The NFL is nothing if not a league of imitators.
One week, the Miami Dolphins are running the wildcat offence and a week later, 31 other teams have it in their playbook.
So it should come as no surprise that when the Pittsburgh Steelers found such success making Mike Tomlin their head coach at 34, that other teams would follow suit.
The classic image of a pro football coach may still be anchored in the Vince Lombardi archetype, whose experience and ability to strike fear in the hearts of his players are key to driving a team's success. But there is definitely a trend away from recycled coaches, with teams instead looking for the next bright thing who can take the league by storm.
That's certainly what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos were thinking at the end of last season, when they jettisoned Super Bowl winning coaches Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan, respectively, replacing them with Raheem Morris and Josh McDaniels, who instantly became the NFL's youngest coaches at 32.
"My age has never been a factor, never going to be a factor," McDaniels said after being hired in January. "It is about what you're capable of getting the players to do, about the information you can give them, about doing your job to the best of your ability."
It didn't hurt that Morris and McDaniels were mentored by some of the most respected head coaches around, and both earned Super Bowl rings while still in their early 20s.
Morris entered the NFL as a minority intern with the New York Jets under coach Herm Edwards in 2001, moving to the Bucs under Gruden in 2002 as a quality control coach in their Super Bowl winning season, when he worked directly under Tomlin and Monte Kiffin. He spent the 2005 and '06 football seasons as the defensive co-ordinator at Kansas State University, before returning to the Bucs as defensive backs coach for two years.
McDaniels, meanwhile, is another person to cash in on his association with the New England Patriots and coach Bill Belichick, having spent eight years with the Pats before going to Denver. He joined New England as a coaching/personnel assistant in 2001, then took over as quarterbacks coach before the 2004 season, at 28, when John Hufnagel (now head coach of the Calgary Stampeders) went to the New York Giants. McDaniels added the title of offensive co-ordinator before the 2006 season.
By the time the Patriots racked up the highest scoring offence of all time in 2007, McDaniels was on the radar screens of teams looking for a head coach, turning down opportunities to interview in Atlanta and Baltimore at the end of that season.
McDaniels's hiring made him the youngest head coach in any of the major North American professional sports leagues. A few days later, the Buccaneers took that title away from him by promoting Morris to their top job.
Morris's appointment was more of a surprise, since he'd just been promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive co-ordinator two weeks earlier.
The immediate question for both is how to ensure their players see them as coaches first, and peers second.
"Knowledge is power, communication breeds understanding," Morris said. "If you communicate with these guys and you have the knowledge, anything you can do help these guys prolong their career, that's all they respect. You are what your tape says and nothing else … respect is given and not taken and these guys know that. And we're having a ball trying to make it work."
Part of the thinking in Denver and Tampa Bay is a modern-day NFL head coach needs to be able to relate to today's players more on their level - something that's apparent from watching Tomlin operate, and yet the Steelers coach seems to have no problem getting the necessary respect for success.
"I definitely feel that way," said 13-year Tampa Bay veteran defensive back Ronde Barber, who is 17 months older than Morris and first met his head coach when Morris was an intern. "It could be different reasons for it, whether teams just want to new manners and ways about coaching football or new innovations in the game. I know Raheem has done that here so I can see that being the future for sure.
"He brings that 21st century feel to coaching. He's definitely not one of those old-ball coaches. He's the new age," Barber said. "In my opinion, I think our owners felt this way when they hired a 32-year-old coach that you have to build relationships with players for a lot of different reasons."
FIVE TO WATCH
- New England Patriots at New York Jets The Patriots looked a little soft on defence in their season opener, but the offence, led by quarterback Tom Brady, got stronger as the game rolled on. The Jets try to prove their big win at Houston with rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez was no fluke.
- Baltimore Ravens at San Diego Chargers The only surprise in the Ravens' win last week was surrendering 24 points to Kansas City. They'll have to tighten up against the Chargers, who had to eke out a win at Oakland.
- Pittsburgh Steelers at Chicago Bears The Steelers look like a team that hasn't missed a beat since lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February. The Bears come out of their loss at Green Bay without middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (wrist) for the rest of the season.
- New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys It's a classic NFC East matchup and the first regular-season game at new Cowboys Stadium. The Giants looks as physical as ever, while Dallas quarterback Tony Romo had a career high in passing yards against Tampa Bay last week.
- Indianapolis Colts at Miami Dolphins The Colts weren't their typical high-flying selves last week against Jacksonville, but quarterback Peyton Manning still managed 301 yards passing. The Dolphins scored just one fourth-quarter touchdown against Atlanta as the wildcat went nowhere.
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