God), he brings a youthful energy and can-do attitude to one of the NFL’s youngest teams and doesn’t let his early failures get him down. He’s learned from having the NFL-worst pass defense in 2012, despite having rookie first-round pick at safety, Mark Barron, adding San Francisco 49’ers star Dashon Goldson at the other safety spot for some veteran stability and influence for rising second-year pro Barron and not stopping there.
Nay, he got the GM to open the checkbook and sign CB Darrelle Revis, one of the most accomplished press-cover corners in the NFL. The only knock on Revis has been injuries the past two years, which made him expendable with the Jets. When healthy, “Revis Island” allows the defense to do a great many things – double-covering another WR or playing 8 in the box or even installing a variety of blitz packages to really open up that defensive playbook and take away half of the field at the same time with Revis’ cover ability.
They also drafted CB Jonathan Banks early and look to have changed a position of weakness into one of strength, and if that’s the case, they could make life very difficult for the rest of the NFC South.
Schiano brings his college attitude with him to Tampa Bay, and a lot of his peers don’t like him because of it. That said, he’s gaining respect rapidly as he took that young team and made an immediate impact to start last season. With “the Muscle Hamster” running the ball as a rookie and having added WR Vincent Jackson in the off-season before last year, the offense is an explosive one and should be better in 2013 with a year of absorbing the playbook behind them. They just couldn’t hold leads in 2012.
Schiano’s learning, and learning fast. They had a great draft in 2012, greatly increasing their team speed especially in the defensive front-seven and at the OLB positions in particular. This off-season, they attacked the “back four” where necessary and look to improve on their weak finish from last year with a much stiffer pass defense.
Some of that will come naturally as both the young players and the “Apprentice” Greg Schiano come into the 2013 NFL season that much wiser for their efforts from 2012.
The NFC South along with the NFC West will be the two toughest divisions in the entire NFL.
Let’s hope the Mechanic is as up to the task as most of us think he is, because he’ll get little respite with the schedule overall (the NFL’s most difficult) and against highly competent division foes in particular.
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye